Athletes talk about going back and doing it all over again, but the way this year’s football season has turned out isn’t what High School North seniors Jude Batoon, Brian Murphy and Jack Rome had in mind.
The trio will be playing a JV schedule with the North football team in their senior year following a decision last month by the district to cancel the varsity season due to a lack of participation. None of the three have played a JV game since sophomore year.
“When I first got the news,” said Batoon, a lineman, “I sat down and said to myself, ‘Do I really want to play, or could I use this time for something else?’ It’s rebuilding, and I get to help my team and future generations to get even better. Metal sharpens metal, that’s what coach always says.”
The three are making sacrifices this fall to continue to play together for one final year with the Knights program. They also hope to lead the first steps in the rebuild of a program that has waned in recent years after decreasing turnouts from upperclassmen.
Preseason ended with 36 players—the three seniors, three juniors, 12 sophomores and 18 freshmen.
“The team needed me,” said Rome, a lineman who played only one JV game sophomore year and was otherwise on varsity.
The three seniors are vital in returning the program to a varsity schedule in coming years. Even as a first-year program without a senior on the roster, the Knights played a varsity schedule in 2000.
Murphy, who played varsity defense and JV offense as a sophomore before moving up to starting quarterback for varsity last season, says he and his family weren’t surprised when the decision came down.
“We were preparing before the final decision, weighing out all our options—transferring to another public school or a private school,” he said. “We didn’t see any really viable option for us. Transferring to a private school, a lot already have their rosters set so that wasn’t going to work out for us. Another public school in the state of New Jersey, I’d have to sit for the first half of the season (due to NJSIAA league transfer rules), which is another big negative. Staying seemed like the best option.”
Staying also comes at a cost. For Murphy, it will affect his college recruitment. Murphy is looking to play at a Football Subdivision Championship, formerly known as Division I-AA, school. College coaches aren’t coming to watch JV games, and he’s already been told by one school that they won’t look at JV game film.
“I don’t think a JV film tape is necessarily valid to a college school, especially the colleges that I’m hoping to play for,” Murphy said. “Over the summer, that just made the recruiting camps that much more important and my junior year film rather than senior year important. It’s a huge disadvantage. The senior year, the first four or five games, it’s extremely important for college scouting. There’s not much else we can do, though.”
Batoon and Rome aren’t interested in playing college football, but they too face a different senior season than other Colonial Valley Conference teams’ seniors. They have far fewer experienced players around them than most varsity players would.
“I was a little weirded out because I’d be right up next to freshmen and sophomores,” said Batoon, a lineman who has played varsity since his sophomore year. “As this preseason grew on, they became more like my family. I saw them more as my brothers rather than freshmen and sophomores.”
With more of the younger and inexperienced players than a usual varsity team, the three seniors understand that they have to be more patient. But they are also finding that they have a captive audience in their new teammates.
For the Knights program, having three experienced seniors to guide their young players is a huge bonus, said Knights head coach Jeff Reilly.
“They’re a great example to these younger kids,” Reilly said. “It’s not often that you have that many freshmen exposed to seniors. It’s definitely a weird mix, not only physically on the field, but socially.
“They’re high character kids,” he said of the seniors. “They understand what it takes not only to be a good football player, but be a good student and be a good teammate. Those three things combined, they’re the ultimate example for what we want in members in our football program.”
On the line, Batoon, a left guard, has a freshman next to him at left tackle and a sophomore at center, and Rome, a right tackle, has a sophomore at guard next to him. Murphy is throwing to a receiver corps that has a junior and a sophomore and three or four freshmen working in at times.
Batoon says he tries to encourage his younger teammates.
“I know it’s an experience for my other teammates and I want to help the other linemen get better,” he said. “These freshmen are going against some people that have some experience, but others are on their level, and it’s a good way to get to know their skills and practice better and get better on the field without getting crushed by a varsity team.”
Murphy started working with his young corps this summer. He also went to several camps to try to impress college staffs. Knowing that he may not get a senior year of varsity football made Murphy approach his summer differently.
“My initial mentality was ‘some people have a bad day, and if I have a bad day, I have my film help me out,’” he said. “Once I knew this was the case, I knew I couldn’t think like that anymore because these could make or break me. I think I went to the right camps. They had a bunch of colleges there from all over the place at them.”
Batoon and Rome have followed Murphy’s progress up close and have played against other college-bound high school players. They are confident his abilities translate to the next level.
“I completely understand Murph’s situation,” Batoon said. “That’s one of the reasons why I came to join JV. I knew it would be a good way to help Murph and he’d need a lot of support on the line. I’m playing for him. I know he can compete at that next level. It’s just these stupid circumstances are in the way.”
WW-P North will do all it can to help Murphy get to that level. They may not have film to provide other than his junior year, but they will be able to speak to his maturity and leadership this year under tough circumstances.
“Not that we wouldn’t do that anyway, but we’ll do everything possible because he’s done what not a lot of kids would have done,” Reilly said. “There are a lot of kids that would have gone somewhere else, but he stuck here and he’s sticking it through.”
In addition to playing quarterback, Murphy is starting on defense at middle linebacker, a spot he took over for Batoon, who slid to nose guard where he will rotate with Rome. Murphy was a linebacker in his sophomore year.
On offense, though the competition won’t be as strong as varsity, Murphy feels his preparation for the next level will be helped by the offense that the Knights have run for two seasons under offensive coordinator and WW-P North alum, Jeff Torralba.
“We run an offense similar to a lot of colleges,” Murphy said. “We’re all about reading the defense. We single out one player and have to read him. We can call one play in the huddle and it can go three different ways. It’s all a fast-paced, college-styled offense. It’s beneficial to me if I want to continue playing at the college level.”
Keeping a college-style offense and continuing to hold the players to a high standard could pay dividends going forward. The Knights have younger players like Bobby Hendry, Luke Johnson and Jahmiq Johnson with aspirations to follow Murphy and play beyond WW-P North.
Murphy, Batoon and Rome are making the most of their final chance to build something and play together. The Knights had a promising preseason finale. They played Robbinsville’s varsity team in a final full scrimmage and WW-P North led 21-0 after three quarters before they went deep in their depth chart. The Knights finished with a 21-7 win.
Reilly credits good preparation in part to the guidance of his seniors. They have taken their leadership roles seriously. It started this year with buying into a season that will have JV games aside from their season finale against sister school and rival WW-P South’s varsity on Nov. 10. The Knights have tried to push themselves like a varsity squad while also getting experience for their newer players.
“The environment, I totally think the coaches are coaching us as a varsity team would be coached, which is really good,” Batoon said.
WW-P North even maneuvered the schedule to try to take some of the sting away from playing JV teams. While many JV teams have games in the early afternoon right after school, WW-P North will play six night games, including five Friday night games to invite that traditional varsity atmosphere complete with band and cheerleaders.
“The Friday night, under the lights, there’s no better feeling in the world to me,” Murphy said.
The seniors hope that this year is only the low point for numbers for the Knights. They are trying to be a part of a rebirth in Knights football.
“Hopefully a lot of people sign up and stick with it,” Rome said. “That’s the best way I can think of to build numbers.
Rome, like others in the program, has been playing football since he was in second grade. He wanted to exit on his terms. Regardless of the level, the three WW-P North seniors needed one more season with the Knights, and the senior trio’s hope is if they can’t contribute to a varsity this year, their leadership will bolster the varsity future of WW-P North football.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen regarding a varsity or junior varsity schedule in the future,” Murphy said. “All I know is we have a lot of young talent coming up. We as a program should be very optimistic about what’s to come. It’s going to be exciting. There are some guys that love to fly around and do their job and they love coming out every day and practicing.”