Winning seemed the only fitting send-off for the junior high team from the Ewing Junior Blue Devils Youth Football program.
They won as 95-pounders three years ago, then last year took the 110-pound weight class. This year, they captured the junior high division of South Jersey Independent Youth Football Association Group 3 with an 18-6 win over a bigger Camden team on Nov. 25.
“Since we came back on them, I think this might have been the best,” said quarterback Tariq McKinney. “I think last year we played OK, but we had some touchdowns called back.”
Camden led, 6-0, at halftime despite a strong showing by Ewing. As they had in several games this season, they started with some of their younger and less experienced players to get them a chance to develop. Then they brought in their more experienced players and rolled to the win.
“This group is very talented,” said Kenric Davis Jr., who backs up McKinney at quarterback and also plays cornerback and middle linebacker. “We’ve been playing together for years and years. We’ve been playing for a long time. We’re used to it.”
This Ewing group is accustomed to winning. Their confidence started to grow with their mounting success, and now they are a source of pride for the community.
“Nobody else has really done it except our group,” McKinney said. “We had a younger group go to the championship but they lost. Nobody else has won three, so it feels pretty good.”
This year’s win was a hard-fought victory. Camden had the only touchdown of the first half. Davis opened the game at quarterback for McKinney, who was coming off a minor injury. He kept Ewing in striking range in his new position. Davis was a center until moving to quarterback this year.
“I’ve been a center all my life,” Davis said. “As soon as I got to junior high, I had to change because I lost a lot of weight and my body started to change. I had to switch up my position. I was kind of nervous because it’s a lot of pressure.”
McKinney helped to spark the turnaround when he found Tyreek Rollins for a 65-yard touchdown catch to open the second half. McKinney’s strong arm combines with a fleet receiving corps that gives Ewing great balance with its running game.
“Tyreek Rollins, we have a lot of chemistry,” McKinney said. “We’ve been doing this for about five years. And Tytus (Grossman) this is the first year we’ve worked together and we did well. They know how to track the ball well, their routes are sharp, and they get off their men easily.”
Rollins went on to intercept a Camden pass and return it for a touchdown for the go-ahead score on the way to being named championship game MVP. Terry Herring added the final touchdown run to seal the win.
“A lot of teams were after us,” Davis said. “I knew we were going to win this year. I felt really confident about it.”
‘Just seeing how we helped Ewing be recognized by other areas from the simple game of football, it means a lot.’
The confidence comes from having progressed together through the years. A core of about a dozen players returned from last year’s title team and helped earn another win. Members of this year’s championship team are: Amir Baylor, Christopher Corban, Davis, Kwanir Edwards, Grossman, Dante Hall, Ahzon Hardwick, Anthony Hernandez, Herring, Kevin Howell Jr., D’Mitri Johnson, Dashan Kelly, Jonathan Larkins, Mason Lester, Zion Long, Ryan Mack, McKinney, Isaiah Muse, Mateo Nazario, Keisjon Phillips, Isaiah Robinson, Romeo Rodriguez, Rollins, Travian Rutherford, Darius Solomon, Mekhi Stafford, Amir Taylor and Elijah Webber.
“I think what makes the difference is the chemistry they have,” said Ewing head coach Davon Veal. “They really consider themselves to be brothers. They protect each other and they work harder for each other and they help each other train. They stay in contact with each other throughout the season and even in the offseason when they play baseball, and basketball and wrestle together. Just knowing who’s standing next to them, they push each other to work harder.”
Ewing was 6-3 in the regular season, but all three of its losses came to Division 1 teams, some with double the participation numbers and talent pool of Ewing. The league covers such areas as Washington Township, Cherry Hill, Mount Laurel and Pennsauken. Teams constantly sent scouts to check out Ewing, which couldn’t sneak up on anyone after its prior season’s success. Ewing used its strong bond and development to continue to win.
“We got bigger this year so we got better,” Davis said.
Once the playoffs came around and Ewing was matched up against teams its own size, there was no contest. They rolled through Morristown and Cinnaminson in the first two playoff games without giving up a touchdown. They had hoped to do the same in the championship and only allowed the first-half score.
“I believe we have one of the best defenses in the league, if not the best,” McKinney said. “If we had shut down their run game in the first half, they probably never would have scored. Nobody really passes on us because anything that basically goes in the air is ours.”
Ewing had enough firepower that its back-ups could compete with opposing defenses. The experience that their new players received paid off as the season went along. Davis proved that in the championship with his steady play before giving way to McKinney.
“Kenric did an outstanding job,” Veal said. “This kid went from just snapping the ball to learning a complicated spread option offense. It was pretty amazing.”
Ewing opponents had difficulty slowing down their offense all year, no matter who was in the game. The offense and defense worked together to make life difficult for rivals.
“They are a well-oiled machine on offense and defense,” Veal said. “There’s balance there. We have four huge running backs who at any given time can go. We have our power backs and our speed backs, so we can change the pace of the game. Then we have a quarterback who as a 13-14 year old can throw the ball 50 yards down the field.
“And when you have receivers who are probably some of the fastest in the state – we have one kid who’s ranked in track – when you have the speed and a powerful quarterback and you can keep the chains moving, it makes for a well-balanced team.”
Veal, who has also been president of the Ewing Junior Blue Devils, won’t be coaching them next year, and he is thrilled to be leaving on top as well.
“They sent me off with a victory,” Veal said. “We made it to four championships in four years and won three of them. And we were undersized. If you ask anyone about the Ewing football team, they’ll say they’re small, but they’re vicious.”
Said Davis: “I played for Coach Davon two or three years. He’s pushed us a lot, made us go through a tough season. He’s done good things and he’s a good coach.”
The players will be moving on to high school, with most heading to Ewing High, so they can continue to play together. They have a good sense of the talent that they will be going up against, and they understand what it takes to win.
“We’re probably going to play the same people and same teams,” McKinney said. “Our freshman team should be good. That’s like our whole team. I think we’ll have a good freshman year when we move up. We’re going to keep getting better.”
Improving remains a big goal. McKinney wasn’t happy that Ewing lost three games this year.
“We can’t think we’re all that,” McKinney said. “You can’t slack. The games we lost, I think we should have won. If we weren’t slacking, we would have won. We need to get better mentally, keep our confidence, keep our heads in the game and keep doing good.”
With that, this group of football players can continue to be a source of pride for Ewing.
“Just seeing how we helped Ewing be recognized by other areas from the simple game of football, it means a lot,” Veal said. “These kids really, really enjoy it. They work hard. They’re dedicated. They can go to whichever high school they choose to with a winning mentality. That’s a hard thing to take with you somewhere is knowing how to win if you’ve never experienced it. Three championships in four years, they know how to win. Hopefully this will translate into making some noise in the state championships for Ewing High.”