Andrew Zhong was walking out of the weight room at High School North when he commented to a friend.
“We actually look like a football team this year.”
Zhong, who will be a senior at High School South, is a captain for the first unified West Windsor-Plainsboro football team since the schools split their athletic programs in 2000.
No longer the Pirates or the Knights, the team’s new name is simply “WW-P.”
“We had great numbers all summer,” said Jeff Reilly, the head coach of WW-P after coaching WW-P North for the past four seasons. “We had 35 signed up for freshman. All summer long, we’ve had 60 kids consistently in the weight room. It’s been really good.”
Bonding them into one unified team has been the goal since the North and South teams were put together in December, 2017 after an NJSIAA ruling cleared the way for the combination of Group III and bigger schools for football.
“We just think about ourselves as one football team now,” Zhong said. “Nobody really talks about you’re from North or you’re from South. There’s not really any division among teammates.”
The offseason was important for fostering that unity among this year’s group since they are bringing together teams from two different schools. For many of the WW-P players, it’s been a reunion of sorts.
“Since we all come from the same town and know each other from Pop Warner, some of us hang around each other, it wasn’t weird,” said Jahmiq Johnson, a captain and senior at North. “We’ve been getting to know each other more and bond better. Summer workouts were good. A lot of people showed up. We had good numbers and discipline. It was good.”
The summer started with a Kickoff Day. Reilly fretted about how many would show up, but there was a confidence building turnout that set the summer in motion.
“For that day, we brought in a motivational speaker, Lee Rubin,” Reilly said. “We went through some different stuff in-house, character-building things and then we talked about our core values and what we believed in.
“We really hammered that out. Then after that we had a dodgeball tournament and basketball tournament and had a chance to hang out and eat some pizza and stuff like that.”
Numbers are up and optimism has followed with practices beginning Aug. 6 with two days of heat acclimatization before the team went to half-pads and then held regular practices thereafter. The coaching staff has started to pinpoint which players can help where.
“Now that we’re doing the real football stuff, and going through the grind of it together, that’s when they’ll really start to bond,” Reilly said. “We had a good opportunity to get to know them in the weight room. They put in a lot of hard work, both the North and South kids. That gave us a good sense of who will play where.
“We also had 7-on-7, and that gave us an idea of what kids can do. That gave us an idea of where kids are. It’s usually a time when you put in your pass offense and pass defense coverages but it was also nice for us to see who could do what.”
Each step together has helped WW-P grow closer and build a new outlook.
“I’m just excited about the way we’re practicing and developing the depth that we need to have,” Reilly said. “Having kids that can be quality specialty team players as well will help, and I’ve always said you need three guys for two positions. Ideally we’re in that position right now.”
‘Our coaches say a lot of people talk down on us. We’re the underdogs in this situation, but I think the expectations will be high.’
A lack of participation numbers forced the North and South programs to look at combining this year. Even the coaching staff is fuller with a dozen coaches now helping. Many remain from North’s staff plus two South coaches. They are working to put together a depth chart from among the wider player pool.
“Last year if you started, your spot was pretty much set because there wasn’t a lot of competition,” Zhong said. “This year we still don’t know exactly what our starting lineup is going to be, so everyone is competing for a spot. Practice is more intense, which is better for us because we’re all getting better.”
Neither North nor South’s players were used to seeing these sort of numbers, and their benefits have become quickly evident. WW-P thinks it can afford to platoon, something that couldn’t happen in their individual schools last year.
“It’s way different when you have these kinds of numbers,” Reilly said. “You have kids with varsity experience and now you can have that one kid focus just on playing offensive line, and then that other kid be able to focus on playing defensive line. Having the amount of coaches where when we go team period, I don’t even talk to the offense, I talk to the defense. That hasn’t happened in a long time. That’s a big, big difference.”
WW-P doesn’t have a mascot, but will play under a new logo that has a shield that is green and blue with WW-P behind it and a Pirate sword and Knight sword crossing. It was designed by WW-P North graduate Katie Lalli.
“I went into the auxiliary gym before practice and to see the North and South kids sitting in there in the same jersey it was pretty exciting,” said WW-P athletic director Ken Mason. “That’s how you build a program. We know we’re going to have a freshman team and a JV and varsity. We didn’t have that in the past. That’s why the program was in trouble.
“I told the kids, ‘You’re pioneers, and we want to bring football back to West Windsor and we want everyone to be safe when they’re playing.’ And we want 14-year-old kids playing against 14-year-old kids. The whole idea is we didn’t want freshmen who aren’t ready to play varsity to be thrown to the wolves.
“That’s pretty much why we did the whole thing—the safety factor. I’m confident with the numbers it’ll keep the program intact and moving forward. The thing that’s nice about it is these kids are excited about Friday night football. They think because North and South will be together, we’ll get some people in the stands. The kids seem fired up about it. Administratively we think we did the right thing.”
WW-P has had to work out the logistics of the unified team. Their summer workouts and weight lifting have been held at North, and practices will continue there for the varsity and JV. South will host the freshman team’s practices.
“It’s a little tricky with the behind-the-scenes stuff,” Mason said. “Once the school year starts, we have to bus kids from South over to North, and then reverse when the bus gets over to North, the freshmen come over to South. Right now, I only have 10 North freshmen signed up. I have 20 from South.”
Game duties will be shared with South hosting three games and North hosting the other home game on the schedule. Both schools will celebrate their own Homecomings. There are new football uniforms and cheerleading uniforms to represent WW-P. The team is hopeful it will get a lot of support from the community for all its games and will give them something for which to cheer.
“Our team is definitely going to be a lot more competitive this year,” Zhong said. “I’m looking forward to that. We’ll be more in games. Last year, the game was basically over by halftime.”
WW-P was scheduled to scrimmage at Neptune on Aug. 15 in its first live action together. They will also scrimmage New Brunswick on Aug. 24 and Southern Regional on Aug. 30. They open the season by hosting Trenton at South on Sept. 7.
“The only concern is we are playing big schools,” Mason said. “We start with Trenton. These kids, they’re coming off seasons where they got their heads handed to them. It’s going to be interesting to see how our line holds up. Trenton traditionally has some big boys across the front. I told the kids we want them to be competitive, don’t worry about the wins and losses now. We believe we can win a couple games, but if not, that’s OK. We think it’s a three-year process to rebuild the program.”
WW-P North didn’t even have the numbers to play a varsity schedule last year, and the players are hungry to return to the varsity level with a team that can compete.
“Our coaches say a lot of people talk down on us,” Johnson said. “We’re the underdogs in this situation, but I think the expectations will be high. We have a lot of talented players, we have a lot of skills and we have a lot of people that are athletic and can do more than one thing —they can play offense, they can play defense. Expectations are high and we can have a good season.”
The players are counting down the days until they can play. It’s especially nice for seniors like Johnson and Zhong who will have a better opportunity to compete at a higher level after combining forces. Both also are interested in playing in college after having the chance to start a new era of WW-P football.
“I’m ready,” Johnson said. “I’ve been waiting for a long time.”