Football: Immaculate Lions look to bring winning tradition back to Codey Field
PHOTO BY ANDREW GARDA/STAFF
by Andrew Garda
Ryan Horan, head coach of the Immaculate Conception Lions football team, has been on a long road to get here.
Just a few years ago, the school as well as the football program was on the ropes and but for alumni and some outside donations, would have closed.
Fast forward to 2017 and Horan—who doubles as the school Athletic Director—has a team which is champing at the bit to get on the field and a program looking stronger than ever.
“We’re very excited for the season,” Horan said after a scrimmage against Morristown-Beard in late August, “We’re young, but I have four seniors and six juniors who have given me 110% all preseason, so we have a good core leadership on this team. We’re hoping they’ll lead by example and show the younger guys how it’s done.”
Two of those seniors are also captains. Running back Younjay ‘YJ’ Thomas and linebacker Nashier Lowe-Bushrod have been with the Lions through some tough times—including an 0-9 season—but are proud to have been a part of building something.
“It feels good to come here and improve from two seasons of 0-9 and put us back on the map a little bit,” Bushrod said during a recent practice. “It feels good to keep that tradition flying and I hope the younger kids do the same thing.”
“To start out as a junior varsity team,” he said, “and work up to a full varsity schedule feels great.”
Both players know their coaches are looking to them to help the younger players excel on the field. While nearly every player plays both ways—with just 28 players on the roster, almost everyone has to—Bushrod leads the defense while Thomas carries the offense. Both relish the task and know the rest of the team follows their lead.
“You’ve got to be prepared,” Bushrod said. “The way you do that, it starts with the captains. We make sure they’re prepared and show everybody what they’re supposed to do.”
Bushrod says even if you’re not starting, you’ve got to know what your assignments are, because you know at some point you could be on the field.
Bushrod and Thomas are just two of the players Horan and his staff are counting on this season. He says they are going to feed Thomas the ball as much as they can, and he’s confident the senior tailback can handle it. When not pounding the rock with Thomas, Horan has some options through the air.
“Isas Waxter and Elwin Hughes [are] two guys we’re trying to get the ball to,” he said. Both juniors have plenty of height and should prove a mismatch for defensive backs across the league. The Lions will deliver the ball to them using several quarterbacks, chiefly a pair of juniors in Ibn Barnes and Kamar Williams.
Defensively, the Lions are counting on Bushrod.
“He was an all conference player last year so he’s our leader on the defense,” Horan said. “He knows everybody’s roles and responsibilities so he’s going to be flying to the ball all over the place.”
Hughes doubles as a safety and Horan knows he could make as many big plays on defense as he does on offense. The defensive line is anchored by sophomores Naseer Myers and Khurram Simpson.
Bushrod says the key to their defense is contained in three letters—ASR. He says the letters stand for attitude, speed and relentlessness. It’s how the coaching staff insists their players perform, and keeps the defense swarming to the ball. If they can do that, if there is never a lack of defenders around the ball, the unit can be stifling and help win a lot of ballgames.
Horan and his team know there will be a lot of growing pains in 2017, and it’s hard to balance building for the future while trying to win now. They have some big goals, though.
“We’re almost in a two year cycle of being very young right now,” he said. “The goal is to win and be competitive every week, [and] I want to get my seniors to the states this year. That’s our goal, but we’re always looking towards the future and letting these guys know that there might be growing pains this year but it’ll make us better next year.”