by Andrew Garda

When the Immaculate Conception Lions finished their 2017 football season with a 3-7 record, Head Coach Ryan Horan said the key to an improved 2018 was for the team to get “bigger, faster, stronger” over the course of the offseason.

The Lions wasted no time in starting the process.

“We actually started right after Thanksgiving,” Horan said during a break in a recent practice.  “So we only gave them about two weeks off after last season.”

The team then went four days a week in the weight room over the course of the next six months.

“They saw a lot of physical growth and development, which is key. I think it’s huge for them to actual see themselves getting bigger,” Horan said.

While building up muscle and speed during the offseason was important, the team had to make sure they kept up the regimen all summer and throughout the season.

To that end, Horan brought in a new strength and conditioning coach, Shawn Davis. Over the course of the summer, Davis helped the rest of the coaching staff to keep the team lifting weights and running strength drills like flipping massive tires to engage the core muscles.

Horan said the results have been great.

“He really got the team to buy in,” he said.

While the skill players on offense and defense tend to get most of the attention — and the Lions have plenty of those — any football fan knows the games are won and lost in the trenches, on the offensive and defensive line.

So that new-found strength should come in handy for the Lions as the line can do more to help open running lanes for ballcarriers, as well as give the quarterback more time to throw by keeping defenders at bay.

“I think that was somewhere which was a weak spot for us last year,” Horan said.  “Where we had a lot of good skill players and a good downhill running back in Y.J. Thomas, and he was able to break through some first level tackles but had to do a lot on his own. With our lineman this year getting bigger and stronger, I think it’s just going to help the team overall.”

Horan said it doesn’t end there. Every position will use that added strength and conditioning to his advantage.

“All of our guys are trying to put on weight,” Horan said.  “We’re just trying to emphasize ‘get me that extra yard.’ If you have the ball in your hands, get that extra yard. We’re going for  tackles for losses, that’s going to be a big thing on defense. Just trying to use our strength on the football field is going to be key for us.”

Another big key? Senior receiver/defensive back Isas Waxter.

“It’s no secret right now [he’s]our key guy on the team right now,” Horan said. “He’s going to be our senior leader on the field. We want him to run the ball, catch the ball, do a little bit of everything.”

That translates to a lot of movement on defense as well, since any team the Lions face is going to have to pay careful attention to where ‘Ice’ lines up.

“He’s going to be really crucial to us in the secondary. We’re going to be throwing him around to a couple different positions on defense, just to make sure teams have to adjust to him.”

Waxter — who has already gained offers from Maine, Stonybrook, Fordham and Monmouth University and interest from Rutgers, Temple, Maryland and Michigan — is ready to take on the leadership role Horan has assigned him. For the veteran wide receiver, it means speaking up in a way he didn’t have to the last few seasons.

“Last year I had teammates like Y.J. and Nashier [Lowe-Bushrod] who were very vocal,” the six- foot-one, 185 pound Waxter said. “And I would lead by example, but I wouldn’t really talk in front of the team and stuff like that. I really didn’t feel like my voice would be heard as well as guys like them.”

Thomas and Lowe-Bushrod graduated last spring, leaving a leadership gap. Waxter aims to use what the previous seniors taught him to in turn teach the younger players.

“It’s just the things they’ve instilled in me, I pass  it to my younger teammates,” he said. It’s a role which he feels he has come to naturally over time.

“I’m not forcing myself to say something. I want to, and I mean it.”

Football is a team sport, though, so ultimately Waxter will need some help.

Horan said that will come in the form of guys like senior running back Jah'Simer Hill.

“He was behind Y.J. last year, so we didn’t get him the ball as much as we’d like him to last year,” Horan said. That’s going to change in 2018 though, as the Lions are going to hand him the ball a ton. Horan said Hill has been the Lion who showed the most growth and development during the offseason, and if he can overthink a little less on the field, he could be in for a monster season in the backfield.

“He’s going to be a stud for us from the running back and middle linebacker positions,” Horan said.

The Lions aren’t just looking to players from last season to contribute according to Horan. One guy who stepped up out of nowhere over the summer was sophomore transfer Kody Gibbs.

“He just transferred to us from Piscataway,” Horan said. “He’s just an athlete. I wouldn’t even want to define him as any one role, but he’s in the QB competition right now with our returning starter Ibn Barnes. He’ll also play in the secondary.  He’s a supreme athlete.”

What Horan is most proud of is the overall health of the program.

Just a few years ago, there wasn’t even a football team. Now he’s looking at between 30 and 35 by Aug. 31.  In a school with just 230 to 240 students — both male and female — that’s a laudable accomplishment.

Last year was the first time in a decade the Lions could field both full varsity and junior varsity squads.  Horan said that is critical because without the JV team, the underclassmen don’t get a chance to play meaningful football.  Those kids tend to fade away according to Horan.

“They were essentially blocking dummies during the week and they watched the games on the weekend. To have that lower level program, where they start to get that experience and have some fun, that’s been key to us in terms of keeping our numbers,” he said.

Horan has been able to keep the numbers stable despite poaching from other schools as well, something which nearly every small private or even large public school has to deal with in New Jersey.

Horan said that the great thing about the guys who don’t leave is, it’s clear they love the team and the school.

“It’s no secret in today’s day and age, high school football — and really all sports — there’s a lot of player movement and student movement from school to school. So we’re happy to have the guys here because they clearly  love Immaculate,” he said. “On the other side, we’re not trying to get anyone else to come in [from other schools]. We’re happy with the unit we have and we’re going to rock out with them.”