NORTH EAST — Tragedy struck the North East football team this summer with the death of a teammate, Thomas Ocasio III, on July 28.
“We had a player pass away this summer,” Indians coach Chris Schleich said. “We watched the movie ‘We Are Marshall,’ and we talked about how we’re going to lay our heart on the line for our fallen teammate and we’re going to rise from the ashes in his honor. It’s been one of our themes for this year. The kids have bought in.”
Schleich called this team his favorite in the four years he had led the North East program.
“The kids are practicing their butts off. They’ve been disciplined, and they’re giving me their hearts right now,” he said. “The culture is there. It took us four years, but the kids are practicing at a high pace. They understand the systems, we think we can have a fun year.”
Four years ago, Schleich took over a program that failed to win a game the previous year. He endured a winless season in his first campaign as he began to build a new culture around the program.
In his second year, the Indians won six games. After an 0-3 start, they secured six wins in the final seven games and came within a game of a playoff berth. Schleich won Coach of the Year as North East enjoyed its first winning season since 2002.
The Indians regressed slightly, finishing 4-6 in 2018. Considering the state of the program only a few years ago, it would be difficult to argue that things are not headed in the right direction.
“Training camp is going extremely well. Everyone is pushing themselves more and more each day. I’m excited for what’s to come,” senior offensive lineman Dylan McDilda said. “This team has really bought into the mindset of ‘All in.’ Everyone is buying into this program. We want to do great things this year.”
The ‘All in’ mantra is displayed on the Indians’ practice jerseys, where “TEAM” is printed in big block letters across their chests. “ME” is typed smaller below.
“Team above me,” Schleich said.
North East makes a drastic change at quarterback, transitioning a former offensive lineman into the vital role.
“One of the biggest problems we had last year was just that our quarterback play was bad. We were struggling to find the right people the whole year, and in football, you sometimes need that starting pitcher or head guy. When you’re missing that piece or you’re struggling at it, it makes football tough. We’ve got it all figured out this year,” Schleich said. “Brandon Maenner, he’s a former starting linebacker and right tackle – he’s our quarterback. It’s very similar to Chase Hollister. Brandon is a good athlete, he’s got a good arm. He’s a big kid, he’s a natural leader, and he’s been great. We have a different identity on offense, and he fits that identity well.”
Hollister transitioned from the offensive line to quarterback and took the Indians to a 6-4 mark in 2017.
“Last year, Week 10 against Rising Sun, I told Schleich ‘Let me do it.’ I had about three days of practice, went out there, and played my heart out. We lost, but I gave it all I had,” Maenner said of his previous experience under center. “It’s great right now. Our new offense is kind of basic right now, we’re just getting started, but it’s going to be a good season.”
The new offense – and new offensive identity, as Schleich said – is no mystery.
“Triple-option football. We’re going to make no secret about it,” Schleich said. “We want to grind people down. We want to be a tough, hard-nosed football team to beat this year – have a good defense and control the clock.”
Maenner said it is the most fun offense he has been a part of.
Option offenses rely on three key facets – a mobile quarterback, talented running backs and good blocking. North East is optimistic it has each one.
Senior running back Jachai Graham, who earned honorable mention honors last fall, will be the workhorse.
“He was real good. We anticipate Jachai Graham to be our featured back. He’ll touch the football a lot. Other players that we have are fullback and SAM linebacker Justin Sullivan, four-year starter,” Schleich said. “We’ve also got, up front, some good leadership in senior Justin Ahern. He’s our center and plays ‘D’ tackle. We have another real good ‘D’ tackle in Jace Evans – big kid. He’s a senior also.”
Maenner anticipates a big season for Graham.
“He’s fast, he can maneuver against pretty much anyone in the county. He’s one of the best backs I’ve seen,” the quarterback said.
Another senior running back, Kris Kizminski, believes the offense suits North East perfectly.
“I think it’s really fitted for our team. I think our run game is our stronger suit,” he said. “It’s fun for the running backs. You get the ball a lot.”
There were two major factors that led Schleich to install an entirely new offense: The personnel on the Indians’ roster, and the desire to keep talented opposing quarterbacks and offenses on the sideline as North East chews up clock by running the ball.
“High school football coaches don’t know what they’ll get year to year. It changes,” Schleich said. “It’s not like college where you can recruit kids the way you want it. In pros, you go get what you want and then put it into a system. We’ve got some real tough football players that are smash-mouth, and then one back that’s electric.”
North East opens the season with back-to-back road games at Kenwood and Fallston, respectively. It opens the home slate Sept. 20 against Joppatowne, when the school expects to have its new turf field completed.
Follow Sean Grogan on Twitter: @Sean_CecilWhig