Tackling the heat

Chances are, the guys running up and down the field at 26th and Moore streets this week would rather be somewhere air-conditioned, doing something less taxing than practicing punt and kick returns.

Especially since they’re doing these things twice.

But there is a sense of determination as the St. John Neumann football team holds two-a-day practices this week in preparation for the Catholic League season. In past summers, the squad’s three-week training camp led up to its annual Beach Bowl exhibition against North Catholic. This year, that game will count toward regular-season standings because North Catholic dropped from the Red Division and now plays in the Blue with Neumann.

"We are moving a little quicker than past seasons because North Catholic is a regular-season game," said coach Ed "Bubby" DiCamillo. "We are pushing more to get the kicking game in. Offensively, we can only put in what the kids absorb."

Hopes are high for the Aug. 30 meeting in Wildwood, N.J., since the Pirates have outscored North Catholic 55-6 combined over the last three seasons. The players participating in the Neumann camp are anxious to start building their momentum.

"It’s the most important beginning of the season we’ve ever had," said senior Billy Canady, while taking a break from an evening practice. "We’ve never been this good, this early."

The veterans arrived at camp last week already familiar with the offensive and defensive sets, and ready to step into bigger roles. For the younger players, it’s a time to prove their varsity mettle to the coaching staff. DiCamillo feels the sophomore class holds plenty of promise.

"They’ve been a pleasant surprise," the coach said. "They are not timid, not shy, they are right in the mix."

The returning veterans will snap back into their former positions, but with a sense of greater responsibility. Canady, for one, knows he will have to do a lot more scoring and running this season. As a junior, he rushed for 531 yards and tallied seven touchdowns, including two kickoff returns. Besides starting in the backfield and playing cornerback, Canady is also expected to be one of the Pirates’ top return men on special teams. He said the pressure of being a team leader is not intimidating him.

"In the past, I could be a spark," Canady said. "As a senior, you have to be a spark."

Especially to make up for the loss of fireball Jimmy Porreca. The graduated player set a school record of 1,667 rushing yards and scored 162 points last season. Canady, who runs a 4.37 40-yard dash, impresses DiCamillo as the team’s next potential star.

"He is one of the top three players in the league," the coach said.

Senior Richard McMickens, who finished second on the team with 533 rushing yards, also will get his share of carries.

Offensive production was one of Neumann’s strong points last season — the team ranked among the Blue Division leaders in almost every offensive category. The Pirates’ 23.9 points per game ranked third and 293 yards per game placed second in the league. Tom Brady’s 91.4 passing yards per game topped Blue Division quarterbacks.

The senior said practicing seven-on-seven drills this summer is bringing it all back for him, and then some.

"The speed of the game is where I want it to be," he said, while breaking away from an offensive drill. "It’s easier to pick the right receivers."

Neumann is ready for new receivers to step up, as last season’s top two pass-catchers, Jack Hatty and Al Meacham — who combined for 698 receiving yards — have both moved on to the college ranks. Senior Chris Meccariello and junior Antoine Stout are prime candidates, DiCamillo said, and senior Mike Matteo could figure into the mix at tight end.

The starting fullback position is also up for grabs at camp, and senior Frank Baldino, junior Alvin Dill and sophomore Nick Perrone are competing for the nod. A few days into practice, DiCamillo said they were all doing a pretty good job, and will provide the Pirates with some depth.

Whoever is carrying the ball can count on proper protection, as 6-foot-5, 305-pound junior Marques Slocum and 6-foot-4, 310-pound senior Joe Sandefur are back to lead the offensive and defensive lines. Brady said his teammates’ size will make him very comfortable in the pocket.

"It gives me a lot of confidence on my blind side that nobody can get through," the quarterback said.

Slocum said he is pumped to challenge the opposition’s top linemen.

"I feel they can try all they want, but I am going to do what I have to do so the running back and quarterback can get their yards," said the player, who is hoping to catch the attention of Division I college coaches this season.

Tomorrow, Neumann will complete its final day of two-a-day practices. Come Monday, the team will focus all of its attention on the North Catholic game.

The Pirates view the contest as an important first step in a crucial season.

After opening last year with a 1-3 mark, Neumann advanced to its record-shattering semifinal game against West Catholic. The players believe that to go further this year, the team must jell as quickly as possible.

"Last year and the year before, we had a whole lot of time to get ready," Slocum said. "This year we can’t clown around."