With a full season under his belt as a head coach and his system firmly in place, DeWitt Clinton football coach John Applebee says the next thing to check off on his to-do list is changing the culture around his Governors team.
“What we’re really trying to change is their effort level and their enthusiasm,” Applebee said after a recent practice. “And I think from what we had last year to this year, the effort and enthusiasm are way higher.”
Right after a grueling practice had ended, for example, Isaiah Robertson pulled off a perfect headstand during a down moment — helmet and all — while Neil Peters turned in a flawless backflip that would have received a 9-plus had there been gymnastics judges on hand.
Yes, the Governors seem a whole lot looser this year as they prepare for 2018.
“We came in (to preseason practice) having a good idea of who could play and where they could play,” Applebee said. “And we have pretty good talent here. We have a lot of returners coming back and a lot of guys who can play both ways. I didn’t realize how many really good talented guys we had, but we’re starting to see it now.”
The tough part now, however, is to see who can play on both sides of the ball, and who are really good at just one position.
Having a deep team, like this Governors outfit, is a good problem for Applebee to have.
“Ricardo Nias is back at quarterback, and on top of that, we have a slew of guys at running back,” Applebee said. “We got Thierno Bah who can run the ball, and we have Isaiah Robertson who can run the ball, as can Emmanuel Nkwocha and Clinton Chalmers. And almost all of them can play defense as well.
“We’re really trying to make the defense strong because if you can’t score points, you can’t win.”
That slew of running backs Applebee referred to will play multiple positions on the defensive side of the ball. Some will be defensive backs while others will even spend time at outside linebacker.
It’s that roster versatility that Applebee thinks will turn things around for the Clinton program this season.
“Oh yeah, without a doubt,” he said. “We have the talent, now it’s just about where we want to put them, and do we want to put them full-time here or a half-game there. That’s what we’re still working out.”
One thing the Governors won’t have to work out are travel plans. At least for the first five weeks of the season, as the Public School Athletic League scheduling gods smiled on the Governors this year and granted them five straight home games to open the season. It’s a gift Applebee and the Governors will gladly accept after last season’s nomadic schedule.
“Five straight at home to open up is a little weird, but we played six road games last year and only three at home,” Applebee said. “So they returned the favor for us this year. Last year we lost a ton of games by just one score, and other than the losses to (PSAL finalist) Erasmus Hall and New Dorp, we were in every game.
“It hurt because we only got away with one win last year, but if we were home for some of those games, that would have helped.”
The last game in that homestand sees the Governors host archrival Kennedy on Oct. 5. Though it’s still over a month and four regular-season games away, Applebee said his team is well aware of the upcoming annual matchup, and already is getting ready.
“Having Kennedy at home this year will be fun for us,” Applebee said. “Both coaching staffs know each other very well, so there is no animosity. It’s just a very good rivalry game that we’re looking forward to. But right now what we’re focused on, we just want to win our first game against Port Richmond.”
That game kicks off the season Sept. 8, and Applebee believes he has a markedly better team than the one which went 1-8 last season.
“The attitude of this team is phenomenal,” he said. “They want to work. I have guys annoying me, always asking, ‘When can I get in?’ which is good. They want to play and that’s a good thing.
“But I would love some results, without a doubt. We need to get some wins here, and the plan is to get wins and get wins early.”