When we last saw the Horace Mann Lions’ football team last November, they were knee-deep in the hoopla of celebrating their 14-6 victory over Dalton. It was a triumph which gave the Lions their second straight Ivy League championship and third title in four seasons.
It also marked the end of a brilliant run by a senior class — one led by quarterback Brody McGuinn, receiver Charlie Silberstein and lineman Rae Silverman — who scripted perhaps the finest four-year run in Horace Mann football history.
But flash forward to present day and there are lots of familiar faces no longer wearing the maroon and white. McGuinn, Silberstein and Silverman are all off to college now. In fact, 19 members of that fabled senior class donned graduation gowns and departed, leaving coach Matt Russo with a blank slate with which to draw up his latest championship-caliber team.
But as you might expect, Russo is experiencing some separation issues.
“It was a great class,” Russo said. “It wasn’t just quantity, it was quality. There were a lot of those guys who played very well for us, so I’m going to miss them. But the great thing is we’ve been able to build a very strong tradition here.”
Russo has no time to dwell on the past as he looks to construct the next wave of superb Lions teams. And it is that challenge that is fueling him this season.
It’s kind of exciting,” Russo said. “Obviously for me as a coach, the best thing is giving the kids a positive experience through the game of football. But I think graduating a senior class like that gives you the excitement of, ‘Yeah, we did it with that senior class, so we should be able to do it with the other classes that come through.’
“So it’s really exciting feeling for me to try to get these guys to have a really good experience.”
The first order of business will be finding a new signal caller to replace McGuinn, an All-State selection last season. To that end, Russo has tabbed senior Henry Borges for the job.
“Henry’s had limited reps at quarterback to say the least,” Russo said. “But he’s been stepping it up and kind of leading the charge in terms of focus and energy, and that’s great to see.”
With so many unknowns, so many holes to patch, the one thing Russo said he already likes about this year’s team is their unbridled enthusiasm.
“The kids are really into it,” Russo said. “They’re super focused through all the drills, the individual drills, and the tedious technique drills. They’re approaching it all with the same focus and energy, which is terrific to build off of.”
But as one might expect with such a large turnover in talent, there are going to be areas the team that might need more attention than others.
“I think building the continuity with our linemen, especially on the (offensive) line, is a key for us,” Russo said. “That just takes time and reps. But that would be our area of concern.”
What Russo does have working to his advantage is a tradition of winning at Horace Mann. And it’s that pedigree he is counting on trickling down from his outgoing seniors to his current roster.
“Yeah I definitely think our seniors had a culture in the way they approached the game and approached practice, and I think that kind of gets handed down to the remaining kids,” Russo said. “It’s kind of like, ‘This is how we do it.’ We just try and concentrate more on our approach than focusing on winning and losing. If we focus on our approach, the wins tend to come.”
That culture was on display recently when some former Lions’ players, including Silverman, returned to Horace Mann to help conduct practice.
“I like having them around the program,” Russo said. “I think that’s the best part of the job, building friendships and traditions through the game of football.”
Russo will get his first look at his new-look team Sept. 7 when the Lions host neighborhood-rival Riverdale.
But Russo is not yet in the market for making predictions for another run at the Ivy League title. There’s still too much to learn about these Lions.
“It’s probably a little too early to tell right now,” Russo said. “We’re young. Experience is something that’s really difficult to coach because you can only really get it through game play.
“We graduated 19 kids, and for us that’s a very big class. So it’s going to be a matter of getting the young guys ready to go.”