When Chuck Smith took over the football program at his alma mater, Mainland Regional, four years ago, the Mustangs had a lot of young players and suffered through a pair of 1-9 seasons as Smith and his staff worked to rebuild the program from the ground up in the hopes of returning it to its glory years under the direction of Bob Coffey.

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The Stangs are once again a winning football program after posting back-to-back 9-1 seasons in 2018 and 2019, including a West Jersey Football League Independence Division title, but like it was four years ago Smith’s roster is packed with freshmen and sophomores as Mainland hopes to maintain the standard it has set the past two years in this Covid-19-shortened 2020 campaign. About two-thirds of Mainland’s roster heading into this season, which begins on Saturday when the Stangs host Egg Harbor Township at noon, are either freshmen or sophomores.

The upperclassmen are hoping it’s a reloading situation, though, and not a rebuilding process. They are going into this season with the same championship mentality that helped them go from two wins to 18 in the span of four years.

“We lost some of our best guys, so now it’s just finding out who’s going to step up next and who can help us win games,” said senior defensive back McKenzie Murphy.

Smith and his staff have to replace some seriously talented players on the defensive side, as guys such as Brayden Pohlman, Drew DeMorat, Brandon Batz and Amir Vick have all graduated, and while star running back Ja’Briel Mace returns as a sophomore, there’s some question about the quarterback position after junior Cole Campbell decided to concentrate on his baseball career this fall. Sophomore Nick Wagner and freshman Jake Meyers both could get snaps under center this year until somebody settles into the position.

The Mustangs will certainly rely heavily on Mace, however, who broke out with more than 1,000 yards as a freshman last year. Who will block for him remains to be seen, however, as Mainland lost a lot off its offensive line.

“We’re out here to compete and win every single game. We have three out of our five rotating guys coming back (on the offensive line). We have some young guys on the offensive line, but on the defensive line we should be straight,” said Sam Epstein, a senior two-way lineman. “We have a great running back so we’ll be looking to run the ball and drain that clock. That’s what we like to do.”

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“A lot of people are overlooking us thinking that this will be a rebuilding year for us, but we’re here to get that work in and get some wins. We want to be 6-0,” Murphy said. “You can’t go into it with the mindset that you’re going to lose any games. We’re going to take every game like it’s our last and try to win every game. The last few years we’ve had a great group of guys and we’ve just kept working and grinding.”

Mainland should be pretty competitive against a schedule that includes EHT, Absegami, Pleasantville, St. Augustine Prep, Vineland and Ocean City.

“We’re going to have to pick up our own energy on the field and make sure everyone is flying around, 11 hats to the ball on every play. We have to make sure we bring the energy,” Epstein said.

“It was hard during the offseason because we didn’t know what was going on, but once we found out practice was going to start the energy just skyrocketed. We had been working out by ourselves. Me and Sam got together with guys on the team throughout the summer to stay in shape and work on our craft. We just wanted to make sure everyone was ready for the season,” Murphy added. “We’re blessed to even have a season. I don’t know what I’d do if we didn’t have a season. When it’s not football season I’m just sitting at home eating cereal.”

2020 Mainland Schedule

Oct. 3 vs. EHT, noon

The skinny: The traditional Thanksgiving Day rivalry is now a season opener for both teams. Expect a low scoring game as both teams have some inexperience on the offensive side of the ball.

Oct. 9 at Absegami, 6 p.m.

The skinny: Absegami has a mobile QB in Ray Weed and a speedy WR in Jordan Marcucci, so this will be a big test for Mainland’s young defensive unit.

Oct. 16 vs. Pleasantville, TBA

The skinny: Pleasantville has a whole new look under new coach Javier Garcia, who hasn’t had much time to put things together, but the Greyhounds bring physicality and athleticism to the field.

Oct. 23 vs. St. Augustine Prep, TBA

The skinny: This is not the type of roster a team like Mainland, which lacks experience, wants to see. The Hermits have Division I talent all over the field.

Oct. 30 at Vineland, 6 p.m.

The skinny: This is going to be a really tough road game for the Stangs, especially coming off the game against Prep.

Nov. 7 at Ocean City, TBA

The skinny: These teams met in back-to-back weeks last season, with Mainland winning in the regular season and Ocean City returning the favor in the opening round of states. The Stangs will have to contain Red Raiders QB Joe Repetti if they hope to exact some revenge.