There were a lot of positives that came out of the 2018 season for the Oakcrest football team, including staying in the West Jersey Football League Independence Division race until late October and earning a berth in the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs.

But, ultimately, the Falcons fell short of winning the division and moving past the opening round of the playoffs, and coach Eric Anderson said he’s hoping this year’s squad can take it to the next level and bring home some hardware.

Last year, the Falcons rallied for a 20-14 win over Ocean City in mid-October and could have shared the division title had Ocean City beaten Mainland, but the Mustangs topped the Red Raiders, 24-21, on a last-second field goal by then-senior kicker Sean Carey. That gave the division crown to Mainland outright, and Oakcrest lost its final two games, getting knocked off by top seeded Burlington Township in the opening round of states, then falling 21-6 to Absegami on Thanksgiving.

But the calendar has turned over to 2019 now, and Anderson said he likes the attitude and intensity this year’s team has been bringing to the table during preseason camp.

“We have a lot of new varsity players this year, so they have to learn game speed, game jitters, and just playing at the varsity level,” Anderson said. “Most of them were at the JV level last year and now they need to step up and play some varsity. We have to get them experience and hope they can get the job done. I’m just concerned about execution. Not any particular position, necessarily, but just that everybody can do their job — alignment and assignment, and just be in the right spot at all times.”

The biggest challenge for the Falcons will be a lack of experience, but they certainly have the athletes to overcome that. Senior linebacker Darrien DeJean might be the best-kept secret in the division, and he’ll also get a good number of carries, playing both sides of the ball much like Oakcrest linebackers in the past. And new quarterback Angel Casanova is tall and strong, and has a very good arm. He was a quarterback his first two years at the lower levels before playing wide receiver a year ago to then-senior QB Trey Sayers.

“He can do it all. He’s a great kid, he can run, he can throw,” Anderson said.

“I feel like we definitely got better from last year and we’re way more versatile on offense and defense. I think we’ll be much better this year. I played quarterback freshman and sophomore year, so I kind of already know the offense, and as a receiver (last year) I had to know all those positions, so, stepping in as quarterback this season, it’s growing on me and starting to come easier. As the quarterback of the team, I’m controlling the whole thing and I feel comfortable with it all,” Casanova said. “I feel like we have such high confidence because we have such good chemistry. All the seniors this year have played since freshman year and we’ve been building up, from freshmen to JV to varsity — we’ve been through each stage together, so I feel like that boosts our confidence and we’re ready.”

DeJean said the team was disappointed in its performance in the playoffs against Burlington Township, a 68-26 thrashing, and that has motivated this group throughout the offseason.

“We’ve been working really hard lately and have athletes all over the field. We’re hoping to make it to (the state championship) this year. That’s the plan. Other than that, we’re working hard every day, nonstop,” he said. “Last year, we went to the playoffs, but it didn’t really go as planned so we kind of have a chip on our shoulder this year. We always want to lay that first hit, no matter whether it’s offense or defense, we’re coming out with no mercy. That’s basically what it is, no mercy, it’s our senior year so we’re coming out with everything we’ve got.”

There will be some tough sledding for the Falcons, as they face teams like Mainland, Ocean City, Absegami, Egg Harbor Township and Bridgeton inside the Independence Division, and traditionally strong teams like Hammonton, Highland and Cedar Creek in non-divisional matchups. But coach Anderson — who is in his fourth year since taking over for current Mainland head coach Chuck Smith — said he likes the approach he has seen so far this summer.

“It’s been a great summer, they seem to be gelling together pretty well and making it happen. Right now we’re just taking it day by day. Obviously, we want to win the division and go undefeated, like we want to every year, but it’s one game at a time, always, and we’ll go from there. In this division, the kids all know each other, the coaches all know each other, so it’s fun,” Anderson said. “I feel like this is the first year where it’s finally turned over. These seniors were freshmen my first year, so everything is pretty clear as far as rules and regulations, expectations. Everybody is aware of what needs to be done and how things are supposed to be done. The biggest difference has been getting people to buy in to the expectations of myself and the coaching staff — what we expect, day in and day out, on the field, in the classroom, in the hallways.”

DeJean and Casanova said they are eager to get after it on opening night, Sept. 6 at Hammonton.

“We’re hungry. We want to win, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to win,” DeJean said. “Players on this team have played with each other since the Lakers, so the chemistry keeps building. Now, we’re seniors and we know what we have. It’s a matter of if we’re all in or all out type of thing, and as of right now we’re all in, and we hope that’s how the season will go. We’re hoping for a great season. It’s unbelievable how time has flown, but we’re ready.”

“It’s going to be surreal (on opening night),” Casanova added. “It’s going to be fun, though, I can tell you that.”

OAKCREST SCHEDULE

(all games at 6 p.m. unless otherwise noted)

Sept. 6 at Hammonton (7 p.m.)

Sept. 13 vs. Bridgeton

Sept. 20 vs. Highland

Sept. 27 at Egg Harbor Township (7 p.m.)

Oct. 4 at Middle Township (7 p.m.)

Oct. 11 at Mainland

Oct. 18 vs. Cedar Creek

Oct. 26 vs. Ocean City (1 p.m.)

Nov. 1 BYE

Nov. 27 at Absegami

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