I’ve visited literally dozens of football training camps in Morris and Sussex counties this summer and none had the positive vibe like Vernon did. While walking around their facility during a mid-August practice had a feeling like this team was coming off a state championship season, not a 5-5 one. Coach Chuck Tepper was in a chipper mood, there were plenty of supporting staff making sure the players are properly equipped and hydrated, and even superintendent Arthur DiBenedetto was proudly watching over practice.
Then I started to talking to the players and it was starting to make sense. “We’re confident,” Senior runningback and outside linebacker Tim VanLenten told me. “We’re ready,” Senior wide receiver and safety Brandon Lockhart echoed. “We feel really good,” junior quarterback Brandon Lavorini added.
I watched the intensity the Vikings were practicing with and it became clear that this team feels it’s their time to do something special. “I’ve been coaching a long time,” Coach Tepper said as he enters his 19th year as Vernon’s headman. “I feel really optimistic. We have strength, we have ability, we’re fast and we have a lot of depth – something we haven’t had in a while.”
It appears they have all that and more. Vernon is loaded with very good athletes with alternate guys looking to step up when their number is called. Offensively and defensively they are two or three deep at each position.
Joining VanLenten (5-8, 165) and Lockhart (6, 185) are seniors Cameron Sparta (5-8, 185) at fullback and safety, Nick DeMattheis (5-9, 180) at defensive back and wide receiver, and Cole Nagle (5-10, 185) at cornerback and wideout. This crew is the core of the team that everything builds off.
Lavorini (6, 185) takes the helm for the first time as a varsity player. Tepper feels very good about putting the ball in his junior’s hands. “Brandon has all of the intangibles. He’s a natural leader, he’s respectful, he works hard, he can command the huddle.”
Something changed last season in this group that made them dig deep as a team. It happened between the Montville and Pope John games. The Vikings lost 28-27 to Montville in Week 7. That game stung because Montville ended up going 1-9 and that loss basically knocked Vernon out of playoff contention. But then the team buckled down and came back and upended a star studded Pope John team by a score of 24-17.
“The week before the Pope John game coach kept telling us that if we just didn’t give up, we’d have a chance,” Lockhart shared with me. “In the game, we just weren’t going to give up no matter what and we knew that if we just kept working no matter what we had a chance to win.”
Here’s my take on Vernon: I watched these guys bang around practice. They have a ton of athletic players that can play football. Personnel is no issue here. Plus they have a ton of speed at the skill positions. In fact I separately asked Nick DeMattheis, Brandon Lockhart and Coach Tepper to describe their team in one word and each one replied, “we’re fast.”
The one thing you can’t take away from this team is heart. It’s that intangible quality that helped them to defeat a Pope John team that had multiple Division 1 recruits on it. Vernon has proved to itself that when they buckle down, they can be unstoppable.
If I were a player or coach in the American Division I would take this team VERY seriously. The highest ranked team on their schedule is Pope John and they already proved they can beat them. Lockhart told me, “We are really focused on Mendham at Week 1. That is all we are thinking about.” But make no bones about it, this team’s ultimate goal is holding up that NJSIAA cup at MetLife Stadium come December. I will tell you that it is a reachable reality for this group.
2014 Record: (5-5-0)
Head Coach: Chuck Tepper
Assistant Coaches: Matthew Ferguson, Bill Panfile, Bill Cosentino, Adam Coleman, John Loggie and Mike DeVore.
Team Manager: Tommy Martino
Cheerleading Coach: Kristie Riegler
Assistant Cheerleading Coach: Christie Smith
League: Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference
Section: North 1, Group 3
High Point: Beating Pope John on their home turf.
Low Point: Not making the playoffs.
Season Breakdown & Prediction
Games to Watch: I would say all of them. I just have a good feeling about this team.
Position to Watch: You got to watch junior QB Brandon Lavorini. He’s everything you want in a quarterback and he’s got a lot of veteran weapons around him. He could be a household name by midseason.
Young Guns to Watch: Sophomore runningback/linebacker Mike Stefkovich (5-11, 190). He’s a baller who step up as a key player on both sides of the ball.
In a Nutshell: All of the stars are aligning in Viking Country and this is there year to bring Tepper his first state title in 19 years.
Dream Season: Winning it all.
Nightmare Season: Not making it to the semis.
Playoff Appearances: 5
Finals Appearances: 1
State Titles: 0
Playoff Record: 2-5 (.285)
|19-Sep||@Parsippany Hills||01:00 pm|
|25-Sep||Morris Hills||07:00 pm|
|02-Oct||@High Point||07:00 pm|
|31-Oct||@Pope John||01:00 pm|
|06-Nov||Mount Olive||07:00 pm|