EGG HARBOR CITY — When the Cedar Creek High School cross country team toes the starting line for its season-opening meet on Sept. 9, it will signal one of the biggest changes in the local high school sports scene in nearly 20 years.
Cedar Creek, which opens Sept. 7 and built its sports programs from nothing this summer, is the first Atlantic County high school to join the Cape-Atlantic League since Egg Harbor Township in 1983.
Few Cedar Creek athletes have varsity experience. They will compete against bigger, stronger upperclassmen from other schools. First-year head coaches must balances wins and losses against teaching players the fundamentals of the game.
But the Cedar Creek Pirates are pumped. They know they will make history.
Half of the school’s 436 freshmen and sophomores are expected to play sports, according to Vice Principal Scott Parker, who oversees the athletic program. The sports programs will help students bond and connect the school to the community.
“We have a new school, a new team. We’re going to set new records,” said Kali Rauhe, a 14-year-old freshman field hockey player from Port Republic.
Mays Landing’s Damon Mitchell popped out of bed at 6 a.m. on Aug. 16.
The 16-year-old said he couldn’t wait for the first-ever practice of the Cedar Creek High School football team.
Mitchell and his teammates wore the school’s uniforms for the first time that morning. Their helmets and pants are green. The jerseys are white with the school’s nickname “Pirates” written across the front. Mitchell especially likes the way “Pirates” is written in script.
“I felt like Superman,” Mitchell said.
Parker ordered 50 football uniforms this summer. He doesn’t have enough. There are 55 players on the team. Parker said other sports also have no shortage of players.
One of the reasons for the popularity is that the school is so close to where many players live. Mullica Township residents had to travel 30 minutes to Oakcrest. Now players, such as sophomore football player Michael Carter from Mullica, travel five minutes to Cedar Creek. The school is located off Moss Mill Road, minutes from Philadelphia Avenue — Egg Harbor City’s main street.
“Getting to the school is a lot easier,” Carter said. “I have family that lives around the school, so I can come here a lot more.”
Cedar Creek athletes who play varsity sports this school year will be 14-, 15- and 16-year-old freshmen and sophomores competing against 17-, 18- and 19-year-old juniors and seniors. Cedar Creek will add a class each of the next two school years, so that by 2012-13 it will have freshman through senior classes.
This year’s Pirates will be young but they will gain valuable experience and playing time that they wouldn’t have gotten if they attended a school with upperclassmen.
The emphasis for Cedar Creek coaches is on teaching technique because the players are so young, said Parker.
“Everybody wants to win, but you have to do it the right way,” Parker said. “We wanted coaches in it for the long haul. Someone who was willing to go through a JV season, a varsity season with no seniors, possibly take lumps.”
The school was built to alleviate overcrowding at the Greater Egg Harbor district’s other high schools: Absegami and Oakcrest.
The $81.7 million facility will draw students from Mullica Township, Egg Harbor City, Port Republic and the Green Bank section of Washington Township. The school also has magnet programs in engineering and environmental science that could draw students from Galloway and Hamilton townships.
The one-time, start-up cost for Cedar Creek sports, excluding coach’s salaries, was $350,000, said Greater Egg Harbor School District Superintendent Steve Ciccariello. The majority of that was spent on uniforms and equipment, including 22 cases of tennis balls, 450 mouthpieces and 50 footballs that Parker ordered this summer.
“You can sit down with the coaches, with a budget and order stuff, but there’s always something you forget,” Parker said.
Some of the facilities were not ready when practices began Aug. 16.
The summer sun blistered the fields. Only the football team practiced at the school two weeks ago. The soccer and field hockey teams worked out at Mullica Township recreation facilities on Elwood Avenue.
The equipment for what should be a top-flight weight room probably won’t be installed until October.
Other venues appear ready to go. All that’s missing from a spacious gym with the Pirates' logo at center court is a packed crowd watching Cedar Creek play.
Cedar Creek’s first varsity contest will be Sept. 9 when it meets Ocean City in a boys and girls cross country meet.
Cedar Creek will field varsity teams in cross country, boys and girls tennis, track and field, wrestling, golf and girls basketball in 2010-11. The football, boys basketball, boys and girls soccer, field hockey, baseball and softball teams will compete on the junior varsity level.
Teams that play junior varsity this school year will play varsity in 2011-12. The football team will play an independent varsity schedule in 2011 and then join the Cape-Atlantic League in 2012.
Cedar Creek will compete in the CAL National Conference against schools of similar smaller enrollments, such as Pleasantville, Wildwood Catholic, Buena Regional and Cape May Tech.
The Pirates will compete for state titles in Group I — the smallest of the state’s four enrollment groups for public schools. Wildwood and Clayton are other southern New Jersey Group I schools.
Some things, like the school’s maroon, green and cream colors, are unique. Oakcrest and Absegami students and district residents chose them and the school’s nickname in essay contests. The nickname comes from the Pirates who roamed the Mullica River during the Revolutionary War, attacking and seizing British ships.
The colors represent the green of southern New Jersey pine trees. The maroon comes from the dark color of the Mullica River’s water near its banks.
“They’re out of the ordinary,” Damon Mitchell said of the colors. “Nobody else in Jersey has them.”
The colors also presented a challenge.
“Everything had to be special ordered,” Parker said. “No one stocks green and maroon together.”
Cedar Creek Principal James Reina and the district school board hired most of the coaches last spring. Nearly all of them were already working within the district.
Football coach Tim Watson was Oakcrest’s defensive coordinator last season. Boys basketball coach Andre Clements was an Oakcrest assistant. Baseball coach Mike Isgro graduated in 2006 from Absegami, where he starred in football and baseball.
Watson played for a national championship with Rowan University in 1999. The Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League drafted him out of college.
But despite his many football experiences, Watson still got chills when he saw the Pirates run onto the field for their first practice.
“We want to make sure the culture we create is a positive one, an enthusiastic one and a high-energy one,” Watson said.
Watson isn’t worried what the scoreboard says this season.
A horn sounded at practice two weeks ago signaling the players to move on to a new drill, such as learning how to strip the ball from an opposing ball carrier.
“I’m focused on them getting better,” Watson said.
Lessons from Barnegat
Just because Cedar Creek athletes are young doesn’t mean the Pirates can’t be competitive.
Barnegat High School in Ocean County opened in 2004. The school’s football team qualified for the playoffs in 2006 — its first varsity season.
Barnegat has also produced college players, such as 2009 graduate Dan Cintron (Lehigh) and 2010 graduate Jarrett Darmstatter (Boston College).
Barnegat football coach Rob Davis said he wouldn’t do anything different if given the chance to go back and start the program over. He said the biggest challenges the program faced back then were teaching inexperienced players and taking care of organizational matters, such as knowing how much equipment to order.
Davis spent plenty of time speaking to community groups drumming up excitement about Barnegat athletics. That’s something Cedar Creek has done and intends to do more of.
Cedar Creek held a “Meet the Coaches” night last May. School officials expected 100 people to show, but more than 300 people attended, many of them parents of sixth and seventh graders.
“I think the people feel more ownership (of Cedar Creek),” field hockey coach Linda Brennan said. “The numbers (of students) at (Absegami and Oakcrest) are kind of intimidating. I think people feel they have more of a chance to play here.”
The Pirates can’t wait for the games to start.
“We can build a great team from nothing,” said Alyssa Lucen, a 15-year-old sophomore field hockey player from Mullica Township. “It’s a new school, the uniforms, a field that’s never been used before.”
No one knows how many games Cedar Creek teams will win or whom the school’s biggest rivals will be. The school has brand new equipment and facilities, but what it doesn’t have yet is tradition.
The current Cedar Creek coaches and athletes will begin to build that and there will be plenty of accomplishments — scoring the first touchdown, sinking the first basket, winning the first race — that can never be duplicated.
“We’re trying to step back every once in a while and reflect,” Watson said. “I keep telling the players, ‘You guys will define us.’”
Who’s playing when at Cedar Creek
Varsity sports in 2010 (members of Cape-Atlantic League)
- Boys and girls cross country
- Girls tennis
- Boys and girls track and field
- Girls basketball
Varsity sports in 2011
- Boys basketball
- Boys and girls soccer
- Field hockey
2010: Junior varsity
2011: Varsity, but independent schedule
2012: Member of Cape-Atlantic League
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