Southern Regional High School football coach Chuck Donohue had a message for running back Abe Gonzalez during offseason weight-lifting sessions this past year.
Gonzalez had spent his junior year on the junior-varsity team, but Donohue kept reminding him in the offseason: The starting job on the varsity team was up for grabs this year.
“Go and take it,” Donohue told him.
Gonzalez took it, and a few months later his four-touchdown performance last Friday helped put the Rams in a South Jersey championship game for the second time ever. Sixth-seeded Southern, No. 7 in The Press Elite 11 rankings, plays top-seeded Williamstown, No. 1 in the Elite 11, for the S.J. Group V title Friday night at Rowan University.
“I went out this summer, tried as hard as I could and got the job,” Gonzalez said in a phone interview Monday evening.
Gonzalez, a 17-year-old Manahawkin resident, has rushed for a school-record 1,291 yards this season after playing junior varsity last year. He has scored 21 touchdowns. In Friday’s S.J. semifinal win over Eastern, he had 216 total yards.
“I never even dreamed about (this much success),” Gonzalez said. “I don’t even think it’s fully hit me yet. It’s crazy to think I put up four touchdowns (in an S.J. semifinal), especially having played basically no reps last year.”
Gonzalez is listed at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds. He also competes in track and field, running the 400 meters. That speed is evident when he gets to the edge on the football field, but he also can lower his shoulders for tough yards up the middle.
“Once I got to varsity, I just needed a couple more reps,” he said. “And (when we) got some scrimmages going, I found out how to cut and read the defense.”
Donohue said the credit goes to Gonzalez himself for developing his leg strength, and to running backs coach Dennis Pidgeon.
“From the middle of the season on, he really started to develop,” Donohue said. “He really started to get the offense and get the feel for it and understand and get that game experience. … He really understands our blocking schemes. He really understands where holes are going to develop.”
Gonzalez has carried on a strong tradition of star running backs at Southern. Last season, T.J. Bellissimo was a first-team Press All-Star. And the last time the Rams reached a South Jersey title game, their offense relied on the running of Glenn Carson and Anthony Stroffolino, who now play at Penn State and Penn, respectively.
“You know, Southern is a running football team,” Rams receiver Mike Gesicki said in a phone interview Sunday night. “It hurts a little bit to say that, as a wide receiver, but, you know, we’re a running football team. And Abe put in the work in the offseason because he knew that position was up for grabs.”
Donohue and Gesicki both described Gonzalez as quiet and soft-spoken.
“He could walk around school saying, ‘Oh, look at me. Watch me on Friday night,’ “ Gesicki said. “But he doesn’t.”
Indeed, when a reporter asked Gonzalez after the Eastern game to pose for a picture, Gonzalez grabbed two teammates, put his arms around them and insisted that they be in the picture.
“I’m not much of a kind of name-up-in-lights kind of guy,” Gonzalez said. “If (success) happens, then it’s good, but then it’s right back to work for me.”
Gonzalez is working this week for a South Jersey title. Donohue said Gonzalez should be an example for every player.
“It’s a great high school football player story, is what it is,” the coach said. “It’s what you tell kids: Hang in there, keep working, find your position, and when your opportunity comes, make the most of it.
“It’s really neat to see a kid make the most of that.”
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