Brian Wilkinson is back as the head coach of a high school football team for the first time in six years.
Wilkinson, 43, hasn't been a head coach since coaching at Toms River South from 2001-07. Coincidentally, the last time Pinelands Regional football won a football game was against Toms River South back on November 5, 2010.
Though Wilkinson wasn't on the sidelines during that game, he understands the pain his seniors are going through.
"I think we have a senior class of kids who haven't won a football game," Wilkinson said. "They want to go in the right direction, and I'm seeing some leaders emerge out of that class."
Wilkinson named his senior quarterback Dan MacPhee, junior running back/safety Ryan Bezak, senior wide receiver Matt MacPhee and senior wide receiver/defensive back Matt Schnelker as a handful of his team's leaders.
"Those kids are nose-to-the-grindstone," Wilkinson said. "We've talked a lot and they're like sponges. They just want to soak it all up and do things the right way. They kind of set the tone for our program."
Senior Mike Yak will be called upon to be the leader on the offensive line as well as one of the leaders on defense. Yak used to be a tight end at Pinelands until he blew out his knee during his sophomore year, which minimized his playing time last season. He made the transition to center for 2013.
"He's in the middle of our defense, and he's a kid who has a real chance to be a good football player for us," Wilkinson said.
Joining Yak as a defensive standout will be senior linebacker Shemar Gadsen.
"He's also a running back and will get a lot of touches, but in recent weeks he's stood out at linebacker," Wilkinson said. "He's emerged as a real nice player for us."
One of the more unusual transitions Wilkinson has made is moving senior Peter "Rusty" Carkhuff from wide receiver to the offensive line. Carkhuff will play tackle this season for Pinelands.
"He works his tail off and is doing a nice job," Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson's main goal is to turn the football program around. The Wildcats haven't made the playoffs since 2004, and haven't won a game in more than two seasons.
"I'm coming into what really is a pretty good situation, in that there's a lot of support in Pinelands," Wilkinson said. "The administration, the faculty, the community, the support staff and the kids are all hungry.
"They're not happy about where they are and they want to get things going in the right direction. It starts with a real positive atmosphere with everyone behind you and that makes it a little easier."
Contact John Russo:
Coach: Brian Wilkinson (first year at Pinelands)
League/group: Shore Conference B South/South Jersey Group III
Last season's record: 0-9
Playoff appearances: 2
Playoff record: 1-2
2013 prediction: Rebuilding - Pinelands' hungry seniors look to get first win.
Game to watch: Sept. 14 at Lacey Township - The first test for Wilkinson is against a very good Lacey team.
Key returnees: Dan MacPhee, Sr., QB/DB, 6-0, 171; Ryan Bezak, Jr., RB/DB, 5-10, 185; Matt MacPhee, Sr., WR/DB, 6-0, 170; Dave Defeo, Jr., OL/DL, 6-3, 255; Dave Stanton, Jr., OL/DL, 6-5, 275; Tom McAndrew, Sr., OL/DL, 6-0, 215; Greg McLaughlin, Sr., OL/LB, 5-11, 200; Matt Schnelker, Sr., WR/DB, 6-0, 160; Tyler Suralik, Sr., RB/LB, 5-7, 185.
Top newcomers: Mike Yak, Sr., OL/LB, 6-0, 215; Cody Bonicky, Sr., TE/LB, 5-10, 210; Rusty Carkhuff, Sr., OL/LB, 6-1, 200.