Tasker Robbins doesn't have to leave home to be reminded of the enthusiasm for the Millville High School football team.
The quarterback's parents, Bob and Lisa, are Millville graduates. The family's mailbox is shaped like a Millville helmet.
Few towns are as passionate about high school football as Millville. The school sells season tickets to games. The Thunderbolts' Thanksgiving rivalry with Vineland began in 1893.
The town gave then-coach John Barbose a car in 1955 in appreciation of the team's 31-game-wining streak, which at the time was a southern New Jersey record.
But fans haven't had a lot to get excited about lately, until this year. Millville hasn't had a winning season in four years.
Robbins and the rest of the Thunderbolts are in the midst of a revival. Millville (3-2) is contention for a South Jersey Group IV playoff spot and plays at Ocean City (1-3) at 7 p.m. today.
Everywhere Robbins and his teammates go in town, people wish him good luck and ask how the team is doing.
"It hasn't been like this in a while," Robbins said. "Our intensity is up. We know we can win games. It's more energizing. You have more fun."
Millville was a combined 5-25 the past three seasons. The school finished 6-4 in 2005. But the Thunderbolts started that season 2-4 and were eliminated from playoff contention. Millville hasn't been in playoff contention since it was 3-2 after five games in 2004. The Thunderbolts also finished 6-4 and missed the postseason that year.
Millville's football tradition can be intimidating for current players. The school honors a successful team from the past at just about every home game. These Thunderbolts embrace the tradition and use it as motivation. They want to add to the program's history with big victories of their own.
"I'd rather have them care than not care," Millville coach Jason Durham said. "They fans are tough on us, but we like that."
Durham took over the team last season. He was an assistant from 2001-05, coaching wide receivers and defensive backs. Millville finished 1-9 in 2008.
But there was an upside to last season's struggles. Many young players got experience, and the Thunderbolts have been more confident from the start this season.
"We had to start brand new last year," Robbins said. "This year, we could jump right in."
Millville has relied on a stingy defense. The Thunderbolts have not allowed more than eight points in each of their three wins. Linebackers Sammy Serra and Daron Moore are quick to opposing ball carriers. Linemen Dominic Townsend and Daron Moore are tough to block.
On offense, Robbins is solid at quarterback. Wide receiver Khalil Wallace, a 6-foot-4 senior, can make the big play. He caught a 64-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter in Millville's season-opening 7-0 win over Oakcrest.
Running backs Rashad Johnson, Dominic Askins and Moore have all had big games this season. Askins scored three touchdowns and rushed for 108 yards in last week's 22-6 win over Buena Regional.
"We have the discipline where we want it to be," Durham said. "The kids are stronger from being in the weight room for a year."
Like any coach, Durham preaches the clich� of focusing on one game at a time.
"Ocean City doesn't look like a 1-3 team on film," he said.
But the Thunderbolts aren't ignoring what they're in position to accomplish.
"We do talk to our kids about the big picture," Durham said.
There are still plenty of questions about Millville. The Thunderbolts have lost to their two most talented opponents - Egg Harbor Township and Absegami. Millville hasn't beaten Ocean City in five years and hasn't won at Ocean City since 2003. Tough games with Mainland Regional and Hammonton are ahead.
But each win brings the Thunderbolts closer to a winning season.
Each win makes living in a football-crazy town easier.
"Our kids did a good job of struggling through the losses," Durham said. "Winning makes it easier for them to come into school with their heads high."
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