Thomas Kelly and Josh Hedgeman followed the same football path.

Both starred at southern New Jersey high schools - Kelly at Atlantic City and Hedgeman for Schalick in PittsgroveTownship.

Both played for Rutgers University in college. Kelly was a defensive back and Hedgeman a linebacker.

Tonight, both make their Cape-Atlantic League head coaching debuts with Group IV schools at 7.

Kelly leads Atlantic City against St. Augustine Prep.

"This is my alma mater," Kelly said. "This is my hometown. I bleed blue and white. This ranks way up there with any football experience. I get to represent the school I came from."

Hedgeman coaches Vineland against Ocean City.

"It will be exciting," Hedgeman said, "But I'll be more in the mood of we have a task to do. As excited as I'll be, I understand we're going down there to get a job done."

Kelly and Hedgeman are two of five new coaches at local schools this season. Chuck Smith of Oakcrest, Mike Wilson of Lower Cape May and Jamie Peterson of Wildwood also make their debuts this season.

Kelly, 36, and Hedgeman, 39, were both at Rutgers in the early 1990s. Hedgeman, 1989 Schalick graduate, played special teams early in his Rutgers career. He ruptured a leg tendon as a junior in 1992 and didn't play again.

Kelly, a 1992 Atlantic City graduate, enrolled in Rutgers in 1993 after a year at United States Military Academy in Monmouth County.

Kelly knew Hedgeman, who was still around the Rutgers program rehabilitating his injury.

"It's a crazy world out there to think we'd both be taking over coaching in the same year at Group IV schools," Kelly said. "It's a coincidence. I'm looking forward to seeing him."

Vineland and Atlantic City meet on Oct. 22 at Vineland.

Kelly is a former Atlantic City assistant but this is his first head coaching job.

"It has been a whirlwind," Kelly said in the preseason. "My head is still spinning."

Hedgeman has had success as a head coach before. He coached Schalick to consecutive South Jersey Group I championships in 2003-04.

Both Vineland and Atlantic City come off losing seasons. The Vikings were 1-9, while Vineland finished 2-8 in 2009.

Atlantic City was a perennial winner under former coach Bobby Weiss even winning the 1999 South Jersey Group IV championship.

But Kelly takes over the Vikings at a challenging point in the program's history. Holy Spirit, Atlantic City's biggest rival, is an emerging state power and is attracting the top players from Absecon Island and Brigantine.

Kelly worked out with the Vikings all summer.

"The off season was good," Vikings quarterback Jamal Anderson said. "The head coach was on us. He wants us to be disciplined. We had to run to each (workout) station during practice."

Meanwhile, Vineland has struggled for years. The Fighting Clan's last playoff appearance came in 2003.

A friend of Hedgeman's, who he declined to name, told him about the opening when former coach Ed Belfi resigned. Vineland's lack of success appealed to Hedgeman.

"You have to change the attitude of the players on how to prepare for games," Hedgeman said. "Your attitude reflects how you perform. Programs that win those teams not only expect to win they know how to win."

Hedgeman wants his team to be more disciplined.

"He pushes us," Vineland linebacker Steve Ribot said. "We're more dedicated in practice."

Hedgeman is a youth minister of the First Baptist Church of Jericho in Deptford. Kelly teaches at Atlantic City High School's East Campus.

Since both grew up locally, Kelly and Hedgeman know the challenges their players face off the field.

They talk as much about doing the right things off the field, like getting good grades, as they do about blocking and tackling.

"Football is not life," Kelly said. "If we teach them how to succeed in life then later on we will be successful in football."

Contact Michael McGarry:

609-272-7185