Coach Rich Hans of the Wildwood High School football team watched Warriors senior running back Wesley Hills rush for 452 yards and score eight touchdowns in a 61-34 win over Maple Shade last Friday.
Hans also watched the hard work Hills did in the summer to produce such a historic performance.
Hans is the director of the Wildwood Recreation Department. His office overlooks Maxwell Field where the Warriors play. Hans could see Hills with a football under his arm running sprints and drills in July and August.
"Every time I looked out my window there he was," Hans said. "He really worked on vision and balance. He realized to play at the level he's capable of, he needed to work out."
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Hills is in the midst of a season that would be surreal even for a fictional player in a video game.
Hills' eight touchdowns tied him with Roger Morton of Florence for the most touchdowns ever scored in a South Jersey game, according to New Jersey football historian Chuck Langerman. Morton scored eight against the now-defunct Egg Harbor City High School in 1950. Hill's 452 rushing yards are the fourth-best single game total in state history, Langerman said.
In four games, Hills has rushed 83 times for 1,062 yards for an average of 12.8 yards per carry. He's scored 17 touchdowns and also excelled on defense with 3 sacks and nine tackles.
"When I'm reading the stats, I'm like, 'Wow, did I really just do that?' " Hills said. "But I have to put it past me and focus on the next game. My line has been blocking great."
Wildwood is off to its best start since it finished 7-1 in 1963. The Warriors (3-1) host Salem (0-3) at 7 p.m. today. A victory boosts Wildwood toward their first-ever South Jersey Group I playoff spot. The Warriors, Cedar Creek and Cherry Hill West are the only schools in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties that have never made the playoffs since they began in 1974.
Wildwood football has struggled for years. Some years Wildwood simply didn't have enough players to have a varsity team, so it played a junior varsity schedule. Wildwood won went 1-32 from 2007-2010. The program's lack of history motivated Hills.
"I was tired of losing," Hills said, "and if I could do anything about changing it that's what I'm going to do. I work hard all summer. I lifted, ran, did drills and did everything for hours."
Hills grew up in Wildwood. He turned to football after a brief baseball career. He played right field for a few games as a youngster and spent most of the time picking up grass and dirt rather than focusing on the action.
His father, also named Wesley, introduced him to football.
"I fell in love with it," the younger Hills said. "I loved hitting people and the feeling you get when the fans are cheering after a touchdown."
Hills played with several of the current Warriors on the Wildwood Junior Warriors team in the Cape May County Junior Football League.
Hills was a good junior football league player but did not dominate, according to Hans.
"He's always been a tall, lanky, skinny kid that takes a while to get going," Hans said. "He needed to grow into his body."
Hills began to reach his potential as a high school sophomore. As a junior, he rushed for 1,294 yards and scored 10 touchdowns as Wildwood finished 2-8.
It is rare to find a running back as tall as Hills. Most backs are 5-10 or even 5-9. Taller backs that run upright make easy targets for defenders. Hills watches video of former 6-3 NFL runner Eric Dickerson for tips.
"A lot of people told me I couldn't play running back in high school," Hills said.
Hills uses his speed and cut-back ability to elude tacklers. Hans said Hills is quickly able to accelerate to his top speed.
"He didn't develop that until halfway through last year," the coach said.
Wildwood fans are expected to fill the bleachers at Maxwell Field tonight. The resort is so small and intertwined in the fall and the winter that it seems like everybody in town gets behind the school's winning sports teams. Wildwood hasn't played at home since a Sept. 7 season-opening 16-8 win over Clayton.
Wildwood is the smallest public school in the state to field a football team with a sophomore through senior class enrollment of 186, according to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
"With Twitter and Facebook it's amazing how many people are talking about the team," Hans said. "Everybody is talking about coming to this game. The buzz around this community is like something I've never seen."
One of the reasons Wildwood and school administrators fought to keep the program going was so that athletes with Hills' talent would have a place to play. Several Division I schools have been in contact Hills, but he hasn't any made any specific decisions about his future.
"It feels great to know that the community is behind you," Hills said. "I'm pumped. I can't wait to play in front of my friends and family."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Top-10 rushing games in New Jersey high school history
1. John Giannantonio, Netcong, 1950, 754 yards
2. Corey Clement, Glassboro, 2012, 476 yards
3. Cooper Rego, St. Joe's (Montvale), 1996, 453 yards
4. Wesley Hills, Wildwood, 2012, 452 yards
5. Greg Jones, Colonia, 2011, 450 yards
6. Terrence Riley, Paul VI, 2004, 429 yards
7. Kendrick Williams, Hamilton, 2007, 428 yards
8. John Sieczkowski, Manalapan, 2011, 425 yards
9. Knowshon Moreno, Middletown South, 2003, 420 yards
10. Bryan King, Kingsway, 2006, 411 yards
Source: Chuck Langerman, New Jersey high school football historian