Not many teams can survive losing close to 3,600 yards in total offense and almost 50 touchdowns to graduation and expect to thrive a year later.
But then again, the Red Wings of Hoboken High School aren't just any high school football team.
Sure, Ira "I-Train" Guilford has packed his bags and headed to Ohio State, taking 2,300 yards and 29 touchdowns with him. Fellow standouts Quadir Ladson and Jason Blanks, the Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Year last year, have also departed, not to mention most of the entire offensive and defensive lines from last year's team that was a single point away from winning the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group II title, losing 7-6 in the finals to Ramsey.
But there's no sense of panic in the Mile Square City. The Red Wings expect to be among the elite teams in Hudson County again this season. And this year, they will compete for a playoff berth in the NJSIAA Group I division, which has made many of the small Bergen County schools that have dominated that bracket over the years cringe in fear.
"That's what we call having a program," said veteran head coach Ed Stinson, beginning his 17th season in his second tenure at Hoboken and his 26th year coaching overall. "It's all part of what we call phases of the program, beginning with strength and conditioning in January, then agility drills in the spring, then practices, camp, scrimmages and the season. They're all phases and it's the way we go year to year, with everyone participating in the phases. We lost a lot of guys with experience and it's our challenge to replace them."
Replacing Guilford's All-State contributions won't be easy, but senior Stephon Anderson (5-9, 175) seems ready to carry the load. Anderson is the next in a line of talented Hoboken running backs from the same family, following in the footsteps of famed All-State cousins Ravon Anderson (Rutgers grad) and Tyrell Dortch (currently at Michigan State).
In fact, Anderson, who rushed for 700 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, will wear uniform No. 34 - the same number worn by both of his standout relatives.
"Stephon has been around this program forever," Stinson said. "He was a ball boy for us when he was a kid. We would bring him on the bus with us to watch games when his cousins were playing. He knows what it takes. We don't have to draw him the big picture. Whether he's effective remains up to him. But he's quick and strong."
Junior Terrence Vargas (5-10, 180) joins Anderson in the backfield. Vargas, who started for the Red Wings at linebacker last year as a sophomore, will also get his share of carries out of the backfield.
Sophomore Rashown Brown (6-1, 175) has shown a lot of promise. Stinson believes he can blossom into another fine running back out of the Red Wings' daunted Delaware Wing-T formation.
Two other players will see time in the backfield, namely juniors Vinnie Johnson, Jr. (5-10, 165), the son of the assistant coach, and Angel Ramos (5-10, 175).
The starting quarterback will be junior Jonathan Gracesqui (5-10, 175), who Stinson said "is also a product of the system and had a great learning experience watching Blanks play last year. He has potential to be a fine player. He understands the philosophy of what we want at quarterback."
The wide receiver will be sophomore Chris Willis (6-0, 205), who is also related to the Anderson-Dortch connection. The tight end is junior Edwin Eusebio (6-2, 200). Ironically, he is not related to the string of Eusebio brothers (Eddie, Ralph and Michael) who were all great athletes at Hoboken High.
The offensive line is basically new, with only sophomore Jonathan Delacruz (6-3, 275) returning from a year ago. Senior tackle Miguel Diaz (5-10, 245), senior guard Juan Albino (5-9, 215), junior guard Chris Anastasio (5-10, 200) and junior center Hector Rojas (6-1, 205) rounding into shape.
"Absolutely, most of our time has been spent working with the line," Stinson said. "We keep repeating things, but that disrupts our rhythm."
As always, most of the Red Wings turn around to play defense as well. Vargas and Willis are players to watch as inside linebackers. Anderson returns to his safety position, where he started last year. Johnson and Brown are cornerbacks, but Gracesqui is good enough to play in the secondary.
Stinson said that he's not even thinking about the move to Group I for the state playoffs.
"It's the furthest thing from my mind right now," Stinson said. "I'm more concerned with competing against schools that are much bigger than us. We play no schools of equal size. That's such a major challenge in itself. We're competing against larger schools that have improved their programs."
The Red Wings open Sept. 11 against Ferris and Stinson's former player, Wilbur Valdez, then take on St. Peter's Prep Sept. 19 at Hoboken.
Will the Red Wings be in the hunt for the HCIAA title?
"It's always hard to make predictions with high school kids," Stinson said. "We're just going to go out and try to do better each day. If we can continue to do that, then maybe we have a chance for success."
Count on the Red Wings to make runs at both the HCIAA and definitely Group I state honors this year. - Jim Hague