After rushing for more than 1,800 yards and scoring 23 touchdowns for a team that went 12-0 and won a state championship a year ago, you couldn't fathom the idea that Damien Bates could actually do better than that.
After all, those numbers and achievements stand on their own merit as outstanding accomplishments, right? There wouldn't be a need to actually improve on that performance, correct?
But the Hoboken High School running back wasn't content to settle on his sensational junior year. The 6-0, 210-pound powerhouse wanted more. Much more.
"I definitely thought I could become better," Bates said. "So I became stronger and faster. I knew I was more experienced. I knew what I had to do. I just hit the weight room harder and worked hard throughout the off-season. I knew the coaches were going to rely upon me, that I was going to be the go-to guy. I definitely liked that challenge and was looking forward to it."
Hoboken head coach Lou Taglieri thought that Bates was going to improve on his brilliant season of a year ago.
"I really did expect it," Taglieri said. "I expected him to get better because he didn't miss a single weight training or conditioning session in the off-season. Damien was there for each and every one of them. Plus, he knows the offense so well now. Once you learn the offense, you know all the blocking schemes and you can find the little things that can get you yardage. He did some amazing things last year just knowing the offense on a limited basis. Now, with a year under his belt, he knows the offense like the back of his hand."
Added Taglieri, "Without a doubt, Damien set a standard last year. We knew what he could do. But we had to expect that and then some this year."
Taglieri had an early sense that Bates was ready for another special campaign.
"Right from the first scrimmage, I could see the adjustments he was making as a running back," Taglieri said. "He knows that our fullback is the marquee player and he earned the right to be that marquee player. He was confident and knew what he was doing. It made him that much better."
When the season began against Memorial, Bates wasn't really challenged. He carried the ball just six times for 146 yards and scored three touchdowns in a huge Hoboken victory.
After the Red Wings had a week off, they prepared to face Hudson Catholic, a team that featured its own marquee running back in Darius Kinney and a team that had already owned big wins against Bayonne and Elizabeth.
"I knew that this was going to be a big game," Bates said. "Darius is a big-time player and they're a good team, having beaten two Group IV schools already. I was looking forward to the chance to play them. It was our first big challenge and we needed to win. In order to be the best in the county, we needed to win games like this one."
Taglieri had a sense that Bates was ready for a big-time, break-out performance.
"I saw a little twinkle in his eye," Taglieri said. "We were playing a good team like Hudson Catholic with a good player (Kinney). I knew that Damien was more than ready. I could tell by the way he practiced all week that he wanted this one. He was ready. He didn't have to be told about anything."
Bates carried the ball a workman-like 36 times for 273 yards and scored three touchdowns, leading the Red Wings to an impressive 34-14 win over the previously undefeated Hawks.
For his efforts, Bates has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
"If you wanted a measuring stick of how the season is going to go, then this was it," Taglieri said. "He had a huge game. He really picked it up for us. If this game is a steppingstone, then he's really set the bar high. He knows how to play every game and honestly, it's what I expect of him every game."
Before the season started, Taglieri was worried that the Red Wings were lacking leadership, that the team needed a senior member of the team to step up and be more of a factor on and off the field. Those worries are now gone.
"Definitely, Damien is the leader," Taglieri said. "You can see now that people will follow him. The effort he gives forces the others to follow."
Bates agrees with his coach's assessment.
"Yeah, I believe I'm a leader and that the team can follow me," Bates said. "I want to be a leader on this team."
Bates is enjoying the fact that his younger brother, Desmond, is also on the team and contributing.
"It's a lot of fun, getting the chance to play with my little brother," Bates said. "He's a great athlete and it's a pleasure to play with him. I hope he learns something from me. I try to encourage him all the time and tell him that he could become a player like me."
Bates has already received his share of college offers, much like his teammates Duval Kamara (Notre Dame) and Bearthur Johnson (Maryland). He has already received offers from Iowa, Purdue and Pitt and received another offer from former Lincoln High School standout Tony Samuel, who is the head coach now at Southwest Missouri State.
"He'll be somewhere next year," Taglieri said. "It all depends on his grades and how things work out. He's only 17, so he's still young and growing. But someone will grab him."
"I'm just working hard so I can get more offers," Bates said.
So the huge performance could very well be a weekly occurrence for the rest of the season.
"I really do expect it now," Taglieri said.
"I like the challenge he's given me," Bates said. "He can definitely expect it from me. It's given me a boost of confidence and helps me to reach my goal, being one of the top running backs in the state."
Here's a news flash: Damien Bates is already there. - Jim Hague