That territory was called “the consolation round.” It’s the name given to the games during the first week of the NJSIAA state playoffs for teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Since Hampton took over in 2005, the Lions only failed to qualify for the postseason three times over those first 12 years – and made the states for 10 consecutive seasons. It was an impeccable run of success that Hampton enjoyed as head coach of his alma mater.
But in 2017, the Lions stumbled to a 3-7 record – with the last win coming against Spotswood in the dreaded consolation round.
“We didn’t know what 3-7 was like,” Hampton said. “It was a humbling moment. We didn’t have a losing season in 10 years. It wasn’t from a lack of effort. I just felt that we were always just a play away from turning it around. It was definitely a teaching moment for everyone, for the coaches, for the players. If you have success, there’s a chance that you can become stale and complacent. If you become comfortable, there’s a chance you can become soft.”
And Hampton blamed himself.
“Our intensity level didn’t match the opponents and that was my fault as a leader,” Hampton said. “We’re not going to be complacent anymore.”
Hampton said that he was impressed with the way the Lions handled the uncharacteristic season.
“The kids never quit,” Hampton said. “We had a bunch of juniors who played well. We changed our workouts in the offseason, did things differently in the weight room to bring some competition in there. We had a lot of team meetings where we talked about character. We brought people in from the past to speak to them as a team. Losing is a very humbling experience. This group has come together. One of the players said to me, ‘We might not be the best Lincoln team you’ve ever had, but we’re a team.’ I liked that.”
Leading the returnees is junior quarterback Dyshaun Brooks (6-1, 180), who started at quarterback for most of the 2017 season.
“He learned on the fly and took most of the bullets,” Hampton said. “He threw for 500 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s a competitor.”
Another quarterback is senior Maurice Ezzell (5-11, 150).
The backfield is talented, with senior Corey Lee (5-10, 180) returning. Senior Jamar Casey (5-8, 165), the former quarterback, impressed a lot of scouts when he was clocked at 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the University of New Haven camp. Casey also played receiver in the past and caught 31 passes as a sophomore.
“He can play anywhere,” Hampton said of Casey. “He’s one of the most underrated kids around.”
Also in the backfield are seniors Messiah Green (5-10, 180), Felix Igiri (5-10, 210) and Jamonte Cunningham (5-9, 170), who scored 16 touchdowns on the junior varsity level last year.
The receiving corps is also deep with seniors Jahquinn Wembley (5-11, 175), Chris Pena (5-7, 160) and Ricky Lancaster (5-10, 170), junior Jacquan McDuffy (5-10, 175) and sophomore Mekiah Monroe (5-10, 180). Lancaster is a transfer from Marist.
The offensive line features a lot of size, but not a lot of experience.
Juniors Elijah Williams (6-3, 265) and Damian Martinez (6-2, 260) are the tackles, with seniors Cottrell Hatchett (6-0, 250) and Jaylen Woodham (5-9, 195), junior Avery Williams (5-11, 265 and no relation to Elijah) and sophomore Jershawn Freeman (5-10, 225) all battling for time at guard.
Sophomore Kenneth Nina (5-8, 220) is the center, with junior Charlie Alston (6-2, 285) and sophomore Shaihid Williams (6-3, 260) playing key reserve roles on the line.
The Lions line up with a 4-4 defensive front, with Elijah Williams and Igiri at defensive end and Martinez, Alston, Lee and Avery Williams getting time at defensive tackle. Don’t let Lee’s lack of size cause concern on the line. He can more than handle his own.
The linebackers are Pena, McDuffy, Hatchett, Green and sophomore Devin Jackson (5-9, 165).
Casey, Lancaster, Cunningham and senior Najee Duncan (6-0, 165) comprise the secondary.
The Lions open their season Aug, 31 at Caven Point Cochrane Stadium against Northern Valley/Demarest at 7 p.m.
“I think we have a nice blend of experienced kids and newcomers,” Hampton said. “We have a lot of dog tough kids. A lot of these kids were just unprepared last year. They hung in there, didn’t swoon and worked hard in the offseason. They’re a good group of kids who have been through a lot, but I like them a lot.” – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.