Such is the dilemma facing Eric Piccolo, the head coach at Dickinson High School.
"We didn't have a lack of turnout," said Piccolo, whose team opens the season this weekend against Union Hill, which already has a win under its belt, courtesy of a 26-6 win over Barringer. "We had a complete disappearance. We lost nine players in the off-season. It was a brutal hit."
Two of the expected returnees moved to Atlanta. Three left the team for personal reasons and family commitments. Three others transferred out of Dickinson to attend night school because they needed a job. Such is the fate one faces when coaching in an inner-city environment.
"It's like we're rebuilding, but we were never expected to be rebuilding," Piccolo said.
The mass exodus left only 20 players, an ungodly low number for a school with an NJSIAA Group IV enrollment.
"When I told people that we had those numbers, they were legitimately shocked," Piccolo said. "I expected to get a few more players when school started. We're going with the kids we have. They're the ones who put in the time over the summer and practiced hard. Of course, I'm definitely concerned, especially when it comes to depth. But in high school football, it shouldn't be just about the overall numbers, but about the quality of kids that you have out there."
Despite the appearance of being overmatched to start the season, Piccolo, a veteran of 20 seasons as a head coach, is keeping a stiff upper lip
"I have to," Piccolo said. "I'm still here. I'm not backing down. I know the kids aren't backing down. I've been pleasantly surprised with our scrimmages. We have some talented kids here."
One of the first kids Piccolo mentioned was senior guard/middle linebacker Andrew McLean, a three-year starter. The 6-0, 220-pound McLean is a mainstay.
"He's the cornerstone of the team," Piccolo said. "He's definitely going to have a good year."
Another player that has impressed the coach is junior Darnell Dickson, who is a transfer from Hudson Catholic. Dickson (5-9, 180) will be the Rams' quarterback and will play defensive back as well.
"He's a very good athlete and he's as close to Larry Holmes (the former Snyder All-Area quarterback who played for Piccolo three years ago) as we're going to get," Piccolo said. "He's a kid who can make things happen and we've finally have a kid like that at quarterback."
Junior Chris McLean, Andrew's younger brother, is one of the Rams' running backs.
"He has great speed," Piccolo said of the 5-11, 185-pound McLean. "He's a track guy. I expect a lot from him."
Senior Samuel Casimir (5-8, 170) is another running back that Piccolo likes.
The wide receiver slots are manned by Robert Anthony (5-10, 160), who Piccolo likened to former Jets standout Wayne Chrebet.
"Robert has good hands and makes the big catch," Piccolo said.
Junior Khalil Abdulkarim (6-2, 205) is the Rams' starter at tight end.
"We expect really big things from him," Piccolo said of Abdulkarim, who will also double as a defensive end. "If he stays healthy, he's really going to open some eyes. We have a group of legitimate players who can make plays."
Piccolo is buoyed by the play of sophomore center Randal Polanco (5-11, 225), who doesn't even attend Dickinson High School. Polanco is a student at McNair Academic, but wanted to play football. Since McNair doesn't have a football team, Polanco signed on to play at Dickinson.
"He's a tough kid who wants to play football," Piccolo said. "We're glad to be able to give him the chance to play."
Piccolo likes the play of seniors Oscar Brown (5-10, 200), who is a returning starter at inside linebacker; Paul Merjudio (6-0, 260), who is a two-way tackle and Anthony Bruno (5-10, 200), who plays guard and inside linebacker.
Mike Almanzar (5-7, 230) will see time at offensive guard.
While the prospects certainly don't look bright on paper, Piccolo remains optimistic.
"We can hope to win five games with a break here and there," Piccolo said. "We have to be able to give these kids something positive. They've really worked hard and deserve something good. I think there are five teams on our schedule that we can be on a par with."
The coach didn't want to elaborate on the five. It looks like it will be a challenging year for Piccolo and the Rams, with the biggest challenge fielding a team as the season winds on. - Jim Hague