The festive atmosphere in the Jefferson locker room after the Dragons' 14-0 victory over East Bay last week produced a fortune teller.
"We're going to win eight games," a Jefferson senior exclaimed after the Dragons upped their record to 2-2.
Coach Darlee Nelson knows his new-found prognosticator may not be right, but he's happy his team is beginning to believe in itself. It would have been easy for Jefferson to lose faith after opening 0-2, but the youthful team is coming together as it enters tonight's game against Armwood.
"If they feel like they can win eight games," Nelson said, "then they can do it."
Establishing self-esteem was an important task for Nelson because of his team's inexperience. The Dragons have 10 sophomores and six are playing important roles. The quarterback is a junior, and only eight seniors are on the roster.
"I said in the preseason it would take us three to four games for us to gel," Nelson said. "It's taken just about that much time for the team to gel with those new individuals."
The new individuals are playing key roles on both sides of the ball. Three sophomore linebackers have seen considerable playing time, as have the tight end, the tailback and the left tackle. For guys used to junior high football, the promotion to the big time was not easy.
"In junior high, there wasn't very much hard contact," said Jason Sparks, weakside linebacker. "It surprised me when I got hit a couple of times."
The Dragons suffered losses to Seminole and Plant while trying to right themselves. They gave up 42 points in those first two games, and the offense turned the ball over eight times (four fumbles, four interceptions).
"We had to get a feel for one another," senior running back Armand Akiboh said. "We had to realize it takes a team effort, no individuals."
The team effort helped Jefferson bounce back and upset Chamberlain 21-14. It followed with a 14-0 shutout of East Bay.
Quarterback Angel Diaz has reduced his interceptions while throwing for 449 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Jamal Anderson has rushed for 233 yards, while John Rutledge is averaging 22.8 yards a reception and has two returns for touchdowns.
Nelson points to defense, however, as the real key for the team. The sophomore linebacking contingent, along with junior linebacker Keron Jean-Baptiste, is succeeding because of the play of the Dragons' defensive front: tackles Marcus Fernandez (first-team conference last year) and Charles Hathcox (second-team conference), and defensive ends Travis DarDar and Arkene Barnes.
"The offense doesn't usually gel like a machine until the fifth, sixth or seventh game," Nelson said. "Right now, the defense has already gelled like a machine. They're flowing as well as I've seen a defensive team flow during my 10 years at Jefferson."
Now the Dragons have to face a talented Armwood team angry about losing to King last week. Nelson knows the Hawks pose a formidable obstacle.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Nelson said. "We have to work at stopping a super athlete like Ricardo Watson, who has a lot of good talent around him."
Nelson said he wants his team to stop Watson, but he doesn't want them to stop believing.
Jefferson has 10 sophomores on its roster and six are playing critical roles. They are:
Jamal Anderson, running back
London Chapman, linebacker
Harry Delanie, linebacker
Keith Newman, tight end
James Perez, offensive tackle
Jason Sparks, linebacker