on December 04, 2014 7:22 PM
Dennis Thomas took over a Salem High School football team last year that had gone 0-10 the year before and told them they would win a state championship that season.
He might have been off by one year.
Thomas will lead his fourth-seeded Rams into the NJSIAA/Sports Care Institute Group 1 final against No. 2 Paulsboro on Saturday at noon at Rowan University.
“A lot of them could have never imagined it,” said Thomas.
Thomas had been an assistant at Salem for three seasons, but took off the 0-10 campaign because his wife was pregnant. The former Salem star returned last year as head coach.
Thomas starred at Rutgers after his Salem days and went to training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent this summer coaching football in Kuwait as a member of USA football.
“Based on my experiences … I’m bringing that all to Salem,” said Thomas. “The game is evolving like crazy.”
Thomas almost led the Rams to the championship game last season, but they lost a 17-0 halftime lead to Penns Grove. They started this season slow with a 2-3 record and in some of the games Thomas sat players for part or all of games for disciplinary reasons.
“I would just say being consistent, being dedicated with the off-season conditioning, saying what we mean and meaning what we say,” said Thomas of how he has engineered a quick turnaround. “We don’t deviate from the program. Running a program, you have to have a vision and stick to that plan. You don’t deviate and modify things for certain players and people or you weaken the team.
“Guys started to realize, you have bad grades, you do the wrong things in class, you don’t get rewarded. Letting guys understand these things has been essential.”
Thomas feels he has full buy-in now. The Rams practiced until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday night and the players were asking if they could go another hour.
“They’re excited,” said Thomas. “They’re taking this like they’ve been here before. They’re confident.”
Thomas likes the matchup against the explosive Red Raiders, who run a spread no-huddle offense. Rain in the forecast could favor the Rams, though the turf will mitigate some of the effects of the weather.
“I hope it rains cats and dogs,” said Thomas with a laugh. “We’ve been playing some pretty good defense, I think that’s been overlooked how well our defense has been doing.
“I think we’re similar offensively and match up well, we both have athletes. But on the defensive side of the ball we have the edge.”
The Rams are riding a six-game winning streak since that slow start, including a 22-21 win over rival Woodstown on Thanksgiving despite trailing by two touchdowns.
The week before Salem avenged a 23-19 regular-season loss to Pennsville by rebounding with a 56-7 victory that Thomas admitted didn’t surprise him.
“We had 16 penalties and they had two the first time,” said Thomas. “We didn’t do things the right way. Doing things the right way has been our emphasis since that game.”
In the first game of the playoffs, the Rams trailed Penns Grove, 14-0, with 10 minutes to play. They won, 22-14.
“We never give up,” said Thomas. “That’s the spirit of Salem.
"No situation is too bleak.”
Not even an 0-10 season.