Nottingham and Steinert were both without their star number 21s last week as running back Diontae Nicholson (white jersey) and linebacker Xavier Roman sat out with concussions. Roman is on the bench for at least one more week and if Nicholson is able to return this week it would be in a limited role. File Photo by Michael A. Sabo.
By Rich Fisher
Sep. 13: If it wasn’t for the fact two of Mercer County’s top players were on the sidelines with serious injuries, it would have been kind of funny in a way.
Nottingham’s football team showed up at Steinert probably thinking it had a surprise for the home team; while the Spartans were thinking they had the exact same thing for the Northstars.
Turns out they surprised each other and everyone in attendance when Northstar running back Diontae Nicholson and Spartan linebacker Xavier Roman were in street clothes for the season opener. They weren’t trying to be secretive about the injuries but, no one asked, so no one told.
Ironically, both wear number 21; both are major keys to their teams’ units, and both had concussions.
That, of course, is not funny at all.
“The concussion bug’s going around,” Roman said. “What can we do? You gotta be healthy.”
Nottingham countered with Ja’ier Nelson, who romped for over 100 yards and three touchdowns in a 20-6 victory.
When play resumes this week, it is certain Roman will miss Friday’s game at Hopewell Valley but should return the following week at Allentown. Nicholson’s status for Saturday’s home opener with Moorestown is still uncertain, according to coach Jon “Big Dawg” Adams.
“Diontae has progressed to date and is going through the protocol,” said Adams through a haze of painkillers after undergoing yet another knee surgery several days ago. “I will know more (Friday). If cleared, he will play. How much would be another story as he may not be in game shape for a little while. In the words of Bill Parcells ‘It is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,’ so we will be cautious.”
Nicholson was injured in Nottingham’s first scrimmage against Ewing on Aug. 17 (two weeks before Roman suffered his). Since then, Adams assured he has followed the protocol to the letter.
“We had no idea when we stepped on the field (about Nicholson),” Steinert coach Dan Caruso said. “Just like they didn’t know our 21 wasn’t playing we didn’t know their 21 wasn’t playing. As soon as (defensive coordinator) Bill James and I saw Nicholson in street clothes we went ‘Aaww crap!’”
That might seem like a strange reaction considering Nicholson is a record-breaking stud. But the Spartans held him to 2 yards per carry in regulation last year before Nicholson broke loose in overtime.
“Our kids know him and what to expect from him,” Caruso said. “But they always have a kid that subs in that’s just a stud. So we didn’t know what to expect. We’re like ‘What’s this kid gonna do today?’ We saw it. You gotta defend whoever runs the ball, and we didn’t do a good job there.”
Nicholson’s loss was easier to gauge on a tangible level just because he is in a high-profile position. But Roman’s was just as important, as he was Steinert’s leading tackler last year and is a rare game changer on defense. In fact, he was so good against Nottingham in last year’s game, that both Caruso and Adams nominated him for 12th Man Player of the Week.
“Not having him last week really did affect our defense,” Caruso said. “John Penafiel stepped in and played a really good game for us, but Roman really affects that game a lot. I would really say, with him in the game, I don’t think we give up as many rushing yards as we did. But hey, woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
Roman suffered the concussion in the Spartans final scrimmage against New Brunswick on Aug. 31. He was finally cleared to run at practice Wednesday.
“You have to be a week symptom free and today he’s a week symptom free,” Caruso said on Wednesday. “He’ll be cleared to run today, but I can’t rightfully make his first contact a game.”
Roman was happy with his first day back.
“Everything was good, everything went perfect,” he said. “Sadly, I’m not gonna be able to play. I’ll be back officially in full pads Sunday. I’ve been feeling really good for the past week. It’s just the protocol that’s been holding me back. Practice was really good, even with the crummy weather we were getting after it. I guess everybody’s just ready for Hopewell.”
Steinert is coming off a turnover-laden game in which it was intercepted twice in the redzone and gave the ball away four times. The Bulldogs pulled one out with a late fumble recovery in the endzone against Lawrence last week and displayed a strong defense. Caruso was impressed with their defensive tackles “who were lightning quick, running around causing havoc in the backfield.”
While Steinert looks for its first win, Nottingham is attempting to go 2-0 while looking to get a few other players healthy. Lost in the shuffle of the “21 Injuries” as they have come to be known, is that the Northstars were without starting outside linebacker Quannell Santiago, who was also injured in the Ewing scrimmage, and blazing slot man Louie Akpadago.
“All I can say that we will have a few of those guys back this week that we did not have in week one,” Adams said.
The Quakers are coming off a 20-15 loss to Winslow Township, which scored a fourth-quarter touchdown for the victory.
“Moorestown is an excellent team,” Adams said. “They can and will run the ball and have a very balanced offense with an excellent line. Their quarterback is a special player as is their wide receiver, who lines up everywhere. He is their big play guy. The quarterback can sling it. They are just as good on defense and are strong in the kicking game.
“I feel this is one of the top teams on our schedule. We will need to play much better this week and eliminate some of those penalties and mistakes we made last week to be in the game. Our kids are excited as it is our home opener. I know they are looking forward to the challenge of playing one of the top teams in South Jersey.”
Hornets ready to roll
Hamilton finally gets its season underway when it visits West Windsor-Plainsboro Friday night. The Pirates lost their opener to Trenton High.