From surgery to practice to first win

Posted: September 21, 2012

If he wins 20 or 50 or 100 games as a high school football coach, Brian Wright will never forget his first one.

And not just because he climbed out a hospital bed to see it happen.

Anybody can undergo an appendectomy on a Tuesday. But it's something special for a football coach to have surgery one day, sneak out to practice the next and notch the first victory of his career in dramatic fashion two nights later.

"It was pretty exciting," Wright said of Cherry Hill West's 21-20 victory over Cumberland last Friday night in a West Jersey Football League game.

Wright missed practice on Sept. 11 because he was in the hospital. He defied doctor's orders by showing up at practice on Wednesday, although he says he only stuck around for a few minutes.

"The other coaches were great," Wright said of his assistants. "They took care of everything."

Wright, a top lineman at Gloucester Catholic and Rowan who spent the previous 10 seasons as an assistant coach at Rowan, is trying to build something of substance at Cherry Hill West.

The Lions have long struggled in the win-loss column. They've been .500 just once since 1997 - when they went 5-5 in 2009 - and have won five or more games in a season just four times since cross-town rival Cherry Hill East started playing football in 1969.

"We're trying to change the mindset," Wright said.

Wright, who is a special-education teacher in the school, knows change takes time. He knows the Lions could take their lumps - especially since they play in perhaps the best division in South Jersey, the WJFL Constitution.

But there are signs of progress. The weight room has $23,000 worth of improvements. The coach is working to strengthen the connection with the town's youth program, which has closer ties with Cherry Hill East.

Wright thinks there's a "good vibe" in the school with regard to the football program - a little more optimism that's natural with a new coach, new staff, new start.

Wright said Cherry Hill West has a strong freshman class and that eight or nine sophomores are seeing regular varsity time. That bodes well for 2013 and beyond.

The Lions' top athlete is junior Rodney Williams, who hasn't played since suffering a hamstring injury in a scrimmage. Williams, a quarterback and defensive back who has drawn recruiting interest from programs such as Boston College, Rutgers and Pitt, could be back for the Oct. 5 game against Seneca.

Wright said the Lions have gotten good work from sophomore quarterback Joey Argentina, juniors Geronimo Santana and Jaquan Gonzales, and senior Nick Millardi, among others.

"We're determined to change the way people think about us," said Gonzales, who ran for a touchdown and caught a two-point conversion pass Friday night.

Cherry Hill West will takes its wins any way it can get them. But Wright's first victory was some kind of wonderful.

In a game that featured four lead changes, the Lions had a 21-14 edge when the Colts scored a touchdown to close within 21-20 with about a minute to play.

Cumberland went for two and the win. Cherry Hill West's defense rose up and stopped standout running back De'Hahn Milledge one yard short of the end zone.

"It's one game," Wright said. "But it gives a little validation to what we're trying to do."


Contact Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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