Royals Rising: Christ the King becomes football powerhouse
10/22/16 - 07:26 AM
It’s 10:31 p.m. on a Friday night in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
In the distance it appears as if traffic on the Verrazano Bridge has died down. The few streetlights keep 7th Avenue dimly lit. One of the lights flickers rapidly. However, the lights are significantly brighter a few hundred feet away on the gridiron at Poly Prep Country Day School.
Fans donning blue and silver are screaming for a score, those in maroon and gold are shouting for a stop.
Christ the King leads Poly Prep 17-13 with 10 seconds left. The Blue Devils have the ball at the 1-yard line.
The crowd noise starts to palpitate as time starts to wind down.
The volume rises in the stands. Defensive end Anthony Lang is ordering the rest of the Royals’ defensive line to clog the middle.
“They’re going to sneak! Shoot the gap!” Lang barks.
Senior Jonathan Coste and junior Prince Williams get in their stances. They look like hungry pit bulls, and, Poly Prep is waving a piece of meat in their faces.
On the sidelines coaches are yelling, but the noise drowns them out. Senior running back Aron Sanabria is on his knees, chewing his mouthpiece frantically. Fellow senior Tosin Oyekanmi, whose 53-yard touchdown in the third quarter is the reason why the Royals are in this position, can’t bear to watch.
He turns away.
“Have faith.” Christ the King head coach Jason Brown tells him.
He slowly turns back towards the field.
Poly Prep is a touchdown away from giving Christ the King another heart breaking loss.
Nick Kollmer, the Blue Devils’ quarterback lines up under center. His offensive line has been tested all evening. But, there isn’t another line that Kollmer would rather have protecting him. He’s got one of the top linemen in the county flanking him to his left. Isaiah Wilson is 350 pounds of pure force. Wilson has more than 40 scholarship offers to play football at a high major. He has an offer from 17 of the last 18 national champions.
Prayers are said, fingers are crossed, and eyes are buried in palms.
“Ready! Set! Go!” Kollmer shouts.
Kollmer takes the snap, ducks his head and pushes forward. Then, there’s a stall. Coste and Williams are there. They blow past Wilson and grab the ball carrier. It’s a sea of midnight blue and white and a wall forms with Kollmer in the middle.
Then, like the final move in a round of Jenga, the wall collapses. Kollmer is short.
The buzzer sounds, the game is over and Christ the King is delirious.
Players pour in different directions on to the field. They don’t know what to do. They haven’t won a game of this magnitude in quite some time.
“We are the best team in the city!” senior safety Maalik McClymont shouts, “I don’t care what anybody says!”
It might only be a non-league game in Week 2, but the kids from the Middle Village school don’t care. A win is a win.
The trip from Queens might’ve taken an hour, but this win was five years in the making.
Tyree Allison has gone where most football players want to go. The Beach Channel high school alum played big time football in the ACC with North Carolina before transferring to Hofstra where he caught the eyes of NFL scouts.
He had cups of coffee with the New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers before hanging up his cleats in 2003.
Allison was hired by Christ the King Regional High School in 2004 to teach trigonometry and algebra. However, his hunger to teach football needed to be curbed. During his time at Christ the King, Allison helped out with the football team from time to time, but also spent two years at Stony Brook and four years at C.W. Post as the defensive line coach.
But, times were bleak in Middle Village.
Allison had a front row seat to watch Christ the King’s football team struggle under head coach Chris Higgins. From 2009 to 2011, Higgins’ teams went 1-8, 5-5 and 1-8.
As is policy in the Catholic High School Athletic Association, administrators and coaches are paid a seasonal stipend and have to reapply after every season. After the 2011 season, Higgins didn’t reapply for the next season. Forced with a decision, Christ the King had to go in a different direction.
One afternoon in December 2011, Allison was summoned into the Athletics office to interview for the varsity head coach position. Seated across the table were Christ the King athletic directors, Bob Mackey and Joe Arbitello.
The two know a thing or two about winning. As the girls basketball head coach, Mackey has won two national titles, seven state federations championships and 14 diocesan crowns in 17 seasons. Arbitello took over the boys basketball program in 2009-10 and has won five city titles and three state federations.
Colleagues and students liked Allison. The burly man patrolled the hallways as if he is the mayor of the ‘B’ side of the building. He spoke to teachers about the New York Giants game that took place the previous Sunday, He tutored kids during his personal lunchtime, and he was always accessible. Mackey and Arbitello knew how much Allison cared for the school.
But, they wanted to field a winning football program. They wanted a man who would be at the school every day. Higgins wasn’t a teacher at Christ the King and traveled from New Jersey.
“I know the Jersey thing was hard on him, I’m sure that became an issue for him personally,” Mackey said. “Especially with the responsibility and the time commitment. As a head coach, it’s a lot of time, you’re putting in a lot of hours and a lot of work. You’ve got to really love it. I think it just became a difficult thing for Chris.”
After small talk, the interview began.
‘In four to five years, where do you see this program?’ Mackey asked.
‘We’re going to be competing in the ‘AAA,’” Allison responded, referring to the top level in the CHSFL.
“When we were looking at Mr. Allison, it was really important that we had an educator, someone who was involved in football,” Mackey said. “He played the game at multiple levels and he’s a parent as well. That was a win-win. It was really great to have someone on staff, that’s a big plus.”
On Day One, Allison had a blueprint.
Allison flipped the script from the way things were done under Higgins and previous head coach Kevin Kelly.
The team started going away to camp for preseason workouts where Allison preached discipline and accountability. He started a big brother program within the team. Each senior would take an underclassman under his wing and share his experience with the younger teammate.
Outside of camp, Allison wanted to restore the atmosphere surrounding the team. He moved the team’s home games from nearby Juniper Valley Park to Franklin K. Lane High School. He restored Homecoming by getting the student body involved and hiring a DJ to perform at the game. He even held spring practices.
However, the biggest thing he told his staff was to hit every youth football organization within 20 miles of the school and familiarize themselves with the coaches.
That was an easy request for some of the coaches on staff. Assistant coach Fred Capace had previously coached the defunct Lynvet Jets, Neil O’Donnell, the defensive coordinator, was the president of the Queens Falcons and junior varsity head coach Jason Brown was involved with the Bayside Raiders.
Allison was only around for two seasons before resigning for personal reasons. In that time, the Royals went 5-14. But, his impact was greatly felt on the lower levels.
Christ the King now had the talent in the building to compete in the CHSFL ‘AA’. Under Brown, the Royals junior varsity team lost in the ‘AA’ championship games two years in a row.
Upon resigning for personal reasons, Allison recommended Brown as his successor. As a formality, Brown still had to interview, but Arbitello knew Brown was the right man for the job.
“He would’ve had the job sooner, he’s an electrician so he’s working, and I didn’t think it was going to fit into his schedule,” Arbitello said. “You always saw that he had that love for Christ the King and that passion to be a coach. Those are the first two things that you need.”
Brown was a running back for the Royals from 1986-1990 under head coach Steve Corso. He had scholarship offers from UNC and South Carolina but decided to attend SUNY Empire State College to become an electrician.
Like Allison, Brown also had a hunger to teach football to the youth. Working his way up from the Bayside Raiders, a pop warner team in Queens, Brown learned how to teach kids ages 8-14, which was crucial to how he interacts with the current team.
“These kids, they’re very sensitive,” Brown said. “You have to keep building them back up, so when you knock them down, you have to keep bringing them back up.”
Brown has been a student of the game and uses lessons from coaches he worked with. Brown still preaches accountability and discipline, two things he learned under Allison. Brown also attributes a lot of his mannerisms to the late Ruben Sanchez, an offensive coordinator with Brown who passed away in 2013.
“He taught me how to manage practice,” Brown said. “He showed me how to bring kids back up after you yelled at them, X’s and O’s. He basically laid down the whole foundation and how to be a better coach.”
Inside the huddle
Brown calmly patrols practice on a Wednesday afternoon. Brown is the only calm thing about practice. The Royals share Joseph F. Mafera Park with the public. It’s a large turf field that has two baseball diamonds on diagonal corners with a football field sandwiched in the middle.
On this day, two teens are taking groundballs at second base on the far left side of the gridiron. To the right is a CYO girls soccer practice. It’s not uncommon for a grounder to make its way to midfield.
With the bustling sound of the M train pacing in the background as it stops at the Fresh Pond Road station, the junior varsity and varsity practice together. The offense skill players and cornerbacks are on the football field while the offensive and defensive linemen are tucked behind the end zone pushing the sleds.
Brown watches first-year quarterback Demetrius Wilson. Wilson transferred from Cardozo in the fall and was held back a year by Christ the King. Academically a junior, Wilson has played four years of high school sports, the most a student-athlete is permitted. As Brown and his coaching staff survey passes from Wilson they also keep an eye on sophomore Nathaniel Prophet. Prophet was originally going to be called up to the varsity roster, but Wilson’s progression in camp solidified him as the starter.
On this day, Wilson forgot his practice jersey and is wearing Terrell Hunt’s Syracuse Orange navy blue jersey. Hunt, a 2011 graduate, was the starting quarterback for the Orange from 2013 to 2016. However, the injury bug bit him hard. Twice he went down with season-ending injuries (a fractured fibula in 2014 and a torn Achilles in 2015). He’s worked out for the New York Giants and still holds hope that one day he’ll play in the NFL, but for now, wearing a coaching hat fits him well.
With players huddled around Hunt, he demonstrates how receivers should run their routes and how cornerbacks should tail them. He then calls out the JV players.
“This is your time to challenge the varsity,” Hunt commands. “This will be all of you next year.”
Hunt is one of several Christ the King alumni to come back and coach. Willie Poole was an assistant under Allison. Poole played for USC in 2004 and had stints in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs. The Royals have also had James Coleman and Jayvaughn Smyer help out as well. Coleman played at Buffalo while Smyer competed at Stony Brook.
“We love having the alumni come back to help us out,” Brown said. “We’re trying to bring in more.”
In addition to bringing back alumni, Brown has made his team give back to the community. Recently he brought his team to P.S. 270 to read to middle school students. Brown has also said he wants to bring his team to local hospitals and spend time with those less fortunate.
So close, yet so far
While there have been bright spots, there has also been heartbreak for the Royals.
If Christ the King appears in the CHSFL Class AA championship game on Nov 19, it will be the fourth time that the senior class has reached the final game.
They have yet to win a title.
In 2013, trailing 22-20 with seven seconds left in the JV ‘AA’ championship, Justin Terry botched a low snap that hit off of his knee and squirted free. Both Terry and running back Elyjah Campbell, now playing at Freeport, went for the loose ball. They were tackled as time expired.
In 2014, the Royals lost to Cardinal Hayes, 24-18, in the 2014 JV ‘AA’ championship.
But, last year’s loss to Xavier in the varsity ‘AA’ championship was the most devastating.
Leading 25-20 with 1:14 left in the fourth quarter and with Xavier out of timeouts, the undefeated Royals were set to punt from Xavier’s 45-yard line. A punt inside the 10-yard line would’ve been a tall order for the Knights. Xavier’s bread and butter is the single-wing offense, which calls for a heavy diet of rushing plays.
With Terry set to punt, the snap came in and so did Xavier’s Rory Kinsella, who got a piece of the punt and Joe Abbruzzese ran it in for the touchdown. A two-point conversion and an interception sealed the championship for Xavier.
In the Christ the King locker room, some were silent, others tried to hold back tears, but mostly, there were a lot of ‘what ifs.’
“It was probably the best thing to happen to us. We lost because of discipline reasons,” Brown said. “We blew teams out all year and the little things we looked over came back to bite us in the butt. We had 10 guys on the field on that punt. The center rushed on the field with no returner and they just came up the middle and the punt got blocked so it was an eye opener. It was a learning experience.”
While the loss was crushing, it gave berth to this year’s motto, which can be found on the back of helmets and coaches shirts.
This fall has been memorable for the Royals. In addition to beating perennial powerhouse Poly Prep on a last second goal-line stand, Christ the King bested long-time CHSFL Class AAA power St. Anthony’s at home on Sept. 24.
Leading 14-12 with 20 seconds left in the game, the Royals stopped the Friars on a potential game-tying two-point conversion.
“I feel like the win against St. Anthony’s was big because they’re always the powerhouse in the Catholic League,” Sanabria said. “Winning against them meant a lot. When I was a freshman, it was always St. Anthony’s, they were the team to beat in the Catholic League.”
After the win, Christ the King crept into News 12 Varsity’s tri-state top 25 poll. The Royals were ranked No. 24. They’ve continued to soar and are currently ranked No. 17 with a 6-0 record.
Two weeks later at Homecoming, Christ the King trailed 16-0 at the half to Iona Prep. The Royals shut out the Gaels, another traditional ‘AAA’ juggernaut now competing in the ‘AA,’ and scored 25 unanswered points behind senior running back Siddiq Muhammad’s 171 all purpose yards and three touchdowns.
There was much discussion at the beginning of this season to move the team up to the ‘AAA’ division. Many believe that Christ the King has the talent to make the jump, but it goes beyond talent. To be successful in the ‘AAA,’ teams need to have depth and Christ the King only has 36 players on the roster.
“These guys are ticked off that they’re not in the ‘AAA’. The reason they’re not up there is because of me,” Brown said. “I felt like we didn’t have enough numbers to be up there.”
Compared to Christ the King’s roster, St. Anthony’s has 78 players on its varsity roster; Chaminade has 65 players while Archbishop Stepinac has 63 players.
“I’m worried about constant beatings of going to play Stepinac and then you go and play St. Anthony’s the following week, then you play Poly Prep and Iona Prep and then you play St. Peter’s and there’s no days off,” Arbitello said. “There is no time for your guys to recover. If you don’t have numbers like St. Anthony’s and Stepinac it’s hard to compete. It’s like teams in the NFL; it’s the same thing. We have the talent, but we don’t have the depth that other programs do.”
Brown intends on playing many sophomores to have the numbers to compete at the ‘AAA’ level in the 2017 season.
But for now, the current seniors plan on finishing the task at hand, shedding away three years of heartache and completing the picture perfect ending by hoisting its first ‘AA’ championship since 2003.
“We feel like our life is a movie. It’s like when everything starts out sad and there’s a big, happy ending,” Terry said. “I feel like we’ve had those big sad endings, but then we’re going to come out on top for the finish. That’s what we’ve got to do this year; we’ve got to finish. Keep doing what we’re doing now, take every game one step at a time and continue doing what we’re doing.”