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Sidelines just as much a hub of activity as the field in high school football
  • 2 min to read

Before every high school football game, referees ask teams one question.

“Who’s your get back coach?”

For Holy Spirit, that guy is assistant coach Joe Ailes. He prowls the sidelines during games reminding players and coaches to literally get back from the playing field.

The sidelines can be an emotional place.

“It’s definitely chaotic,” said Holy Spirit senior defensive back Eric Roman. “We have a great get back coach in coach Ailes. He does a great job of getting everybody back and hyped up. It’s just human nature to gravitate toward one of your teammates (on the field) when they made a great play.”

A disorderly sideline can draw a penalty at a key moment in the game. Ailes is loud. He sometimes speaks in rhymes.

“Get back behind the blue line,” he tells the Spartans, “and you’ll be fine.”

Ailes is sometimes so focused on keeping the Spartans in check on the sideline, he misses what’s happening on the field. He hears a roar and has to ask, “Who was that penalty on?” or “Who made the big play?”

“I’m paying more attention to what’s in back of me than what’s in front of me,” said Ailes, who is also Spirit’s strength coach. “Sometimes it gets so crazy. The players keep inching up, inching up.”

Players and coaches can’t help but be drawn toward the field.

The game looks quicker and more physical from the sidelines than it does from the stands. One can almost feel the speed of a running back as he turns the corner for a big gain and hear the collision when he is tackled.


St. Augustine Prep quarterback Trey McLeer prepares to take the field against Delbarton High School in a playoff game Nov. 12 in Richland.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind experience,” said St. Augustine Prep senior wide receiver/defensive back Nasir Hill. “There’s nothing else like it.”

Players on the sideline can impact the game even though they’re not playing.

Long Branch threw a deep pass in its South Jersey Group IV semifinal against Ocean City on Nov. 12.

Red Raiders defensive back Sean Mazzitelli chased after the open receiver. The Ocean City sideline shouted “Ball!” Mazzitelli heard that and turned his head at the right moment to make the interception and propel the Red Raiders to a 45-10 win.

“We want our sideline engaged,” Ocean City coach Kevin Smith said. “The kids who aren’t playing are contributors, too. You spend so much time practicing. You only get a dozen games if you’re lucky. The last thing I want those guys on the sideline doing is standing passively.”

Edward Lea, Staff Photographer 

Ocean City players jump into the action against Long Branch in the first half of a game Nov. 12.

The sidelines are also a place for adjustments. Players come off the field, catch their breath and change strategy.

“When you come off the field and talk to the coach, it feels like the coach is the only person in the world,” Roman said. “You don’t want to hear anybody else but them.”


Cedar Creek High School assistant defensive coach Ryan Flannery talks with players during the Somerville game.

Teams are now able to record the game while it’s going on and review it on a tablet on the sideline after every play.

“A kid will come off the field after something has happened and when he goes over to the bench, we can go over to him with the iPad and show him what happened,” Smith said. “They see it on the iPad, and it’s a lot more meaningful for them to be able to see it rather than just us telling him.”

For many involved, Thursday’s Thanksgiving rivalry games will be their last time on a football sideline as a player. They will rarely again be that close to the game they have played for years.

“It’s the greatest thing ever,” Roman said, “high school football is.”

And there’s no better place to experience it than the sidelines.

Just remember to get back.

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Atlantic Cape students explore hunger crisis ahead of holiday season

MAYS LANDING — There is a saying in most Latin American countries, said David Pacheco Ruiz.

"As long as you have frijoles, arroz y huevo — rice, beans and an egg — you have dinner, you have lunch, you have food," Pacheco Ruiz said.

Pacheco Ruiz, 27, who grew up in Colombia and moved to Atlantic City two years ago from North Carolina, said he was fortunate never to want for food like that growing up. But it was a common phrase he heard spoken a lot in Colombia.

Last week, Pacheco Ruiz joined 14 other Atlantic Cape Community College students, faculty and more to participate in a Hunger Banquet. Fifteen people either sat on the floor or at a table to demonstrate different levels of income and how they are impacted by hunger. About 10 more people sat at the edge of the student lobby in the G building on campus and watched the immersive demonstration take place.

According to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, about 60,000 residents in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties struggle with hunger. The food bank in Egg Harbor Township is one of several places in South Jersey that offer some type of food to families in need.

About 9.2% of the world — or 689 million people — live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank database. In the United States, about 10.5% of the population — 34 million people — live in poverty, as of 2019.

"We're taught to be grateful. I came here when I was super young — 6, 7 years old — I can't say that my family and I have never struggled with true hunger, because to me, being hungry and hunger, it's very different. To experience hunger and not have anything to eat," Pacheco Ruiz said. "I'm fortunate enough that I've never been in a situation like that in my life. That's why this experience is enlightening."

Thanksgiving is this week, and that brings about the start of the holiday season. It's an opportunity many take to think about how they want to celebrate family time, often around the dinner table. Many organizations seek to remind people that Thanksgiving is just a normal Thursday for many families hoping to just put food on their table that night.

"I'm so thrilled we were able to provide just awareness of the issue on that global perspective and how it impacts us locally," said Nancy Purfido, the diversity, equity and inclusion advocate and judicial officer at Atlantic Cape. "In Atlantic County, Cape May (County) but especially Atlantic County, it's hurting. And for the students to be made aware of that, it's very, very important. Because that is the first step in any form of change."

Those who wanted to participate Thursday reached into a basket and randomly chose one of three income levels. Five sat on the floor in "low income." They were served a small bowl of black beans. Six sat at a long table and were served yellow rice with those beans, representing the middle class.

At the far end of the lobby next to an electric fireplace sat four people in the rich class. They had tableside service from culinary arts student Jesus Ampara, who served them plates of Caesar salad and baked ziti.

Student Government Association President Caesar Sanchez gave a presentation while people waited for and ate their food. Those in low income ate last, and men were served first in the middle class to demonstrate how, in some countries, women will eat last and sometimes less to ensure the rest of the family has enough food first.

"They were engaged, and I actually learned some things from them, from speaking up and hearing what they had to say," said Sanchez, 21, of Egg Harbor Township. "I think it was a good thing all around to bring awareness to hunger and food insecurity."

One student sitting at middle income told Sanchez the rice and beans he was served, which was supposed to be middle income food, was something he ate at home. 

"I was like, I'm glad he was able to relate to it, not only to people around him but to himself, specifically," Sanchez said. "And also the other student who sat down in low income and said something about Atlantic City being a food desert, and that's something that not a lot of people think about."

That student was Pacheco Ruiz, who said he has to rely on public transportation or someone giving him and his family rides to larger stores like Walmart, Target and ShopRite out of the city. He is happy with the news a ShopRite will be built in Atlantic City, so to make better food options more affordable to people who aren't in a good financial situation.

Alexis Cabrera, 18, of Mays Landing, was one of the few who got to sit at a nice two-person table with fresh flowers in the center and get served baked ziti and salad. She noticed there were only four chairs available for the high-income seating, while there was plenty of room for the other levels.

"When (Sanchez) was talking, it really put into perspective the percentage of poverty," Cabrera said. "It was different seeing it from this angle than I'm sure it was over there."

In the end, everyone who participated and observed was able to enjoy some baked ziti and salad.

Ampara, who graduated from Egg Harbor Township High School, said his family has struggled from time to time and has visited food banks in the past to help put food on the table. He's proof that what people see on the surface isn't always the reality.

"People see me going to school and learning culinary and they go, 'Oh, they have money,' but it's not always like that," said Ampara, 20.

"It did mean a lot to me to see that. Not a lot of people, you know, you're not alone. Other people struggle too, and the best you can do is help other people out."

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Flu is spreading around the Philly region and the nation. The holidays could help it take off.

It’s still early in the flu season, but it looks as if we’re in for a tougher time this year than last, when COVID-19 precautions practically drove that other respiratory virus underground.

This year, flu is off to a faster start and contagion is increasing, especially among children and young adults, according to the CDC.

Public health officials have been warning for weeks that flu could be rough this year as people tired of masking and social distancing and, emboldened by COVID-19 vaccines, gather inside. Those who are not newly vaccinated for flu may have less immunity than usual because so few people caught the virus last year.

The late fall and winter picture could be complicated and confusing as two powerful respiratory viruses with very similar symptoms spread at the same time. It’s possible to be infected with both at once, and both can spread without symptoms. A possible surge of both viruses, which some have labeled a twindemic, could further strain health care and testing providers.

Some college campuses are already reporting outbreaks of flu, which doesn’t bode well for parents and grandparents as students head home for Thanksgiving.

Rowan University has had about 180 cases since Nov. 1, although the numbers are falling now. Stockton University, however, has not seen an increase in cases out of the ordinary. Being a heavy commuter school, Stockton doesn’t have complete data because many students may seek care off campus, university spokesperson Diane D’Amico said.

Stockton has administered 200 flu shots on campus this semester, D’Amico said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health said it was not aware of any college outbreaks in the commonwealth. The University of Pennsylvania, which began requiring students to get flu shots this year, has not yet had any cases, said Mary Kate Coghlan, director of student wellness.

At Pennsylvania State University, 273 students have tested positive for flu, more than usual for this time of year. Wyatt DuBois, assistant director of public relations, said the university is using a more sensitive test this year and testing demand is high as students prepare to travel.

“University Health Services is taking this trend seriously and is in close contact with local and state health authorities and they are offering guidance at this time,” he said.

Philadelphia-area health leaders also worry about what will happen as infected students fan out across the country.

“It’s really the makings of a spreader event,” said David Cennimo, an infectious-diseases specialist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

So far, he said, the situation looks different than it did last year, but it does not yet seem unusually dire. “It really looks like we’re back to normal,” he said.

A troubling flu strain

Tina Tan, state epidemiologist for the New Jersey Department of Health, said it’s troubling that the predominant strain of flu so far is A(H3N2). That type, she said, is “sometimes associated with a more severe flu season.” That could mean both sicker patients and more cases.

Amber Liggett, a public information officer for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said her agency is also worried about the early arrival of H3N2. “H3N2 is known to cause more complications and deaths, and seasonal vaccines are known to have lower efficacy against it,” she said.

Last year’s very low flu numbers created a challenge for vaccine makers: predicting which strains of flu would make the rounds this year, Cennimo said. Normally that’s based on what happens in the Southern Hemisphere, but very little did. This year’s shot protects against a version of H3N2 found in Cambodia in 2020. It’s too soon to know how well it will work.

The CDC said Friday that overall flu numbers were low but increasing during the week ending Nov. 13. Ninety percent of cases were among children and young adults aged 5 to 24. While this group is not at high risk for serious illness, it can play a key role in spreading the virus to more vulnerable younger children and older adults.

New Mexico stood out for having high flu activity. The CDC put Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the “low” category. Activity in Delaware was “minimal.” So far, there have been no pediatric deaths in the country, but Pennsylvania reported that one adult over 65 has died of flu this fall.

In its report for the week ending Nov. 13, Pennsylvania’s Health Department said cases had increased significantly in the last week. They were slightly higher than they had been for that time period during any of the last eight years. The department said there have been more than a thousand laboratory-confirmed cases so far, and they have been found in 52 of 67 counties.

Liggett said testing has increased because of concerns about COVID-19, and that makes yearly comparisons difficult.

New Jersey itself described flu activity as “moderate” overall for the week ending Nov. 13. It was low in southeast New Jersey and moderate in the southwest. So far, the activity level is similar to what was seen in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, has had “almost nothing” — just five cases, said James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. Flu typically hits hardest after the new year, he said.

Who needs a flu shot? Nearly everyone.

Every year, public health experts say everyone over 6 months old should get a flu shot. They say that’s especially important this year because COVID-19 is also circulating.

According to the CDC, the flu vaccination rate for children is lower this year than last. As of the week ending Nov. 6, 35% had been vaccinated compared with 40.3% at that time last year. Data from October showed vaccination rates among pregnant people were down by 17 percentage points, from 58.2% last year to 40.8% this year. The news was better for all adults. A survey conducted in early November on whether adults had either already been vaccinated or intended to get a shot projected that vaccination coverage this season would be 58.5%, up 3.7 percentage points from last season. When the survey was conducted, 40.9% of respondents said they had already been vaccinated.

Flu usually announces itself suddenly with fever, chills, and body aches. Other symptoms include cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, fatigue, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea, according to the CDC. It tends to be most dangerous for very young children and people over 65. COVID-19 can cause these symptoms, as well. It is most dangerous for seniors, but people with obesity and many chronic illnesses are also at high risk.

Tan said the symptom most likely to differentiate COVID-19 from flu is loss of sense of taste or smell, which is much more common in COVID-19.

Most people will not be able to tell what they have without testing. “It’s going to be very difficult to distinguish the flu vs. COVID just simply based on symptoms,” Tan said. Sick people, she said, should stay home to protect others.

Cennimo said we don’t all have to rush to the hospital the minute we get a fever. “Many of us, especially if we’ve been vaccinated, should be OK,” he said.

However, people who are at high risk for serious illness or are experiencing serious symptoms such as difficulty breathing should definitely seek medical help. Antiviral medications are available for flu and COVID-19, and patients with COVID-19 can get monoclonal antibodies. All must be given early in the course of the disease.

It takes two weeks for flu vaccines to become effective, so health officials said you should get one as soon as possible. And many people still need COVID-19 shots and boosters.

“All roads lead to: Protect yourself with the shot,” Cennimo said.

Staff Writer Eric Conklin contributed to this report.