WILMINGTON – Joe Aviola faces a number of challenges as the new head football coach at St. Elizabeth High School. He will be leading one of the smallest squads in the state – about 35 players – which features just five seniors. Those players are learning new schemes on offense and defense. And the man Aviola follows, Joe Hemphill, spent more than 40 years leading the Vikings.
“I don’t think you can replace a legend of his magnitude,” Aviola said after an August practice at Canby Park. “He’s been a mentor as a player and as a coach, and even today if I picked up the phone, he would answer and he would give me advice.
“For four decades, he was this football program. Is that a challenge? Yeah, not only for me as a coach personally, but it’s also a challenge for the players. Not only do they have a new leader, but we have a new system, both offensively and defensively. So there’s a learning curve there.”
Aviola is a 1982 St. Elizabeth graduate who both played for and coached under Hemphill. He was pleased with his team’s dedication during the summer, with his players being ready to go as soon as workouts began on June 3.
“I had practically 30 kids a night in the weight room. That’s not always the case. That shows their commitment level,” he said.
One of the seniors, Brendan McCloskey, returns at quarterback. McCloskey said the team has been studying the playbook all summer and instituted much of the schemes during seven-on-seven play. The progress has been evident.
“As soon as Aug. 15 (the first day of practice) hit, we were ready for it. Those workouts really got us going, got us in shape,” McCloskey said.
He said the team reflects the “blue-collar mentality” that Aviola has been emphasizing all summer.
The Vikings will be a young squad in 2014. Aviola said they are a bit inexperienced at the varsity level, “but if we’re able to establish our foundation with our system, hopefully in the years to come we’ll be successful.”
One of the youngsters St. Elizabeth fans will want to see is freshman Chris Cropper. Aviola said the team will use his talents in several different sets on offense and defense. St. Elizabeth ran a “very successful” wing-T offense under Hemphill, the coach said, but they are becoming predominantly a spread team now.
Cropper, who played for the Cecil County Jaguars before high school, said he has learned from the upperclassmen and is ready to step in as a key cog for the Vikings. The summer has been a learning experience for him.
“You’ve got to get up, be committed, learn from the older guys and get bigger and stronger, faster,” he said.
The Vikings are coming off a 2-7 campaign and have a full 10-game schedule ahead of them. It includes two Division II playoff teams from last season and games against Division I foes A.I. DuPont and St. Mark’s. Aviola makes no apologies for his tough slate; last year, as coach of Delaware Military Academy, he took his team to Baynard Stadium to play Salesianum, receiving some criticism for the decision.
“I make no bones about it,” he said. “When you want to be the best, you have to schedule the best. People laughed at me last year when I put Salesianum on the schedule (at DMA). That was my goal, to take the team I was with and take them to that level. Our goal here is to eventually schedule Salesianum.”
Aviola knows some will compare his performance to Hemphill, and that’s OK with him. “We’re trying to change a couple things around here, and if we can be as successful as the previous coach – half as successful – then I would be very happy with that.”
Sept. 6: at Brandywine, 10:30 a.m.
Sept. 12: at Laurel, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19: vs. Delmar, Baynard Stadium, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27: vs. A.I. DuPont, Delaware Stadium, 4 p.m.
Oct. 4: at Cardinal McCarrick (N.J.), 3 p.m.
Oct. 10: vs. Caravel, Baynard Stadium, 7 p.m.
Oct. 18: vs. Delaware Military Academy, Baynard Stadium, 7 p.m.
Oct. 25: vs. Moyer Academy, Baynard Stadium, 7 p.m.
Oct. 31: at St. Mark’s, 7 p.m.
Nov. 7: vs. Archmere, Baynard Stadium, 7 p.m.