On the Edge of Greatness
By Aaron Park
First down and ten yards to go. Four minutes into the first quarter.
The Wolverines were playing the Dominguez Dons on the road, their final non-league tuneup before facing Cathedral at Homecoming.
Jameson Wang ’20 took the snap and angled left, looking to pass on the Wolverines’ first offensive play of the game.
The sophomore signal-caller set his feet and fired a dart at senior receiver Thomas Glover ’18, racing up the seam from the slot position.
The ball cut through the crisp Compton evening and sailed over the head of Glover, who had crossed into the middle of the field. A Dominguez defensive back leapt into the air and snatched the errant pass, giving the Doms the ball on the Wolverines 35-yard line.
Dominguez marched down the field and into the red zone. The Dons big bruiser of a running back, Jamarea Jones, juked and trucked his way across the goal line, staking Dominguez to an early 7-0 lead.
It would be their last lead of the game.
Perhaps a year ago, Wang admits, the result could have been different. Maybe he wouldn’t have had the confidence to rebound from such a steep setback on the game’s first play.
But this isn’t the same kid who spent last season learning on the fly. This is a different Jameson Wang, the one who’s already run for more yards and touchdowns than he did over the entire last season. The one who’d guided these Wolverines to a 4-0 start.
The one who would win the Daily News Male Athlete of the Week honors for his performance over the rest of the game, throwing for seven touchdowns and leading the Wolverines to a 54-31 that night.
“I didn’t really let [the interception] get to me,” Wang said. “I knew we should win this game and I can bounce back from it.”
Bouncing back has been a theme for the Wolverines all season. Coming off a disappointing 3-8 campaign, the Wolverines now sit at 5-0 heading into league play.
The Wolverines 2016 season started hot but ended near rock bottom.
The team never fully realized its potential. Led by Wang, then a freshman, the offense averaged a respectable 25 points per game in non-league play, but the defense surrendered nearly as many points to opposing teams. The squad managed to battle its way to a winning record, finishing with a 3-2 record after five games. Despite a 42-21 blowout loss to senior-laden El Camino Real, the Wolverines still averaged 1.6 more points per game than their opponents.
Then came the Angelus League, and the wheels fell off.
On every side of the ball, the Wolverines struggled. A string of blowout losses ended in a 56-0 shutout loss to Cathedral, the eventual league champions. The Wolverines lost, on average, by a hair under three touchdowns per game in league play. Their offensive production dipped to just 14 points per game, while their defense surrendered 50.4 points per game.
Despite a brief struggle against their first-round playoff opponent, Calabasas, and their Nebraska-committed quarterback, Tristan Gebbia, the Wolverines season ended with a 56-28 loss.
“Last year, we were young everywhere,” wide receiver and team captain Cameron Jones ’18 said. “Of course, Jameson was a freshman and our entire line was mostly underclassmen.”
Player experience aside, it was a stark contrast from their 8-4 campaign a season ago. In fact, it was the team’s worst season, record-wise, since Ruggles took over the program in 2012. As the offseason began, Ruggles began making changes on every side of the ball.
“I don’t think anybody enjoys losing,” Ruggles said. “It’s one of those things where it’s sort of black and white. We’ve lost six straight games and we can continue to do what we did last year or we can make some changes.”
On defense and special teams, the squad had struggled to stop opposing offenses and tackle opposing runners. Ruggles added Patrick Cartmill to the staff as defensive coordinator and began to add new defensive looks to the team’s gameplan, adding 3-4 and 4-3 looks to its 3-3 stack base defense to add flexibility. Former Fordham head coach and University of Massachusetts defensive coordinator Tom Masella also joined the coaching staff.
However, turning the program around required not just staff changes, but a commitment to improving from the players, Ruggles said.
“The vibe in the locker room is just different,” Jones said. “I felt it the first week of summer. When we came out, the energy at practice, the freshman were running around. We automatically looked like it clicked right away.”
To condition themselves for the season and help fix the tackling issues last season, the team turned to its morning lift sessions.
“Obviously, I wasn’t around [the previous year] but from what I’ve heard, there were times when two guys would show up to morning lift,” USC-committed offensive tackle Liam Douglass ’18 said. “This year the entire team showed up the entire morning lift period. That’s when we realized that when we put all this hard work in, the coaches are figuring out gameplans for us and now we’ve put ourselves, in terms of strength-wise, in the best position to win.”
On offense, Ruggles returned to play-calling duties following a year of delegating that task.
Emphasizing an up-tempo attack, the Wolverines are averaging 46.2 points per game this season.
Much of the team’s improvement can also be traced back to the stellar play of Wang. With 14 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns in five games this season, Wang is just two scores away from matching last year’s full-season mark of 25 total scores.
Jones’ resurgence has also contributed to the Wolverines offensive revitalization. After recording 859 receiving yards as a sophomore, Jones’ production dipped to 539 yards last season. But with the emergence of Wang and Ruggles’ return to play-calling, he’s recorded 663 yards in just half a season. Jones also leads the team with five interceptions this season.
“I feel like we should be able to win every game and that’s just the mindset you have to have going into games,” Wang said. “I feel like last year it was harder because I was a freshman. I didn’t know the offense 100 percent and I was just going out there to play. But this year, coming in after the 11 games we played last year, I feel like I’m more experienced, like I know how to run the offense better this year. It’s just that I trust my teammates more this year because most of them are returning.”
The adjustments made by the team are apparent not just in its record, but also in the way its achieved such success. The Wolverines have won their first five games of the season, but have done each in a somewhat different way, showcasing different areas of improvement.
The Wolverines were faced with a close, down-to-the-wire contest against Birmingham in the season opener.
Last season, the team lost to Garfield in the final moments of a one touchdown game. After forcing Garfield into a fourth-down situation, the Wolverines were flagged for roughing the kicker, granting the Bulldogs an automatic first down and the chance to run out the clock.
This year, the team narrowly avoided a similar fate when Birmingham blocked Jeremy Yariv’s ’18 game-winning field goal attempt. With the Patriots needing only a single first down to ice the game, Vincent Temesvary ’20 forced Birmingham running back Shane Bennett to fumble on the first play of the series.
The Wolverines took advantage of the turnover and scored on a touchdown strike from Wang to Jones with just over a second left on the clock.
Since then, however, the team has rolled to four strong victories, the closest being an eight point win over Garfield in week four. In week five, the Wolverines dominated El Camino en route to a 62-29 win, avenging last year’s blowout loss.
Along the way, the team has had to make adjustments to its game plan. Since starting Douglass at running back in week one, Ruggles has played him at his natural position of right tackle. Running back Jake Kelly ’20 scored a pair of touchdowns against Jefferson and has seen significant usage since then, starting the past couple of games.
The squad’s upcoming match against Cathedral looks to be important for several reasons; first of all, it will be at homecoming, in front of a large crowd.
Additionally, Cathedral could be the most difficult opponent the Wolverines play all season, having gone undefeated in league play last season.
“Cathedral has all the talent,” Wang said. “They have a lot of good athletes on their team. They embarrased us last year and we have to go out and play our best to try and beat them. They’re a really good team, we do have the players to beat them, we just need to play our best.”