UPPER MERION — The last few years have not been kind to the Upper Merion Vikings. Consecutive winless seasons from 2010 to 2012 marked the low point of the program in recent memory, but this Vikings team is showing short-term memory loss and moving forward with conviction.
"Right now we don't think about last year, we're just trying to get better for now and worry about this year and what we have ahead of us,' said Vikings' coach Harold Smith after Thursday afternoon's game, a 32-20 win over Olney.
At the heart of the resurgence of the gridiron Vikings is a player who has ascended from merely sharing the load to putting the whole team on his back. Senior Jequan Mitchell is running over all the competition and currently leads the Suburban One American League in rushing.
"I want to put my team in the best [situation] to win and just get everyone in a good spirit,' Mitchell said. "Even when I wasn't a team captain I always tried to keep our team up, and now I'm just trying to do as much as I can.'
As much as he can translates to the lion's share of the work. On Thursday, Mitchell rushed for 299 yards — topping his season total to that point of 272 — and scored a touchdown to all but seal the Vikings' 32-20 victory, which put Upper Merion football over the .500 mark for the first time since beating Cheltenham on October 9, 2009. Years have passed and players have come and gone without ever experiencing the taste of victory. However, two wins last season — including a season-ending win over Owen J. Roberts — have given the Vikings new fight.
"All offseason we focused as if no one was going to work as hard as us,' Mitchell said. "We picked each other up and told each other that it was all going to be worth it.'
However, sitting pretty at 2-1 isn't the extent of the success Upper Merion aims to achieve this season however. From the moment the offseason began, Mitchell and company were right back to work.The first game of the season, a 20-0 loss to Penncrest, found Mitchell carrying the ball 13 times for a total of 69 yards. However, the two games since — both victories — have seen Mitchell taking more snaps and stacking up yards for the Vikings both home and away.
"This year we're trying to make it as far as we can and it feels good, it's motivation going into next week,' Mitchell said. "We feel like nothing can stop us, we can only stop ourselves.'
In the two victories, Mitchell has accumulated 502 yards in 62 carries for three touchdowns. He's averaging nearly 8.1 yards per carry in those two games, and as previously mentioned the Vikings have two wins in the book. In addition, he's all over the SOL American league leaderboards, more than doubling the amount of yards of the runner-up, Plymouth Whitemarsh's Jose Mora-Vega.
"Coach [Smith] told me that I'm the leader on the team,' Mitchell said. "People look up to me, whether they're on the team or up in the bleachers, I can't be the person who puts their head down.'
Mitchell committed two faux pas in the game against Olney came on two second-half fumbles during an Olney comeback, which had been cutting, into the Viking's 26-0 lead. He had received a punt and flipped an errant lateral to a player who wasn't there, turning the ball over in his own territory. Later, on a breakaway touchdown run with no man between he and the endzone, Mitchell squeezed the ball a little too hard and it slipped free of his grip and into the hands of an Olney defenseman.
"He thought he let his teammates down by fumbling the ball,' Smith said. "He's a good kid, a hard worker, but he gets down on himself and that's why we gave him the ball back and he had a hell of a run afterwards.'
Laying on the ground in distress after the turnover, Coach Smith grabbed his arm and hoisted him off the ground and sent him right back out.
"I was so focused on myself fumbling that ball, I forgot about the defense,' Mitchell said.
The Vikings defense forced an Olney turnover on the first play from scrimmage and the Vikings recovered deep in enemy territory. Mitchell scored his first touchdown of the game on 23-yard run to put the lid on it. "He has to understand that he's a good football player,' Smith said. "He's going to make mistakes, but he's just got to pick his head up and just get after it again.'