Louis Mathurin of the Half Hollow East football team catches...

Louis Mathurin of the Half Hollow East football team catches a pass during practice on Aug. 23, 2021. Credit: David L. Pokress/David L. Pokress

Aspirations of contending for and winning a championship have been circulating around most high school football practices across Long Island the past two weeks. At Half Hollow Hills East, even using the word ‘championship’ is forbidden.

This was the first rule instituted by first-year coach Alex Marcelin when he took over the program and began shaping a new culture for the program.

So there won’t be any talk about the Thunderbirds winning a title at Hills East, even though that thought will linger among their Suffolk Division II rivals. They all know the T-Birds’ roster is laden with highly-talented returners including athletic senior defensive back/receiver Louis Mathurin, 265-pound senior two-way lineman Konadu (Tiny) Boadu and physical 6-4 senior linebacker Elias Barrett.

"We don’t use the word ‘championship’ because we haven’t won one," Marcelin said. "The only way we’re going to reach our potential is by being fundamentally sound, resourceful and disciplined about doing all the little things."

"If we do what we are supposed to do every single day – build a program and not just a team – everything else will fall into place," senior quarterback Jacob Robinson said.

It has been two steps up and one back in Hills East’s slow ascent over the past decade. The Thunderbirds have gone from annual also-ran to postseason regular. They were a county semifinalist in two of the past four seasons, including this past one.

When head coach Mike Maratto left for Eastport-South Manor, Hills East athletic director Deb Ferry sought someone who could take the Thunderbirds up the last rungs of the ladder. The 32-year-old Marcelin, an assistant under Maratto, stood out among a bevy of good candidates.

"Beyond his love of football, he has a passion for kids," Ferry said. "He understands that he is also a role model, a counselor and sometimes a parental figure. From his work here we already knew he was top-notch on X’s and O’s. He’s put together a great coaching staff and the kids have really embraced him and his style. You don’t see 60 kids going to 6 a.m. workouts every day for just anyone."

"We love and respect him like an older brother and you always want to go with your older brother," Boadu said. "I know he is the guy to take us the final step."

Marcelin is one of nine Black football coaches in the public school ranks on Long Island.

He was a two-way football player at Half Hollow Hills West and played defensive end for NAIA Bethany College. After a brief pursuit of professional football opportunities, he turned toward coaching.

"Of course we are all about this season, but I envision something beyond," Marcelin said. "I want a football culture that athletes want to be a part of, where the coaches believe in helping them be all they can. We want to be known for football in Suffolk and across Long Island."

As to what the Thunderbirds will play like under Marcelin – and they will literally be under him as he calls plays from a perch above the stadium to offensive coordinator Brian Hanover and defensive coordinator John Ruggerio – it will be a little unpredictable. He said that with so many versatile athletes – joining Mathurin and Robinson at skill positions are junior receiver Morgan Talifiero and senior receiver Kris Tillis – that "design is key" and he will blend several offensive schemes.

From left, Louis Mathurin, Jacob Robinson, Konadu Boadu, head coach...

From left, Louis Mathurin, Jacob Robinson, Konadu Boadu, head coach Alex Marcelin, Elias Barrett and Josh Isaacs of the Half Hollow East football on Aug. 23. Credit: David L. Pokress/David L. Pokress

"New coaches bring new eyes to see things differently and we are going to be way more versatile," said Mathurin, who could play a number of positions when the T-Birds have the ball. "You won’t see many things twice when we have the ball. And teams will have trouble adjusting. The players love the new style."

Added Robinson: "we have playmakers and new philosophies about how to use them."

The versatility theme is there on defense, too. The broadly muscled Boadu is expected to lineup at nose tackle, but could move be tactically moved to either defensive end spot.

"I can confuse a defense," said Boadu, who is garnering Division I interest. "You have to game-plan for me. When they see me somewhere other than nose tackle, they’re going to have to change some things up."

Barrett heads a linebacking group that includes 245-pound junior Josh Isaacs and aggressive sophomore Anthony Sofia. Isaacs explained that the defensive unit also can take many shapes.

"We can change defenses on the fly based on what we see at the line," he said, "and that’s because everyone has come to trust each other to do whatever is asked."

The Thunderbirds actually won their division during the truncated season before dropping its county semifinal game in the truncated spring season. And while much is changing under Marcelin, the Hills East players have seen how close they can get to the ultimate prize and have bought in to do what the new coach believes it will take to get it.

"Under [Marcelin] everyone has come to a single mindset – it’s about winning the day every day," Barrett said. "We’re going to be able to do it because of the bond between the coaches and players [formed] in all our offseason work. They will do anything for us and we will do anything for them. It’s how a team should be."

“The only way we’re going to reach our potential is by being fundamentally sound, resourceful and disciplined about doing all the little things.”

— Coach Alex Marcelin

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