There is little to suggest that Half Hollow Hills West has any chance at repeating as Long Island’s Class III football champion. A whopping 18 starters are being replaced. The entire coaching staff is new. And, with them, come new offensive and defensive systems that have to be installed.
The Colts, however, have reason to believe and none is bigger than the return of running back Justin Brown.
Don’t hold back on the bombast when describing the hummingbird-quick Brown. He beats defenses to the outside and spent most of last season leaving defenders in his dust en route to the end zone. The 6-foot, 180-pound senior rushed for 1,365 yards and 17 touchdowns and was tabbed as a Newsday All-Long Island first-teamer and earned the Suffolk coaches' Cipp Award as the county's top running back.
“His foot speed is exceptional — on another level,” said Hills West first-year coach Gerald Filardi. “No one on Long Island can hit the edge at the speed he hits it and when they actually manage contact, his toughness is remarkable.”
“To defend against Justin you cannot take a bad angle,” senior offensive lineman/middle linebacker Joey Venezia said. “If you take the bad angle on him, he’s gone.”
Filardi replaces long time coach Kyle Madden, who left the Hills West program soon after the Colts downed Plainedge, 34-6, in the LIC at Hofstra in November.
Hills West finished 11-1 and brings back a few key players that fleshes out their reason to believe a repeat is possible.
Venezia, at 5-11 and 220, is a passionate leader and the consummate two-way player. He had 73 tackles last year, and fullback DaKim Griffin called him “the ultimate guy to run behind.” Eliot Porter, a 5-11, 175-pound senior, is a do-it-all wide receiver and had 49 tackles and five interceptions last season. Griffin is the Mr. Inside to Brown’s Mr. Outside in the Hills West Wing-T offense. He ran for 938 yards and eight touchdowns because, despite standing 5-5 and 165 pounds, Griffin has what Filardi called "a relentless motor" to run between the tackles.
“Could I use my speed? Of course, but I like to get dirty,” said Griffin, brandishing some of the swagger that makes the sophomore someone with a bright future for seasons to come. “Justin should use his speed. He needs [a foil] and that’s me.”
Brown makes for an interesting study. He’s been exceptional at every level. His mother, Lisa Brown, said “he was 5 and was carrying other [defensive] players into the end zone on his touchdowns. And as he got older, you could see there were kids [on other teams] that didn’t want the ball because he was fierce when he tackled them.”
Much of that is because football is part of a cornerstone Brown grew up on. Jerry Brown, his dad, starred as a running back at Hills West and was ardently pursued by Penn State. Jerry Brown, who recently retired as a captain in the New York Corrections Department, said that his grades prevented him from matriculating. Nevertheless, there remains a connection to the Nittany Lions.
And that connection is embellished by Filardi’s association to the school. He went to Penn State, started as a walk-on, earned some all-conference honors and signed with, among others, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Brown accepted a scholarship to play lacrosse at Michigan when he was in the eighth grade and that likely remains his destination. Recently football programs —Stony Brook, Syracuse, Connecticut and Boston College, among others – are offering or suggesting scholarships.
Could the paradigm change? His mother says not unless a better academic school arrives on the scene. But both Jerry and Lisa explain that an offer from Penn State could alter the landscape. “He was always wearing Penn State [gear] and it was his dream, so no doors are closed though they’d have to be [pried] open.”
As a youngster, Brown was in the backyard with his dad, fighting off tackling dummies to learn all the cuts he uses today. And for the past several years he’s had a morning routine that includes quickness drills — jumping rope and cones — before he gets ready for school.
However there is so much more to Brown than just the football pedigree and the lacrosse he excels at in the spring season.
Brown said one of the driving forces in the coming season is the memory of his aunt, Rosemary English, who was a teacher at a middle school in Wyandanch. The two formed a deep connection in his formative years — she tutored him, came to all his games and treated him as a son — and 12 years after her sudden death following a heart attack, her influence remains. He remembers her — etches ‘Rose’ onto one of his wristbands — before every game.
“She always told him he was No. 1,” said Jerry Brown, Rosemary’s younger brother. “Since she passed, he has always worn the No. 1.”
Family means a lot to Justin Brown. If you could stop him after a game and strip off his cleats, his mother said, more often than not you will find a note from his 9-year-old brother Jarrett offering homage.
Looking to this season, the Colts have been given a reason for grievance. They are the No. 4 seed in Suffolk III. Ahead of them are Westhampton, Sayville and East Islip.
“I say ‘Why?’ How is this possible?” Griffin said.
Said Porter: "'Shock' is the word I use. We’re fourth best?”
Brown — and Venezia, Porter and Griffin — understand it’s on them to make the Colts into a contender once again.
“It’s on us to get the chemistry . . . we have the talent to win,” Brown said. “The new guys are hungry like we are. . . . We get it done. We all have to get it done."