WINSLOW TOWNSHIP - Coming up short became the norm for the Winslow Township High School football program.
From 2011 to 2019, the Eagles won a combined 25 games and lost 65. The program qualified for the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs three times during that span and lost on all three occasions.
Then things quickly changed.
In an effort to rediscover their winning ways from a decade ago, Winslow decided to do some time-traveling to get to where they needed to be.
Former Penn State running back Bill Belton joined the staff in 2020 as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, a decade after being named the 2010 Courier-Post Offensive Player of the Year. The 2011 Winslow graduate became the first quarterback in New Jersey to throw for at least 2,000 yards and rush for at least 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. His resume also included rushing for 803 yards and five touchdowns at Penn State in 2013.
Belton’s presence sparked a football renaissance in Atco.
Bill Belton breaking a run against Eastern Michigan in 2013. Kelly Tunney, The Collegian
In his first season wearing a headset, Winslow posted a 5-1 record and finished sixth in the final South Jersey Sports Zone Top 15 poll of the season. The Eagles immediately made a statement with a 15-12 win over Camden to start the 2020 campaign.
“What really sparked that was when Coach Bill Belton came in,” linebacker Emeril Mitchell said. “We used to talk about beating Camden almost everyday. He got that stuck in the back of our heads. We knew we had to go out there and do what we had to do to win that game.”
The victory was followed by convincing shutouts over Seneca and Woodrow Wilson, before defeating a pair of South Jersey Group V opponents (Eastern and Washington Township). The Eagles lone loss was a 34-0 setback to Holy Spirit, the unofficial West Jersey Football League champion, in the West Jersey Football League Bracket A semifinals.
The Eagles’ offensive coordinator witnessed signal-caller Hamas Duren take a significant leap in his second season as the starting quarterback. His development was a huge key to success for Winslow.
Winslow quarterback Hamas Duren. Kevin Emmons/Photojournalist
“I think having an additional year in the offense allowed him to grow,” Belton said. He grew tremendously in that aspect, (for him to know) what we’re looking for read wise, knowing where guys want to be, putting the ball on them at the right time, understanding the protections and just overall getting guys lined up. Mechanic wise, he has improved tremendously.”
All of a sudden the Eagles found themselves among South Jersey’s best.
Winslow decided to keep that momentum going by building on their Penn State connection.
Former Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg joined the coaching staff this past offseason as the quarterbacks coach. Hackenberg started all 38 games he played in in three seasons at Penn State and led the Big Ten in pass completions (270) in 2014. He also threw for 371 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions as the Nittany Lions defeated Boston College 31-30 in the Pinstripe Bowl in 2014. He was later drafted by the New York Jets in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Christian Hackenberg during a game in 2015. Matt Martin/Associated Press
“He came out to a game last year, so I’ve kind of been courting him for a year,” Belton said. “I knew he moved up here so I’m like, ‘alright, let me see what he’s got going on.’ We’ve been getting together and watching tape, stuff like that. He came to the Seneca game last year and was like, ‘Yeah, man. I like what y’all doing.’"
The rest was history.
Hackenberg currently aids with directing the offensive unit during practices and is very vocal beyond the quarterback position. The Penn State alum has been seen guiding wide receivers on how to execute crisper routes along with utilizing improved footwork techniques.
So far, the results of Hackenberg’s instruction have been evident.
“I think Hamas has responded great,” Belton said. “The whole quarterback room has responded great. You got a guy that was at the top of the top in his class coming out of high school, he was the number one quarterback, he went (in the) second round. Anytime you experience those highs at the Division I level and the ‘League’ you see a lot of things (and) learn from a lot of people. I think he brings a lot of experience and knowledge to a young group of kids that allows them to play at a more efficient and higher rate. I’m happy he’s here.”
Having two coaches on a high school level that competed at Penn State is a rarity.
For Duren, it’s a privilege. The assurance and knowledge the pair provides has allowed the senior to perform with increased confidence.
“The trust is definitely there,” Duren said. “They know what they’re talking about. They give you details on everything. Everything sounds genuine and you just want to do what they say. You do what they say and you’re going to succeed.”
Duren will also be provided with a plethora of skill position players including Delsea transfer Trey Simmons, Trey Thorpe and Jacob Mitchell, among others. Duren and Mitchell have established chemistry as both are three-year starters. Simmons rushed for 703 yards and nine touchdowns at Delsea and Thorpe tallied 415 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Both can contribute on the outside and in the secondary, defensively.
The Eagles’ success a season ago also stemmed from a defense that ranked among the best in South Jersey.
“I’ll never forget about last year,” Emeril Mitchell said. “Actually, every Winslow team I’ve been on (growing up) has been a losing team. So last year, I held that high.”
The senior who holds offers from Campbell and Sacred Heart will be the focal point of Winslow’s defense this season. Mitchell emerged as a breakout star last fall and was awarded with All-State and All-South Jersey recognition. As a junior, Mitchell tallied 78 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
“I definitely was very appreciative of finally being recognized for the talent that I had,” Mitchell said. “I feel like I should’ve already been there my sophomore year. But junior year I was just thankful that I finally got the recognition that I deserved.”
Mitchell will be joined in the middle by returning starter Trey Moore and could be aided by Timber Creek transfer Semaj Black. Freshman athlete Cameron Miller already holds offers from Penn State and Temple and will contribute in the secondary going forward.
Winslow should also benefit from an experienced offensive line that features returning starters Darrien Smith, Omari Chambers, Amir Wiley and Axel Martinez. Gloucester Catholic transfer Kevin Thomas, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound right tackle, will add size and grit to an already competent offensive line. Timber Creek transfer Zach Thompson joins the unit, too.
“Those are the guys that we’re counting on to fit the bill this year and continue to take the momentum to where we need to be,” coach Kenny Scott said. “I think we just play with a chip on our shoulder. As far as I’m concerned, last year is in the rearview mirror. We can’t have a hangover from last year because if we come out and lay an egg, it’ll all be a fluke. The reality is we just take it a day at a time. We focus on what we can control. For us, it’s just to win the day and get better every single day.”
Scott, a 2003 Winslow graduate, went on to play free safety at Towson University and graduated in 2007 with a degree in business administration. Scott helped the Eagles make the playoffs in 2001 and 2002 as a member of the team. In 2002, Winslow went 7-4 and lost to Washington Township in the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals.
It’s safe to say that he also knows a thing or two about winning.
For the coaches giving back to their alma mater, it means everything to them to see their students succeed.
After all, there’s no place like home.
“It means a lot,” Belton said. “Everything came full circle. I had other plans for myself and I think God put me here for a reason to help kids. For myself, for Kenny and guys that played here it’s definitely something that we don’t take for granted. We were called to do this.”