Resilient Winners: Lenape overcomes shutdowns to reach championship game

A Q&A with seniors Hamza Bruce and Luke Cole, key components of a sterling senior class at Lenape that's strong on talent and toughness and leaving a proud legacy, too.

A perfect imperfect season? Despite two COVID-19 shutdowns during a season that’s lasted less than two months, senior-laden Lenape High School football was undefeated heading into tonight’s game at Holy Spirit in a matchup for South Jersey supremacy. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

When COVID-19 arrived in March, it brought with it a constant storm of uncertainty that has continued to swarm around the sports scene, even with high-school athletics having returned two months ago. 

Lenape High School football knows this about as well as any team in South Jersey. The Indians’ season wasn’t shut down once but twice, including a week before its season opener and two days before a much anticipated game with rival Cherokee.

And yet, undefeated Lenape has persevered.

On Wednesday, two days before the Indians squared off with Holy Spirit (tonight’s game will unofficially declare the area’s top team in 2020), Lenape seniors Hamza Bruce, the team’s leading rusher, and Luke Cole, the Indians’ leading tackler, spoke to South Jersey Sports Weekly.  

South Jersey Sports Weekly: How would you begin to describe the last two months? 

Hamza Bruce: It’s been an up and down kind of thing. One moment we’re having the time of our lives, playing the football season of our lives … and then there are other times where we’re getting shut down, and it’s heartbreaking. But at the same time, we have to fight back, knowing that the season isn’t over. 

Luke Cole: This season, we kind of took our season for granted, because half the time we didn’t know if we were going to come back or not. So every moment we’re here practicing as a team, we cherish that moment.

SJSW: And with all of the shutdowns, I’m stuck by your team’s resilience. What do you credit for being able to keep your heads up?

Bruce: We’ve faced a lot of adversity over the last two years. We know no one is on our side and no one has our back besides us. So if we have another chance to play, we’re going to make the best of it and show the state who Lenape really is.

Cole: I think it falls a lot on our seniors, especially since there are so many of them: There are about 20 of us. So we know it’s our last year and this is our last chance to do it, so we have to do everything perfect, even if the coaches aren’t there and even when we’re shut down. So we just make the most of every moment.

SJSW: The Cherokee rivalry is real. I like how you all referred to them as “the Orange team.” What does that rivalry mean to you?

Bruce: It’s like, we hate them but we love them at the same time because they’re kids from just across town, we’re friends with them. But when it comes to ‘Chiefs Week,’ we hate them. We don’t even declare them as Cherokee, we call them ‘the orange school.’

Cole: We’ve been playing with these kids since we’ve been 6-7 years old, so we know all of them. And as soon as that week comes around, it’s not Cherokee, it’s “the orange team.” It’s just one of those rivalries you never get back. It’s one of the most significant rivalries we’d had in our lifetime and probably the most competitive one.

SJSW: And you can now graduate and say you’ve never lost to them.

Bruce: Yeah, that’s always one of our main goals: not to lose to Cherokee. 

Although COVID shut its season down twice, Lenape football, led by a class of two dozen seniors including leader rusher Hamza Bruce and leading tackler Luke Cole, is undefeated heading into tonight’s championship game at Holy Spirit. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: Dylan Shank’s overtime field goal (to give Lenape a thrilling 31-38 win over Cherokee on Sunday) was all the talk after the game. Be honest — when he lined up for a 48-yard field goal, what were you thinking?

Cole: I was on it. And, honestly, when you’re on the field, you don’t realize how far 48 yards is. And then when you turn around and watch the film, you’re like, “Holy crap!” But I have a lot of trust in him. I’ve seen him kick 55-yarders and 56-yarders (in practice), so it’s nothing we haven’t seen. It’s just a matter of him doing his thing and not letting the crowd get in the way.

Bruce: I knew he had it in him. We practice every single day and have him kick field goals every single day. Every day before the game, he’s kicking field goals, then moves 10 to 15 yards back, kicks more. We have him kicking three from 50 yards out, telling coach how he feels. It’s just really about trusting him, and I trust him a lot. 

SJSW: Did you guys celebrate?

Cole: I went straight to bed.

SJSW: [Laughs]. Who would you consider the toughest player on the team?

Bruce: I think (nods at Cole) that he’s the toughest player, honestly. I remember a specific moment last year when Luke, who gets a lot of migraines, we were playing our last game (of the season), and we were coming off a loss to Williamstown, and this guy doesn’t want to go out on a bad note. On fourth down, he’s like, “Hamza, go get the play call, I’ve got a migraine and I can’t see coach.” I call the play and Shawnee says go, and Luke dives into the hole on 4th and 1 and stops them.

Cole: I have two or three players in mind. Obviously Hamza, because he’s one of these guys that never gives up on the play. … Another one is Brady Long, especially in the Cherokee game; he’s not the biggest quarterback, but he’s mobile. He keeps plays alive, like on that fourth-quarter play, diving into the end zone even with three Cherokee players in his way. That shows the type of player he is. And the other is Ty Davis. He battled leg injuries all last year and he never missed a game and was always there with the team. … We play for each other.

SJSW: Who has the best hands?

Bruce: I’ve got two players: Braydon Dixon and Nick Galaida. Braydon isn’t the fastest kid. You look at him and you’re like, “Gosh, he’s slow.”

SJSW: [Laughs].

Bruce: But when he’s open, it’s a guaranteed catch. And Nick Galaida, we put him on the hands’ team. He’ll get onside kicks; he’s a long guy with big hands and can grab it very well.

SJSW: How about the quickest player?

Bruce: Definitely X (Xavier Coleman). Definitely. I don’t know how he does it, but he has it in his motor where he’s looking at you one second and then after those first two steps, he’s at full speed down the field. 

SJSW: How about smartest?

Cole: Smartest football IQ or smartest in general?

SJSW: Both.

Cole: IQ, I’d probably say me, Hamza and Ty. In school, I’d probably say Logan Brown, our long snapper. 

SJSW: Since this team is so senior heavy, who are you looking to next year to keep this going, to be a leader, after you’re all gone?

Bruce: That’s the thing — even after we graduate we’ll always come back to watch the kids we played with. Kobi-Ray Reed is an electrifying player on both sides of the ball, he can hit hard and run very fast, he’s powerful. And he gets pumped easy and gets mad easy, so I’m looking forward to seeing him lead next year.

Cole: (Reed), Braydon Dixon and Ethan Poludniak. And they’re going to have a pretty decent line back, our center Kevin Langlois back, they got a few juniors who are the next guys in and are ready to play. 

SJSW: Two years ago you guys were 5-6. And now you’re one win away from what would make you the best team in South Jersey. What do you credit that to?

Bruce: It’s just hard work. Like I said about playing Cherokee, we’ve all been playing together since we were young and we’re not really accustomed to losing. When we came in our freshman year the team went 10-0. And with just the kids in our grade, in Mt. Laurel, no new kids coming in, it’s all hard work and preparation. We like to get after it. We like challenging one another, we like to keep going and going at practice. So it’s just hard work.

Cole: Especially in the offseason, too. We went 5-6 (in 2018), but we were a young team with a lot of sophomores. We got back into that weight room (that summer) and everyone committed to the weight room. So definitely the strength part that comes along with age and preparation. And getting the IQ of the game as young players. Now that we’re juniors and seniors, we have it on lock down.

SJSW: What are you going to miss most about high school football?

Bruce: The brotherhood really. You know? Hanging out with each other. We’re all going to be away at college. Hopefully most of us don’t grow apart, but it’s just the brotherhood of it. We argue all the time and yell at each other, but at the end of the day we love each other. And when it comes to us, no one is over us.

Cole: Probably that Friday, midday locker-room feel. Even though we don’t have it this year, just looking back at last year and sophomore year, we’re all in our seats and we have the music bumping. You’re next to your brothers and you start feeling the atmosphere that we give off, especially last year being undefeated. That’s one thing I’ll miss: being with your family.