Somerville, Whitaker Rolling

By Tom Szieber
Posted:  Tuesday, September 4, 2018   2:30 pm

Somerville football was, quite frankly, in shambles before Jeff Vanderbeek arrived in 2015. A co-head coach in 2015, the former New Jersey Devils owner assumed sole control of the Pioneers the next season and was tasked with turning around a program that had gone 4-36 over the previous four years.

Two seasons later, they had become Central, Group 3 champions, going 21-2 between 2016 and 2017 in what was been one of the more remarkable program turnarounds in recent memory. But when Vanderbeek resigned in July, the natural question was whether Somerville could maintain the progress it had made under his watch.

So far -- just a game into the Dallas Whitaker era -- so good.

Led by senior QB Jahlahn Dabney, Somerville looks like it has what it takes to be the same as offensive powerhouse as a year ago. That isn’t too much of a shock, given that Whitaker was the offensive coordinator under Vanderbeek the last two years.

“I think that the transition went about as smoothly as possible,” said Whitaker. “And offensively, I kind of developed a system that is kind of an air raid -- like a spread predicated around throwing the ball. A lot is revolves around the quarterback, and we have a very good one.”

Indeed, Dabney is a big play waiting to happen, as demonstrated by the 233 yards passing and the five scores (four in the air, one on the ground) he had in a season-opening shellacking of Delbarton. At 6’1” and 205 pounds, he is a dual threat type that generated 33 total touchdowns a year ago.

“He is the best athlete on the field most of the time,” Whitaker said. “He is an elite competitor, and he is going to do everything he can to be a winner in anything he does. That is really why he shows up and makes so many big plays.”

Yet, Somerville’s greatest attribute may actually be its grittiness on defense. For all their success, the Pioneers did have some defensive lapses during its 2017 title run, but seem stingier and more punishing a game into 2018. That is, largely, due to players like strong safety Duke McDuffie and strong side linebacker Joseph Ciempola, both seniors.

In the 35-7 triumph over the Green Wave, the two combined for 12 tackles (two for losses, with McDuffie adding a sack and a pick.

The Pioneers’ next challenge will be to avenge their lone loss from last year against Rahway. And while any team is beatable on any given weekend, a Pioneer loss certainly wouldn’t be due to any return to its pre-Vanderbeek-era struggles. Whitaker looks ready and able to continue steering the Somerville ship toward at 13th sectional championship, holding himself to the same standard to which he holds his players.

“I think that any competitor that wants to be the best will hold themselves to a high standard,” he said. “If you are going to compete at the highest level there is going to be pressure. Losing is not okay at Somerville and I [embrace that mentality].”

Tom Szieber can be reached by emailing