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By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
MILLVILLE and SALEM – The Millville High School Thunderbolts and the Salem High School Rams proved to be a ray of sunshine for their communities this past weekend with both bringing home NJSIAA regional football titles, but they mean so much more.
Millville's head coach Dennis Thomas and Salem coach Montrey Wright are not only friends, former colleagues, but personally know how such success means to their South Jersey communities, particularly among African Americans.
Both have played critical roles in lifting their programs. In Millville's 45-35 victory over Winslow Township, it was Thomas's second Group 4 regional title in seven years. In Salem's 34-8 win over Woodbury in the Group 1 title game, it was Salem's first title since 1983.
Thomas, a Salem native, brought the Rams' program back from an 0-10 program to a regular playoff contender when he left for Millville in 2015. A Salem native as well, Wright, who served under Thomas as his run game coordinator, took his place and kept Salem's new tradition going to its own title in November.
Both are positive role models for their players, which both consist overwhelmingly of Black youth. In that, both coaches said they hope they have set examples that all of their players can follow and find their own path to success.
"The dynamics of our team is that about 90% to 95% of my players look like me," Thomas told Front Runner New Jersey. "They understand me and where I'm coming from and I understand them. In the game of football, there are a lot of life lessons being taught each contest.
"We started with a lot of success in our game and then we had to overcome some adversity. When your family faces adversity, it doesn't mean you stop taking care of them. It means you work harder and deal with what you're facing and take care of it. That's what we did in that game and throughout the season and I hope that continues to resonate with them," he added.
Growing up in Salem and turning as a coach, Wright said he knew what a regional title would mean for the city, which is 60% black with its population dropping to half of what it was in the 1960s.
"It means a lot," Wright said to FRNJ. "The younger kids look up to us. And they see us in the community a lot, on a daily basis. They know everything we do is about hard work to produce a product. So it definitely was a big deal for us to win the title. And for me being from Salem, and the first black head coach to win a championship, it was definitely huge."
Thomas said he was thrilled to see Wright and his alma mater bring home a regional title the same weekend but he has found a home in Millville.
"I enjoyed Millville a lot," Thomas said. "The kids here are great. I think wherever you go, the kids are going to be great. A lot of the community received me with open arms but some didn't. That's okay. For the most part, things are going extremely well. My administrators have been phenomenal. They want me to succeed and they're going to do all they can to make sure that that happens."
Wright worked through the season with a heavy heart after losing his mother. He credited Thomas, Salem athletic director Darryl Roberts, his staff and his players with getting him through.
"[Thomas] has always been a good friend and a brother to me," Wright said. "Even in my situation losing my mom, he was there to support me, along with others. I couldn't ask for anything more.
"Just coming into work every day coaching and practice every day, I wear my emotions on my sleeve because the kids look up to me and I had to continue to be that guy that they need. So it was definitely one of the toughest tasks in my life. But I knew she was with me every step of the way. The kids was the kids and a big support as well. They have my back day in and day out. So just knowing that they have my back and knowing that they were working hard to accomplish something for my mother was huge," Wright said.
Thomas said while football is a game, he hopes the players take away from it something much more.
"I like them to know in order to be successful, whether in football or in life, you got to work hard and find a way to win," Thomas said. "That's what we showed them."
Thomas and Wright showed their players how to perform at the highest level on the biggest stage possible in New Jersey high school football. Those memories will last a lifetime.
***Feature photo by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography.
QUESTION: Will Millville and Salem repeat at regional champions in 2022? Why or why not? Add your comment in the discussion section on this page.
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