Quarterback was never a natural fit for Andrew Vital. He had to work at it.
Growing up in Coral Springs, Fla. and White Plains, N.Y., the athletic boy bounced around from running back to wide receiver, before settling on the position in eighth grade. Vital admired quarterbacks with mobility -- Michael Vick, Vince Young, Donovan McNabb -- but he still fantasized about tossing the long ball.
“I needed to learn not to be as greedy and not look for the big plays and just gradually get up the field,” Vital said during practice at Abraham Lincoln High School Wednesday afternoon. “But when I was younger, that’s what you want to see. You want the big plays.”
Vital was one of 10 players on the roster two years ago, when Lincoln fell flat during a 1-8 season. The group that includes Ishaq Williams, Wayne Williams and Andrew Justice had the chemistry but, along with Vital, had to put in the work and mature. The 6-foot-1-inch senior reined in his juvenile urge to greedily throw down the field for glory. He has dedicated himself to understanding how to dissect a defense. Now the Railsplitters hold a perfect record and are the No. 1 seed entering Saturday’s playoff match-up against Sheepshead Bay.
“With all the hard work that we’ve been cooking up throughout the years, just staying together even through the losses and the tough times,” Vital said, “we always knew this was going to come as far as getting to 9-0. And we’re going to keep pushing.”
Lincoln coach Shawn O’Connor knew he had a special group of kids coming up through the system two years ago. This season, Vital has brought leadership and maturity to the Railsplitters, and O’Connor said his quarterback isn’t making as many mistakes as he has in the past.
“I know watching him grow as a player and person this year, he’s not forcing the issue,” O’Connor said. “He’s living to play another day.”
Vital is seventh in the PSAL Championship Division with 719 rushing yards, behind teammate Kareem Folkes who is third with 944. Vital and Folkes are the only two in the Top 7 who have accrued that many yards on the ground while playing in eight games instead of nine. Although Vital is only 21-for-42, with 257 passing yards and four touchdowns coming in the air, he’s posted 14 rushing touchdowns this year.
But Vital doesn’t need to be a Peyton Manning on the field. Eighty eight percent of the Railsplitters’ offensive yards have come on the ground. And the formula has worked -- so far.
“Offensively, we can be a little more balanced,” O’Connor admitted. “We haven’t had to throw the ball yet. We’ve thrown it when we’ve been challenged to do it. But I think we have all the pieces possibly to do it.”
There’s another factor taking some of the pressure off of Vital, and it’s what O’Connor calls the heart and soul of the team -- defense.
The Railsplitters have four shutouts, not including a forfeit win against Dewitt Clinton, and the only touchdown they’ve allowed at home came from Port Richmond in the first game of the year.
During its sub-par 2009 season, the defense accrued three fumble recoveries and five interceptions, created no touchdowns, and allowed on average 338 yards per game. This year Lincoln’s defense has 14 fumble recoveries, 13 interceptions and six touchdowns, and the Railsplitters have limited opponents to an average of 164 yards per game.
O’Connor said defensive tackles Wayne Williams and Robert Kitching have stepped up this season. On Oct. 29 against Canarsie, the Chiefs had the ball on the 2-yard line with less than four minutes remaining. Lincoln stopped them in four plays, with Williams and Kitching contributing, and held on to win, 8-0.
According to Vital, the big players on defense are Lincoln’s unsung heroes. But, once again, they won’t make those stops without putting the time in. After rebounding from a disappointing season two years ago to surviving Hell Week -- a sometimes vomit-inducing conditioning week during the summer -- and now being on the verge of playoff football, Vital has witnessed how hard work has paid off. There’s been chemistry, sure, but much like the fluidity of tossing the pigskin around, success doesn’t always come naturally.
“They were a really young team and they stuck with it,” O’Connor reflected. “Last year we won seven games with them, and now we won nine, and now we’re the No. 1 seed.”