Darius Hamilton is supremely confident in the prospects for the powerhouse program at Don Bosco Prep. While most of his teammates strolled onto the field before the Ironmen's late-afternoon practice on Aug. 9, the 6'4", 245-pound defensive tackle skipped, bouncing through the gates of Granatell Stadium, belting out the lyrics to Build Me Up Buttercup. He launched into his finale near midfield, dropping to one knee and thrusting his arms upward.
Hamilton's theatrics were fitting for a center-stage production like Don Bosco's. The team from Ramsey, N.J., has won 35 straight games and 59 of its last 60, including five consecutive Non-Public Group 4 state championships. "We gotta run the table again this year," says Hamilton, the son of veteran Giants defensive tackle Keith Hamilton. "It's a tradition."
The kid might be cocky, but he's not wrong. The Ironmen are the nation's top team in 2011, thanks in large part to a sensational senior class. Four members of Don Bosco's class of '12, including Hamilton, have already been named to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl—the most a single school has ever sent. Yuri Wright (6'2", 180 pounds) is a lockdown cornerback; safety Elijah Shumate (6'1", 205) also plays a little running back; Leonte Carroo (6'1", 205) is a hyperfast, high-flying wideout. Then there's Hamilton, the Ironmen's resident comedian and pass rushing demon, who stampeded his way to 63 tackles and 13½ sacks last season.
"They call us the Fab Four," says Wright. "We wanna go out as one of the best teams Don Bosco has ever had."
The rest of the roster is similarly loaded. Nine starters return from a defense that surrendered just 8.1 points per game in 2010, including sophomore cornerback Jabrill Peppers, who hauled in six interceptions. Senior defensive end Mike Strizak, who committed to Boston College last month, had 12 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Junior defensive end Alquadin Muhammad (6'4", 230) is in line for a big season with defenders set to double- and triple-team Hamilton.
On paper at least this appears to be the best team ever at Don Bosco. That's saying something: Recent alumni include Packers running back Ryan Grant, Bears defensive end Corey Wootton and University of Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms.
Much of the credit for the program's success belongs to coach Greg Toal. Since taking over the team in 1999—nine years after the school's previous state title—he's gone 132--10, and the Ironmen have been to the state championship game in every one of the last nine seasons, winning seven times. Toal won a national title in '09 and has knocked off a raft of the country's top teams, including Alabama's Prattville High in '09 and California's De La Salle High in '08, handing the latter its first home loss since 1984.
Toal's training program is year-round and grueling. His two-a-day sessions begin around 1:30 p.m. and are supplemented by film sessions that keep the players busy for the next nine hours. "Some of our guys come back and say, 'Hey, Coach, Bosco's tougher than college,'" says the 58-year-old Toal. "Our kids are used to being worked hard."
Another undefeated season won't come easy. Last year the Ironmen converted on a crucial fourth-and-inches to beat Bergen Catholic 37--27 in the Group 4 championship. This year they face a grueling out-of-state schedule, with road games against Manatee (Fla.) High and Cleveland's St. Edward High (at West Point, N.Y.), and a home date with Mission Viejo (Calif.) High, all preseason top 100 teams.
Toal also must replace quarterback Gary Nova and tailback Paul Canevari, a duo that combined for more than 3,334 yards and 53 touchdowns last year. Senior Mike Yankovich, a hard-throwing lefty, takes over under center, while Shumate and John Wilkins, a bruising junior, will platoon in the backfield. All three players are largely untested, though their teammates brush off concerns about the inexperience in the backfield.