LYNN — There was plenty of room for error last fall when the KIPP Academy football team took the field for its inaugural season.
The Panthers jumped into the Commonwealth Athletic Conference with little experience on their roster and they struggled in the early going. But wins in two of their last three games gave KIPP a 3-7 record in 2017 and now they’re looking to take the next step forward.
“Last year I was extremely happy with the way we played,” Panthers coach Jim Rabbitt said. “We had some players with Pop Warner experience but no one had much experience playing a varsity sport. We skipped a step playing JV. I was proud of how our guys did.”
Now that the Panthers know what it’s like to take the field at the varsity level, the expectations are elevated. Rabbitt said the team has shown a desire to improve and continue its progression as a varsity program.
“The overall investment of the kids is great,” Rabbitt said. “We’re refining what we needed to work on in the past. We have 23 returners from last year’s team. The freshmen and sophomores from last year’s team have been through a camp, that helps us. It’s difficult to establish a first-year program. I can’t say enough about the culture our team established last year. We’ve seen that mindset in camp.”
Key returners this season include senior running back/linebacker Tomi Oladunjoye and sophomore offensive/defensive lineman Mike Bryce. A CAC All-Star last fall as a freshman, Bryce will team up with fellow sophomore lineman Dave Filias to form a potent duo up front.
Rabbitt projects KIPP’s offensive and defensive lines to be its strengths.
“Our strength is our offensive and defensive lines,” Rabbitt said. “We’re very big up front in our league. We’re returning most of our offensive linemen. We have a big loss in (2018 graduate) Olivier Pyram but our guys have stepped up to fill that void. Dave and Mike have done a great job stepping up.”
Senior running back/defensive back Alix Pierre-Toussaint will also play a key role this season.
Bryce, Oladunjoye and Pierre-Toussaint were selected to captain the Panthers.
“It’s great to have them on board,” Rabbitt said. “Tomi and Alix were great players for us last year. They came into camp in great shape. Mike’s one of those players you could tell was going to be real special right away as a freshman. He earned captainship last year midway through the season. The team wanted him to be a captain and that speaks volumes.”
Although the Panthers struggled to stay afloat in the CAC in 2017, this year’s team has made it a point to remain competitive in the conference. Given the handful of state tournament mainstays in the conference, that goal won’t be an easy task to reach.
“We set our goals before camp,” Rabbitt said. “We want to compete in every CAC game. We want to win all those games but our goal is to compete. We weren’t able to compete in some of those games last year. We were still getting our feet wet as a first-year team. This year, we’re looking to compete in those games. Our ultimate goal is to make the playoffs and see where it goes from there.”
KIPP’s schedule includes one major change of note. The Panthers will start a new Thanksgiving rivalry with crosstown and CAC opponent Lynn Tech this year. The Tigers and Panthers will battle Nov. 21 (6 p.m.) at Manning Field.
“I can’t speak enough about being involved in the tradition of being a Lynn school playing football,” he said. “Now we’re able to be a part of the only city in the state that has two inner-city Thanksgiving rivalries. That says something special. (Tech) Coach (James) Runner does a great job. My goal every year is to compete with the team across the city. It’s awesome and we’re excited to have an in-town rival on Thanksgiving.”
KIPP opens the season Saturday (12) at Greater Lowell Tech.