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HAMMONTON –  Dennis Thomas sent his messages before, in the middle of and after Saturday’s 34-6 loss to St. Joseph.

“I can’t afford to watch mediocrity,” Millville High School’s fourth-year coach said. 

He made that clear when he strapped a handful of Thunderbolts to the pine after they missed practice last week. Those left on the field battled.

Wildcats’ star Jada Byers – and the tremendous offensive line that cleared his lanes – simply ran away with three second-half scores.

More: Jada Byers stars again as No. 1 St. Joe rolls

At this point, Millville’s 0-2 with a cumulative count of 69-12 against it.

Fret not. The two losses came to two excellent parochial schools with power-point bonuses abound. Even with no wins, Thomas’ crew likely holds the top spot in South Jersey Group 4 ranks.

That’s a pair of setbacks with no tangible downside. Now, it’s on to the regular foes. The Thunderbolts play public schools the rest of the way and should be outright favorites in three of those contests.

Just don’t tell Thomas smoother waters are ahead.

“No, it’s not all downhill. It’s all uphill,” he said. “We’re in the basement now, even though we’re No. 1 in Group 4 because of the guys we played.

“We’re looking up trying to find some light. Hopefully we can find it in Williamstown but right now, we’re down.”

The Braves host the Thunderbolts next Friday at 7 p.m. They’re 2-0. Outside of a fake punt and Hail Mary in Saturday night’s 17-6 win at Rancocas Valley, the defense allowed 78 yards.

More: No. 3 Williamstown's defense dominates in big win

Millville’s got talent to play behind size up front. There’s potential there. The team should be in the postseason and a dangerous out in a pool that’s lighter than what the Holly City’s used to in Group 5.

CLOSE

St. Joseph picked up their second win of the season topping Millville 34-6 in Hammonton on Saturday, September 8. Adam Monacelli, Vineland Daily Journal

Still, Thomas doesn’t know what it’s like to rest on laurels. He got in the ears of most of his roster Saturday.

Afterward, demands were made. Shape up or ship out.

Somewhere down the road, this 0-2 start might not matter at all. Power points and lessons were learned and the real season begins now.

“Absolutely,” Thomas said when asked if his program can benefit from his punishment. “And that’s the message that it’s going to be for the duration of the season: You miss practice, you’re not playing. You miss practice, you’re done for the year.

“That’s what it’s going to be from here on out.”

It stands to reason the absences will halt soon with the promise of better days ahead. If not, that’s a calculated risk Thomas makes. He’s got a sectional championship and successful record – 27-10 – to lend credence to his methods.

Millville can decide what it wants to be. The coach went out and got that St. Peter’s Prep opener to boost long-term status. He’s now offered some discipline and tough love.

Thomas sent his edict. 

Show up. Improve. Take it seriously. Or, go home.

It’s up to his players now.

Mark Trible: @Mtrible; (856) 486-2424; mtrible@gannettnj.com 

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