Emilee Smarr | Source: Palm Beach Post

WEST PALM BEACH — Jack Daniels never has had a losing season in 24 as a head coach.

By the looks of the Crusaders at Cardinal Newman’s fall camp on Wednesday, Daniels’ 25th year on the sidelines won’t be any different.

Cycling through four head coaches since 2018, Cardinal Newman’s worst finish was a 4-4 record in 2020. In the two seasons prior, the Crusaders finished 15-6 under Joe Molina.

Fresh out of retirement after winning 234 games and two state titles at Dwyer, Daniels’ task for rebuilding was less daunting compared with those inherited by other coaches.

Daniels returned the Crusaders to the region finals for the first time in 22 years last season.

After Class 3A powerhouse Chaminade-Madonna dropped an injured Newman 48-0, Daniels said the Crusaders “weren’t ready” for Chaminade, calling them “overmatched.”

A little less than a year later, Newman is singing a different tune.

“At times last year, we disappeared, and we’ve been working really hard on this,” Daniels said. “We have competition session at the beginning of practice and one at the end — just getting guys to compete to the best of their ability every day.”

Cardinal Newman coach Jack Daniels gets doused by Cole Dillon (22) and Brady Shea (68) after beating St. Andrew’s 41-6 in the 3A regional playoff fame in West Palm Beach on Nov. 12, 2021. It was coach Daniels’ first playoff win as the head coach of Cardinal Newman. Greg Lovett, The Palm Beach Post

Fit for champions

Even with metro/suburban reclassifications, Newman will likely still be battling Chaminade-Madonna to get to the Class 1M state semifinals should they make a repeat run to regionals.

“Going in there last year, people were nervous because it’s Chaminade,” senior Chris Presto said. “We just weren’t executing that game. They were calling out some of our plays before we ran them. People were all beat up throughout the season.”

“I think this year we know what we have to do,” Presto said.

Cardinal Newman’s Chris Presto dives for a pass against King’s Academy in West Palm Beach on Aug/ 27, 2021. Greg Lovett, The Palm Beach Post

The plot thickens with the added factor of districts, which haven’t had an impact on small schools since 2017.

Grouped with SLAM! and Benjamin in District 5, the Crusaders already are sizing up their Week 3 meeting with the Bucs — a likely championship matchup that’ll guarantee an early ticket to the postseason — and a potential postseason rematch.

When the rivals faced off last September, the Bucs outlasted the Crusaders 17-7 with Benjamin’s Tyler Aronson faring better than Newman’s Davi Belfort in a matchup of quarterbacks no longer with each program.

This year, the Crusaders will be led by dual-threat senior quarterback Luke Warnock, billed at 6-foot by 247Sports. Newman is confident its growth in the trenches — from physical dominance to depth — will be a “critical difference” in chasing titles.

“I think we’ve made great strides and I’m very excited about our d-line,” Daniels said, adding it stands about 2 inches taller than last season’s.

“I think we have a chance to be really good with Maverick [Gracio], Steven [Curtis], Tommy Sledge, Sebastian [Scott] and Ta’narie [Locust] — so that’s exciting,” Daniels said.

Newman brings back at least two of the county’s biggest threats on the edge: Super 11 stud Gracio, standing at 6-5, 215 pounds, and the 6-5, 230-pound Curtis.

Currently listed at 6-3, 355, a healthy Sebastian Scott also resurfaces at tackle after being benched by injury to just five games in 2021, down approximately 50 pounds from last season and looking “dominant,” Daniels said.

“Ta’narie came from [Palm Beach] Lakes and he’s explosive. So our front’s really good where we lost all three of our inside linebackers last year,” Daniels said.

Last season, Newman graduated eight, notably athlete Ja’Kavian Williams, kicker Andrew MacMillan, and those inside linebackers, Dom Fusca, Danny Kleisley and Aidan Barr. The current roster has 13 Crusaders returning for their senior season, the majority able to be heavily credited with Newman’s deepest playoff run in decades.

“We have a lot of good players on defense,” Daniels said. Offensively, you’re always a little bit behind this time of year — but our quarterback can throw the ball as good as anybody in the state, and I really believe he’s that good, so we have a lot of good pieces.”

Highly touted transfers

Warnock’s transfer from Cardinal Gibbons and Locust’s move from Lakes weren’t the only offseason additions for Newman.

Kristian Strong and Naeshaun Montgomery joined Daniels’ program in the offseason and are poised to be a factor in 2022.

Strong stands at 6-4.5, weighing 225, making for a shifty two-way build, boasting a 4.75 40-yard dash record. On St. Thomas Aquinas’ 14-1 run to state in 2021, Strong posted three tackles in four games, showing potential as a pass rusher, and scored a touchdown in two games at tight end.

Daniels expects a good senior year for the under-the-radar Strong, whose recruitment and stats are likely to see a boost as he becomes a regular cast member for the Crusaders this season.

Montgomery brought two offers to Maryland and the University of Southern California from his last stop at Bishop Hendricken in Rhode Island.

Montgomery backed up the transfer buzz almost immediately at the University of Miami’s prospect camp in June.

He recalled the day “starting off slow,” missing catches in coverage and thinking “the whole day was going to go downhill.”

The same day, Montgomery won camp MVP and an immediate offer from the Hurricanes.

That was the first day Daniels and his staff saw Montgomery in man-on-man action.

“All of our coaches were like, ‘Holy crap. What did we get here?'” Daniels said. “His ball skills are incredible, route running — he’s going to be special.”

Seniors shifting roles for last crusade

Montgomery’s performance in 2022, along with the secondary which relies heavily on juniors Kevin Levy, ESPN Jr. Top 300 player Josh Philostin and Dallas Desouza, will be a test of the young Crusaders’ ability to carry on the culture set by Newman’s outgoing seniors.

Despite a 2021 season highlighted by his stats at receiver, averaging 14.3 yards per catch — long of 66 — for two touchdowns, Presto’s roles could be changing.

“I’m playing receiver, tight end, linebacker, safety — anywhere they put me,” Presto said.

After a breakout junior year on defense with 55 tackles, two interceptions and four pass breakups, Vinkevus Pierre will also be shifting responsibilities and taking a more active role on offense with the exit of Tovani Mizell to DeMatha High in Maryland.

Daniels just isn’t sure which the 6-1, 195-pound Pierre will have more of this season: catches, carries or tackles.

Cardinal Newman sophomore Vinkevus “Vinny” Pierre fights through would-be tacklers on a powerful run during Friday night’s win against Belen Jesuit. Chet Peterman, Special To The Post

“At receiver, he catches the ball great. We’ve actually got him taking reps at tailback, too. He can do anything on both sides of the ball,” Daniels said, comparing Pierre to 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuels.

Dominating the offense opposite Pierre will be Henry Bennett, who came second on the stat sheet with 798 all-purpose yards — 666 rushing — last season behind Mizell.

“We obviously lost some key pieces so people think that we’re going to go down, but we used that as motivation to do better this year,” Presto said. “We’re gonna be all right. … We’ve got states in mind this year.”

Emilee Smarr covers high school sports for The Palm Beach Post. She can be reached at esmarr@gannett.com.