Woupes, Banks, O’Sullivan give Gaels fighting chance
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When they were little kids, just learning about the sport of football, Kevin Woupes, Keon Banks and Evan O’Sullivan were friends and teammates, playing on the Pee Wee level of the Kearny Generals program.
“We were all like brothers,” Banks said. “We were all very close from the beginning.”
“We all started out on the same team,” Woupes said. “We made the playoffs together our first year. I’ll always remember that.”
When it came time to choose a high school, O’Sullivan was the first to select St. Mary’s of Rutherford.
“I kind of knew I was going there,” O’Sullivan said. “My father and mother both went to St. Mary’s, so I was continuing the tradition.”
O’Sullivan’s two buddies followed suit a year later.
“I wasn’t so sure that Kevin and Keon were going to come here,” O’Sullivan said. “But it worked out great.”
“My friends all wanted me to go to Kearny, but Evan helped me,” Woupes said. “It wasn’t a tough decision. I knew I wanted to go there. St. Mary’s was always my first choice.”
Banks was the same way. “In eighth grade, when I had to make the decision, I wanted to go to a program that was solid,” Banks said. “I knew some others who went to St. Mary’s. Having Evan there already helped. It made the decision to go to St. Mary’s easier.”
O’Sullivan, a senior, and his long-time friends, both juniors, have been mainstays for the Gaels’ football program since they arrived.
All three play big roles in the Gaels’ offense as running backs. Banks is one of the top running backs in northern New Jersey, compiling more than 1,500 yards and scoring 25 touchdowns this season. Woupes and O’Sullivan are linebackers on defense, Banks a defensive back.
And the long-time friends will get one final chance to play together this weekend, as the Gaels face St. Joseph of Hammonton for the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state championship Saturday afternoon at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.
“It’s great because we’ve been together for practically my whole life,” said Woupes, who does a lot of the blocking for Banks from his fullback slot. “It’s pretty cool that we’re doing this together.”
Veteran St. Mary’s head coach Mike Sheridan credits the efforts of all three Kearny natives.
“They’re all major parts,” Sheridan said. “They’re a big reason why we’re in the position we’re in.”
Sheridan said that the coaching staff was looking for a way to get O’Sullivan more involved this season.
“We were looking for a spot for Evan, because he works so hard,” Sheridan said. “We honestly couldn’t figure out how to use him. But he changed his body in the off-season. He put on about 15 pounds of muscle and had good strength. He got in there at middle linebacker and filled gaps and made plays. He’s done a great job and he’s a big part of our defense.”
Offensively, O’Sullivan gives Woupes a chance to get a little rest as his backup at fullback.
“It’s almost like fate that I got my chance this year,” O’Sullivan said. “I think fate really had something to do with it.”
Woupes has been a mainstay at outside linebacker.
“I’m back to my old position and that has made me feel like I’m more of a bigger component this year,” Woupes said. “I feel like I’ve made a bigger impact. And I love blocking for Keon. It means a lot for me to spring Keon and if I’m not doing it, Evan is.”
Sheridan has nothing but praise for Woupes.
“Kevin is the best all-around athlete we have,” Sheridan said. “He’s just a great football player. He’s constantly around the ball. He’s a tough guy. He’s a silent leader who lets his actions speak for themselves.” Sheridan remembered the day last season when he realized Woupes was the real deal.
“I let him get on the field last year as a sophomore and he made two interceptions against Queen of Peace,” Sheridan said. “I could see the athleticism in him right away. He’s the best all-around player we have.”
Banks’ story is remarkable. At 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, Banks is not the biggest kid in the world. No one knew whether he could handle the grind of being an every down tailback.
Banks likes when people question his size.
“I use that as motivation,” Banks said. “People used to tell me all the time I was too small. That just makes me run harder. Sometimes, it’s good to be small, because the other teams can’t see me at first. I’ve heard teams saying, ‘Damn, I can’t even see that kid.’ That just makes me go.”
Sheridan had somewhat of an idea that Banks could be his go-to guy.
“He’s a powerful kid who is put together well,” Sheridan said. “With that low center of gravity, he’s tough to bring down. He drove our defense crazy last year when he was part of our scout team, so I knew he had potential.” But to gain 1,500 yards and score 25 touchdowns? That puts Banks in an elite category.
“Yeah, not to that extent,” Sheridan said. “No doubt, he’s been a pleasant surprise.”
“It’s definitely been a big surprise to me,” Banks said. “I gained a lot of confidence, working hard in the offseason. My linemen have been a big help. So are my friends Kevin and Evan. Without them all, I wouldn’t have had the season I’ve had.”
Needless to say, it’s been a season to remember for the Gaels, who have posted a 9-2 record this season. Now, they just need one final win for the big prize.
“It’s a great feeling,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re one of the few teams left still playing. It’s great to know that we have another game left.”
The Gaels took part in Rutherford’s Thanksgiving parade last Saturday.
“I got to march in a parade,” O’Sullivan said. “How great is that?”
O’Sullivan is the chauffeur for both Woupes and Banks, going every day to school together. That will soon end when O’Sullivan heads off to college. Woupes and Banks will have to find their own mode of transport next fall.
“This game is important, because I’m not going to see Evan much after he goes to college,” Woupes said. “He’s been a big part of my life. It feels great to be able to play with them and share all of this with them. I never thought I’d get this opportunity.”
Sheridan said that it has been a joy coaching the Kearny trio.
“It’s nice to watch them develop as young men,” Sheridan said. “The whole camaraderie they share. I watched them grow up together, see their maturity and their friendship. They’re never going to forget these times. They got all they could get out of high school, three league championships and three trips to the state finals.”
And perhaps, one shiny state championship to go with everything else.