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As he prepares for his final high school season, senior Christian Palmer will not be the first three-year starting quarterback at Mater Dei Prep. In that respect, Palmer is not unique within the context of Mater Dei football history, but he is in this respect: no Seraphs signal-caller in the current millennium has ever gone into his senior season after having guided Mater Dei to a winning record during the previous year.

It’s not just Palmer, either, and that’s what makes this season such an intriguing one for the Seraphs. Mater Dei returns a host of skill talent around Palmer, giving the offense a chance to improve even further after a breakout performance that sparked the first winning season and first NJSIAA playoff win at Mater Dei since 1999.

“The coaches made it known last year what the expectations were,” Palmer said. “We set a new standard for the program last year, and this year, the expectation is to build on it and continue to get better.”

Senior quarterback Christian Palmer returns to lead Mater Dei Prep off a 6-5 campaign last year, the first winning season for the Seraphs since 1999. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Running the multiple spread offense, Palmer will have two of his top weapons from last year back in senior receiver Tysaun White and sophomore receiver Eddie Lewis. White led the team with 11 total touchdowns last season while also finishing second on the team in receiving yards (121) and third in rushing yards (450). White is also a dynamic return man on special teams.

“We definitely have the playmakers here,” White said. “Offensively, I feel like we could be really good. Christian has looked good in practice, and we’ve got a lot of weapons on the field he can go to.”

Lewis, meanwhile, led the team in receptions (11) and yards (287) as a freshman last year while also hauling in two touchdown receptions. In addition to serving as dangerous targets for Palmer, White and Lewis are also the only two players that head coach Steve Sciarappa plans on playing the bulk of the snaps on both sides of the ball.

“We like to think of our offense like a basketball team where we’re spreading the ball around to a lot of people,” Sciarappa said. “Obviously, for us, guys like Tysaun and Eddie Lewis are dynamic playmakers and did it for us last year, but in order to make the most of their abilities and the potential of this offense, we want defenses to have to account for every option.”

Therein lies the key to Mater Dei’s pursuit of the next level, according to Sciarappa. Last season, the Seraphs employed two-way players at nearly every position, which Sciarappa believes contributed to a defense that had trouble stopping teams. This year, the plan is for only two-to-four players to play both ways and to run straight platoons on the offensive and defensive lines. The platoon plan will also help negate the fact that the Seraphs have to replace most of their line from last season.

“It’s been night and day so far,” Sciarappa said. “Once the games start, it’s going to make a big difference in keeping guys fresh and that’s the obvious benefit, but we’re already seeing a difference. With guys focusing on one side of the ball, we can spend more time coaching technique at their individual positions. It makes the players better, it makes the coaches better, and it makes us better as a team when every player on the field is fully prepared to do their job.”

With White and Lewis in the secondary, the defense will center around four-year starters Vincenzo Mezzacappa and Jason Mandile. Mezzacappa will lead the linebackers, while Mandile plays up front on the line alongside senior newcomer and nose guard Quaylil Maxwell, a transfer from Jersey City who practiced with the team last year while awaiting eligibility.

Senior receiver and safety Tysaun White is one of several offensive weapons returning for Mater Dei Prep this season. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Senior Tyson Stamper is another potential offensive threat out of the backfield and will see time in the secondary as well, according to Sciarappa. Senior Dave Osbourn, meanwhile, will anchor the offensive line as the lone four-year starter in the group while sophomore lineman Shane Mastra continues to develop after contributing as a freshman.

The Seraphs players and coaching staff are well aware of the gap they will need to close in order to advance another round in the NJSIAA tournament, just as they are aware of the gap that still remains between them and the top teams in the Class B Central division. Although Mater Dei cracked the .500 mark and made noise in the postseason, the Seraphs managed to go only 1-4 in the division with only a win over a rebuilding Keansburg squad.

“We’re fortunate to play in a very competitive division with some teams that are playing for championships every year,” Sciarappa said. “We like the challenge of trying to beat those teams and in the back of our minds, we know it’s making us better for when we go play the first round of the state tournament.

“As for taking the next step in the state tournament, we know that’s a large mountain to climb. You’re talking about some top-level programs at the top of our bracket and even with the strides we made last year, we know we’re not there yet. But that’s what we’re building toward.”

There is also an effort among the coaches and senior leaders of the team to drill home the message that they will not have the luxury of surprising opponents like they did last year. Although that could make for a more challenging schedule over the long haul, it is a welcome change in expectations at Mater Dei.

“A lot of teams took us lightly last year and we were able to take advantage of that,” Palmer said. “Now that we’ve had some success, teams aren’t going to be as quick to look past us. At the same time, we want to face the best that a team has to offer, and we know going in that there is no team that we can take lightly.”

 

Head Coach: Steve Sciarappa, third season

Career Record: 11-20

Assistant Coaches: Shannon Hoadley (def. coord./assoc. head coach); Drew Eldridge (RB/LB); John Washington; Keith Rescorl; Nick Scerbo; Larry Szabo; Dwight Sheehan.

2013 Record: 6-5 (1-4)

Big Shoes to Fill: Tyson Stamper, Sr., RB

While Mater Dei returns a good deal of skill on offense, the Seraphs did lose a good portion of their rushing production with the graduation of Sam Miles and Derrick Lopez. Tysaun White and Christian Palmer bring back a good chunk of that rushing, but the offense will need Stamper and fellow senior Zach Bragg to provide a threat out of the backfield.

X-Factor: Shane Mastra, So., OL

The offensive line has some inexperience to address, but the Seraphs staff has liked what it has seen from Mastra, who impressed as a freshman last year.

Glue Guy: Vincenzo Mezzacappa, Sr., LB

An improvement on defense is imperative for Mater Dei this year and an exclusive move to the linebacker position and away from offense will give Mezzacappa a chance to be a better player and a better leader for the defense.

Impact Newcomer: Quaylil Maxwell, Sr., DT

Maxwell will line up at the nose of the 3-4 front and could be a physical equalizer for the Seraphs against some of the run-heavy attacks of Class B Central.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 27 vs. Asbury Park

A home date with Shore on Oct. 18 looms large for Mater Dei, but in order for that game to mean what the Seraphs would like for it to mean, they will have to first get by the likes of Asbury Park and Keyport in consecutive weeks, which Mater Dei could not do last year.