2014 St. John Vianney Football Preview: Dawn of a New Era
With a group of incoming talent and a new head coach who has three state titles on his resume, St. John Vianney is hoping to start a winning tradition at a program that has not captured a division title since 1982.
Mark Ciccotelli, who led Freehold and Neptune to a combined three NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III titles and four appearances in the state finals in the last six years, has taken over for Andy Carlstrom to make the Lancers one of the more buzzed-about Shore Conference teams during the offseason. They return a quarterback with plenty of potential in junior Anthony Brown and have added five impact skill position players who transferred into the school in the offseason. Now the task is meshing that talent together into a cohesive unit to hold their own in the competitive Class A Central division.
“Any time you take over a new program, you have to get acclimated and get kids to understand our philosophy and how we want things done,’’ Ciccotelli said. “You can’t feel each other out because time is of the essence, and we’ve got to just believe in each other and move forward. They all know each other anyway, so it doesn’t take long for them to come together.”
The players have noticed the change immediately.
“The intensity in practice has picked up a lot,’’ Brown said.
The offense has the potential to make a jump forward after averaging 19.8 points per game last year. The Lancers graduated the Shore Conference’s second-leading passer in Billy DeMato (1,694 yards), but Brown saw time as a sophomore in addition to playing on defense. Brown was 12-for-31 for 200 yards and a pair of touchdown passes and also ran for 76 yards and a score in limited duty.
Now he is absorbing a new offense that is much different from the spread passing attack employed last year, but it has made stars out of similar dual threat quarterbacks in the past under Ciccotelli. Four signal-callers have earned first-team All-Shore honors in running the flexbone option under Ciccotelli, including consecutive Offensive Players of the Year at Neptune in Jaheem Woods and Ajee Patterson. St. John Vianney quarterbacks coach Nick Tyson also starred in it at Freehold. A dynamic runner with a strong arm, Brown is a candidate for a breakout season if he puts the work in, according to Ciccotelli.
“I think he can be a special player, but you have to do certain things in order to be a special player,’’ Ciccotelli said. “You have to be tough, you have to work hard, you have to be committed, you have to be a student of the game, and you have to rally. He’s the catalyst of the offense.”
“I didn’t know what to expect,’’ Brown said about Ciccotelli being hired. “The more I worked with him, the easier it got.”
Brown will have a host of weapons at his disposal in the backfield and in the passing game. Senior Aaron Mora will be at tailback after transferring over from Neptune, and junior Calvin Beaty, a physical runner who transferred from Matawan, also will see plenty of time at tailback. The slotbacks will be junior Jeff Sheard, who led Keyport with 21 catches for 434 yards last season before transferring, and junior Khalil Haskins, who was an All-Division defensive back with Matawan last season before he also decided to transfer to St. John Vianney. All of them have good speed and are threats to catch the ball out of the backfield as well.
“We’ve brought in new talent, and we’re starting all over,’’ said senior lineman Clay Kemp. “It’s been a huge difference so far from last year.”
The Lancers have also added a downfield threat in the passing game in senior Dan Calabro, a transfer from Colts Neck who led the Cougars with 34 catches for 308 yards and three touchdowns on a team that reached the Central Jersey Group IV final. Also, senior P.J. Braccia is a returning starter at wide receiver after making 12 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns last year. Junior Kevin Callari and senior Josh Taylor round out the receiving corps.
“It wasn’t hard because I knew them before they came here, so it’s been easy to click with them,’’ Brown said about getting acclimated with the new talent.
St. John Vianney also features an offensive line with three returning starters and some good young talent. Senior Nick Mastria is a returning starter at center, where Kemp will also see time. Kemp, who is a three-year starter on the defensive line, transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, in June, but decided to return to St. John Vianney for his senior year. He returned on the second day of preseason camp.
“I missed SJV,’’ Kemp said. “It wasn’t a football school when I was here, but coach ‘Cicc’ has known me since I was born. His older brother (former Keyport Hall of Famer Mike Ciccotelli) coached my dad. I want to be a part of something starting. I came to St. John’s to build something up, and I get more out of this than being down there (in Florida). I felt like I owed it to them.”
Senior Kyle Gibson is a returning starter at guard, and senior Lou Iovine is a returning starter who will be at tackle after playing tight end last year. A pair of 6-foot-4 sophomores with great potential, Jamaal Beaty and Micah Clarke, will be at the other guard and tackle spots, respectively. Junior Joe Rice will handle the placekicking and the punting.
Outside of Kemp, the players on the offensive line will mainly be playing on one side of the ball to keep them fresh and allow them to mesh as a unit by only practicing with the offensive line every day.
“The offense (Ciccotelli) has, as a defensive player, it’s very hard to read,’’ Kemp said. “The offense is going to be our bread and butter. That’s going to carry us. Last year we went through at least four different offenses throughout the season. By the time we gel together and learn it all this year, we’ll be in good shape.”
Defensively, St. John Vianney will run the 3-3-5 stack that Ciccotelli has employed on his other successful teams. Kemp returns at noseguard, and joining him in the rotation up front will be seniors Chris Coppola and Nick Labisi and junior Mike McGimpsey. Mastria and Iovine also could occasionally see some minutes if needed.
The linebackers will be Mora, Calvin Beaty and up-and-coming sophomores Matt Bordfeld and Tyler Tedeschi. The “spur’’ position, which is a hybrid safety/linebacker spot, will be manned by returning starter Liam Casey, a senior. The other hybrid position, “bandit,” will feature Sheard. Calabro will start at free safety, where he is also expected to be an impact player. The cornerbacks will be Haskins, who had 53 tackles and two interceptions for Matawan last year, and Taylor.
The Lancers will start their season with a high-profile game, as their rivalry with Matawan has been moved from Thanksgiving to the season opener. With Haskins and Beaty now on board from the Huskies, there will be plenty of subplots in that game, and then they face a challenging Class A Central schedule that also includes defending Central Jersey Group II champion Rumson-Fair Haven and South Jersey Group III semifinalist Manasquan.
“We’re playing some teams with some serious tradition,’’ Ciccotelli said. “They’re not going to give us anything.”
As he tries to engineer a turnaround at a program whose last championship of any kind was winning Class B North in 1982, Ciccotelli is mainly focused on effort.
“It doesn’t take talent to be tough and work hard,’’ he said. “If we take care of those things, we have a chance to be OK.”
Head coach: Mark Ciccotelli, 1st season (12th overall)
Career record: 0-0 (71-57 overall)
Assistant coaches: Noel Kavanagh (def. coord./DB/WR); Mike DeLucia (OL); Sal Spampanato (RB/DB); Jim Reid (OL/DL); Nick Tyson (QB/LB); Al Saner (OL); Eddie Hernandez (RB/LB/strength & conditioning); Tom Dinetta (K); Mike Tedeschi, Lou Liberatore, Rod Dell’Anno (freshman); Frank Palumbo (video coord.); Frank Viggiani (football operations); Ruthanne Rutledge (athletic trainer).
2013 record: 4-6 (2-4)
Big Shoes to Fill: Dan Calabro and P.J. Braccia, Sr., WR
Julanee Prince had one of the most productive seasons of any wide receiver in the Shore last year with 50 catches for 725 yards and 11 touchdowns. Calabro and Braccia will try to fill that void, although they will be running a drastically different offense with much more of the run game being incorporated, so it’s more about keeping defenses honest by being able to stretch the field in the passing game with Anthony Brown.
X-Factor: The offensive and defensive lines.
The skill position talent is in place, so if the line can give them room to operate, this offense can be explosive. Assistant Mike DeLucia built state championship lines at Freehold and Neptune, so they are in good hands. On the flipside, their defensive front will have to be up to the challenge in a division with several potent running attacks.
Glue Guy: Nick Mastria, Sr., OL/DL
One of the few returning starters from last year’s team, Mastria is a senior leader on the offensive line who gives that unit experience and also may see time on the defensive line.
Impact newcomer: Khalil Haskins, Jr., RB/DB
You can take your pick in this department. Haskins, Calvin Beaty, Aaron Mora, Jeff Sheard and Dan Calabro are all transfers who look to play significant roles. Haskins was an All-Division selection for Matawan in Class B North last year as a defensive back. The coaching staff also has been impressed with Calabro, a Colts Neck transfer, in the early going.
Pivotal game: Sept. 12 vs. Matawan.
The season opener should be a doozy as not only is it a rivalry game that has been moved from Thanksgiving, it’s also a divisional game now that Matawan has been realigned into Class A Central from Class B North. Power points, an early leg up in the division race, local bragging rights and players who know each other well off the field – this game has it all.