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The combination of a new coaching staff, several high-profile transfers leaving the program and a host of inexperienced young talent being thrown into the fire snowballed into an uncharacteristic one-win season for Toms River North last year.

A year later, the coaching staff and returning players have had a full offseason together, and that inexperienced group is one bursting with potential with 10 games of varsity action under its belt. With some high-level individual talent leading the way, the Mariners are geared up to reclaim their place as a division title contender and playoff qualifier.

Junior Asante Moorer, an FBS prospect, returns at tailback after leading Toms River North in rushing as a sophomore. (Photo by Scott Stump)

“We had to get our heads on straight, work hard in the offseason and make sure that when we come back this season we go out there and prove everyone wrong,’’ said senior two-way lineman Joe Fantozzi. “You don’t know what it’s like to be in a varsity game until you actually play, so having most of the team come back, we know what to expect, and we know what to prepare for.”

“When you’re 1-9, you’ve got things to fix,’’ said second-year head coach Dave Oizerowitz. “Besides the weight room, we really examined our schemes on both sides of the ball.”

The Mariners have switched from a multiple-I scheme on offense to a pistol attack, with sophomore quarterback Mike Husni running the show after starting as a freshman and throwing for 400 yards and five touchdowns for an offense that averaged 13.8 points per game.

“Offensively, we’re still going to run the football, we’re still going to be a power offense, but I think there’s going to be a little more window dressing involved with it,’’ Oizerowitz said. “Because we have that kind of perimeter skill, we’re able to utilize it best in this offense. I think our quarterback has improved tremendously. We think that if you’re going to load up on the run, we’re going to be able to throw the football.”

Their running game has a chance to evolve into one of the Shore Conference’s best with the tandem of 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior Asante Moorer and sophomore Parker Day in the backfield. Moorer led the team with 843 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns as a sophomore. He has packed on muscle while improving his speed to 4.45 in the 40-yard dash, which earned him interest from several FBS programs in the offseason.

“Last year I thought we were a little too young, and (finishing 1-9) was embarrassing,’’ Moorer said. “We put in a lot of work in the weight room and will play much more physical this year.”

Junior Tommy Donovan is a returning starter at fullback, where 220-pound junior Calvin Jackson should also see some time after starting at tight end last year. Sophomore Bryce Watts, who started in the secondary as a freshman, will be at wide receiver this year along with sophomore Darrion Carrington, who also saw varsity time as a freshman. Senior Valdez Santiago, a three-year starter at safety, also will be part of the wide receiving corps.

The Mariners return another prime threat in 6-foot-5, 225-pound senior tight end Jordan Craig, who has offers from Buffalo and UConn and interest from Boston College and Duke. Sophomore Mike Faione will also see snaps at tight end after getting some minutes as a freshman. Craig had 10 catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns last year, and Oizerowitz thinks he can be much more of a weapon this fall.

 

“I think he’s a tremendous route-runner as a slot guy,’’ Oizerowitz said. “He’s a big H-back, he’s physical, and he can block. What we’re going to ask him to do is really work the middle of the field, and he’s a nightmare for linebackers and safeties.”

Toms River North returns three starters on the offensive line, but already has been dealt a blow with projected starting center Nick Tedeschi out indefinitely with a foot injury. Fantozzi, who is 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds, returns at tackle, and junior Tim Petersen is a returning starter at the other tackle spot. Junior Luke Butera is a returning starter at guard, and other guard spot is being contested between senior Saifullah “Adam” Kakar, a four-year starter on the defensive line, and sophomore Esiah Santamaria. Sophomore Will Sagarese is expected to fill the void at center while Tedeschi is out.

Sophomore Kyle Bayha will handle the placekicking, and senior Pete Colone is a returning starter at punter, where he should be one of the division’s best.

The area the Mariners need to dramatically improve in order to get back to their winning ways is defense after surrendering 30 points per game last year. They moved some players around in their 3-4 scheme midway through the season and saw some improvement they hope carries over into this season. Kakar, who looks to be one of the best defensive linemen in the Shore, switched from noseguard to defensive end last year and will stay at that spot this season. The 315-pound Kakar was one of two All-Division linemen for the Mariners last year, and the other one also returns, as 260-pound junior Da’shon Copes will be at the other defensive end spot.

“We got a lot bigger from last year,’’ Copes said. “Coach has been on us more, and we look a lot better.”

Senior tight end/linebacker Jordan Craig returns and should be a force on both sides of the ball for the Mariners. (Photo by Scott Stump)

Sophomore Cole LaBatch slides into the noseguard spot, where sophomore Joe Nardoza and junior Sincere Livingston also will see time.

“We think we’ve got the kids in the right positions defensively, so now it’s just coaching them up on their techniques and responsibilities and letting them be physical,’’ Oizerowitz said. “We think that our down five is going to be our strong point defensively.”

“Right now we look a lot better, and we feel completely confident with our defense this year,’’ Kakar said. “Everyone is going to see that when the season starts.”

Senior Mike Siwiec, who started at defensive end last year before moving to linebacker during the season, is a returning starter at strongside linebacker, and Craig also returns at linebacker. Junior Christian Lynch, a talented transfer who started at Toms River East last year, will be at weakside linebacker. Senior Tyler MacLaine is a returning starter at middle linebacker, and the group of Jackson, juniors Mike Cangialosi and Rich Roma, and sophomores Faione and Pete LaQuaglia is in the mix to see time at linebacker.

Santiago returns as a three-year starter at safety to anchor the secondary, with sophomore Dante Shenkin stepping in at the other safety spot. Day and sophomore Janaire Bradley also should see time at safety. Watts is a returning starter at cornerback, with senior Caleb Lewis at the other cornerback spot.

“It’s more about the team than individuals this year,’’ Santiago said. “If our team plays together and both sides of the ball are firing, we can win a lot more games.”

Coming off a last-place finish in Class A South in which they did not win a divisional game, the Mariners know they will be under the radar coming into the season. They don’t plan on staying there for long.

“We don’t really worry about all that, we just prepare ourselves,’’ Moorer said. “We’ll do our talking on the field.”

 

Head coach: Dave Oizerowitz 2nd season (4th overall)

Career record: 12-18

Assistant coaches: Mike Oizerowitz (off. coord./WR/DB); Rich Malek (def. coord.); Gabe Roonan (LB/spec. teams); Bobby Cassidy (DL); Billy Dowd (OL-co-spec. teams); Jay Gold (RB); Anthony Penna (QB/DB); Nick Zaza (QB); Matt Sura (DB); Chris Gold, Billy Wilbert (freshman); Kendall Hostnik (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 1-9 (0-7)

Big Shoes to Fill: Bryce Watts, So., WR

With most of the team returning, there aren’t too many shoes to fill, but Watts looks to be one of the leading receivers after the graduation of R.J. Bromell and Evan Sirota, two of last year’s top pass-catchers.

X-factor: The defense.

How much this unit improves will go a long way toward determining whether the Mariners can compete in one of the Shore Conference’s toughest divisions. They have experience returning up front, at linebacker and in the secondary, so the parts are there to make a significant improvement after giving up 30 points per game last year.

Glue Guy: Adam Kakar, Sr., OL/DL

Kakar is a four-year starter on the defensive line and also may start on the offensive line this season. He is the most veteran player on the team and has taken on more of a leadership role this year.

Impact Newcomer: Parker Day, So., RB/DB

While much of the spotlight in the backfield has been shined on Asante Moorer, Day is a dangerous threat as well who looks to form a productive tandem that helps keep both backs fresh all game.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 13 vs. Lacey.

The Mariners open up under the lights on their home field against perennial contender Lacey, so this is the chance to show how much things have changed since last season by getting a win over the Lions in a Class A South game. They gave Lacey a game last year in losing 34-22, so they will look to finish the job this year and gain some immediate confidence.