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After its steady improvement resulted in its first state playoff berth in five years last season, Raritan is hoping that with one of the more versatile and athletic teams it has had in years, everything could be in place for the Rockets to make a deeper postseason run this year.

The mentality of being on the same page and having one another’s back is one they hope carries over on the field in practice every day as they put forth a maximum effort with each player pushing the other.

“We must prove to ourselves we can win and be able to take the next step and compete with the better team,’’ sixth-year head coach Anthony Petruzzi said.  “We must prove we can play with reigning (Central Jersey) Group II and III state champions, Rumson and Matawan, in addition to (defending division champion) St. John Vianney, and then take the next steps forward.”

The Rockets have shown steady improvement from 3-7 in 2013 to 5-5 last season.  This year, the seniors are looking for more.  They still have a difficult Class A Central schedule and a nondivisional schedule that features Freehold Boro, Red Bank Regional and Point Boro, but feel that with their strong returning players they will be able to return to their glory days of being a perennial playoff threat.

“We have had great competitiveness in practice, so this will help us maybe in two, three, four weeks into the season,’’ Petruzzi said. “We are very versatile and hope we can get strong enough that we can play a lot of people and that our two-way players can get off the field.”

The offense will be led by senior running back Derek Ernst, a second-team All-Shore selection by Shore Sports Network as a junior, who rushed for 1,505 yards and 24 touchdowns on 209 carries.  Those statistics were even more impressive given that Ernst wasn’t even the starter at the beginning of the season and the fact that teams loaded the box against the Rockets after starting quarterback Riley Sullivan went down with an injury in the second game of the season.

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This season, the Rockets are looking to have more balance offensively with a passing game that will prevent teams from ganging up to stop Ernst.

“We are working hard every day and trying to be balanced because we have a lot of weapons,”  Ernst said.

Senior Sean Ennis, a three-year starter on defense at linebacker, will move over to the other side of the ball to help the running game in addition to junior Vito Aleo.

Senior wide receiver Jordan Smith, Jahciere Jones, and Nick Pasquin plus do-everything threat Mason Sheehan are the other weapons Ernst speaks about.  They have generated a great deal of excitement in camp so far and this is one of the reasons they feel they can make a jump in the win column. Junior Rory Sullivan will fill in at all four spots and should see significant minutes.

The competition at quarterback is being highly contested between junior Marc Carnival and senior Jonathan Rodriquez, the latter of whom started multiple games when Sullivan was injured last year.  The offensive line must find a way to replace All-Division tackles Chris Vurchio and Nick Buzzo in addition to graduated starter Malcom Daniels.  Senior left tackle Bo Bentley is the returning leader of the offensive line and feels that they can be even better as a unit than last year.

“We are a very athletic group with a lot of versatility,’’ Bentley said. “We are trying to be more balanced on offense this year.”

Returning right guard senior Will Hutchins will move to right tackle as soon as he recovers from a stress fracture injury. Sophomore Sean Greaves will fill in at right tackle until that time and will then move to one of the guard spots.  Junior Matt Thompson is a three-year starter on defense and will slide over to the center position. He will be flanked on both sides by converted fullback Paul Bavaro and fellow junior Alex Dalmau at the guard positions.

Defensively, the Rockets will change up a little and move to a 4-3 from a 4-2-5.  Petruzzi feels confident that with their versatility at the linebacker positions they will be a better team.  Depending on down and distance and game situation it will be easy to play the 4-3 or easily switch into a nickel defense given the strengths and abilities of the line backing crew.

“We can go back and forth just by moving a linebacker back or a safety up with our versatility,’’ Petruzzi said.

Ennis will move from middle linebacker to an outside position, with junior Ryan Dickens moving to the mike. Junior Phil Meehan or sophomores Brian Pasquin and Pat Cooney will hold down the other outside linebacker spot.

The defensive line returns three starters in Thompson, senior captain Mike Gillen, and junior Sean Agar.  Gillen and Agar will line up at the ends with Thompson playing the tackle spot. Senior Aaron Daniels and Bavaro, Dalmau and junior Alex Garcia are all in the rotation.

The starting wide receiver trio will also fill the secondary positions.  Smith will be at safety and Jones and Pasquin are the corners, with Aleo at either corner or safety. Sullivan and juniors Eugene Kolibas and Ken Larsen are competing for playing time in the secondary.  Rodriquez and Sheehan will handle the kicking and punting, respectively.

“Football is a very simple game,’’ Petruzzi said. “We are looking to get seven (points) and take away seven (points) to improve. We feel we can do that and be better on offense, defense and special teams. When we do this we are ready for the next step, and the wins and losses will take care of themselves on game day.”

 

Big Shoes to Fill:  Bo Bentley, Jr., OL

Bentley will have to help fill the leadership and production void left by three starters on the offensive line, including a pair of All-Division linemen.

Glue Guy:  Mason Sheehan, Sr., WR/TE; Mike Gillen, Sr., DL

The senior duo will be expected to lead the team on and off the field.

X-Factor: The wide receivers

The wide receiver rotation of seniors Jordan Smith, Jahciere Jones, Brian Pasquin  and Mason Sheehan must be able to give the offense a new dimension and not allow teams to load the box to stop Ernst and the running game.

Impact newcomer: Jordan Smith, Sr., WR

Smith, who transferred to Raritan as a sophomore, brings a big-play explosiveness to the passing game.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 12 at Manasquan

The Rockets have never won a game at Vic Kubu Warrior Field in their history, and Manasquan will be hungry to avenge a wild 41-34 loss to Raritan from last season’s opener. Making a piece of school history would catapult the Rockets into a big match-up with defending Central Jersey Group III champion Matawan, which beat Raritan twice last year, including the state playoffs. Both games are also crucial in the race for the Class A Central title.