For a variety of reasons, the 2017 season was one to forget for Ocean Township. The Spartans went 2-8 – the program’s worst finish in 35 years – and finished 34th out of 43 teams in scoring offense and 39th in scoring defense. It was just one of those years, and there are plenty of reasons why.

The schedule was difficult with seven playoff teams, including state sectional champion Long Branch and sectional finalist Point Boro. Ocean also had to move on from star quarterback Kenny Pickett, a three-year starter, who is now the starting quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh. They were young and inexperienced, and it showed.

The silver lining for head coach Don Klein was that his young team was learning valuable lessons. Now they’re back - many of them still juniors – with an eye on returning to the form that saw the Spartans reach the state sectional semifinals in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

“We played a competitive schedule and we were competitive within some of those games, but at the end of the day you are what your record says you are, and we weren’t very good last year,” Klein said. “We did win our consolation game and that gave us some momentum to have a productive offseason. We have a new (weight room) facility so our participation was very good and now we can rely on the experience we have. The kids are a year older, they’re bigger, they’re faster and they’re stronger. We’re a motivated group coming off a poor season and it’s a group that really paid the price in the offseason to put themselves in position to improve.”

Ocean returns six starters in its spread offense, led by junior quarterback Robbie Nungesser. Stepping in for Pickett last season was the definition of ‘big shoes to fill’, and Nungesser was predictably up and down as a rookie. He finished his sophomore season with 891 yards passing, eight touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 46 percent of passes. A dedicated offseason workout regiment, including quarterback instruction from former Red Bank star Tony Racioppi, has Nungesser eager to show off his improvements.

“We lifted four nights a week and every Sunday I went to Tony,” Nungesser said. “I can’t wait. I feel great.”

“We like his toughness and we like his arm, and he’s a good enough athlete to make plays with his feet,” Klein said. “His mechanics are really strong right now; the arm strength is there and the accuracy is there. His biggest improvement is in understanding what we’re trying to do and understanding the scheme. We feel we have a system in place that he can take advantage of.”

Ocean's Dino Poniros (52), Alex Bryant (5), Robbie Nungesser (4), Trebor Pena (2) and Ryan Moran (8). Photo by Steve Meyer/Townsquare Media NJ

Nungesser isn’t the only reason Ocean is optimistic for an offensive turnaround. The Spartans bring back four experienced wide receivers, including three returning starters. Junior Trebor Pena leads the way after posting a team-best 26 receptions for 420 yards and five touchdowns a season ago. Seniors Alex Bryant and Mike Kircher are also returning starters while junior Mike Gavakis saw significant snaps as a sophomore. Adding depth to the group is senior Will Sacco, who played quarterback last year and tossed four touchdown passes in just 56 attempts. Junior Tye Brookins (6-foot-3) and sophomore Chris Carasia round out the receiving corps.

“Trebor Pena is a phenomenal talent and did a lot of great things for us last year,” Klein said. “The rapport Robbie has with Trebor, with Alex Bryant, with Mike Gavakis, with Mike Kircher is very, very strong. They spent a lot of time in the offseason working together so a lot of that stuff, as far as cohesiveness, is on point.”

Senior Ryan Moran became the starting running back late last season and will now take over as the full-time starter. Also a linebacker, Moran’s physical style will serve as a good compliment to the Spartans’ aerial attack.

“We want to be able to get the ball to our skill kids who can run very well,” Klein said. “Ryan is a sneaky good athlete. He’s a downhill, physical runner but he has nifty feet so we can keep people honest with him in the backfield.”

Junior Nasir Thompson will also see time in the backfield while senior Joe DiDario and junior Steve Hagerman will play the versatile H-back role, shifting between fullback and tight end as needed.

The question mark on the offensive side is the line where only one player – senior right guard Dino Poniros – is a returning starter. Senior Brian Lynch is the right tackle, junior Brian Fisher is the center, junior Ray Nguyen is the left guard and senior Hugo DelCarpio is the left tackle.

“There’s going to be some growing pains but I like the effort they’re giving and the improvements I’m seeing,” Klein said. “They’re a group that doesn’t have a lot of experience outside of Dino but they work really hard together. If they can continue to grow as a unit we can have a lot of success on offense.”

Ocean’s multiple 40 defense also features six returning starters. The secondary is the strength of the unit with all four players back as returning starters. Bryant and Pena are the cornerbacks while seniors Holden Lowe and Ahmad Moore are the safeties. Moore is moving to safety after playing cornerback last season, while Lowe is the Spartans’ second-leading returning tackler after making 50 stops last season.

“A lot of teams are spreading people out more,” Klein said. “The passing games of teams throughout the Shore have really evolved so when you have a secondary back that has physical talent and experience you have a chance to be creative.”

Up front, Thompson slides inside to defensive tackle after playing end last season and will be joined by sophomore Joe Teresi. Sophomore Alex Gavakis is the strongside defensive end while junior I’Shyne Woodard moves from defensive tackle to defensive end.

Moran is the leader of the defense as a three-year returning starter at strongside linebacker and is coming off a year where he was second on the team with 86 tackles. Junior Javier Highland steps in as the middle linebacker and Mike Gavakis will be the weakside linebacker. DiDario and Hagerman will also be in the mix at linebacker.

“(Moran) was an All-Division player last year and made All-Group 3 so he has some accolades attached to his name, plus he’s a three-year starter,” Klein said. “He’s a kid who has produced a lot and a kid who understand the tempo and the tenacity we have to play with, and the kids feed of off that.”

On special teams, Kircher will be the kicker and Teresi is the punter. DiDario is the long-snapper, Sacco is the holder and Pena and Bryant will be the kick and punt returners.

Ocean will play in the Freedom Division this year with Red Bank Catholic, Long Branch, Red Bank, Toms River East and Toms River South. The Spartans have two very tough opponents in RBC and Long Branch, both of which Ocean faced the past two years as a member of Class B North, but the division schedule is a net victory thanks to trading games with Wall, Middletown North and Middletown South for games with Red Bank, Toms River East and Toms River South.

The Spartans will open the season in Week 0 against Lacey. They face RBC in Week 1, so they know starting the season 1-0 is crucial.

“We’ve been fortunate to have success in that first game during my time as head coach, and when you do it gives you validation from all the things you’ve asked of the kids in the preseason,” Klein said. “We’re hoping to play well and go out and show everyone the improvements we’ve made as a program.”

At a Glance

Head coach: Don Klein, 12th season.

Career record: 64-50-1

2017 record: 2-8 (0-6 in B North).

Coaching staff: R.J. Read (off. coordinator/WR/DB); Marc Tomo (def. coordinator); Mike Lambusta (OL); Mike Murphy (WR/DB); Jim Nottingham (OL/DL); Jim Simonelli (LB); Dean Athens, Tim Patterson (freshmen); Katelyn Zimmerman (athletic trainer).

Offense: Spread

Defense: Multiple 40

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Mike Gavakis, Jr., WR/LB

Gavakis is a returning starter at wide receiver, but on defense he will step into a starting role at weakside linebacker to replace Ryan Jenks, who led the Spartans with 89 tackles last season.

X-FACTOR: Robbie Nungesser, Jr., QB

Ocean’s offense will be centered around its passing game and is banking on Nungesser taking a step forward in his evolution as a quarterback. If he can have a big year the Spartans could make a playoff run.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Joe Teresi, So., OL/DL

Teresi had a solid debut on the wrestling team as a freshman last year and will try to duplicate that success on the gridiron. He’ll be a two-way starter on the line and also serve as Ocean’s punter.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 14 at Toms River East

The Spartans will either be 1-1 or 0-2 heading into their Week 2 road game with the Raiders (a 2-0 start would mean a shocking upset win over Red Bank Catholic). Their third game of the season will be to either avoid an 0-3 start or give them momentum heading into another tough game against Long Branch in Week 3.

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.

 

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