Bulldog Band-Aid: RFH’s Thomas Martello
Last season, All-Shore linebacker Travis Clark was the headliner on Rumson-Fair Haven’s defense, and entering this year it was Rutgers-bound defensive end Donald Bedell.
Quietly doing his job in the middle of those two stars over the past two seasons has been senior Thomas Martello, who led the Bulldogs in tackles last year with 80 and has done it again this fall. He also has let nothing stand in the way of him getting the job done, with this season being the prime evidence.
“He has been huge for us,’’ said Rumson head coach Bryan Batchler. “He is way more athletic than I thought and has good closing speed, and he always has had the intuition that you can’t coach.”
The top-seeded Bulldogs (10-1) will need one more big game out of him when they face an explosive Weequahic (11-0) team in the Central Jersey Group II final at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Kean University in search of their first title since 2010 and their second in school history.
Martello had 60 tackles at linebacker in Rumson’s first five games this season, but then broke a bone in his right hand in a 28-6 win over Raritan on Oct. 18. He took a helmet to the hand on a kickoff to start the third quarter and played the rest of the game in pain. Following the game, Rumson athletic trainer Alex Stein told him he needed to get it checked out, resulting in the diagnosis of a broken bone.
“After I found out it was broken, I was worried,’’ Martello said. “I didn’t want it to affect the way I play.”
Rather than let it derail a brilliant season, Martello only missed a 42-7 win over Monsignor Donovan the following week before he was back in the lineup. Dr. Gregg Foos of Professional Orthopaedic Associates put the hand in a cast that allowed Martello to still have use of his fingers.
“Dr. Foos manipulated it where I could play with a cast and still have my fingers and not have a risk of reinjuring it,’’ Martello said. “I could still grab a jersey to tackle somebody if I needed to. After the first game I felt a lot more comfortable with it. I could be myself more and go in and make tackles.”
Just as Martello was becoming acclimated to the cast in his first game back, a 42-6 win over Monmouth Regional on Nov. 1, more adversity hit the Bulldogs. Senior Chris Hubler, a team captain and starting safety, suffered a season-ending torn labrum in his shoulder in the win over the Falcons.
“There’s three kids I can’t have hurt, and one of them was Hubler,’’ Batchler said. “He was a standout on defense, he played on special teams, and he is a captain. I was thinking, ‘How do we get by without him?’’’
The solution was moving to Martello to a position he had never played in his entire career with the biggest game of the season up to that point coming up against Manasquan. Sophomore Max Pfrang, who had started at linebacker earlier in the season in place of injured captain J.T. Jennings, took over Martello’s spot at linebacker to play alongside Jennings and junior Tucker Briggs.
“I had two days to practice at safety,’’ Martello said. “My teammates helped me out, with (cornerbacks) Sam Shaud, and Sam Eisenstadt helping me in quarters coverage. I always played the run more in the past, so it was definitely a huge transition for me.’’
The biggest challenge was fighting the urge to always run up and make a tackle in order to avoid getting beat over his head by a pass.
“I’m so used to playing linebacker that when I read a play it’s instinct to go in and not worry about the pass, but when it’s play-action I really have to bust my butt to get back there,’’ Martello said.
All Martello did in his first game ever at strong safety was register 12 tackles in a 22-15 thriller over the Warriors that gave Rumson-Fair Haven the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group II. In a 28-21 win over Rahway in the semifinals, Martello had a career-high 18 tackles. For the season, he has 114 tackles to go along with 8 ½ sacks despite missing a game, playing with a broken hand and moving to a new position.
Bedell, who has 82 tackles and 9 sacks, will again be a headliner on Saturday with his future Scarlet Knights teammate, Weequahic linebacker Sidney Gopre, who has 100-plus tackles of his own, but Martello should again be a crucial piece of the puzzle. This also will be Martello's first game without having to wear the cast on his hand. He and his teammates will look to limit the big plays by Weequahic’s Alkadair Ports, who has 1,125 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns on a ridiculous 16.5 yards per carry.
“We played a lot of teams just like them (Weequahic), like Rahway, so we’re definitely used to it,’’ Martello said. "We saw RBC last week and they have an amazing offensive line. Weequahic’s offensive line is good but they don’t even compare, so we’re more worried about their athletes in space.”
One thing that is for sure, Martello will go about his business without much fanfare and do his best to get the job done, just like he has in the classroom, where he is a 4.0 student who has applied for early admission to Johns Hopkins University.
“I don’t really worry about big names on the other team or what people are saying,’’ he said. “We just go out and play football.”