The St. John Vianney football team earned a reputation as an explosive, high-scoring, spread-offense team in 2015 and changed into more of a smash-mouth attack in 2016.

By the end of 2017, the Lancers would like to add one more word to describe themselves: champions.

Over the past two seasons, St. John Vianney has graduated some top-level FBS talent as well as some noteworthy FCS talent. Despite all of those losses, the players and coaches on this year’s team think the 2017 season has a chance to be the best in the history of the program.

“It’s been two years in a row now where we went undefeated and lost in the playoffs, which feels like a slap in the face,” senior running back and linebacker Johnny Buchanan said. “I look at it as a wasted season. So this year, our bar is nothing less than a state championship. We want to go undefeated and get that state title.”

Just to be better than the 2015 or 2016 team, this year’s Vianney squad has almost no margin for error. Both teams began the season on double-digit winning streaks before losing in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III Playoffs. The 2015 team won 11 straight before losing to DePaul in the Non-Public Group III final and last year’s team reached the sectional semifinal 10-0 before falling to eventual champion St. Joseph of Montvale.

The only way to unequivocally prove it is better than the teams that came before it, this year’s Vianney team will have to finish the job in the state playoffs – no easy task in a bracket with St. Joseph Montvale, DePaul, Pope John and Red Bank Catholic.

Johnny Buchanan (21) behind offensive lineman (from left) C.J. Hanson, Paul Liseno, Alec Larsen, Dominick Spano and Donovan Reiser. (FPhoto by Paula Lopez/PALImages)

“We started last year 10-0 and I don’t even think we were as good as we should have been,” senior receiver and defensive back Zyaire Sterling said. “We probably fooled around a little more than we should have and maybe if we were more focused, we could have beat St. Joe’s.”

On top of those roadblocks, the Lancers will have to replace two FBS linemen in Rutgers freshmen Micah Clark and Jamaal Beatty, as well as Villanova commit and 2016 leading rusher Chris Chukwuneke. Ultimately, however, they feel they have the pieces to take on the challenge.

Nearly all of St. John Vianney’s receivers are back this year along with senior quarterback Haaziq Daniels. After starting as a freshman and sophomore at Edison, Daniels transferred to St. John Vianney as a junior last year and jumped into the starting job. Behind a dominant offensive line and a collection of talented junior classmates running and catching the ball, Daniels made a seamless transition to the Shore Conference.

“Last year, a lot of what I had to do was off-the-field-type stuff,” Daniels said. “I had to get to know the coaches, my teammates. I needed to learn their personalities and still know how to run the offense. This year, it feels like family for me now, which means I can concentrate more on football.”

“We’ve grown a lot together away from the field,” East said of himself and Daniels. “That’s my brother. His success is my success. His gain is my gain. We feed off of each other.”

Daniels will again be throwing the ball to Sterling, Sam East, A.J. Calabro and Nick DeGennaro, the first three of whom are also seniors this year. Sterling was a Shore Sports Network All-Shore Second Team selection as a utility player and East was among the nominees for the SSN Fan Vote for the final wide receiver spot. DeGennaro, meanwhile, is the lone junior in the group.

Head coach Derek Sininsky will also be giving Daniels the green light to run the no-huddle offense, which he was not quite ready to do as a junior.

“I think more weight fall on my shoulders this year,” Daniels said. “We’re going to be a little more balanced this year and I definitely expect the ball is going to be in my hands more. I was confident last year, but with Chris, Micah and Jamaal, I didn’t have to do as much. Now, it’s time for me to take more control as an offense.”

“Kids want stats and we’re going to give them stats,” Sininsky said. “The game is not actually about that, but more about giving our offense more opportunity to score. When you have talented kids, the best thing to do is let their talent play.”

Vianney also returns a physical duo in the backfield despite losing a physical back in Chukwuneke. Senior Johnny Buchanan will take over the No. 1 tailback job, while senior Josiah Walker returns at fullback with a chance to assume more work carrying the ball.

The backs and Daniels will operate behind an offensive line that is down its two most important players from a year ago, but returns a stable of blockers who could still measure up to last year’s group and then some when all is said and done. Senior center Alec Larsen, senior right tackle Donovan Reiser and senior right guard Dominick Spano all return after starting last year, while the right side of the line will be where the new blood plays.

Junior C.J. Hanson will take Clark’s former right guard spot and at 6-foot-5, 293 pounds, he has the size to dominate the high school game week-to-week in a similar fashion to Clark. Fellow junior Paul Liseno will play next to Hanson at right guard after transferring from Keansburg.

“I’m more confident in our o-line this year than I have been in any other year since we got here,” said Sininsky, now in his third season as the Lancers head coach. “We’ve never been bigger and we have two juniors in the starting group. Even though we had Micah and Jamaal, it still wasn’t a better overall unit than what we have now.”

If the Vianney offense has the makings to be as good as last year, the defense could be even better. Senior defensive end Nick Densieski tied for the Shore Conference lead with 15 sacks during his First-Team All-Shore campaign as a junior. He and Walker will bookend a rotation of defensive tackles comprised mostly of lineman who don’t get starter snaps on the offensive side of the ball.

Buchanan will be the middle linebacker behind the Lancers front five and will play the inside linebacker spot with senior Dylan Stoppiello in a 4-4 look, which would require Walker to move from defensive end to outside linebacker. In the 5-3-3 formation, Stoppiello and senior Cooper Pflug will play the two outside linebacker spots.

Calabro returns as the lone safety on St. John Vianney’s defense, while East and Sterling handle the cornerback duties.

St. John Vianney also returns an All-Shore Second Team kicker in senior Will Foreman.

For the second straight year, St. John Vianney will be challenged outside of the Class A Central division with games against Brick, Red Bank Catholic and Middletown South. Throw in a divisional showdown against Rumson-Fair Haven and there is plenty to keep the Lancers coaching staff up at night during the regular season as the players hope to build toward a championship run.

“This is the tightest-knit group we’ve had in my three years here,” Buchanan said. “All of us are close off the field and that bond we have off the field comes as second nature on the field. I think that chemistry, that’s the biggest difference for us this year. You’re not going to see a team centered around one guy. We have a group of determined guys who are going to work together to achieve that goal.”

“We’re undefeated in the Shore, and that’s still a goal, but now it’s about that big picture,” East said. “We’re trying to finish it at the end.”

 

Head Coach: Derek Sininsky, third season

Career Record: 51-62

Last Season: 10-1 (6-0 in Class A Central)

Assistant Coaches:

Big Shoes to Fill: C.J. Hanson, Right Tackle

Micah Clark left some rather large shoes to fill for his replacement, but Hansen has some large shoes in his own right. The 6-5, 293-pound junior has impressed the coaching staff to the point that Sininsky expects this offensive line to be the best in his three years with the program.

X-Factor: Offensive Line

With the exception of running back Chris Chukwuneke, St. John Vianney returns its marquee skill position players this year, as well as its secondary and linebackers. Losing Micah Clark and Jamaal Beatty off the line represents a big hit, but the coaches are excited about what returns. If that excitement is warranted, the Lancers have a chance to have a special season, maybe even better than either of their last two.

Glue Guy: Johnny Buchanan, RB/LB

Buchanan also has a void to fill in taking over at tailback for Chukwuneke and leading the linebackers, but he has answered the call in camp and looks prime to build on a strong junior year. According to Sininski, he has FCS scholarship offers from Delaware, Bucknell and Albany.

Impact Newcomer: Paul Liseno, Right Guard

Most of the starting lineup on either side of the ball returns after playing in some capacity last season. Liseno is an exception having transferred from Keansburg to take over at right guard on the Lancers offensive line while also contributing in the defensive tackle rotation.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 20 at Red Bank Catholic

The Lancers will face a three-week stretch that include showdowns against Rumson-Fair Haven, Red Bank Catholic and Middletown South, the second of which is non-public battle against RBC at Count Basie Field. While the Rumson game is almost certain to be for the Class A Central title, the game against RBC could very well impact the No. 1 ranking in the Shore Conference and is also important for the reputation of each program given that they hope to attract many of the same players.