After a two-game teaser over Labor Day weekend, it’s finally time for some Shore Conference football.

A full slate of action on Friday night marks the highly-anticipated start to another season. That means answers to preseason questions will begin to be provided as the road begins to what every team hopes is a game on the first weekend in December for a state sectional title.

Finally, on a personal note, it’s good to be back as a contributor with Shore Sports Network after taking a breather last season to focus on my job with NBC. It was a little strange not covering any Shore football for the first time since 1998, so I’m glad to be back in the fold.

Now, let’s get to those burning questions.

1. Will Middletown South repeat as the Shore’s No. 1 team?

The Eagles once again start on top of the Shore Sports Network Top 10 after going wire-to-wire as the top team last year by finishing 12-0 for the first time since the Knowshon Moreno days of 2005.

They suffered a big blow in the offseason when senior star James McCarthy, a force at linebacker and running back, tore his ACL and is out for the season. However, the cupboard is far from bare.

Middletown South is looking to win back-to-back state titles on the heels of a 12-0 season. (Photo by Eric Braun)

They graduated a stellar class, but this current senior class has also been an integral part of Middletown South’s resurgence, and there is talent to try to patch the hole left by McCarthy’s injury.

Their defense should be ferocious as always with one of the best group of linebackers in the Shore, led by Kevin Higgins and hybrid safety/linebacker Maxx Imsho, as well as senior Will Gulick up front on the defensive line.

I think the main question mark is the offense just because it has to replace players at the two most important positions. Cole Rogers, a 1,000-yard rusher, has graduated along with quarterback Matt Mosquera, who also was one of the state’s best kickers.

They need to settle on Mosquera’s replacement at quarterback, whether it’s Holmdel transfer Aneesh Agrawal or newcomer Brandon Donlon. They also need to find their workhorse running back to replace Rogers, which initially was going to be McCarthy. It certainly helps that they have four returning starters on the offensive line for players like Imsho and Samson Dube in the backfield.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that talented sophomore running back Anthony Summey transferred to Middletown South two weeks ago after having previously been at Red Bank Catholic for the summer after transferring to the Caseys from St. Joseph’s-Montvale (got all that?). You can bet that will be a subplot in Friday’s season opener between RBC and Middletown South, especially if Summey is deemed eligible with valid proof of a Middletown address so that he can play right away.

The Caseys are a bit of an unknown under new/old coach Frank Edgerly after a rare finish outside of the SSN Top 10 last year, so that is definitely one of the more interesting match-ups of Friday night.

One thing that’s for sure is that if the Eagles are going to finish No. 1 again, they will have earned it against a tough schedule. They have realigned from Class A North to Class B North, where they will face teams like RBC, Ocean, Long Branch and Middletown North, plus they have nondivisional games against defending state champions Toms River North and Rumson-Fair Haven as well as defending division champion and state finalist St. John Vianney. You run that gauntlet and finish the job in North II Group IV, where Phillipsburg against looks like the toughest challenger, and your argument for No. 1 is pretty ironclad.

2. Can this be the best Toms River North team in school history?

Obviously members of the undefeated 2007 team, the Aamir Dew-led team from 1994 and others in the Mariners’ past will make their argument, but on paper this team has a chance to really make its case if it goes undefeated.

With quarterback Mike Husni, running back/linebacker Daryn Blackwell, Rutgers recruit Bryce Watts, FBS talent Darrion Carrington, linebacker Pete Laquaglia and more, it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Mike Husni and Toms River North are looking to put themselves in some rare company with another state title this season. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Any team that can navigate the torture chamber of Class A South and make it out unbeaten already engenders plenty of respect. Plus, if the Mariners can beat No. 1 Middletown South in The Swamp on Oct. 21 in what could be the regular-season game of the year and then repeat as South Jersey Group V champs, they could lay claim to being the No. 1 public school in the state.

The last team to win the large-school South Jersey bracket in back-to-back years was the legendary Jackson Memorial squads of 2000-01. If the Mariners can run the table in the regular season and survive that South Jersey Group V bracket again, which usually features some legitimate heavyweights, they could argue they are the greatest Mariners’ squad ever given the competition.

 

Plus, no Toms River North team has ever won back-to-back state titles. But it’s a long way from here to there, so we’ll see how it plays out.

3. Can St. John Vianney keep it rolling?

The Lancers are coming off two of their best seasons in school history in their best stretch since the early 1980s. They lost one of the state’s most explosive offensive players, Boston College freshman quarterback Anthony Brown, but still have several marquee names returning.

Rutgers-bound lineman Micah Clark is one of the New Jersey’s top recruits at any position, and he is one of two Rutgers recruits up front along with Jamaal Beaty. Running back Chris Chukweneke should be one of the best in the Shore Conference. Much of their ultimate success could hinge on Brown’s replacement, whether it’s last year’s back-up, Matt DeGennaro, or Edison transfer Haaziq Daniels. The wide receivers also will have to step up to replace a host of standouts who graduated.

Defending their Class A Central title should again come down to a showdown with Rumson-Fair Haven, which has won three straight state titles but lost to the Lancers in each of the past two seasons. Brown was a big difference-maker in those two wins, so this group will be out to show they can still make plays against high-caliber opponents without him under center.

Micah Clark and St. John Vianney look to keep their grip on Class A Central in 2015 (Photo by Mark Brown/B51 Photography)

As far as the state playoffs go, the bad news for the Lancers is that St. Joseph's-Montvale is loaded again and the strong favorite to dethrone DePaul as the defending champ, so last year might have been their best chance in a while to get that elusive title.

I think the real question will be next season when the current wave of their big-name FCS and FBS talent graduates. Will they come back to earth like RBC did last year, or will a crucial part of their rise - talented transfers - again figure into keeping them in the upper echelon? At this point, it’s a question all non-public teams face when it comes to the race for talent.

4. Who will win Class B South?

This division race is usually crazy and comes down to the end of the regular season before the smoke clears. Many times the crown is shared by two teams, like it was last year between Lakewood and Point Boro.

Lakewood still has some talent despite the loss of star Amir Tyler, now at Temple. Running back/defensive lineman Josh Lezin is a force, so the Piners should be in the mix. Point Boro, meanwhile, is breaking in an almost entirely new lineup and has a new head coach.

The biggest X-factor is clearly Lacey. The Lions struggled to compete in Class A South the last two years, but dropping down into the smaller-school division could certainly rejuvenate the program. Jackson Liberty has been hovering around the periphery as a contender and certainly could rise up. Barnegat is coming off a tough season following heavy graduation losses, but still has to be considered a threat given its usual status as a contender.

I think two teams that have languished near the bottom of the standings, Pinelands and Donovan Catholic, will surprise some people. The Griffins have a coach with a winning pedigree in Tom Tarver and might not be too far away from contender status.

What all of this is saying is that your guess is as good as mine as far as who wins this division. I would give Lacey the slight nod just because it has faced such a higher level of competition on a regular basis.

5. How good is Mater Dei Prep?

The Seraphs are clearly trying to do with their football team what they did last winter with their boys basketball team. Bring in a big-name coach and a host of new players and then run roughshod over the competition in the Shore Conference.

New head coach Dino Mangiero is a former Rutgers star and NFL defensive lineman who built a powerhouse at Poly Prep in Brooklyn and has arrived in Middletown with three of his Poly Prep players following him. In addition, the Seraphs have also added standout quarterback George Pearson, who spent two seasons at Matawan, transferred to St. Joseph’s-Montvale in the offseason, and now has come back to the Shore.

Are George Pearson and Mater Dei Prep ready to take the Shore Conference by storm? (Photo by Matt Manley)

Pearson has one of the state’s most explosive wideouts in Eddie Lewis, plus there is a host of other skill talent. The Seraphs host defending champion Shore Regional on Oct. 8, and that will go a long way toward answering the question of just how good they are. The Blue Devils are coming off an undefeated season and are the gold standard for small-school powers right now, while Mater Dei is trying to make last year’s 3-7 mark look like a blip on the radar.

If you bring in a coach the caliber of Mangiero and that kind of talent, though, your goal is not just to be good in B Central. It’s to be competitive with top non-public programs on a state-wide level. This could be the start of a program that looks to become like St. Joseph’s-Hammonton, the small-school powerhouse in South Jersey that pumps out FBS talent and dominates other programs its size.

I’m interested to see if Mater Dei ultimately outgrows its schedule because you better believe that the Group I public schools drawing players from small towns are not going to be silent about the fairness of taking beatings from a Seraphs team pulling talent from across the state. I would think the Seraphs’ ultimate goal is to play a big-time nonconference schedule and compete with the best, so we’ll see how it turns out.

6. Will this transfer madness ever stop?

It doesn't look that way. Even if the NJSIAA membership votes for a stronger transfer rule, the N.J. Commissioner of Education can decide to overturn it.

Plus, whenever lawyers get involved to fight any penalties for transfers, the NJSIAA usually backs down because it doesn't have the resources to fight legal challenges on multiple fronts.

Parents are going to do whatever it takes when it comes to trying to position their sons to get scholarship money, plain and simple. If that means leaving a school on a whim at any part of the season or preseason, so be it. If that means paying for a dummy apartment that no one will ever actually live in so they can have a "legitimate" address, they will do it.

The main thing I could see happening is schools refusing to play certain opponents and taking forfeits because they feel the playing field is not level, as we saw in North Jersey. That led to a creation of a whole new conference. We'll see if it ever gets to that point down here at the Shore.

Will Mike Bickford's "crowd-surfing" run be the most ridiculous first-down run of the season?

He set the bar high in Week Zero by riding a wave of bodies like he was being lifted to the front of the stage at a Slipknot concert in Central's win over Southern.

 

Quick hitters:

Which of the six defending state champions have the best chance to repeat?

I know it’s crazy to say, but all of them legitimately could do it again. I would say Middletown South, Shore and Toms River North are all strong favorites. Rumson has a stellar senior class looking to make history under new coach Jerry Schulte so no one would be surprised if they made it four titles in a row.

Jackson Memorial has shown for two straight years it can turn it up a notch in the playoffs and still has plenty of talent. Plus it will see what should be its main competition during the Class A South schedule.

Considering Raritan’s amazing underdog run last year in Central Jersey Group II, I would put the Rockets’ odds as the longest, but you know what happened the last time no one gave Raritan a chance to pull it off.

Is Manalapan back?

Considering the Braves were a last-second touchdown away from shocking eventual champion South Brunswick last year and winning Central Jersey Group V again, they didn’t go that far away despite a 6-5 season.

After a young group learned on the job, the Braves look loaded again and poised to make a run at the Class A North title and take another crack at South Brunswick in the state playoffs.

Can Middletown North break through?

If they had any other team besides Middletown South standing in their way I would say yes. The Lions have had a nice turnaround under coach Steve Bush and quarterback Donald Glenn to become a perennial playoff team, but they have to deal with their Thanksgiving rivals in the division and in their state playoff bracket. It will take solving a team they have not beaten in 16 years as well as taking care of business against other tough opponents if they want a championship to put a stamp on their resurgence.

Who is this year’s sleeper Top 10 team?

Every year, there’s a team or two that gets left out of the initial rankings but eventually cements its place by proving everyone wrong. Last year it was a Red Bank squad that had its best season since 1977 and a Raritan team that roared back from a 3-5 start to win a state title in thrilling fashion.

I think RBC is certainly a candidate given that it lost its customary place last year but has some solid young talent. Neptune could also make a run at it as well as other perennial contenders like Long Branch and Matawan.

Who will be the Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year?

This is the ultimate shot in the dark because there's so many twists and turns to every year and players who explode like record-setting Long Branch running back Dahmiere Willis that didn't seem so obvious in the preseason.

I would think if Toms River North senior Mike Husni becomes the first Shore Conference quarterback to have over 1,000 yards rushing and passing for the third straight season and the Mariners run the gauntlet of their daunting schedule and state bracket, that's about as strong a case as you could make.

Ocean quarterback Kenny Pickett, a Pittsburgh recruit, is already off to a strong start after a win over Monmouth, and Jackson Memorial running back Mike Gawlik is a prime candidate as well after two straight first-team All-Shore seasons. Do-it-all Brick senior Ja'sir Taylor and record-setting Middletown North quarterback Donald Glenn are other obvious candidates.

Defensively, Middletown South linebacker James McCarthy would've been the favorite before a torn ACL ended his season. I think his teammates, Maxx Imsho, Will Gulick and Kevin Higgins, should certainly be in the mix if the Eagles perform up to expectations.

I would put Rumson linebacker Mike Ruane, a UMass recruit, at the front of the pack. If the Bulldogs end up winning their fourth state title in his his four years and he helps lead the way on a team known for its defense, that's a compelling case. His teammate, defensive back Mike Murdock, also deserves mention.

A couple sleepers could be Red Bank defensive end Chris Outterbridge and UConn-bound Raritan linebacker Ryan Dickens depending on how their teams perform, which usually figures into the equation.

Plus there's always talented defenses at places like Jackson Memorial, Brick, Manalapan, Shore Regional and others who could have a particular star emerge. The newcomers at Mater Dei Prep are also unknowns who could impress.

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