Football – Burning Questions for 2017
After months of offseason preparation, mini camps and 7-on-7 tournaments the countdown to the Shore Conference football season is on with less than three weeks left until opening day.
The scrimmage portion of the preseason is underway and action officially begins with a pair of Week 0 games on Sept. 1 before a full slate of games on September 8 and 9. The means the answers to a plethora of preseason questions will begin to be provided as each team gears up for what they hope will be a run to a championship.
This will be my 14th year covering Shore Conference football and one of the main things I’ve learned over the years has been to expect the unexpected. Sometimes predictions go as planned, but more than not the game of football always has plenty of tricks up its sleeve. Here are some of the top potential storylines and burning questions for the 2017 season.
1. Who is the preseason No. 1 team in the Shore?
Last year it was a no-brainer with Middletown South returning a talented group after finishing No. 1 in the state, and for many years it was the juggernaut squads at Red Bank Catholic who dominated Shore Conference competition. While I have a good idea who it will be this year, the choice isn’t so clear.
Manalapan is a team that immediately jumps out because the Braves are coming off an 11-1 year where they reached the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V final and return nearly all their top players. First-team SSN All-Shore running back Naim Mayfield leads a talented offense that includes quarterback Luke Corcione, wideout Scott Scherzer and fullback Chris Maksimik. The Braves also have one of the Shore’s top lineman in Trevor Radosevich and a defense that features standout linebackers Sal Tardogno and Tommy Pearce and safety Eli Avivi.
St. John Vianney has a 29-game winning streak against Shore Conference teams, so the Lancers have to be in the mix for the top spot to start the year. Their offense and defense were both ranked No. 4 in the Shore last season, so they have been getting it done on both sides of the ball. SJV lost some heft up front with star recruit Micah Clark as well as Jamaal Beaty both at Rutgers now, and the Lancers also graduated their tailback with 1,200-yard rusher Chris Chukwuneke matriculating on to Peddie. Quarterback Matt DeGennaro also graduated, but Haaziq Daniels, who started seven games as a junior, is back to lead the offense. A pair of first-team All-Shore players on defense return with star linebacker Johnny Buchanan and sack master Nick Densieski at defensive end. A.J. Calabro is another impact player in the secondary. Wide receivers Sam East and Zyaire Sterling give the Lancers two big playmakers on the perimeter.
After arriving in historic fashion with a 12-0 run to the program’s first NJSIAA state title last season, Mater Dei is now on the radar of every team in the Shore Conference. Last year one of the questions of the preseason centered around how good Mater Dei was going to be. Well, that was answered emphatically. Senior quarterback George Pearson, who is verbally committed to Central Michigan, leads the offense as a two-time state championship quarterback (he led Matawan to a state title as a freshman). The Seraphs also have wide receiver Kyle Devaney, defensive lineman Isaiah Henderson and linebacker Russell Ferrisi leading the crop of returners. Mater Dei will certainly have some transfers and impact newcomers this year, and despite the graduation of first-team All-Shore players Eddie Lewis and Marvin Pierre, plus other key starters, this figures to be a team to be reckoned with.
A team that finished outside the top 10 last season but could very well end up being the best team in the Shore by season’s end is Red Bank Catholic. The Caseys went 5-5 last season in head coach Frank Edgerly’s return to the RBC sidelines, but had a roster that was light on seniors, loaded with talented juniors and sophomores and dealt with numerous injuries at the quarterback position. With almost all of its key players back and healthy, this could be the season the Caseys regain their status as an elite team in the Shore. Quarterback Steve Lubischer could be a breakout star while Zack Bair ran for 1,000 yards as a junior. Matt Ansell excelled as a defensive back and was also a solid wide receiver. Then there’s defensive end Emmett McNamara, who is committed to Virginia, FBS recruit Kevin Bauman at tight end, who is just a sophomore, Harvard recruit Conor Smith on the offensive line and highly-regarded sophomore tight end/linebacker Charlie Gordinier. This team is going to be very good, the question is how fast.
2. What can Ashante Worthy do in a full season at quarterback?
One of the best decisions Freehold head coach Dave Ellis has ever made was to move Ashante Worthy from running back to quarterback. He did it three games into the season last year to try and keep a sinking ship afloat as the Colonials were 0-3 and set to face off against fourth-ranked Manalapan in Week 4. He put Worthy in at quarterback with the idea of making sure his best player had the ball in his hands on every play, and it worked better than maybe even Ellis could have expected.
The Colonials lost that game, but the next week they hung 52 on Monroe with Worthy going bonkers. It ignited a six-game winning streak that got Freehold to the playoffs and into the semifinals. Worthy re-wrote the record book in a first-round playoff game against Pennsauken, rushing for a Shore Conference-record 465 yards and eight touchdowns, while also throwing for 71 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the season with 2,904 yards of offense and 41 touchdowns, rushing for 2,066 yards and 30 touchdowns on an average of 8.3 yards per carry while also throwing for 833 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite teams knowing what was coming, he was pretty much impossible to stop. With an entire offseason and preseason to work at the position and with Freehold now being able to build the offense around Worthy, he could actually outdo himself in 2017. It’s going to fun to watch him try, that’s for sure.
3. Is Red Bank Catholic back?
As I wrote in question No. 1, RBC is loaded with talent all over the field and has one of the best coaches around in Frank Edgerly. After a couple of down years by their standards, this could be the season the Caseys get back to their usual winning ways. A Week 1 game against Middletown South should answer plenty of questions, and they’ll get plenty more opportunities the rest of the way with a rugged Class B North schedule plus a highly-anticipated nondivisional game against St. John Vianney.
4. Can Rumson-Fair Haven join the pantheon with a fifth straight state title?
In winning the Central Jersey Group III title last season Rumson has put itself in position to join rarefied air in 2017. If the Bulldogs can win it all again this season they will join Manasquan (1998-2002) as the only Shore Conference programs to win five consecutive NJSIAA sectional titles.
Rumson’s ascension has been pretty incredible to watch as its five sectional titles have all come in the last seven years. The Bulldogs were banging on the door for years under Shane Fallon and finally broke through in 2010 with a memorable upset of Matawan. That opened the floodgates for Rumson to win three straight state titles under Bryan Batchler before winning again last year with Jerry Schulte as head coach. Rumson’s last losing season came in 1999 in Fallon’s second year.
Rumson does return seven starters on offense and six on defense, but will have to replace several key players such as Shore Sports Network Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Mike Ruane, along with quarterback Mike O’Connor and standout defensive back Mike Murdock. A huge boost, literally, comes in the form of 6-foot-7, 230-pound tight end/defensive end Elijah McAllister. The FBS prospect missed all of last season with a knee injury but is ready to go this year and should be a big-time player on defense as well as a matchup nightmare in the passing game. Running back Peter Lucas and fullback Alex Maldjian also return along with linemen Justin Johnson, Ryan McCann and Jack Kelleher, plus tight end Ian O’Connor. The Bulldogs entire defensive line returns, led by senior Chase Pfrang, while junior linebackers Christian Lanzalotto and Keegan Woods are back after flanking Ruane as sophomores.
Getting to No. 5 won’t be easy, but Rumson has proven that no matter who graduates the program will put itself in position to contend year after year.
5. Is resurgent Manasquan here to stay?
After back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the 1960s, many wondered what had happened to Manasquan. The Warriors responded last season by returning to glory with a 10-2 record and the program’s record 12th NJSIAA sectional title, its first since 2008.
With the talent Manasquan has returning it certainly looks like those two seasons were a mere blip on the radar for one of the Shore Conference’s most storied programs. The Warriors bring back 1,400-yard rusher Connor Morgan and defensive back Tommy Antonucci, both seniors, plus standout juniors Canyon Birch, James Pendergist, Jack Fabean and Mike LaPoint. The offensive line also looks solid with Art Foreman, Evan Hilla and Alec Wells.
The division schedule in Class B North is going to be tough, but Manasquan was able to navigate it en route to a state crown last season. The Warriors open up with a Long Branch team that is expected to be vastly improved, especially on offense, so they’ll be tested right out of the gate.
6. Which of the five defending state champions have the best chance to repeat?
Rumson, Manasquan, Asbury Park, Wall and Mater Dei Prep are each coming off NJSIAA sectional championships in 2016.
Right now, I’d say Mater Dei is the top favorite because of its talent and state bracket. Teams can change rapidly year to year at non-public schools, but the Non-Public Group II bracket is basically Mater Dei Prep, Holy Spirit and St. Joseph (Hammonton) with Immaculata also likely to be in the mix. Given the fact Mater Dei went 12-0 last year and could be arguably better this year, I think the Seraphs go into the season as the favorite.
The Central Jersey Group I playoffs were basically the Shore Conference Tournament last season with every Class B Central team qualifying and the final four teams being Point Beach, Shore, Keyport and Asbury Park with Asbury defeating Keyport in the championship game. There’s a good chance the Shore dominates the bracket again, and with none of our teams being head and shoulders above the rest Asbury Park certainly has a good chance to repeat.
Manasquan could also be considered the favorite, or at least one of them, in a Central Jersey Group II bracket that includes A.L. Johnson, Lincoln, Roselle, Point Boro and Raritan.
Rumson definitely looks to be the preseason favorite in Central Jersey Group III in a bracket that doesn’t have any consistent championship contenders other than Carteret.
Wall, which is also now in Central Jersey Group III, would have to be considered the long shot of the group because it graduated a large senior class and will have a very tough schedule in Class B North.
7. Who is the best team in Ocean County?
This is something I’ve been asking myself throughout the offseason and I am no closer to an answer.
As far as the 17 Ocean County schools go you’re talking about all of Class A South, all of Class B South and Point Beach in Class B Central. The best team almost always resides in A South except for a couple years where Lacey had juggernaut state championship teams, and that will likely be the case again this season. Point Boro looks to the most well-rounded team in Class B South right now, but Lakewood has some uber-talented players and Lacey could be a factor as well.
As for A South, it should be as competitive as ever even if the top end isn’t at the level it’s been the last several seasons. Toms River North graduated a phenomenal class, but still has plenty of talent in the program and won’t fall very far from its perch. Brick is young but has a classic Brick feel to it, while Brick Memorial and Southern return key pieces in their respective running games.
Central is an intriguing team to me. They lost an all-time program great in running back Mike Bickford as well as other key seniors, but players like senior linemen Brandon Voss, senior linebacker Blake Horgan and junior quarterback Joe Fowler should have the Golden Eagles right in the mix. Sophomore running back Kavon Chambers could be a breakout star this season.
8. Who is this year’s sleeper team?
There is always that team that comes from out of the top 10 to start the season to finish as a top-five or so team while either reaching or winning a state championship. Three years ago, is was Jackson Memorial, going from unranked to the No. 1 team in the Shore and No. 1 public school in the state. Two years ago, it was Red Bank turning in an 11-1 season for the ages, and last season it was both Mater Dei and Wall going from unranked to state champions.
Given the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 isn’t out yet we can’t yet base it off who isn’t ranked, but two teams that did not finish last season ranked (and haven’t been written about already here) that could make some noise are Howell and Long Branch.
Howell is a team that is clearly on the rise after reaching the NJSIAA South Jersey Group V semifinals last season. The Rebels opened eyes when they took down Vineland on the road in the state playoffs last season, winning on a last-second field goal in comeback fashion. They showed a lot of heart that day after what had to be the longest bus ride they’ve ever taken (I covered the game and it’s faaaaaar away). Everyone’s quarterback stats were overshadowed by the ungodly numbers put up by Toms River North’s Mike Husni, but Howell’s Eddie Morales had a monster year with 2,259 yards passing and 26 touchdowns. He and standout senior wide receiver Naz Brantley (46 rec., 773 yards, 11 TDs) look like the top quarterback-wide receiver duo in the Shore and will lead an offense that figures to put up a lot of points.
Long Branch went 2-8 last season but looks to be in a position to turn it around in a big way thanks to an impressive group of skill players. They put their high-octane offense on display in winning the Shore Conference 7-on-7 tournament as quarterback Juwan Wilkins and receivers T.J. Fosque, Matt Clark, Kaymar Mimes and company could not be stopped. The Green Wave play in Class B North and should again have a tough schedule, but they could be in for a return to the playoffs and maybe more in 2017.
9. Who will be the Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year?
This is just an educated guess because there are so many peaks and valleys during the season and players can really come from nowhere to have monster seasons. It happened with Long Branch’s Dahmiere Willis two years ago and, although he didn’t win the award, Freehold’s Ashante Worthy last season.
Offensively, the three names that jump out are Mater Dei Prep quarterback George Pearson, Manalapan running back Naim Mayfield and Worthy. Pearson led Mater Dei to a 12-0 record and a state title last season, but didn’t have huge numbers because he played only the first half in most of the Seraphs games since they were up by multiple touchdowns at halftime. Even without monster numbers, if he can lead Mater Dei to another state title he would certainly be in the conversation.
Mayfield ran for 1,785 yards and 23 touchdowns on an average of 9.0 yards per carry last year. He is the focal point of Manalapan’s offense and will likely have some pretty big numbers. If the Braves can get back to a sectional final and finish off a state title that makes a pretty good case for Mayfield.
Worthy carried Freehold to the playoffs after an 0-4 start last year and was breathtaking in doing so. His record-setting effort in the playoffs against Pennsauken is already legendary. Given he finished the season with 41 total touchdowns and the Shore Conference record is 44, he has the chance to put up numbers so insane you couldn’t deny him the award.
Other players I could see turning in big seasons are Howell quarterback Eddie Morales, Manasquan running back Connor Morgan and Lakewood quarterback Zyheir Jones. Howell wideout Naz Brantley, Marlboro receiver Justin Marcus and Manalapan receiver Scott Scherzer should all be among the best at their position but I don’t think there’s ever been a wide receiver win Shore Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
There are a lot of good defensive players in the Shore, but the three that stand out from the pack are Middletown South defensive lineman Jake Krellin, Lakewood defensive lineman Josh Lezin and St. John Vianney linebacker Johnny Buchanan. Krellin and Lezin were basically impossible to block last season and put up monster numbers. Krellin led the Shore with 15 sacks and had an unreal 45 tackles for a loss while Lezin had 13 sacks and 31 hits for a loss. Buchanan was second in the Shore with 139 tackles and will lead the Lancers defense this season.
Manalapan also has two outstanding linebackers in Sal Tardogno and Tommy Pearce who could thrust their names into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
10. Will Donovan Catholic become a contender?
This year, probably not, but I don’t think it’s going to take that long for the Griffins to challenge for the B South division title. With Dan Curcione in as head coach and Chip LaBarca Jr. running the offense, Donovan has a staff with championship pedigree that didn’t come to Toms River to go 5-5. This year’s version is very young, but also very talented. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Clark looks like the real deal, and their skill players will surprise teams.
If the Griffins can go from 0-10 to challenging for the division title in one year that would be an incredible coaching feat. I don’t see that happening, but I don’t think this program is that far off from turning the corner.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.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.