Football – Chasing History: 2016 Rumson-Fair Haven Preview
Rumson-Fair Haven made history last season when it won the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III title, becoming just the fifth Shore Conference team to win three straight NJSIAA state titles. Now, with a roster stocked with talent on both sides of the ball, the Bulldogs are trying to join an even more select group.
Manasquan and Middletown South are the only Shore Conference programs to have captured four straight state championships, and Rumson is in position to put its name in that hat behind a standout senior class that was instrumental in the last two titles.
“We want to leave a legacy,” said senior linebacker Mike Ruane. “We want to do everything we can to win that fourth title so we can look back years later at what we accomplished.”
One big change for Rumson is at head coach where longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Schulte replaces Bryan Batchler, who was controversially not re-hired by the board of education.
“It was an easy transition from Batchler to Schulte,” Ruane said. “He’s a great guy and a great coach.”
Rumson returns seven starters on offense and five on defense, and once again has the look of one of the Shore Conference’s top teams. In the Bulldogs’ multiple offense, Colgate-bound senior Mike O’Connor is back for his third year as the starting quarterback. Last season O’Connor ran for 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns while throwing for 567 yards and 13 touchdowns. A powerful runner who has improved his passing ability each year, O’Connor is one of the top returning quarterbacks in the conference.
“We think he’s improved his throwing a lot,” Schulte said. “He’s still a great runner and that hasn’t changed, but he’s a little more accurate and patient this year throwing the ball.”
“Last year I got a little better, but there’s always room for improvement, O’Connor said. “I put in a lot of work in the offseason and hopefully it shows.”
Starting at tailback is senior Matt Vecchiarelli, who has played significant snaps since his sophomore year but will be the full-time starter for the first time. He and Bryan Hess split carries last season, but Hess, a lacrosse standout and scholarship player, decided not to come out for football this year.
“Maybe if it was last year and I had to be the starter I’d be nervous, but as a senior I feel confident going in,” Vecchiarelli said.
“He’s mature and definitely ready for it,” Schulte said.
Junior Peter Lucas is the fullback while senior Colin Pavluk is the tight end after seeing some time there last season. Junior Tyler Pierson is a returning starter at wide receiver and will be joined by seniors Trevor Caruso and Jack Oberle.
The Bulldogs will be without 6-foot-6 junior Elijah McAllister, who suffered a torn ACL during the offseason. McAllister, who has multiple FBS offers, was slated to play receiver and tight end.
The offensive line features three returning starters, led by second-team All-Shore selection Tim Leonard, a senior, at right guard. Junior Justin Johnson returns as the starting left guard and 6-foot-3, 320-pound junior Nathan Raphan is the right tackle. Senior Pat Kelleher steps into the starting role at center and sophomore Ryan McCann will be the left tackle.
Rumson’s defense was the third best in the Shore last season at 7.8 points per game and was again outstanding in the postseason. Run-stuffing senior Liam Adams returns as a starting defensive tackle with senior James Rue as the other tackle. Both defensive ends, senior Jack Woods and junior Chase Pfrang, saw some time last season.
Leading the linebacking corps is one of the Shore Conference’s best in Ruane, a three-year starter who is committed to the University of Massachusetts. Ruane led the Shore in tackles last season with 153 and was a first-team All-Shore selection.
“He has natural instincts and does things you can’t coach,” Schulte said. “He knows the keys and the reads, but he just has that ‘it’ that great linebackers have. His speed, instinct, drive and focus make him special.”
A pair of sophomores will flank him with Chris Lanzalatto as the weak-side linebacker and Keegan Woods at strong-side linebacker.
The secondary has a ton of experience led by returning first-team All-Shore safety and three-year starter Mike Murdock. Senior Pat Russo started at safety and will move to cornerback, pairing with senior Ryan Tuorto. The other safety will be senior James Melia, who moves back from linebacker.
“We just work on a lot of fundamentals on defense,” Ruane said. “People will step up when they need to.”
“We play defense very aggressive so I like linebacker types at safety,” Schulte said. “We took Murdock two years ago and now Melia and made them safeties. We do a lot of hybrid stuff where it will almost look like a 4-4 at times. We do a lot of things on defense that most teams can’t do because of the type of kids we have.”
Senior Thomas Chapin, a three-year starter, will handle both the kicking and punting duties.
Rumson has lofty goals for the 2016 season, but the team knows it won’t be easy with a division schedule that includes Central Jersey Group II champion Raritan, Non-Public Group III finalist St. John Vianney, an always tough Matawan team, plus two-time defending Central Jersey Group I champs Shore in a nondivisional game on Thanksgiving.
“It’s really exciting what we can accomplish this year, but we know we have to stay humble,” Vecchiarelli said.
“We have a lot of work to do if we want that fourth title (in a row),” Ruane said. “We have to work for it every day and every game.”
Head Coach: Jerry Schulte, first season (16th overall).
Career Record: 59-78-1.
Coaching staff: Charlie Pirrello (off. coord./RB); Joe Murphy (OL); John Corneliuson (QB); Frank Papalia (TE); Chris Quinn (WR); Jeremy Schulte (DL); Bill Lagrotteria (DL); Matt Walsh (DB); Rob Orrok (strength and cond.); Joe Lagrotteria (game day op.); Jerry Gagliano, Jason Lippart, John Belevance (freshmen); Alex Stein (athletic trainer); Chris Alworth (tech. coord.).
2015 Record: 10-2 (5-1).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: The wide receivers
Losing Elijah McAllister for the season is a tough blow to the offense given that 6-foot-6 FBS recruits don’t come along often. The Bulldogs will be fine in their run-oriented scheme, but will certainly miss McAllister’s ability to create matchup nightmares.
X-FACTOR: The passing game
Rumson’s running game should continue to produce. If O’Connor can take his passing skills to the next level the Bulldogs will be a dangerous and dynamic offense.
GLUE GUY: Mike Ruane, Sr., LB
Ruane is one of the top players in the Shore Conference and has been a starter since his sophomore year.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Chris Lanzalatto, So., LB and Keegan Woods, So., LB
The pair of sophomores will flank Ruane at linebacker and be relied upon to contribute right away.
PIVOTAL GAME: Oct. 14 vs. St. John Vianney
The Bulldogs also have No. 1 Middletown South on their schedule, but the mid-October game with the Lancers has a good chance to be the one that decides the Class A Central division title, as it did last season.
Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.