One of Tim Fosque’s first challenges when he took over as the head coach of the Asbury Park football program ahead of the 2015 season was to convince enough players to come out and play for the Blue Bishops despite the fact that the team had not been meeting its standards over the previous three seasons.

His pitch back then was that Asbury Park football was on its way back. Three years later, he can say his team is officially back.

The Blue Bishops are coming off their first NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I championship since 2011 and are hoping the 2016 title will mark the beginning of a run similar to the one that culminated with that 2011 crown. From 2007 to 2011, Asbury Park won four sectional championships and with higher turnout, a wave of returnees and a key transfer in the mix, there is reason to believe this year’s team can match – and perhaps exceed – last year’s accomplishments.

“It’s no different here this year,” Fosque said. “It’s all about buying into a system, having guys believe in that system and getting the outcome and the results we want by doing the right things, becoming good football players and just believing in what we’re doing.”

“I know we’re going to be a target this year for a lot of teams,” senior wide receiver and defensive back Donte Abrams said. “We liked being the underdogs, but we also like that we’re the team everybody wants to beat. It’s going to keep us hungry and keep us humble.”

Senior Ja’King Agostini returns for his second full season as a starting quarterback after helping lead his team to a championship as a junior. Last year, Agostini threw for just shy of 1,200 yards and tossed nine touchdowns against 11 interceptions.

From left to right: Jaylen Paige, Donte Abrams, Devin Nash-McGhee and Javon Higgs. (Photo by Paula Lopez/PALImages)

“It’s been easier this year now that I understand what to do and I’ve seen situations in the game before,” said Agostini, who emerged as the starting quarterback in the summer of 2016. “I know that, as the quarterback, if something goes wrong, it falls on me.”

Agostini is likely to get more of a chance to make plays this year given that Asbury Park lost 2016 senior running backs Paul Reed and Namir Argilogos while also returning Abrams. A two-way standout who also plays strong safety, Abrams has drawn FBS interest as a defensive back, according to Fosque, with Notre Dame and Rutgers among the interested programs.

“For us, Abrams is our utility guy,” Fosque said. “He’s going to be all over the place in the offense – wherever we need to put him to get him the football.”

Senior Javon Higgs, junior Alex Harbor and freshman Mikai Jones are two more weapons at wideout for Agostini.

Although Asbury Park lost two prominent running backs, the Blue Bishops still boast enough pieces to formulate another dominant rushing attack in 2017. Four seniors return to the offensive line, led by senior left tackle Jaylen Paige. Kyrie Moore, Kymar Ponds, and Xavier Banks are all back as well and will clear the way for a newcomer Quadir Lawson.

“For a Group I school, we’re big up front,” Fosque said. “The guys also understand what our scheme is and they understand that in order to win a championship, you’ve got to be able to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage.”

A junior transfer from Shore Regional, Lawson is coming off a solid sophomore campaign for the Blue Devils and will have big shoes to fill at his new home. Reed was a workhorse ball-carrier for Asbury Park all season, while Argilogos was arguably the team’s most valuable player during its championship run, which culminated with a win over Keyport in which Argilogos rushed for 175 yards on 13 carries and scored three touchdowns.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better surprise with (Lawson) coming in and filling in for Namir,” Fosque said. “He’s going to fill the role of that all-around guy with can block and carry the ball, which is what we had last year.”

“I know my weapons,” Agostini said. “If I see a mismatch, then that’s where I’m going with the ball. At the same time, I know if we have somebody who is going good, we’re going to feed him.”

Asbury Park’s biggest loss on the line was all-division performer Calvin Simmons-Harris, who leaves a vacancy at one of the guard spots. Senior Tykim Harris has been near the front of the competition for that job and potentially gives the Bishops and all-senior offensive line.

While the Blue Bishops have upped their program-wide roster to more than 50 players, they will still be relying primarily on two-way players once the Sept. 8 opener against Shore rolls around. Paige, Moore, Ponds and Banks will all get snaps on the defensive line, with Paige and Moore returning after making significant impact on last year’s defensive front.

Lawson and freshman Junior Haughton highlight the linebacker corps, with Lawson in line to play on the strong side. Haughton could also carve out time as a playmaker on offense, most likely in the backfield.

Abrams and Harbor account for half of the projected starting secondary, with Harbor playing one of the cornerback spots. Senior Devin Nash-McGee returns as the free safety and junior Devan Martin takes over the other starting cornerback position.

“We have a solid defensive line and we’re good in the secondary,” Abrams said. “We didn’t lose too much and we’ve got some young kids who are hungry.”

Although winning a second straight Central Jersey Group I crown would mark a successful season for Asbury Park, the Blue Bishops would also like to be sharper during their quest. Asbury Park lost four games during the regular season, including a divisional game to Keyport and a Thanksgiving rivalry game against Neptune. On top of turning those results around, Asbury Park would like to put forth a better effort against defending Class B Central champion Mater Dei Prep, which has quickly emerged as one of the Shore’s top teams since the arrival of coach Dino Mangiero and the transfers who followed.

“I like playing Mater Dei because it’s a lot of competition and that’s what good teams and good players want,” Abrams said. “A lot of the teams we play are like that. We look at every game as a challenge.”

While anything less than a repeat in Central Jersey Group I would be a disappointment for the Blue Bishops, the return of championship aspirations is enough to consider the rebirth of Asbury Park football complete. Repeating won’t be easy, but considering the program was 2-8 just three years ago, the fact that the Blue Bishops are back to being a championship-or-bust program is an accomplishment in itself.

 

Head Coach: Tim Fosque, third season

Career Record: 14-8

2016 Record: 8-4 (3-2 in Class B Central)

Assistant Coaches: Bob Ward, Matt Ardizzone, Nicholas Ciambrone, Keith Killea, Lamar Davenport, Barry Baity, Leroy Hayes, Darrin Doss, Paul Zarella (Volunteer), Syron Davis (Volunteer), Nancy Saphow (Athletic Trainer).

Big Shoes to Fill: Quadir Lawson, RB

Namir Argologos and Paul Reed combined for more than 1,700 yards as seniors last year, so Asbury Park will need someone to step up as the feature back. Lawson not only has the talent to do be that guy, but he also has experience after seeing significant time as a sophomore while at Shore Regional last year.

X-Factor: Front seven

With plenty of experience back on the offensive line, in the secondary, at the skill positions and at quarterback, the front seven on the defensive side looks like the greenest part of the roster. There is still some experience on the defensive line, most notably Paige and Ponds, but the linebacker position and some of the depth at defensive line are more of a mystery to the coaching staff than the rest of the team.

Glue Guy: Jaylen Paige, OL/DL

Paige is the most imposing player on Asbury Park’s experienced offensive line and he’ll bring that presence to the defensive side for more snaps this year. Asbury Park has some explosive players on offense who should rack up some yards, but it’s hard to be more important that a two-way lineman who can dominate on either side of the ball.

Newcomer to Watch: Junior Haughton, LB/RB

Asbury Park will rely on a couple of freshman early on in the season and Haughton has one of the tougher assignments on the team considering he is a high school rookie. He’ll be part of a young group of linebackers and could also make an impact on offense.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 15 vs. Keyport

The Red Raiders beat Asbury Park in the 2015 postseason and the 2016 regular season, but will have a chip on their shoulder after the Blue Bishops beat that in the Central Jersey Group I final last year. Keyport was one of two teams, along with Mater Dei, to beat Asbury Park within the division last year so this game marks a chance for Asbury Park to get out ahead of last year’s pace. The game is even bigger if Shore knocks off Asbury Park in Week 1 because then the Bishops will have to beat Keyport to avoid a 0-2 start.