The St. John Vianney team was a buzzsaw shy of capturing an NJSIAA Non-Public Group III championship in 2015, but the banner season for the Lancers got off to a tenuous start with a coaching change that shook up the returning players.

After pulling out a hard-fought, 30-21 week-one win over Matawan, the Lancers took a collective sigh of relief and rolled through the rest of the schedule by an average margin of victory of 40.5 points before running into Kaseem Walker and DePaul in the Non-Public III final. The uncertainty of the first month of the season, which saw Derek Sininsky hired from outside the program following the sudden resignation of Mark Ciccotelli, quickly faded and the Lancers lived up to lofty expectations.

“The first few weeks of practice and even in the first game, we were kind of looking around at each other like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work,’” senior two-way lineman Micah Clark said. “I think getting through that first game put us at ease with ourselves and we realized that the season wasn’t about who was coaching the team or all the other stuff. We got together and said, ‘This is our year and we’re not letting anything stop us. No excuses.’”

No player on last year’s team had as much pressure to perform as Sininsky did. He took over for a well-liked coach, came in with a career record of 30-60 and did not know the players. All of those factors influenced Sininsky to take a more laid-back, hands-off approach than he might have otherwise, instead allowing his seniors and the assistants with whom they were familiar to have a greater say.

Vianney players (from left) Chris Chukwuneke, Zyaire Sterling, Matt DeGennaro, Michar Clark and Jamaal Beaty (front). (Photo by Ray Richardson)

“Learning the players for what they could do on the field was one thing, but coming in like that and trying to figure out who these guys are as people is almost impossible,” Sininsky said. “It takes time to figure out what makes a young man tick and what he responds to and last season was a process for me to learn that. That’s why I kind of stepped back, let the coaches coach, let the players play and just try to be like a father-figure for them. I just wanted to be there to offer support when I felt like they needed it or when they felt like they needed it.”

This season, however, Sininsky plans on injecting more of his personality and philosophy into the team, especially considering how well the personnel lends itself to such a change.

“This year, we’re going to be doing a lot more of the things I’ve always believed in,” Sininsky said. “That’s lining up and pushing people off the ball, controlling the running game on both sides and wearing the opponent down with a physical style.”

If any player embodies the shift from a spread, big-play oriented team that plays for turnovers on defense to a ground-and-pound team that focuses first on being physical on both sides of the ball, it is Clark. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound four-star recruit and Rutgers commit figures to be a dominant force on both sides of the ball for the Lancers, along with fellow Rutgers recruit and stepbrother Jamaal Beaty.

Clark will play right tackle opposite Beatty, who will start at left guard. Senior J.P. Tarantino will play center, while junior newcomers Donovan Reiser and Alex Larsen take over the other two spots – Larsen at right guard and Reiser at left tackle.

“I’m really excited about our offense,” Clark said. “Last year, it’s almost like we’d go into protection and we didn’t know where (Brown) would end up because he was so good at improvising. As a lineman, you want to go up to the line knowing you are just going to fire off the ball and knock people over and run it down their throats.”

With the emphasis on imposing its will on defenses, the Lancers offense will rely heavily on senior Chris Chukwuneke in the running game. As a junior last season, Chukwuneke rushed for 756 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 78 carries and with a workload more consistent with that of a run-first offense, he has a chance to be among the Shore Conference leaders in rushing. Juniors Josiah Walker and Johnny Buchanan will spend time at fullback, which will be a more involved position for St. John Vianney this season.

Even with the emphasis on the running game, however, the passing game remains a major key to the Lancers, who certainly won’t abandon their passing attack overnight. Quarterbacks Matt DeGennaro and junior transfer Haaziq Daniels have competed for the starting job throughout the preseason, with DeGennaro operating on the inside track after he backed up Brown and played a vast majority of second halves last year. Daniels, a transfer from Edison, brings slightly more running ability to the position, according to Sininsky.

“With Haaziq, there’s probably a little bit more of a scrambling ability, but there’s not a lot that one can do that the other can’t,” Sininsky said. “It’s not like we’ll have one package for one and another for the other guy. We’ll have one offense and either guy can run it.”

The receiving corps is also comprised of a group of players who played in the second string last season with a helping of playing time with the first team. Is the only senior in the group vying for starting time Pedro Braga, while the junior trio of Zyaire Sterling, Sam East and A.J. Calabro look to break out. Junior Nick Densieski and Walker will serve as the tight ends – another position that could see more time this season.

Clark and Beaty will also anchor the defensive line, with Beaty and senior Eddie Sheridan rotating at nose guard and Clark and Densieski at the ends. Walker and Buchanan will take over full time at the two inside linebacker spots, while Calabro and Braga man the outside. Chukwuneke will lead the secondary at safety, while Sterling and East play on the corners.

“I think our defense has a chance to be even better than last year,” Clark said. “We’re a year stronger on the line, we’ve got some really tough, physical linebackers and Chris is back at safety.”

The Lancers will be put to the test this season by a schedule that includes divisional games against Rumson-Fair Haven, Raritan and Red Bank Regional, as well as non-divisional games against Brick, Red Bank Catholic and Middletown South. Vianney will play RBC and Middletown South on consecutive weeks at the end of October.

“It was great to get to the championship game 11-0, but I think once we got to that game, you saw that we just were not prepared to beat a team of that caliber,” Sininsky said. “With the schedule we’re playing this year, there won’t be anything we see in the playoffs that we haven’t seen during the year. We may not go into the playoffs undefeated and we might even have to scratch and claw to get there, but I think once we get there, we are going to be better suited to succeed in that type of environment.”

 

Head Coach: Derek Sininsky, second season

Career Record: 41-61

2015 Record: 11-1 (6-0 in A Central)

Big Shoes to Fill: Matt DeGennaro/Haaziq Daniels, QB

As the backup a year ago, DeGennaro is the likely starter for the Lancers, but Daniels is a transfer from Edison who is pushing for time. Whichever choice Sininsky makes between his quarterbacks on a given day, there is no expectation of them to play like Anthony Brown.

X-Factor: New mentality

Quarterback play is a significant variable at an early stage for the Lancers, but considering the change in offensive philosophy expected this season, the overall mentality of the team might be the bigger x-factor. Sininsky wants a more aggressive, physical feel than a year ago and if the team takes a liking to it, they won’t need a quarterback to play like Anthony Brown.

Glue Guy: Micah Clark, OL/DL

One of the reasons Vianney will be a more run-oriented, smash-mouth team is because of Clark, a four-star recruit heading to Rutgers next year. On top of his physical prowess, he is the leader on both sides of the ball and has been an invaluable voice for the junior-heavy roster.

Impact Newcomer: Josiah Walker, LB/FB

A lot of the new starters this season played a good deal last year considering how many of Vianney’s victories were lopsided, so players like Walker are not coming in cold. Now a full-time player, though, he has a chance to make an impact on both sides of the ball.

Pivotal Game: At Rumson-Fair Haven, Oct. 14

The trip to Rumson in mid-October begins a three-week stretch in which the Lancers play the Bulldogs, RBC and Middletown South. The first part of the schedule has some landmines as well, but that stretch will likely reveal how legitimate Vianney is this season.

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