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Seldom does a defending state champion return the following season with a chip on its collective shoulder, but where one chip once rested, another one now nests for the Red Bank Catholic football team.

The Caseys ended a 38-year drought without a state championship by beating Delbarton in last year’s NJSIAA Non-Public Group III championship game, two weeks after vanquishing St. Joseph’s of Montvale – the team that had owned the section in recent years and dominated RBC in the process – in the sectional semifinals.

Despite beating one of the state’s top program’s en route to a championship in one the unforgiving non-public sections, Red Bank Catholic finished No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, which was the first time the Caseys failed to finish No. 1 since 2010. That is because Jackson Memorial took down RBC in Jackson on an overtime touchdown to snap the Caseys’ 40-game winning streak against the Shore Conference before going on to win a sectional title of its own in Central Jersey Group IV.

“Every single day, we remember that game,” said senior tackle Liam Smith, whose Caseys will host Jackson Memorial in the last regular-season game before the NJSIAA playoffs this season. “If you look right now, we’re not the No. 1 team in the Shore, and that’s not normal around here. We’re still really pissed off about that, not for any other reason than we let it happen to ourselves and we’re determined to not let it happen this year.”

Heading into 2015, the returning members of last year’s state championship team and a host of varsity newcomers are locked in on not only repeating as NJSIAA Non-Public Group III champions, but doing so as an unbeaten team. No RBC team in history has ever gone 12-0.

Entering his third varsity season and second as a full-time starter, quarterback Eddie Hahn looks to cap his high school career by leading Red Bank Catholic to a second straight NJSIAA title. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“Going 12-0 is definitely the goal,” senior quarterback Eddie Hahn said. “It’s always been the goal: 12-0 and a state championship. It’s been that way since I was a freshman and even since before I got here.”

To downplay the difficulty of that task is to underestimate the talent that coach Jim Portela will have to replace. The Caseys lose offensive playmakers Tommy Spernal, Trevor Cowley and Nick Lubischer, a first-team All-Shore offensive lineman in Ryan Kroeger, as well as All-Shore defensive standouts Doug Zockoll, Mike DeMonte, Mike Cordova and University of Miami freshman Jamie Gordinier.

While replacing a senior class that led the program to its first state title since 1976 would be problematic for most teams, Red Bank Catholic is used to replacing elite talent. Portela and company expect that the lower levels of the program will continue to bear fruit while the core of returning players will be as good as any returning group that Portela has had in his seven seasons at the helm.

“I think we have a lot of potential,” Portela said. “We’re used to being deep and we’re not changing that. With the schedule we play, we’re going to need it.”

Hahn returns for his second season as the full-time starter under center after he began to master the spread offense by season’s end in 2014. He finished his junior campaign completing 64 percent of his pass attempts (81-for-127) for 1,485 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air, while amassing 531 yards on the ground with 12 touchdowns. He is committed to the University of Connecticut as an athlete and his standout play at safety last season gives him a chance to compete for playing time on either side of the ball with the Huskies next year.

“I know what it’s like to be a young guy trying to contribute to a championship team because that used to be me,” Hahn said. “We’re all out here to get better individually, and as a team and as seniors, we’re looking to be there as leaders for the new guys, whether they are sophomores or seniors. The nice thing about our program is you have a lot of seniors come in as first-time starters and perform and you are seeing that from a lot of those guys here.”

Hahn developed as a leader on last year’s team and capped his season by going 9-for-10 for 234 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 47 yards and a touchdown in the win over Delbarton.

“Eddie would have played varsity (as a freshman) at a lot of places, but we resisted the temptation to bring him up and let him play safety or somewhere he could have helped us,” Portela said. “We wanted him build a rapport with those guys (in his grade), and we wanted him to become a leader and build a camaraderie among the freshmen.

“They are used to him being a leader, and guys like Eddie, Liam Smith, Dylan Murphy, Ryan Oneidas – the guys that we’re really expecting to step ahead and lead – have really done that. They’re patient with the young guys, they’re encouraging, (and) they’re not walking around like they’re better than everybody else.”

Smith – a Duke University commit – returns as the anchor of the offensive line along with fellow senior Ryan Oneidas, both of whom will play on the left side, Smith at tackle and Oneidas at guard. They also will be part of what Portela envisions as a deep rotation on the defensive line.

Junior Tommy Clark has seized the starting center job with a strong summer. There is still competition on the right side of the line, with sophomore Brandon Dente and junior Alex Sargiss competing for the starting job at right guard and three players looking for time at right tackle, according to Portela. Senior Charlie Gargiulo has the inside track, according to Portela, while junior Connor Moore nurses an arm injury and sophomore Michael Griggs tries to build on a good first impression. Despite three new starters up front, the Caseys expect the offensive line to again be a strength, with Portela expecting an average of 260 pounds per lineman across the board.

“I think we have a bunch of nasty guys up front,” Smith said. “Me and Ryan Oneidas got to fight together on the left side last year and developed a great chemistry. We’ve got some young guys coming in on the right side, but that’s pretty normal for us to have first-time starters as juniors and seniors. Nothing out of the ordinary.

“It takes a while to get to the level we want to be because we set such high expectations for our offensive line every year, but I definitely think we’re capable of getting there this year, and I like the guys we have a lot.”

Senior left tackle and Duke University recruit Liam Smith returns to the offensive line after an All-Shore performance as a junior. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Senior Dylan Murphy returns as after being named third-team All-Shore at linebacker by SSN last year and will move from fullback to tailback on the offensive side. Senior Mike Wilen is also in line for carries and will join Murphy in the linebacking corps as a well. Senior Anthony Purdge and sophomore Zach Bair – a transfer from Holmdel – are also vying for touches in the backfield, with Bair serving as a scout team back during his 30 days away from game action per NJSIAA transfer rules. Senior Joey Hagan and junior Justin Noah are both fullbacks that Portela sees contributing.

The group of receivers around Hahn will be different this season with the loss of Cowley and Lubischer. Seniors Colin Shaughnessy and Liam McArdle, as well as junior Max Hazard, have been working as potential targets on the outside for Hahn. Six-foot-4 sophomore Conor Smith has also worked with the offense as a tight end and has caught the eye of Hahn in the early part of camp.

“Replacing a Trevor Cowley and Nick Lubischer is not going to be easy, but this is a really talented group,” Hahn said of his receivers. “Those guys are going to step up for us this year just like those guys did last year. You don’t do it with one guy. You try to do it with everybody.”

Hahn, senior safety Mike Balzofiore, senior Dan Lukawski and Shaughnessy all have experience in the secondary and that group will be a strength of the defense, according to Portela. The line also has promise with Smith and Oneidas in the middle and junior Nasir Darnell taking over at defensive end. Gargiulo will man the other end of the line, with White and Christian Foley also mixing in at defensive ends. Sturgiss, Clark, Dente and Briggs will all figure into the defensive tackle rotation.

“Defensively, we’re being a little simpler right now just because we have so many new starters and so many kids are getting their reps,” Portela said. “But they’re coming up to speed and really, it’s no different than any other year. Somewhere down the road, we’ll have everything (installed), but in game one, we might not have everything in.”

Some inexperience at the skill positions and on the defensive line will be early-season question marks, but the Caseys are a team that has annually proven its program depth by rolling out new standouts all over the field. This year will have to be no exception for RBC to reach its ultimate goal, one that has eluded the Caseys even as they ended a near-40-year state-championship drought last year.

“You never know how good you can really be unless you do the work,” Smith said. “We’re just focused on doing the work right now in camp like we did in the weight room and like we’ve done building ourselves up leading up to the start of practice. The work we’ve already put in is what’s really important and now we’re just trying to continue to improve on it.”

 

Head Coach: Jim Portela, seventh season

Career Record: 55-10

Assistant Coaches: Matt Ahearn (Offensive Coordinator), Mike Rosenfeld (QB/DB), Keith Hugger (Special Teams), Dom Poliferone (OL/DL), Matt Bijas (TE/DB), Jeff Papcun (RB/LB), Tony Flego (Freshman), Joe Gallagher (Assistant Freshman), Joe Lanza (Assistant Freshman), Mike Ientile (Assistant Freshman), Joe McAuliffe (Strength and Conditioning), Amanda Ballarini (Athletic Trainer)

2014 Record: 11-1 (6-0)

Big Shoes to Fill: Mike Wilen, RB/LB

On top of taking carries in a backfield that graduated top rusher Tommy Spernal, Wilen will be a full-time linebacker alongside All-Shore teammate Dylan Murphy, who was a complement to Shore Sports Network Defensive Player of the Year Jamie Gordinier.

X-Factor: The defensive line

Red Bank Catholic’s defense was dominant last year and the Caseys should be strong in the secondary and linebacker again this year. The defensive line is relatively inexperienced, but has enough upside to keep alive the possibility of another exceptional Caseys defense.

Glue Guy: Dylan Murphy, Sr., RB/LB

In addition to playing at an All-Shore level in his first season as a varsity linebacker, Murphy gave up his usual tailback position to serve as fullback. He will resume his tailback duties this year and return to the middle of the defense as one of the Shore’s top linebackers.

Newcomer to Watch: Nasir Darnell, Jr., DE/TE

A junior varsity player last year, Darnell has opened eyes in camp as a player who can potentially ruin an offense coming off the edge. At an athletic 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Darnell has the physical side of the defensive end position taken care of.

Pivotal Game: Nov. 6 vs. Jackson Memorial

The Caseys will take a dangerous trip to Manalapan two weeks earlier, but this is the revenge game they will be looking forward to the most. Jackson Memorial spoiled a potential perfect season for RBC last year and the Caseys will hope to be capping their regular season by paying the Jaguars back on their home field at Count Basie Field and marching into the postseason unbeaten.