Less than a quarter away from capturing the program’s first NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I championship since 2002, the Keyport football team went from the brink of euphoria to heartbreak for the second consecutive season.

For the players who experienced that heartbreak last year in the prior season – when the Red Raiders lost to Palmyra in the sectional semifinals, 35-34 – they remember the bitter taste of defeat.

They also remember bouncing back.

Keyport shook off the tough defeat in 2015 to reach the sectional final in 2016 and will look to show the same resilience in 2017. Despite overhauling one side of the offensive line and working in a new quarterback, head coach Jay Graham and the Red Raiders have their sights set on the same goal that barely escaped their collective grasp in a 26-17 defeat at the hands of Asbury Park in last December’s sectional final.

Left to right: Antonio Collila, Devin Wallner, Jay Hansen and Buddy Robinson. (Photo by Paula Lopez/PALImages)

“We feel like (Asbury Park) took something that was ours,” senior Buddy Robinson said. “We were up in the fourth quarter and we let it get away. That’s a tough way to finish the season, and in order to make sure it doesn’t we have to work that much harder. Go hard for all four quarters.”

The group that will be carrying the message of finishing games into this year includes some familiar faces from a year ago. Robinson returns to the offense as the fullback this year after spending time both at that position, as well as tight end as a junior. Junior Devin Wallner is also back in the offensive backfield after a breakout season as the Red Raiders’ featured back and most dangerous offensive weapon

Junior left tackle Kyle Roberts and sophomore guard Devon Meza return to the starting offensive line, while Joseph Kay-Flagg and Shykim Treadwell return as either slot backs or receivers, depending on formation.

The rest of the offense is either new or partially new. Senior leader Jay Hansen played tight end last year in two-tight-end sets and will be first on the depth chart this season, while senior Antonio Collila takes over at center after an injury knocked him out of action last year.

“We have a lot of core players coming back this year and we have a lot of new, fresh guys ready to learn,” Collila said. “They have been very competitive, they want to work hard and they want to get things done, so I feel like those kinds of players are the guys we want.”

The rest of the offense will be new starters and contributors, several of whom are transfers from Matawan. Senior Adbul Simon, junior E’Unique Russell-Gittens and senior Jaleel Gopaul all join the Keyport program after attending Matawan last school year and the trio will all push for significant snaps at the skill positions on offense. Junior Julian Castell, senior Ryan Mandelbaum, senior Kamaron Lightbourne and junior Ray Robertson have all stepped up during camp and will get a chance to contribute either out wide, in the slot or in the backfield.

The key to Keyport’s offense will be how quickly the new pieces adjust at quarterback and on the right side of the offensive line. Junior Matt Twigg takes over under center for the graduated Chris Hogrefe and will lead an offense that returns plenty of weapons. On the right side of the line, senior Brandon Tate is ready to step in at right tackle, while the right guard spot is up for grabs, with sophomores Mike Abbate and Anthony Gonzalez battling for the position.

The members of the offensive line will also factor into the defensive line rotation and Graham indeed intends to use his depth on the front four, with Tate and Collila in line for the most playing time on the line.

Hanson and Robinson will be two of the linebackers and Simon has put himself in the mix for the other outside linebacker spot along with senior Noah Geraghty. Mandelbaum, Gopaul and Castell have been the secondary standouts, but Lightbourne, Russell-Gittens and Robertson have also pushed hard for time in the defensive backfield.

While Graham acknowledged his team has plenty of developing to do before getting to the point that last year’s team was for the NJSIAA Playoffs, the competition for the open positions has been the most important part of camp, according to the second-year Keyport coach.

“We have the potential to be where we were last year, but we’re not there yet,” Graham said. “We’ve had some good competition and I think that’s a big reason I think we can be good, but we’ve got to pick up the intensity and the focus by the time we open up.”

One of the challenges Keyport will face is putting all the pieces in place to face a front-loaded schedule that includes consecutive games against Point Pleasant Beach, Asbury Park and Mater Dei Prep to open the season. While the Keyport players are sure to be fixated on a rematch with Asbury Park after losing to the Blue Bishops in the Central Jersey Group I final a year ago, they know that there is work to be done before that game and even more to be done after it.

“That’s definitely a game I circle on my calendar,” Robinson said of the showdown with Asbury Park. “I love the energy we bring in those games and, even more so, I love the energy they bring. We know where ever the game is, they play harder when they know they have to play us.”

“Now, we have that same mentality that they had last year,” Collila said. “We had taken it from them the year before, so they wanted to take it from us and that’s what they did. Now we have to do the same thing.”

 

 

Head Coach: Jay Graham, second season

Career Record: 12-10

2016 Record: 10-2 (4-1 in Class B Central)

Assistant Coaches: Jason Glezman (Def. Coordinator), Pete Miller (Off. Coordinator), Steve Bower (Special Teams), Jerry Hourihan (OL/DL), Jim McGuire (QB/DB)

Big Shoes to Fill: Brandon Tate, OL/DL

The right side of Keyport’s offensive line, including the center and the tight end, is all new this year and that graduation hit also bleeds into the defensive line as well. Graham and his staff have liked the competition this summer and Tate has been among those who have emerged as starters on both sides of the ball. The senior will start at right tackle and is in line to log as much time as anyone in Keyport’s defensive line rotation.

X-Factor: Skill Position Depth

Keyport returns two effective ball-carriers and a pair of experienced receivers, which should help new quarterback Matt Twigg transition into the starting role. On top of that, the Red Raiders welcomed in a wave of transfers from Matawan, most of whom will play at the skill positions. The excess at running back and wide receiver will also give Keyport plenty of options in the secondary.

Glue Guy: Buddy Robinson, RB/LB

While Robinson is a proven source of yardage on the ground, he also contributes as a blocker, both as a fullback and at tight end. He’s also a vocal leader for the Red Raiders and has assumed even more of a leadership role as a senior.

Impact Newcomer: Kamaron Lightbourne, WR/DB

While the number of transfers from Matawan is noteworthy, Lightbourne is a homegrown player who has earned a chance to start as a senior. Lightbourne is primed to play a significant number of snaps both at wide receiver and in the secondary.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 15 at Asbury Park

Keyport and Asbury Park have taken their rivalry outside the confines of B Central and into the NJSIAA Playoffs, which has only served to fan the flames of said rivalry. Keyport beat Asbury Park in the 2015 first round and in the regular season last year, while Asbury Park beat the Red Raiders in last year’s Central Jersey Group I championship game. Throw in the fact that Keyport’s first three games include Point Beach, Asbury Park and Mater Dei Prep, and the Week 2 showdown with the Blue Bishops will be a game that Keyport has to have.