After consecutive 5-5 seasons that were the byproduct of fielding a mostly young and inexperienced team, Point Beach is banking on relative depth and seasoned veterans to lead it back to championship contender status.

A roster that, over the past two years, was filled with several freshman and sophomores playing key roles is now a team with experience and confidence all over the field. Factor in a vast improvement in leadership and a focus on team speed, and the Garnet Gulls believe they should be back over .500 and in the thick of the playoff race.

“Experience is everything and age is a big part of this game,” said senior wide receiver and defensive back Connor Kells. “When you have a senior team like we have this year, everyone is pushing each other to get better and the leadership starts coming through.”

“It’s so different where we’re at compared to last year,” said head coach John Wagner.  “Things I really preached in the offseason were leadership and team speed, and we’re better all over the place on both sides of the ball.”

From left to right: juniors Jon Nista and Luke Frauenheim, and seniors Cade Watkins, Cody Liguori and Connor Kells. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

The Garnet Gulls return nine players that were either starters or saw significant playing time in their Delaware Wing-T offense. Juniors Luke Frauenheim and John Nista split time at quarterback last season, but it will be Frauenheim taking the reigns of the offense full-time this year. As a sophomore, Frauenheim ran for 766 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Nista could also see time there along with sophomore Jake Madden working in.

“Having these past two years learning the ropes, coming into my junior year I’m looking to be more of a leader and take charge on offense and defense,” Frauenheim said.

The backfield features three returning starters with junior speedster Chris Webber back from injury at halfback and senior Jason Bowers back in the mix at fullback, plus sophomore Brad Parry at halfback also adding a speed dimension after starting several games as freshman. Also at fullback are seniors Miles Shea and Jack Baker. Joining Webber in the halfback rotation are seniors Declan Conway, Roddy Rupp and Jacob Clement, along with junior Sean Gould. Seniors Ryan Craig, Dom Waldman and Dom Castronovo will also see time in the backfield.

Nista will move to tight end as the starter with junior Jean Verrier, senior John Lynch and junior Nick Melito also at the position. Point Beach will undoubtedly run the ball the vast majority of the time, but the Gulls will have weapons on the outside to attack opposing teams with. With Kells, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior and 6-foot-2 senior Ryan Sloan at wide receiver Point Beach can make teams pay if they stack the box or decide to leave either one in single coverage.

Kells averaged an absurd 25.9 yards per catch last season with 493 yards and seven touchdowns on just 19 receptions.

“Our offense is a lot more loaded this year,” Frauenheim said. “We’ve been a ground-and-pound, shove-it-down-your-throat team the last couple years, but this year we can get on the edge and go up top on you. We have a lot of weapons we’re ready to use.”

Versatility is a major theme on Wagner’s teams, so Point Beach’s offensive skill players could find themselves all over the field.

“It’s huge because you can start moving kids around and giving the defense a different look,” Kells said. “I play receiver, but can also play tight end. Same thing with the running backs or even quarterbacks.”

The biggest factor in improving an offense that was 26th in the Shore Conference at 18.6 points per game may be an experienced and versatile offensive line. The group has three starters returning and depth with eight players that will see time. Wagner has all his linemen learn each position so they can be rotated in and out to stay fresh, since most will also be playing defense. Seniors Matt Zuhowski, Cade Watkins and Cody Liguori are the returning starters with senior Jon Ricciardi and junior Sean Gross joining them as the likely starting five. Junior Tony Lipari, senior Chris Benhur and sophomore Nick Kenmure, who started the final three games last season, will all see playing time.

On defense, Point Beach will run a 4-3 base and try to improve on last season’s mark of allowing 20.5 points per game, which was 20th in the Shore Conference. Just like the offensive line, the defensive lineman will rotate from tackle to end as necessary. Liguori, Watkins and Zuhowski are also returning starters here with Baker, Benhur, junior Jimmy Sherlock and senior John Lynch completing the rotating.

Four players who played enough to be considered starters return at linebacker with Frauenheim, Nista, Webber and Conway leading the way. Rupp, Shea and Parry will also see time at linebacker.

The secondary returns both of its starting cornerbacks with Kells and Gould. Clement is the safety with Conway also playing safety depending on how the front seven lines up. Kells made 35 tackles with four interceptions last season, including one returned for a touchdown.

“On defense we need to be solid and we can’t allow big plays,” Frauenheim said. “That killed us last year.”

On special teams Gould is back as the kicker and Sloan returns as the punter. Watkins is the long snapper and Kells is the primary return specialist. He had a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown last season.

Depth is always a concern at a small school like Point Beach and an injury or two to the wrong player can derail the season. The Garnet Gulls do have better depth than they’ve had in recent seasons, and most of those payers have plenty of game experience. They hope it all adds up to a bounce-back season and a return to chasing division and state titles.

“This year the expectations are really the same in that we want to be a playoff team,” Wagner said. “But you have to really play it week-by-week. The big question marks are what Bishop Ahr is and what Mater Dei has become. I think we’re going to be pretty competitive every week, and that’s what we try to be. I tell our kids, we have some very good players but they’re only as good as the surrounding players make them. I’m excited about where we’re at.”

“Everyone has been working hard and we’ve known since freshman year that this group of kids could have a pretty good team,” Kells. “We know what we can accomplish.”

RELATED: 2016 Point Beach football schedule

Head Coach: John Wagner, 6th season (31st overall).

Career Record: 38-16 (188-108-2 overall).

Coaching Staff: Jeff Bower (RB/DB), Rich LaDuca (OL/DL), Mike Pellicane (WR/DB), Brenden Neary (OL/DE/Freshman), Paul Struncius (QB), Mike McGee (WR/LB/Freshman), John Seip (team manager), Cali Whedon (athletic trainer).

2015 Record: 5-5 (3-2).

BIG SHOES TO FILL — Jimmy Sherlock, Jr., DL: Sherlock steps into a defensive line rotation as a first-year starter as the group looks to replace the production of All-Class B Central defensive end Tanner Smith.

X-FACTOR — Connor Kells, Sr., WR/DB/KR: Kells is a major weapon on the outside for a team that primarily runs the ball, and his ability to make big plays all over the field makes him a key, game-changing player for the Gulls.

GLUE GUYS — Cade Watkins, Sr., OL/DL and Cody Liguori, Sr., OL/DL: Both are veterans along the offensive and defensive lines and will be key factors in Point Beach winning the battle at the line of scrimmage.

IMPACT NEWCOMER — Jack Baker, Sr., FB/DL: A standout wrestler for the Garnet Gulls, Baker will get a chance to play meaningful snaps on both sides of the ball. He brings good size and athleticism to the team.

PIVOTAL GAME — Oct. 21 at Shore Regional: The Blue Devils are two-time defending Central Jersey Group I champions and have won the Class B Central title three years in a row. If Point Beach is to win either this season it will have to get past Shore.

 

Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.