If anyone on the Mater Dei Prep football team needs a reason to focus during practice, he need only ask senior Jon Leverock and anybody else from last year’s Seraphs team about the penultimate play of the NJSIAA Non-Public Group II championship game.

“We ran the hook-and-ladder play just about every day in practice,” Leverock said. “When it was time to do it in a game, we knew it inside and out. If everybody did their job, we knew it was going to work.”

Mater Dei won its first ever NJSIAA championship last year on a tie-breaking, 50-yard hook-and-ladder play that ended with Eddie Lewis sprinting into the endzone with three seconds left on the clock. It was a dramatic ending to an undefeated season that strangely lacked drama before the final seconds of the final game, especially considering that Mater Dei has never approached the level of “football powerhouse.”

Under second-year coach Dino Mangiero, the Seraphs are starting to seriously pursue that mantle of dominance and the mission continues this year against a revamped non-conference schedule that should challenge the Seraphs far more than last season’s slate of games did. In addition to divisional games against Shore Regional, Point Pleasant Beach, Asbury Park, Keyport and Keansburg, Mater Dei will travel north of the Canadian border to play Canada Prep before taking on more local opponents in Lincoln of Jersey City and Delbarton.

“With the schedule we’re playing, we’re going to test ourselves a little more this year,” said Mangiero, a former NFL defensive lineman who also played at Rutgers. “I expect our division to be better this year and I think going out and playing Delbarton, Lincoln in Jersey City and very tough Canada Prep team is going to make us tougher later in the year. We just want to keep getting better and I think those games will be a good test for us.”

“Our schedule is going to make us better,” senior wide receiver Kyle Devaney said. “Holy Spirit was a very good team and we didn’t see anybody at that level until the championship. This year, I think these games will make us more prepared for the playoffs.”

Senior quarterback George Pearson. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Although Mater Dei graduated a crop of impact players that included Lewis, Marvin Pierre and Juwan Mitchell, the Seraphs return a talented bunch led by senior quarterback George Pearson. Now entering his fourth year as a varsity starter at quarterback, Pearson will again be the point man of a potent Mater Dei offense that returns most of its talent on the offensive line and plenty of options at the skill positions.

“Obviously, George is our guy and he is going to be a big part of our offense,” Mangiero said. “When you lose guys like Marvin Pierre and Juwan Mitchell and Eddie Lewis, it’s not easy to replace those guys, but we’ve got some talent and having a four-year quarterback will be an advantage.”

The Seraphs are reloaded with a number of options in the backfield and out wide – both returning and new to the program. Devaney successfully converted from quarterback to slot receiver last season and became one of Pearson’s favorite targets.

“When I found out we were getting (Pearson) last year, I knew we were getting a great quarterback and I just wanted to do whatever the team needed me to do,” Devaney said. “Moving to receiver was an adjustment at first, but I just kept working at it every day and tried to help out however I could.”

On the outside, sophomore Clarence Lewis will take over Lewis’s role as the team’s primary deep threat. Sophomore Isaiah Noguera is also an early favorite for catches in the passing game, while defensive standouts Izaiah Henderson and Russell Ferrisi will play some tight end.

Junior Sincere Saunders returns to the backfield and is the leading candidate to log carries, but far from the only one. Sophomore Malik Ingram transferred into the program after spending his freshman season as a starting tailback at Neptune, while Noguera, junior Brandon Jones and senior Jayden Johnson are worthy of snaps behind Pearson as well. Jones and Johnson are likely to play more at fullback, while Noguera could find himself spread out as a slot receiver.

On the offensive line, center Thomas Olausen and guards Sam Morgan and Shawn Tucker will bring some experience to the middle of the line. Juniors Kajell Whyte and Nolan Aloia bring some size to the tackle positions, while Henderson will serve as a versatile piece who can shift from tight end to tackle. Senior Brandon Walker also figures to get some snaps on the line.

“Most of us were here last year so I expect the line to be really good,” Tucker said. “We have a lot of guys competing so that’s just going to make us better.”

Although Mater Dei lost Mitchell and Pierre in the front seven and Lewis in the secondary, the Seraphs should not miss a beat on defense. The return a promising group of linebackers led by Henderson and Ferrisi, with junior Shittah Sillah – who recently picked up an offer from Boston College, according to Mangiero – joining them as a full-time starter on the outside. Johnson and Jones will also see time at linebacker.

Up front, the Seraphs return Olausen at one defensive end and welcome in St. John Vianney transfer Stephen Richardson, who will play on the other end of the defensive line. Whyte, Tucker and Walker will be among the contributors in the rotation at defensive tackle.

Leverock leads the secondary at cornerback, while Devaney will play one of the two safety spots. With his speed, Lewis will also be a valuable asset in coverage and Noguera’s speed and versatility will also come into play in the secondary. If he can pass along some of the rushing load to some of the new running backs, Saunders can also be a key piece of the secondary.

“There’s a lot of talent here,” Leverock said. “We’re replacing some great players, but some of these young guys are going to surprise some people. As seniors, we’re just trying to make sure they are learning and help them out.”

For at least one more year, talent will not be in short supply at Mater Dei, which should help remedy the losses suffered to graduation and keep the program moving. As much as the team would like to be better, however, it’s hard to top a 12-0 season that ended with a 50-yard, trick-play touchdown in the final seconds to capture the program’s first ever state championship.

“The way we won a state championship last year was by just practicing hard,” Leverock said. “We all focused on our responsibilities and we always did the right thing. If we keep doing that, we’ll keep getting better and have a chance to do it again.”

“We want to follow it up with another championship,” Devaney said. “That’s the goal here now.”

 

Head Coach: Dino Mangiero, second season

2016 Record: 12-0 (5-0, first in Class B Central)

Big Shoes to Fill: Clarence Lewis, WR/DB

Eddie Lewis was an All-Shore receiver for the Seraphs last year and now that he is at Rutgers, Pearson will have to find a new No. 1 target. While Devaney returns in the slot, Clarence Lewis is the speed guy on the outside and has the most big-play potential of any receiver on the team. Considering Pearson’s ability to throw the ball downfield, Lewis will have plenty of chances to make plays.

X-Factor: The pipeline

After a monumental 12-0 season last year, Mater Dei will find out if the program can continue to compete for titles after losing players to graduation. There are a handful of players ready to step into bigger roles this year, while there are also a handful who transferred into the program. Next year might be a better litmus test to see how well the Seraphs can sustain success, but there are a number of spots on the field that will require new players to step up this year.

Glue Guy: Kyle Devaney, WR/DB

Devaney was bumped out of the quarterback job when Pearson transferred into the program last year and did not take long to adjust to playing the slot receiver. He has a quarterback’s understanding of the offense and returns as one of Pearson’s favorite targets, as well as a leader in the secondary.

Impact Newcomer: Malik Ingram, RB/LB

Ingram saw time as a freshman at Neptune last year and will have a chance to make an impact with his new team right away, particularly on offense. Ingram is part of the competition for carries out of the backfield, but can also factor into the passing attack.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 28 vs. Delbarton

Mater Dei has stepped up its schedule this year with out-of-conference game scheduled against Canada Prep, Lincoln (Jersey City) and Delbarton. The game against Delbarton is the only one of the three at home and it will give Mater Dei a chance to try its hand against a larger non-public school that has had recent success.

 

*This story has been updated to correct the personnel in the secondary. The article incorrectly listed Ryan Mandelbaum, who transferred from Mater Dei to Keyport, as a starting safety.