Manalapan entered last season with a new cast of skill players when a huge senior class graduated after leading the program to its first sectional title. The expectations from the outside weren’t nearly as high as the previous four seasons when the Braves reached a sectional final each year, yet a young Braves team was seconds away from beating the eventual state champions in the semifinals.

Now, behind a stacked junior class, the Braves are back and ready to reclaim their spot among the Shore Conference’s elite.

“I think there’s a foundation that’s been built and ingrained in them, and they know if they do what we tell them to do they have a chance to win,” said Manalapan head coach Ed Gurrieri.

Manalapan looks to be one of the top teams in the Shore Conference in 2016. (Photo by Robert Badders).

The Braves have the talent to be among the best teams in the Shore and compete for a state title one year after going 6-5, a down-year by the Braves lofty standards. Entering the 2015 season, Manalapan had reached four straight sectional finals and compiled a 43-5 record.

To get back to their winning ways the Braves will have six starters back in their multiple pro offense and eight in their 3-4 defense. There are high expectations for junior quarterback Luke Corcione as he heads into his second season as a starter. He was forced to sit the first 30 days of his sophomore year since he earned a varsity letter as a freshman at Red Bank Catholic, but once he became eligible he began to flash his potential. He did that even more when Manalapan won the Shore Conference 7-on-7 championship this summer.

“Those 7-on-7s don’t mean anything as far as real football, but it’s an indicator of how good he can be,” Gurrieri said. “We’re excited. The sky’s the limit. He’s a great kid, he’s smart and he’s a real hard worker.”

“Luke is a kid that comes out every day to get better and looking to lead the team,” said senior offensive lineman Mike Cardinale. “He’s a great all-around quarterback.”

Among Corcione’s targets at wide receiver is Temple recruit L.J. Holder, a senior. He’s joined by two more returning returning starters in juniors Scott Scherzer and Symir Blacknall. The tight end is senior Jonathan Pimentel with senior Mike Taylor and sophomore Tommy Pearce also in the mix. One of the most important positions on Manalapan’s roster is its fullback, and they have one of the best in the Shore in junior Chris Maksimik, who had 10 touchdowns last season. He’ll look to lead the way for junior Naim Mayfield, who didn’t start last year but saw plenty of time and scored four touchdowns.

“Naim can be electric, and I think (Maksimik) is one of the better players in the Shore,” Gurrieri said. “He catches everything, he runs really well and he’s a great blocker. He has a chance to be a special player.”

The offensive line features five new starters, but features players that were simply stuck behind a standout unit the last two years. Senior Gage Ciorciari is at left tackle, senior Antonio Scala is the left guard, senior Joe Sicolo is the center, Cardinale is the right guard and junior Trevor Radosevich is the right tackle.

“Our O-line coach, Joe Tetley, has been here forever so we’ll be fine there,” Gurrieri said. “These kids are solid players that were really victims of circumstance. They came along at a time where we had probably our best group we’ve ever had.”

Manalapan is usually the most balanced team in the Shore, offensively, establishing the run and then using play-action to carve up defenses through the air. The Braves have the personnel to do exactly what they want this season.

“That’s our reputation,” Corcione said. “We’ll run the ball, run the ball and then pass it over your head when you’re not ready.”

“Run the ball, that’s Manalapan,” Cardinale said.

On the defensive side, Cardinale is a returning starter at nose guard in Manalapan’s 3-4 base. Sophomore Richie Peters saw some time as a freshman and will start at defensive and opposite junior Antonio Deieso.

The back seven has the most experience, including a group of linebackers that could be the among the best in the Shore. Pearce started the last four games last season and will pair with junior Sal Tardogno at inside linebacker. Pimentel is a returning starter at outside linebacker and Taylor started eight games last season.

The secondary has three returning starters with senior Sean Kinniburgh and Blacknall at cornerback. Senior Cody Weiner is the strong safety and the free safety position will be either junior Eli Avivi or senior Mike Sellmeyer.

“When you bring this many guys back on defense it gives you a chance,” Gurrieri said. “It gives the offense a chance to gel and come along, and there won’t be a lot of pressure on them if the defense is getting off the field and getting them the ball back.”

Weiner will be the kicker and punter, but the Braves also have junior David Gelb who can handle both.

With so much talent and experience coming back this season the Braves know how good they can be. They are staying humble, but aren’t shying away from their ultimate goal.

“We have the same expectations as every year,” Cardinale said. “We want to win a state championship and we’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”

RELATED: Manalapan 2016 football schedule

Head Coach: Ed Gurrieri, 10th season.

Career Record: 76-25.

Coaching staff: Dan D’Avanzo (off. coord.); Dom Lepore (def. coord./DB); Joe Tetley (OL); Bill Smith Sr. (TE/OLB); Matt Inzirillo (WR); Jim Papcun (WR); Dom Polifron (DL/spec. teams); Billy Smith Jr., John Harrison, Corey DeCastro, Reggie Grant Sr. (freshmen); Shannon Tomasula (athletic trainer).

2015 Record: 6-5 (3-3).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: The offensive line

A completely new group of starters takes over for arguably the best group of linemen in program history, determined not to miss a beat.

X-FACTOR: The passing game

Manalapan can always run the ball, and on years when it has a passing game to match it is among the most dangerous and dynamic offenses in the Shore.

GLUE GUY: Cody Weiner, Sr., S

A team captain and a big part of the Braves’ defense, Weiner will also handle the kicking and punting duties.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Richie Peters, So., DE

After playing some snaps as a freshman, Peters gets the starting job along the defensive line.

PIVOTAL GAME: Oct. 21 vs. Neptune

The Scarlet Fliers are new to Class A North and also return an experienced group that should have them in the hunt for the division title. This could be the game that decides it.

 

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. 

 

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