Football – Prepared for the Grind: 2017 Brick Preview
With a winning tradition as good as any program in the Shore Conference, saying Brick has the look of a classic team is quite the compliment. The traits that made Brick a football dynasty – toughness, commitment, camaraderie – seem to be present in the 2017 version of Green Dragons football as they enter the season with the same goal they’ve had for the last 60 years.
“We want to win states every year,” said standout junior Jimmy Leblo. “We have the highest goal and we work with 100 percent effort to get there, no matter what.”
The names on Brick’s roster are largely nondescript. There is no FBS recruit like they had with Ja’Sir Taylor over the last four years, no record-setting quarterback like Carmen Sclafani. There’s talent, no question, but what defines this team will go beyond athletic skills.
“You have to play as a team and that’s what we are, we’re a big group of friends,” said do-it-all junior Cole Groschel. “If you’re together you can beat anyone. We’re just going to be Brick.”
Brick graduated an excellent senior class that lead them to an 8-4 record and an appearance in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final last year, so the challenge will be to integrate several new starters and key reserves. The bulk of that will come from a tremendous junior class that has 10 players who started on either side of the ball last season.
“Our junior class is a special group of kids and our senior group has been mostly JV players who are hungry,” said Brick head coach Len Zdanowicz. “That has created a nice storm for us where we have a bunch of seniors who are hungry to play and a bunch of juniors pushing them. If they don’t work hard they won’t get on the field, so there’s been great competition in camp.”
From an experience standpoint, Brick’s defense enters ahead of the curve with seven starters back in its 4-3 base. Juniors Cory Englehardt and Christian Malta are returning starters at defensive end while senior Patrick Giesler returns at defensive tackle. Seniors Jake Meehan, Dylan Poppe and Rahmi Halk have been working in at the other defensive tackle spot while senior Chris Hirtes, who started two games last season, has also been working at defensive end. Senior Joe Gajewski should also see some playing time along the defensive line.
Junior Richie Tallmadge returns as the starting middle linebacker with junior Dylan DeAlmeida backing him up. Junior Joey Carchio, who became a starter toward the end of last season, is back at strongside linebacker. The weakside linebacker spot is between senior J.T. Carey and junior Cole Ortner. Sophomore Johnny Costanza is also in the mix at linebacker.
The defensive backfield features standouts Groschel and Leblo at cornerback and strong safety, respectively. Leblo had a dynamite sophomore season with 94 tackles and four interceptions while Groschel made 60 tackles. The other cornerback spot will be manned by junior Mike McGuigan Jr. Senior Tyler Giesler and junior Damian Bonafide will rotate in at cornerback. Playing opposite Leblo at strong safety will be junior John Strich and senior Nick Malta in a rotation.
Last year Brick started six sophomores on defense, which didn’t look like a good sign on paper. Instead it ended up being a blessing. They all performed well and now, as juniors, have a 12-game season under their belts.
“Everyone used to say chalk up a loss for every sophomore you play, and last year we started 10 of them and ended up going to a state final,” Zdanowicz said. “We kind of bucked the trend there. We were lucky enough to have such a good class. They weren’t handed the starting spots, they beat out juniors and seniors and were just better than the kids in front of them.”
Flipping over to the Dragon’s multiple offense where only two starters return, the challenge has been to find out who fits where and smooth over any rough edges. There has been a quarterback competition between Leblo and sophomore Anthony Prato. Malta is a returning starter but is switching positions from offensive line to fullback. Carchio will be the tailback.
Englehardt and Hirtes will split time at tight end alongside an offensive line that has five new starters. Meehan or senior Mike Nardoza will be the left tackle, senior Casey Vargovcik is the left guard and either Poppe or junior Zach Piscope is the center. Giesler is the right guard and the right tackle spot is between Halk and senior Anthony Scardelli.
Helping to mold the inexperienced offensive line is veteran Shore Conference coach Sam Turner, who was a longtime assistant at Matawan.
“Sam has been a great pickup. He’s intense and he gets the kids fired up,” Zdanowicz said.
Groschel is a returning starter at wide receiver but was used all over the field as a sophomore. Expect him to be deployed in a similar fashion with snaps at wide out, slot, running back and maybe even quarterback.
“The more positions I can play the more I can help the team,” Groschel said.
“Graduating a kid like Ja’Sir Taylor, we’re hoping Cole can grow into what that role was,” Zdanowicz said. “We’re not trying to put more pressure on him but the kid has always been special. I’ve known him since he was born. I’ve seen the kid grow up and he’s always been that type of player. We’re hoping he can blossom into that dominant type of player for us on both sides of the ball.”
Leblo also had some playing time at receiver last year, and if the coaching staff goes with Prato at quarterback Leblo would slide into a starting wide receiver role.
“Jimmy is a special athlete out there too,” Zdanowicz said. “He can do so many different things.”
Tyler Giesler, Nick Malta and senior Colin Geber round out the receiving corps with junior Jake Weatherspool pushing for playing time at tight end, as well.
On special teams, the kicker will be either Hirtes or Prato while Carchio is the punter.
Class A South is usually one of, if not the, most competitive divisions in the Shore Conference. This year there doesn’t appear to be one team that stands above the rest, making every week a critical game because of the uncertainty of how things will break. Brick also has a very tough nondivisional schedule with three-time defending Class A Central champion St. John Vianney and Class B South contender Lakewood.
It won’t be hard to stay focused on Week 1, however. Not as long as the opponent is archrival Brick Memorial.
“We know what we have ahead of us, but right now these kids have one thing in mind and that’s beating Brick Memorial,” Zdanowicz said. “It’s driven our whole offseason. We know it’s going to be a battle out of the gate.”
At a Glance
Head coach: Len Zdanowicz, third season.
Career record: 16-6.
Coaching staff: Brian McNamara (def. coord./DB); Kevin Stockhoff (off. coord./QB); Chris Blackburn (DL); Donovan Brown (LB); Bill McDonnell (LB); George McNamara (def. asst.); Sam Turner (OL); Scott Lloyd (TE); Dave Christopher (RB); Jay Groschel (WR); Al Saner (asst.) Jared Kight (asst.); Kurt Weibolt (K/special teams); Don Marino (head freshmen); Chad Dougherty, Scott Karos, Dan Dornacker, Karl Rex (freshmen); Jim Barber (athletic trainer).
2016 record: 8-4 (5-2).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Cole Groschel, Jr., WR/RB/DB
Groschel is a returning starter on both sides of the ball but the coaching staff is hoping to use him in a similar role they had for star Ja’Sir Taylor, who is now at Wake Forest. They’re not asking Groschel to be Taylor, but his dynamic skill set gives him the ability to be the Dragons’ Swiss Army knife.
X-FACTOR: The offensive line
There’s a reason one of the biggest football clichés is “it all starts up front”. A lot will depend on how well – and how quickly – the five new starters on the offensive line come together.
GLUE GUY: Patrick Giesler, Sr., OL/DL
Brick doesn’t have many experienced seniors and Giesler is one of them. He has put up some legendary weight room numbers over the past couple years, and that kind of work ethic is something that tends to rub off.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Anthony Prato, So., QB
There’s a good chance Prato is the Dragon’s starting quarterback Week 1 against Brick Memorial. He has the talent and athleticism to shine as a sophomore.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 9 vs. Brick Memorial
Just mark it done every year. Everyone in town is fired for football season as it is, and pitting the rivals against each other on opening weekend always makes for a great atmosphere. The momentum to be had from a win here looms large.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.