A grueling schedule to open the season prepared the Colts Neck football team to finish off the 2016 campaign on a three-game winning streak. With a similar challenge to open the 2017, the Cougars are hoping a more intense camp will get them ready to win right away.

Coach Darian Barnes enters his third full season as the man in charge of the Cougars and while he has to keep an eye on the usual positional battles that come with replacing key starters like Vinny Gargiulo, Carmen Catena and Matt Volk, he is also trying to ramp up the intensity to prepare his team for a challenging seven weeks of football that the Cougars hope will result in a NJSIAA playoff berth.

Last year, Colts Neck opened the season with three straight losses and 1-6 over their first seven games with an average margin of defeat of 19 points per game. Their first seven opponents this season are identical to the first seven of 2017, so Barnes and his staff are hammering the point home that there are no breaks in the schedule.

“I think we have to feel good about ending the season the way we did,” Barnes said. “As a coach, you just hit the reset button and try to figure out what worked well later in the year, what didn’t work earlier in the year and how to best prepare the players for Week One against Howell.”

“We have to have a better mentality in the first few games of the season,” senior defensive end Chris Harrigan said. “We didn’t play four quarters and it cost us so we have to be ready to go hard for the full four quarters from the beginning.”

Back row, left to right: Justin Kauffman, Jaylan Dawson, Terry Williams, James Rosciano, Jason Kauffman. Front Row, from left: Shawn Scully, Tyler Vecchiarelli and Joey Mauriello. (Photo by Paula Lopez/PALImages)

Colts Neck will have to turn its start to the season around with a group that includes some new starters at key spots. Carmen Catena and Vinny Gargiulo developed into a formidable rushing tandem last season and senior Joey Mauriello will take on the duties of primary ball-carrier out of the backfield after getting dose of work a year ago.

“He was a good complement to (Catena) before he got hurt,” Barnes said. “He was also our starting safety by the end of the year so we feel really good about him having a bigger role this year.”

Mauriello’s task is pretty difficult, but he’ll have help on other parts of the field. Senior quarterback Joey Lombardo came on strong at the end of last year and is the unquestioned leader of the offense heading into his first full year as a starter.

“He’s an exhilarating player to watch,” Barnes said of Lombardo. “He’s feisty. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s just a really impressive kid.”

The offensive line also has some of its top performers back from a year ago. Seniors Evan Imbesi (tackle) and Scott Wetzel (center) are returning starters, while Harrigan is also a capable blocker on the offensive side of the ball should Barnes decide he is okay with playing the senior on both the offensive and defensive lines. The other two spots have been a battle throughout camp, one that includes 6-5, 260-pound sophomore Kevin Wigenton.

“We played a lot of juniors at the end of last year, so now that we’re seniors and we were able to have some success in the last three games, I think we’re a lot more confident,” Harrigan said.

Colts Neck will also work in a new group of receivers after graduating Volk and Bryce Campbell. Senior Sabur Quddus and junior Alajah Dawson will be two of the team’s top receiver options, with Qudus playing his first season of varsity football and Dawson transferring from Mater Dei Prep. Senior Shawn Scully and Anthony Lombardo will also see time at receiver.

The Cougars also bring back senior twins Justin and Jason Kauffman, with Justin playing wide receiver and Jason lining up at tight end.

On defense, the Cougars have the makings of a strong front seven despite losing Gargiulo at linebacker. Senior Derek Victor will take over at middle linebacker, while the Kauffman twins will flank him on either side. Harrigan and senior Justin Fruscione will play the two defensive end spots and the offensive line candidates will rotate in at the defensive tackle position, with Imbesi and Wetzel leading the way.

“The chemistry on this team is really good,” Victor said. “We all work well with one another and we got a chance to get on the field as juniors last year and that really brought us together.”

Mauriello will pair up with fellow senior Neal Patharkar to form the safety duo in the defensive backfield. Senior Terry Williams has won one of the starting cornerback jobs as a first-year varsity player and the other cornerback spots will be a rotation that includes Qudus, Scully, Lombardo and Jaylon Dawson.

“Terry Williams is probably the most improved kid in our program since last year,” Barnes said. “He’s stepped in and not only done a good job with his assignments and technique, but he’s also been a leader to the younger guys, so we’re really impressed with him.”

“I came in wanting to be able to help the team and try to make my teammates better,” Williams said. “I always worked hard, but I think I just put in a little more work this offseason and really made the extra effort.”

Colts Neck could not keep up with Howell in Week 1 last year and the Cougars will once again have to put up with the Rebels in the opener on Sept. 9. Win or lose, the Cougars will have some idea whether they are more prepared to meet this grueling portion of the schedule to open the year.

“Howell’s a great team so we’re excited,” Patharkar said. “We felt like we were right with them for most of the game and just ran out of gas. We don’t want to miss another opportunity like that so we’ve been working hard to make sure we’re prepared to get off the best start possible.”

 

 

Head Coach: Darian Barnes, fourth season

Career Record: 7-15

2016 Record: 4-6 (2-4 in Class A North)

Assistant Coaches: Matt Finucane (Asst. Head Coach/Special Teams), Kevin Gaul (Defensive Coordinator), Derrick Eatman (Offensive Coordinator/QB), Greg Elias (RB/DB), Chris Leroy (WR/DB), Eric Nussbaum (Athletic Trainer).

Big Shoes to Fill: Joey Mauriello, RB/DB

The Cougars featured a one-two senior punch of Carmen Catena and Vinny Gargiulo and replacing those rushing stats is going to fall primarily on Mauriello. Colts Neck also lost Matt Volk in the secondary, so Mauriello will have to fill part of the void there as well. Gargiulo was also a standout linebacker for Colts Neck, so the Cougars will miss him on multiple fronts.

X-Factor: Joey Lombardo, QB

Lombardo was thrown into action last year and showed a natural ability as a leader. With the offseason to work with his entire offense, Lombardo will have a chance to do some more damage with his arm and his legs while trying to build on the three-game winning streak that capped last season.

Glue Guy: Chris Harrigan, OL/DL

Colts Neck will have some questions to answer on both lines but the two things they have going for them on each side of the ball is their depth and a handful of experienced, capable players like Harrigan. The senior will definitely make an impact on the defensive side of the ball and with some openings on the offensive line, he might very well contribute there as well.

Impact Newcomer: Terry Williams, DB

In his first year entering the season as a starter, Williams has stepped up as a senior leader in the secondary, which has certainly pleased Barnes. The 6-2 cornerback also brings an element of size and toughness to the position that should make him a good player, as well as a good leader.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 14 vs. Freehold Boro

For the Cougars to improve on last year’s four-win campaign, they will have to do more damage in Class A North, which means beating one of the teams that beat them last year. Freehold Township might be a more winnable game for this year’s Colts Neck team than it was for last year’s, but Freehold Boro was within reach last year and should be a competitive matchup.