Over the last few seasons Pinelands has slowly risen from the ashes of a winless season to push back into respectability and contention in Class B South. The Wildcats will have a new coach in 2017, but they’re looking to keep moving forward while challenging for a playoff spot.

Matt Fuller, who had been on the Pinelands staff as an assistant for several seasons, takes over as the head coach after Brian Wilkinson was not rehired after four seasons. Pinelands installed a double wing, double tight offense under Wilkinson and will retain that offensive scheme in Fuller’s first season. It’s a difficult offense to prepare for and one that was designed to maximize the Wildcats’ strengths. With more playmakers at the skill positions this year, they’re hoping to make another jump after averaging 21.5 points per game last season.

“Right now we have a lot of talent, I feel, and it’s about getting together as a team and being on the same page,” said senior Rob Eagle. “Once we do that I think we can be great.”

Photo by Paula Lopez/PAL Images

Five starters return on offense, led by junior wing back Evan Burton. The Wildcats’ leading rusher last season, Burton had a breakout sophomore year with 1,362 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. Senior Brennan Richardson added 559 yards and five touchdowns and is also returning at wing back. Freshman Nik Dileo should also see time in the backfield. Eagle and senior Chris Milano are the fullbacks.

Junior Garrett Brown returns as the starting quarterback after throwing for 489 yards and five touchdowns last season. Pinelands is never going to throw it a lot, but Brown has shown the ability to make plays in the passing game when given the chance.

Senior Chris Lewis is a returning starter at tight end and Brown’s top target. Junior Joseph Parkinson will start on the opposite side.

Senior David Kohler at left tackle is the only returning starter on the offensive line, but what the Wildcats lack in experience they make up for with size. Junior Jonathan Maker stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 280 pounds and will start at left guard. Junior Jacob Lucas (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) is the right guard and senior Dante Rodriguez (6-foot, 300 pounds) is the right tackle. Junior Zach Michot will start at center.

Pinelands’ defense also made major strides last season in allowing 22.1 points per game, and will bring back six starters in its 3-4 multiple base. Senior Dylan Bastian is a returning starter at defensive tackle and junior Nick Carmona is a returning starter at nose guard. The defensive end will be Kohler.

Both inside linebackers are returning starters as Eagle returns to the middle and Burton moves inside after starting at outside linebacker last year. Lewis was a starting defensive back last year and will slide down to outside linebacker, while Parkinson will be the other starting outside linebacker. Eagle led the Wildcats with three sacks last season.

Richardson is the only returning starter in the secondary and will line up at cornerback. Brown will step into a starting spot at cornerback, taking over a position his older brother, Glenn, played last season. Andrew Bartlett and junior Bobby LeFevre are the safeties.

“Defense is going to be really important for us,” Eagle said. “Now that we’ve been executing on offense we need to do the same on defense. So far we’re being physical and flying around.”

Senior Ian Medford will take over as the placekicker while Richardson returns as the punter on special teams.

Finishing 4-6 last season was another step in the right direction for the Wildcats. They put together a four-game winning streak in the middle of the season following an 0-3 start, and were very close to finishing with a winning record before suffering an overtime loss to Steinert in an NJSIAA consolation game and a one-point loss to Barnegat on Thanksgiving Eve.

“We’re trying to push ourselves to get into the playoffs because we haven’t been there in a long time,” Richardson said.

“We won four straight games last season and that hadn’t happened in a while,” Eagle said. “Carrying that into this season, we should be pretty solid.”

Head coach: Matt Fuller, first season.

Career record: 0-0.

Coaching staff: Anthony Allocca (off. coord/OL); Scott Peterka (TE); Albert Rowland (RB/WB); Mike Keller (QB); Todd Kaiser (DB); Dominic LaFragola (DL); Stacy Childs (athletic trainer).

2016 record: 4-6 (3-4).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Joseph Parkinson, Jr., TE/LB

Dave Fairl was an All-Division linebacker for the Wildcats last year and Parkinson will step in as a junior to fill his vacated spot.

X-FACTOR: Improved defense

Pinelands showed it could score last season. Now it’s time for the defense to take a similar step forward and compliment the Wildcats’ ball-control offense.

GLUE GUY: Rob Eagle, Sr., FB/LB

Eagle is a returning starter on defense and will also play fullback, and has stepped forward as one of the team’s leaders.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Nik Dileo, Fr., RB

If Dileo is pushing for playing time as a freshman, and doing so at a position Pinelands is already strong at, he must be doing a lot of things right this preseason.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 22 vs. Lacey

Lacey plays a physical brand of football and is a traditional power in Class B South. A win for the Wildcats in Week 3 would be a huge turning point for the program.

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.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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