Football – Staying the Course: 2015 Pinelands Preview
A one-win improvement may not seem like much, but a closer look at Pinelands’ 2014 season reveals a team that made huge strides in year No. 2 under head coach Brian Wilkinson.
The Wildcats went from routinely losing by 30 and 40 points in 2013 to significantly closing the gap last season. Among their eight losses, only two came by more than 10 points. They were in basically every game, and that tangible progress has them excited for another Shore Conference football season.
“Last year we closed the gap as far as the scores go and this year we’re going to break right through and get those wins,” said senior two-way lineman Max Schnepp, an All-Class B South selection by the coaches last season.
The difference-maker for Pinelands has been the installation of its run-heavy double wing offense. By keeping the ball on the ground on nearly every play, the Wildcats shortened games and kept their defense fresh. The results began to show last season. Now they are ready to refine their offense and take the next step forward.
Four starters return, with Schnepp and fellow senior Cameron Winters anchoring the offensive line. Schnepp is the left guard and Winters is the left tackle. Junior Mike Frezza will be the center, junior Robbie Hart is the right guard and junior John McAndrew is the right tackle. The tight ends are juniors Gennaro Balletta and Robert Reeves. Those seven will form the wall in which the backs will operate behind.
“I absolutely don’t think we lost a step,” Winters said. “Losing (Joe) Puggi, (Dave) Staton and (Dave) DeFeo, they were great players but in losing them we gain some great players. It will be a great experience for the younger guys to see what they have. I think we’re going to be fine this year.”
Stepping in at quarterback is junior Nick Rex. The fullbacks are senior Dean Disanzo and junior Kyle Hehre. The wing backs have two returning starters among the group in senior Will Jenkins and junior David Fairl. Sophomore Brennan Richardson and junior Justin Kirkpatrick round out the positional group.
Growth is expected just from being more familiar with the offense, and the Wildcats would also like to add a little more of a threat in the passing game to keep defenses honest. They have showed some of that in preseason scrimmages as they look to improve on their 12.3 points-per-game average from last season.
“This offense has meant the world to us,” Winters said. “With past offenses we’ve used our team was three-and-out all the time and our defense was getting no rest and giving up 40 points a game. Now we’re taking time off the clock and our defense has a chance to rest, and that’s brought out its strength.”
Only a handful of teams in the state run the double wing, most notably Dunellen, and it is a difficult defense for opposing teams to prepare for.
“That’s one of the reasons we went to it,” Wilkinson said. “There’s a famous saying in coaching that you either have to do something better or you have to do it different. We want to do both of those things. We picked an offense that suits our kids and our attitude, and one that hopefully gives other coaches headaches trying to prepare for.”
The Wildcats made huge strides defensively last season in going from allowing 37 points per game in 2013 to yielding 18 points per game, putting them in the middle of the pack in the Shore Conference. Just being on the field a lot less made a difference along with another year of experience in their 3-5-3 alignment.
Winters is the nose guard with Schnepp, a returning starter, and Reeves as the defensive ends. The middle linebacker is sophomore Rob Eagle, the strongside linebacker is senior Jordan Gomez and the weakside linebacker is Hehre. The outside linebackers are Fairl, a returning starter, and Jenkins.
The secondary features Rex and senior David Reid as the cornerbacks and Richardson as the safety.
“Our offense and defense complement each other, and it’s something we try to beat home to the kids,” Wilkinson said.
Sophomore A.J. Long will reprise his role as the kicker. He kicked a pair of field goals as a freshman, including a 38-yarder. Balletta will be the punter.
It continues to be noticeable how much the atmosphere has changed during Wilkinson’s tenure. The practices are upbeat, and after taking some major steps last season, the players are starting to see the fruits of their labor.
“I think the kids believe and the coaches believe,” Wilkinson said. “Our idea is to come out here and teach, so that’s what we do. We keep a businesslike approach and treat them with respect, and in return the kids give us everything they have. I have zero complaints with their effort.”
“The mentality has been really good and that helps everyone out,” Schnepp said. “It has everyone pumped up and hitting hard.”
Head Coach: Brian Wilkinson, 3rd season (10th overall).
Career Record: 40-53.
Assistant Coaches: Matt Fuller (off. coord./RB); Anthony Allocca (OL); Scott Peterka (OL); Rob Sanzari (DL), Dave Dempsey (QB); Justin Loomis (LB); Albert Rowland (DB); Dan Abbato, Rob Micheliche, Richard Pear (freshmen); Stacey Ayles (athletic trainer).
2014 Record: 2-8 (2-5).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: The running backs
It would be unfair to pin this on any one player considering the huge stable of running backs Pinelands will use, so the onus is really on the entire group to find someone to step up and replace the production void left by the graduation of Jaylin Roman, who ran for 756 yards and seven touchdowns on 6.2 yards per carry as a senior.
X-FACTOR: The offensive line
Last year the Wildcats had four of five starters returning, whereas this year they have three new players along the line. For an offense that will run as much Pinelands, it will all starts with the big guys up front.
GLUE GUY: Max Schnepp, Sr., OL/DL
A three-year starter on offense and a two-year starter on defense, Schnepp is among the veterans Pinelands will rely on for consistent play and leadership in the trenches.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Brennan Richardson, So., RB/DB
Richardson will step into a starting role on defense as a safety and also see plenty of time in the backfield as a wing back.
PIVOTAL GAME: September 4 vs. Donovan Catholic.
The Wildcats open up in Week Zero against the Griffins for the second season in a row. Last season the Wildcats lost on late field goal before the result was reversed because Donovan Catholic was found to have used an ineligible player. Donovan Catholic is coming off an 0-10 season, so while this is a winnable game for Pinelands, it will be important for each team to come out of the gates with a win.