Football – The Drive for Five: 2017 Rumson-Fair Haven Preview
Last year, the slogan on the back of the Rumson-Fair Haven team t-shirts was “Follow the Line to Greatness.” Two years ago, it was “Not Done Yet.”
This year, it’s “Perfect the Process.”
“That’s just us going out and getting better every single day,” said senior Elijah McAllister. “It doesn’t matter who makes the plays as long as you get them done and you get a win at the end of the day.”
The Bulldogs ended the 2016 season in historic fashion, celebrating their fourth consecutive state title with a 27-22 win over South Plainfield. The win cemented a place for Rumson in the pantheon of Shore Conference greats, joining Middletown South and Manasquan as the only Shore Conference programs to win four straight NJSIAA state sectional championships. This year they’ll seek to enter into even more prestigious ranks and become just the second team in Shore Conference history to win five consecutive state titles. This season’s goal of a half decade’s worth of titles is a testament to the program’s versatility and durability.
“This is a program, not just a team,” said head coach Jerry Schulte, who is in his second year at the helm of the program after serving as its defensive coordinator for 15 years. “Teams are good every couple of years and then you don’t hear from them. It’s going to be a little bit different each year because we have to tweak a little bit because of things that this kid could do that this kid couldn’t do, but it essentially stays the same.”
Replacing the 27 graduated seniors who built the core of last year’s team is no easy task, but Rumson is not one to turn down a challenge. The Bulldogs will return Elijah McAllister, the senior defensive end/tight end, this season after he was forced to sit out the entirety of last season with an ACL injury. The 6-foot-6 senior, who already has collected 20 FBS offers, hasn’t played a down of Shore Conference football since December of 2015, but Schulte has liked what he’s seen so far.
“He’s one of the biggest players around,” Schulte said. “Offensively, he provides a nice target for the quarterback. Defensively, his wingspan and his ability to get outside should help us a lot.”
McAllister caught 13 passes for 149 yards and four touchdowns during his sophomore season, in which he helped lead Rumson to its third straight state title. He’s eager to step back onto the field, and his length, size, and agility will add another dimension to the Bulldogs’ multiple-pro offense.
“You’ll see it on Friday nights, but I think we’ll have a very good and a more balanced offense this year,” said McAllister. “I love being a leader and a role model to the young guys and my fellow upperclassmen as well.”
The Bulldogs will have to replace quarterback Mike O’Connor and running back Matt Vecchiarelli, who combined for 32 touchdowns last fall. O’Connor, who is now at Bryant University, spent three years as the signal-caller for the Bulldogs and finished his career with over 1,600 passing yards and over 2,700 rushing yards. Finding another dual-threat quarterback to amass those kinds of numbers won’t happen overnight, but seniors Dan Harby and Stephen Edler will be solid options at the quarterback position heading into the season.
Senior running back Peter Lucas and junior fullback Alex Maldjian will take the place of Vecchiarelli, who will be suiting up this fall at Holy Cross after totaling more than 2,100 rushing yards in his career at Rumson. Lucas saw time in eight varsity games last fall, rushing for 258 yards on 25 carries, while Maldjian rushed for 192 yards on 26 carries.
Returning alongside Lucas on the offense is junior Ian O’Connor at tight end. Senior Justin Johnson also returns to command the offensive line, and is joined by 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior Ryan McCann and 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior Jack Kelleher.
Rumson had one of the Shore’s strongest defenses again in 2016, allowing just 9.75 points per game. This season, though, they’ll be tasked with replacing several defensive standouts, most notably Shore Sports Network Defensive Player of the Year Mike Ruane.
“What we tell our kids is, ‘You’re playing a position now that we had an All-Shore kid in last year’ and I don’t want that new kid to feel like he has to be that kid, so we never say, you’re the new so-and-so. This is your position, (and) if you want it, you make it work,” said Schulte. “We tell all the players the same thing. ‘You’re not last year’s kid. You’re you. And we expect you to play your way, and we’ll work around you.’”
The Bulldogs return two-thirds of their linebacking corps in Christian Lanzalotto and Keegan Woods, who flanked Ruane last season as weak-side and strong-side linebackers, respectively. Lanzalotto, who stands at 6-foot-3, had 67 tackles on the year last fall, and Woods finished with 84 stops.
The entire Rumson defensive line will also return to the team’s 4-3 defense, led by senior Chase Pfrang and including juniors Joe Afflito, Henry Sullivan, and Isaac Vernon while adding McAllister to the group. The defense is rounded out by a young secondary unit that will have to replace All-Shore safety and current Lafayette defensive back Mike Murdock. Seniors Jack Shebell, Wyatt Feinberg, Liam Donahue, and Gavin Pomphrey all saw varsity action last season.
“We always have a great defense, so I’m expecting that again,” said McAllister. “On the defensive line we’re very long, very athletic. In the linebacking corps, we’ve got a lot of guys who got a lot of snaps last year so we’re ready, and in the secondary we’re athletic as well, so obviously I think we’ll have a great year.”
Juniors Quinn Doherty and James Hempstead will handle the kicking duties for the Bulldogs following the graduation of three-year starter Thomas Chapin.
Last year’s senior class etched their names into the record book by becoming the first group in school history and one of just three in Shore Conference history to take home a state championship ring in each of their four years. This year’s seniors are looking to do the same thing. But to get there, they’ll have to make it through a schedule that includes state semifinalist St. John Vianney and a Middletown South team that handed the Bulldogs one of their three losses last season.
“Every year we have the same motto as well: 1-0 in the first game and 1-0 in December,” said McAllister. “If we can do that, obviously we’ll come out as state champions.”
Rumson knows the process. Now, it’s time for them to perfect it.
AT A GLANCE
Head Coach: Jerry Schulte, second season (17th overall)
Career record: 68-81-1
Assistant Coaches: John Corneliusen (QB/off. coord.); Joe Murphy (OL); Chris Quinn (WR); Frank Papalia (TE); John Andl (RB); Jeremy Schulte (DL/special teams); Bill Lagroterria (DL); Rob Orrok (DB/strength); Jerry Gagliano (freshmen); Jason Lippart (freshmen); John Belivance (freshmen); Mike Roberto (freshmen); Joe Lagrotteria (sideline); Chris Alworth (technical); Frank Gripp (K/P); Jack Velcamp (manager); Alex Stein (athletic trainer).
2016 record: 9-3 (5-1)
Big Shoes to Fill: Keegan Woods, Sr., LB and Chris Lanzalotto, Sr., LB
All-Shore linebacker and current UMass inside linebacker Mike Ruane finished with the fifth-most tackles (120) in the conference last year. His shoes and his role in the defense won’t be easy to fill, but Woods and Lanzalotto flanked Ruane all last fall and learned from him about what it takes to be a premier linebacker in the Shore.
X Factor: The running game
For the past four years, the bulk of Rumson’s offensive production has come from strong running backs, like Charlie Volker (Princeton) and Matt Vecchiarelli (Holy Cross). Senior Peter Lucas and junior Alex Maldjian combined for 450 yards on nearly 50 carries last year, and they have the potential to join the ranks of the great Rumson running backs of the past ten years.
Glue Guy: Elijah McAllister, Sr., WR/DE
Though McAllister wasn’t out in pads on the field last season, his leadership and commitment to this program were evident, even from the sideline. As McAllister is one of the few players in Rumson’s two-platoon system who plays offensively and defensively, the Bulldogs will benefit from his presence on both sides of the ball.
Impact Newcomer: Ian O’Connor, Jr., TE/DE
O’Connor was a talent for Rumson’s basketball team last winter, averaging 12.3 points per game for the Bulldogs, and now he’s looking to translate that success on the hardwood into success on the field. If McAllister begins the season playing mostly on the defensive side of the ball, that could open up a spot for O’Connor to step up at tight end and have a strong season.
Pivotal Game: Sept. 28 vs. Middletown South
Last year’s matchup between these two Shore Conference powerhouses came down to the wire and ended in a 14-13 Middletown South victory. Both teams graduated their core group of seniors, and coming off its bye week, Rumson will be looking to even the score.