Football – Tough Act to Follow: 2017 Toms River North Preview
Ask fans around the Shore Conference what they think of a particular team and you’re bound to get a slew of different answers. In the case of Toms River North, most people would say they don’t know how good the Mariners are going to be, but there’s no way they can be as good as they were in 2016.
It’s a logical thought, and Mariners coach Dave Oizerowitz understands why people would come to that conclusion. Toms River North graduated an incredible senior class that included two FBS wide receivers, an all-time Shore Conference great at quarterback, a 1,500-yard running back, a tackling machine at linebacker and a few standout linemen. You don’t just replace those players and move forward without a hitch, but that doesn’t mean the expectations have changed for the defending Class A South champions.
“We’ve talked about the fact that outside the program people think we’re going to fall off and not be as competitive, but the expectations have stayed the same,” Oizerowitz said. “These kids are winners. They have won at every level all the way down to youth football. We’re not trying to be better than last year’s team, we just have to be the best version of ourselves.”
Last season Toms River North finished ranked No. 1 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 with an 11-1 record behind an offense that averaged 44.3 points per game. To expect this year’s team to duplicate those numbers would be unrealistic, but the expectation for the 2017 team to challenge for championships the same way the previous group did is what defines the program.
“We look at it as trying to be a dynasty,” said senior Daryn Blackwell. “It’s in our heads that we’re Toms River North, and we’re supposed to be good. That’s motivating. The young guys learn from the older guys what it means to win and work hard, and they see how it’s done and know they can get there when it’s their time.”
“We don’t have big names this year but we have people that will step up to the plate and get things done,” said senior Andrew Daniluk.
Let’s not get it twisted, however. Toms River North is still a very talented team that should once again be in contention for the Class A South division title. Players like Blackwell and Mickey Maldonado Jr. are among the best in the Shore at their respective positions, and combined with a promising sophomore class and a junior class that is beginning to turn the corner, the Mariners shouldn’t fall as far as some may think.
It has been a quarterback competition between sophomores Gennaro Guardascione and Matt Spalletta, and whomever ends up winning the job and directing Toms River North’s power spread offense has to follow in the footsteps of one of the greatest quarterbacks in Shore Conference history. Mike Husni capped a record-setting career by throwing for over 2,000 yards and rushing for over 1,500 yards while scoring a combined 44 touchdowns. He is the only quarterback in Shore Conference history to run and pass for over 1,000 yards in three straight seasons.
“We’re not looking at is as replacing Mike because he’s an all-time player, not just here but in the Shore,” Oizerowitz said. “We know what we’re looking for within our scheme at the quarterback position and they both fit the profile. Gennaro was up with us as a freshman learning and playing JV under Mike, while Matt quarterbacked a 9-0 freshman team and is very talented in his own right.”
Senior Erik Kelly is the fullback with sophomore C.J. Niedzielski and junior Erik Navarro also at the position. Blackwell will play tailback with Maldonado and sophomore Nasir Calhoun also slated to get carries. The tight end is 6-foot-6, 285-pound sophomore Najae Hallenback, who is a relative of former Lakewood star Thomas Carroll. Daniluk is a returning starter and leads a receiving corps that includes senior Anthony Urso, juniors Aaron Craig, Dashawn Wilder and Will Marsh and sophomore Dominick Jacob.
A pair of starters return along the offensive line with 6-foot-4, 290-pound senior Billy Dowd at center and 265-pound senior Bryan Schlesinger at left guard. The newcomers along the line also boasts good size as 6-foot-2, 275-pound junior Stavon Drew is at left tackle, 6-foot-1, 255-pound junior Nick Renda is at right guard and 6-foot-2, 255-pound junior Dan Crow is at right tackle.
“The primary concern for us is we have to win the line of scrimmage on both sides, and there’s a certain way we go about doing it,” Oizerowitz said. “The names change but the execution of it has to remain the same. There will be some growing pains, but we think we have the talent up front to mold into a line that will give us a chance to win football games in the fourth quarter.”
Defensively, the Mariners will try to improve upon a defense that yielded 21.2 points per game last season. Six starters return in their 3-4 front, beginning with Blackwell and junior Tom Monica at defensive end. Blackwell played outside linebacker last season, but will be moving back to a position he played as a sophomore.
“He’s a real big Swiss Army Knife for us,” Oizerowitz said. “On offense he’s played tight end, H-back, tailback; he’s a tremendous blocker. Defensively he played end as a sophomore and last year we moved him to overhang where he was one of the better players in the Shore. This year we’re asking him to move back to weakside end, and he’ll do whatever it takes. He’s the consummate teammate and will do whatever he can to help the team.”
Senior Jose Hernandez rounds out the defensive line at nose tackle.
Senior Ian Briggs is a returning starter at outside linebacker and junior Jordan Johnson is a returning starter at inside linebacker. Sophomore Vinnie Palmieri will start at the other inside linebacker spot with junior David Sklenar also in the mix. The other outside linebacker position will be either junior Ryan Holland or junior Anthony Colon.
The cornerbacks are senior Brandon Indelicato and sophomore Jarrod Pruitt, and the safeties are both returning starters with Maldonado at strong safety and senior Bishop Curry at free safety. Sophomore Ray Carlson and junior Sean Aguiar will also see time in the secondary. Maldonado was a breakout star last season with 101 tackles en route to a first-team All-Shore selection.
“Last year I thought Mickey was as good a player in the secondary as there was in the Shore,” Oizerowitz said. “He’s a multi-dimensional athlete who can play quarterback for us, is a slasher with the football in his hands and is a lights-out safety. We’re expecting big things from Mickey, for sure.”
“One thing I like about our secondary is we don’t stop, we go get the ball,” Maldonado said.
On special teams, the kicking and punting duties will be handled sophomore Sergio Borda.
Toms River North has a rugged Class A South schedule to deal with plus nondivisional games against Middletown South and Howell, so it won’t be an easy road. The Mariners might not be able to duplicate the high-flying offense of last year, but they still plan on remaining one of the top teams in the Shore Conference.
“We’re seeing our juniors blossom with our sophomores pushing them, and between those two classes with some really good seniors, we have the opportunity to be a tough, physical football team in the mold of Toms River North teams we’ve always had,” Oizerowitz said. “The expectations are the same: win the division and get into the playoffs with a good seed.”
“The names may be different, but these kids expect to win.”
At a Glance
Head coach: Dave Oizerowitz, fifth season (seventh overall).
Career record: 40-25.
Coaching staff: Mike Oizerowitz (off. coord./WR); Rich Malek (def. coord/DB); Gabe Roonan (LB/special teams); Bill Dowd (OL); Bob Cassidy (DL); Charlie Monanian (DL); Nick Zaza (QB); Chris Gold, Bill Wilbert (freshmen); Kendall Hostnick (athletic trainer).
2016 record: 11-1 (7-0).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Gennaro Guardascione, So., QB/Matt Spalletta, So., QB
Whoever wins the starting job will be taking over for Mike Husni, the record-setting SSN Offensive Player of the Year from 2016 who accomplished things no quarterback in Shore Conference history had previously done. The coaching staff doesn’t expect either player to replace him, but they do need someone to take the reins of the position and stabilize the offense.
X-FACTOR: The offense
Toms River North graduated so many top players from its electrifying offense that it will be interesting to see how all the new pieces fit together and if they can remain one of the better offenses in the Shore.
GLUE GUY: Daryn Blackwell, Sr., RB/DE
Oizerowitz described Blackwell as “a great leader and the undisputed captain of the football team”. He’s a three-year starter on defense and a versatile player on offense whom the Mariners will rely on greatly.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Jarred Pruitt, So., DB
Toms River North will have several new starters and is high on the sophomore class. Pruitt will step into a starting job at cornerback.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 22 at Brick
You could pick any of the Class A South games in what figures to be a very competitive division race. The Mariners and Dragons have had some great games the last few years, and Brick will be out for revenge after Toms River North dropped 62 points on them last season.
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.