This time last year Manasquan was trying to figure out how to snap an unprecedented losing skid and get back to its usual winning ways. That mission was accomplished with a 10-2 record and the program’s Shore Conference-best 12th sectional title.

The objective this year is simple: bring home No. 13.

“Before last year we didn’t know what it was like to win and there wasn’t a lot of confidence in town that we could do it,” said senior Tommy Antonucci. “Now that we’ve proven it to people we just have to go out and prove it again.”

“After winning states last year everyone just has a lot more confidence,” said senior running back Connor Morgan. “Knowing that we have a chance again, everyone is just really excited to get out there.”

A large senior class was the driving force last year in turning Manasquan from a team that went 3-7 in consecutive seasons to one that hoisted a state championship at Kean University. Just eight seniors return, but combined with a talented and seasoned group of juniors, Manasquan doesn’t see any reason for a drop-off in 2017.

Senior running back Connor Morgan (left) and senior quarterback Tommy Antonucci. (Photo by Paula Lopez/PAL Images).

“We have to fill some spots and now we also have a target on us, so it’s important to have another good season,” Antonucci said. “We can’t just fall off. We have to fight to repeat.”

Manasquan’s offense was vintage last season with a punishing rushing attack and an opportunistic passing game. Some key pieces return, starting with Morgan at tailback. Finally healthy for a full season, Morgan rushed for 1,490 yards and 16 touchdowns to help the Warriors’ offense average 26 points per game. Junior Canyon Birch saw time at both fullback and tailback last year and finished with 594 yards and six touchdowns. Birch will start at fullback, and together they form one of the best running back duos in the Shore Conference.

“Connor will run it right through you and Canyon is shifty, so to have them both in the backfield at the same time is going to make it tough on defenses,” said senior offensive lineman Evan Hilla. “We just have to make the holes.”

“If I need a break he can get the ball and do the same things I can do, so it’s definitely going to wear down defenses,” Morgan said.

Junior James Mele will also see time at fullback. After waiting his turn, Antonucci finally gets to take the reins of Manasquan’s multiple-I offense as its starting quarterback. He started one game last season while also starting on defense, and brings a high football IQ and athleticism to the position.

“I’ve been pretty much groomed to start or at least play some quarterback since my freshman year, and I’ve been waiting behind some guys,” Antonucci said. “I’ve always wanted to play quarterback so I’m excited to be the full-time starter. I enjoy running the huddle and being out there and not really coming off the field.”

“Tommy brings enthusiasm and leadership skills; he’s a coach’s kid,” Price said. “We never ask our quarterbacks to do more than manage the game and make good decisions, and you know with Tommy he’s going to make good decisions all the time. If our quarterback isn’t turning the ball over we’re in pretty good shape.”

The wide receivers are junior James Pendergist, a returning starter, at one spot and the combination of juniors Riley Callahan, Rashid Tuddles and Matt Lyons on the other side. The tight end is junior Jack Fabean with fellow junior Michael Page, a transfer from Hun School, also slated to see time after he sits out four games as per the NJSIAA’s transfer rule. Pendergist is committed to Rutgers as one of several lacrosse standouts on the Warriors’ football team and is an elite athlete who gives Manasquan a major weapon on the perimeter.

“He’s a ridiculous athlete, some of the things he does are unreal,” Antonucci said. “He’s so fast and can jump up and get it, he’s a big threat on the outside. He’s going to do some big things if we get him the ball.”

“Beyond a shadow of a doubt, and with 15 pounds of muscle added on him he’s a different player," Price said. “He can still take the top off a defense and he can run with and cover anybody. He’s a luxury to have. When he’s at corner he cuts the field in half. He’s going to open some eyes.”

The offensive line has to be rebuilt with Hilla as the only returning starter, but Price likes the potential of the entire group. Hilla is the right guard with senior Art Foreman at left tackle. Junior Alex Wells is the center, junior Mike LaPoint is the right guard and senior Sean Anderson is the right tackle.

“The line last year I think only had one kid that had started before, so they were pretty much all new, as well,” Price said. “Evan Hilla may be one of the best pulling guards we’ve had in a long time, and Mike LaPoint is every bit as good as Evan Hilla. Then you need a couple of guys like Art Foreman, who had a tremendous offseason, and Alec Wells to step in. You look what guys like Ben Barry and Nick Pierro did last year after never starting. We try to keep the system pretty simple and let them play fast.”

Manasquan’s defense was No. 8 in the Shore last season allowing 16.2 points per game operating out of a 4-3 base. Hilla returns as a starter but will shift from linebacker to defensive end. Anderson is the other defensive end with Foreman and Wells as the defensive tackles.

Fabean will start at middle linebacker after seeing some time last season and will be backed up by sophomore Tyler Callahan. LaPoint and Mele are the outside linebackers and will be backed up by Morgan and sophomore Tommy Shaughnessy, respectively.

Two starters return in the secondary as Antonucci is back at cornerback and Pendergist is at free safety. Birch is the strong safety and either Lyons, Tuddles or senior Jack Kinneally will be the other cornerback.

The final numbers were great for Manasquan’s defense, but their success was more about rising up in certain situations. Most notable was the Central Jersey Group II semifinals where they held down a Roselle team averaging over 50 points per game in a 31-27 win.

“A lot of those games came down to mental toughness, and that was part of the luxury of having a senior-laden team,” Price said. “That’s where guys like Tommy are going to have to step in, guys like Pendergist who is a second-year starter, Even Hilla; it’s going to have to come from those guys.”

On special teams, Pendergist will be the kicker and Antonucci is a returning starter as the punter.

The success of last season is still fresh in the minds of Manasquan’s players, but beyond using those experiences to further the cause this season, they know they can’t rest on their accomplishments. That’s not how the winningest program in the Shore was built.

“We had questions coming into the season and we’re excited about the answers we have,” Price said. “But outside of Long Branch in Week 1, nothing else really matters at this point.”

At a Glance

Head coach: Jay Price, seventh season.

Career record: 38-26.

Coaching staff: Lou Certo (off. coord.); Brian Lee (QB); Bill Bertscha (OL); Darrell Falkinberg (RB); Jay Price Sr. (DB); Matt Voskian (DL); Rich Griffith, Ed Kapalko (freshmen); Kevin Hyland (athletic trainer).

2016 record: 10-2 (4-2).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Evan Hilla, Sr., OL/DL

Hilla was a starter at linebacker last season but will now play defensive end where the Warriors last season had first-team All-Shore pass rusher Adam Schreck.

X-FACTOR: The offensive line

The Warriors were in a similar situation last season with an inexperienced line, but the group blossomed to become a major part of a championship season. If the same happens this year the Warriors will be in position to repeat as sectional champs.

GLUE GUY: Tommy Antonucci, Sr., QB/DB

A returning starter on defense and now the Warriors’ quarterback, Antonucci brings great leadership qualities to both sides of the ball.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Michael Page, Sr., TE/DB

Page has to sit out the first four games after transferring from Hun, but when he returns his ability to play multiple positions as an outstanding athlete gives Manasquan even more flexibility.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 22 at Middletown South

This will be a tough game on many fronts as the Warriors face the defending Class B North champs while Antonucci squares off against his father, Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci. It’s sure to be an emotional game and also a very important one for both teams.

 

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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