The 2017 Shore Conference football season has officially arrived.

The season kicks off with three Week 0 games this weekend, starting with a Class A South matchup on Friday night between Southern and Central. Holmdel has a nonconference game on the road against David Brearley on Friday night, while Ocean and Monmouth Regional get Saturday to themselves with a nondivisional game in Tinton Falls.

The remaining 38 Shore Conference teams will begin their season in conventional fashion during Week 1 on Friday Sept. 8 and Saturday Sept. 9.

This is a great time of year because every team believes they have a shot to win it all. That belief is more realistic for some teams than others, but I’ll never forget being at an Asbury Park preseason practice in 2007 and having senior lineman Paul Zarella tell me the Blue Bishops were going to win a state championship that year. It wasn’t surprising to hear because it’s a common sentiment around the Shore in August, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘yeah, ok kid. You guys were 1-9 last year!’. Sure enough, Zarella was right. Asbury Park lost its season opener to Rumson, then proceeded to win its next 11 games and claim the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I championship.

That was the beginning of a dynasty, as the Blue Bishops would go on to win three consecutive state championships. Things can change so much year-to-year in high school football, and that’s what makes covering the sport, and this area in particular, so enjoyable. You really never know what’s going to happen.

So, here’s to clean slates and championship dreams. Let the games begin.

The Emmerts vs. The Boyds

The Boyd-Emmert Trophy, named after former Central head coach Joseph Boyd and Southern head coach Ron Emmert, will be on the line Friday night when Class A South rivals Southern and Central meet for the 45th time. Central has won the last three games in the series to take a 24-19-1 all-time lead.

Since the series shifted from Thanksgiving to opening day, the teams have delivered a pair of barnburners that came down to the final minutes. Central won a 26-21 overtime duel in 2015 and rallied last year for a 21-14 victory.

Southern enters 2017 highly optimistic after an up-and-down 2016 season ended in mostly positive fashion. Southern won five six of games down the stretch last season to qualify for the South Jersey Group V playoffs after an 0-3 start. The Rams installed a Delaware Wing-T offense last season, and it clearly took some time for everything to come together. It also didn’t help that the final combined record of their first three opponents last year was 29-4. With a much higher comfort level in the offense and a roster that features 23 seniors, Southern looks like a much different team this year.

Central has won the last three games in the Boyd-Emmert rivalry series to take a 24-19-1 all-time lead. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

For a team that runs the Wing-T, it’s not exactly riveting analysis to say it all starts up front for Southern, but it’s true. The Rams strength lies in their offensive line and senior-laden running back corps, which is a main reason they feel they’ll be much more competitive to start this season. Senior running backs Matt Barnett and John Dolphin broke out in the second half last season, trading off big games to help the Rams improbably make the playoffs. Add in senior twins Joe and Vin Miele, who bring a more physical style as fullbacks, and the Rams have a pretty complete running repertoire. The offensive line brings back three starters and the two new starters are seniors who were started on defense last year, so the experience is there. Plain and simple, Southern expects to be able to run inside, outside and everywhere in between.

Southern is unproven at quarterback, so if Central can stymy the Rams running game it would really force them out of their element. Most Wing-T teams aren’t really built to come from behind anyway, so it behooves Southern to stay close at all times.

The biggest question mark for Southern is its defense, which has yielded points at an uncharacteristic level over the past two seasons. They have experience all over the field, so it seems like it’s just a matter of execution to get the Rams back to their usual stingy ways.

Central is in year two under head coach Justin Fumando, and the Golden Eagles made a splash in his debut by going 7-2 and playing in a de facto A South title game. The biggest challenge will be replacing running back Mike Bickford, who graduated as the program’s all-time leading rusher with over 5,000 yards. Sophomore Kavon Chambers has a ton of potential and could be a star in Central’s multiple-I system, but he hasn’t proven anything yet at the varsity level. Junior quarterback Joe Fowler was solid as a sophomore, and it stands to reason he’ll be asked to do a little more this season.

Central graduated most of its offensive line, but does return one of the Shore’s best in senior Brandon Voss. The Eagles also have punishing tight end Blake Horgan. Fumando is a major believer in productive weight room sessions in the offseason, so you can count on the newcomers at least being physically prepared.

The Eagles had a solid defense last season and will have to replace standouts such as Denis Corbin and Jared Giaimo. Horgan and senior Ryan Emmets are back at linebacker while the Golden Eagles have one of the better secondaries in the division with Jonathan Gonzalez, Neil Harrington and Jonathan Banks as returning starters.

For two run-first teams, the keys to the game are pretty simple on paper. Whichever team can control the line of scrimmage and assert themselves stands the best chance at starting the season 1-0. Some plays will have to be made in the passing game, and Central has the clear advantage there. It’s the first game of the season so both teams will be fired up, but Southern seems especially anxious to get back at their rivals and start the season on a high note. Either way, expect a very competitive game on Friday night in Bayville.

 

Monmouth’s Begins New Era vs. Rival Big Red

It’s the dawn of a new era in Tinton Falls as Monmouth Regional begins its first season under new head coach Larry Nikola. The Falcons haven’t had a winning season since 2006 and Ocean has owned the annual series, but this could be the year the Falcons knock off the Spartans.

Monmouth will go with senior Ian Fitzgerald at quarterback of their multiple offense. I’ve heard some good things about Fitzgerald this preseason, so he enters as an intriguing player. A quarterback in certain high school football offenses can be like a point guard in basketball, having a huge effect on every game because of the amount of times he touches the ball. Just look at what Freehold did with Ashante Worthy. Monmouth has a lot of unknowns up and down its roster so it’s hard to get a gauge on the Falcons until they hit the field.

Ocean, meanwhile, as going in a different direction, offensively, after graduating star quarterback Kenny Pickett. The Spartans ran a pro-style offense to take advantage of the skill set of the current University of Pittsburgh freshman, but now that he’s gone Ocean will play a more physical, run-oriented brand of football.

The backfield duo of tailback Jasher Pena and fullback Ryan Moran, behind an experienced offensive line led by senior Andrew Worthington, figures to do the heavy lifting early while sophomore quarterback Robbie Nungesser settles in. The Spartans have a junior-heavy group of wide receivers led by Mike Kircher, Holden Lowe and Mike Nies that could be a pleasant surprise.

This is a tough game to pick because Monmouth has new coaches, new schemes, and players in different positions than last year, while Ocean is certainly a team in transition. This is also a huge game for both teams since Monmouth is trying to build momentum and change its fortunes, while Ocean would like to chalk up a win before getting into the meatgrinder of Class B North.

 

Hornets Head North

Holmdel opens year two under Jeff Rainess with a road game at David Brearley on Friday night. Looking to rebound off a 2-8 year, the Hornets return several starters, including the entire backfield in their triple-option offense with junior quarterback Jeff DeCicco, junior running back Dean Gallo and senior running back Johnny O’Beirne.

Brearley has generally been a championship contender under veteran coach Scott Miller, so this is a tall task for the Hornets on the road to start the season. The Bears were 5-5 last season and played in a state final two years ago.

 

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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