It’s here, finally.

NThe 2016 Shore Conference football season begins* this weekend with 22 games, including plenty of intriguing matches. I added the asterisk since this technically the start of the season. There were a pair of Week Zero games last Friday with Central topping Southern and Ocean handling Monmouth, but, to me at least, it doesn’t feel like opening weekend during Week Zero. The teams that play that first week surely feel otherwise, but the level of excitement and anticipation just isn’t the same as it is in Week One.

This is as good a Week One as I can remember over the last few seasons, with some key divisional matchups and a couple of interesting nondivisional games. We’ve previewed all 43 teams, which you can check out here. Be sure to check out our football preview magazine, as well, which is available in print form at all Super Wawas (the ones with the gas stations) and Jersey Mike’s in Monmouth and Ocean counties.

Our weekly picks are in, so you can check those out, too.

Even though we have a pretty good idea of how the teams and divisions stack up, there is so much uncertainty heading into the first week of the season. Practices and scrimmages are one thing, but until teams are out there in games that count it’s tough to get an accurate read. Week One and Thanksgiving are traditionally the two weeks where some surprises occur, so we could be in for a wild couple of days.

With that said, let’s get into it.

What to Watch For: Week One

Champions League

It’s not too often two returning state champs meet to open the season, but that’s what we’ll get when returning NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II champion Raritan comes to Borden Stadium on Friday night to square off with the three-time defending state champs, including last season’s Central Jersey Group III champions, Rumson-Fair Haven.

Rumson, ranked No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10, has a new head coach as Jerry Schulte replaces Bryan Batchler, but with Schulte serving as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator for the previous 11 years, it’s about as smooth a transition as you could hope for. Rumson starts the season with the ultimate goal of capturing the program’s four straight and fifth overall state title. Only Middletown South, which won four in a row from 2003-2006 and Manasquan, which won a Shore Conference record five straight from 1998-2002, have ever won four consecutive sectional championships.

Photo by Mark Brown/B51 Photography.

Rumson is certainly is a position to match those two storied programs thanks to a great senior class. Senior quarterback Mike O’Connor, who is committed to Colgate, and senior running back Matt Vecchiarelli lead the way for a power-running offense. Senior linebacker Mike Ruane, who is committed to the University of Massachusetts, senior safety Mike Murdock and senior defensive tackle Liam Adams lead a defense that has been among the Shore’s best over the last three years.

Raritan has its own FBS linebacker in UConn recruit Ryan Dickens, a senior, as the Rockets try to duplicate last season’s playoff success throughout an entire season. Senior quarterback Marc Carnivale returns and senior Vito Aleo takes over at running back for two-time first-team All-Shore player and last season’s leading rusher, Derek Ernst. Two-way linemen Matt Thompson and Paul Bavaro are also back to serve as anchors up front.

Raritan was a balanced team last year with offensive coordinators Jeff Struble and Chris Damien calling the shots, but I would expect a more run-oriented offense in the opener with the Rockets breaking in several new starters at receiver. Aleo may be a first-year starter on offense, but the Raritan staff is confident he can step in and keep their running game humming along. Several other around coaches around the Shore have echoed that sentiment.

Photo by Matt Manley.

Rumson would have had a major advantage on the perimeter with 6-foot-6 wide receiver/tight end Elijah McAllister, but an offseason knee injury wiped out his junior season. Rumson will still look to throw the ball with Tyler Pierson leading the wide out unit, but the Bulldogs will also stick to the ground most of the time. This game will be won in the trenches on both sides in what could be a low-scoring game. A key turnover here or there could be the deciding factor.

Aside from the fact that it’s two returning state champs meeting in Week One, this is a crucial Class A Central game since both figure to be competing for the division title. There’s also fourth-ranked St. John Vianney, Matawan and Red Bank in what looks to be a competitive division. Right now, however, it looks like Rumson and St. John Vianney are the two teams at the top. Raritan would certainly like to prove otherwise.

I’ll be on hand to chronicle all the action, so stay tuned on Twitter for updates and gave coverage afterward.

A Certain Shade of Red

Ocean was one of four teams that began their season in Week Zero, and the No. 7 Spartans were impressive in a 42-7 victory over Monmouth Regional. Now comes the first of what will be many tests inside the rugged Class B North division.

Ocean will welcome Wall into Carelli Field on Friday night as it looks to go 2-0. On the surface you would give a clear edge to Ocean, which is ranked in the top 10 coming off a 9-2 season and has one of the top quarterbacks in New Jersey in senior Kenny Pickett, who is committed to the University of Pittsburgh. Wall was just 3-7 last year, but returns an experienced senior class looking to make a push toward the playoffs.

Ocean senior quarterback Kenny Pickett. (By Doug Bostwick/Sport Shots WLB.)

Picket was as good as advertised last week in accounting for over 250 total yards and three touchdowns to power the Spartans’ offense. He has a very good stable of receivers, led by FCS recruit Joey Aldarelli. The big question surrounding Ocean’s offense is in the running game now that Tyler Thompson, the program’s all-time leading rusher, has graduated. Jasher Pena looked good in Week Zero with a touchdown run, and the Spartans also have senior Anthony Tedesco for short-yardage situations. It’ll be more of a by-committee approach, but the Spartans should have enough balance to keep people from totally keying on the passing game.

Ocean’s defense completely dominated Monmouth with sophomore linebacker Billy Levy having a standout game. The Spartans will have a much bigger challenge on both sides of the ball against the Crimson Knights, however.

When senior starting Matt Cluley was injured in the first game last season it completely derailed Wall’s season. The silver lining was that Eddie Scott, now a junior, was thrust into action ahead of schedule and now has plenty of experience coming into this season. There’s plenty of weapons around Scott with senior wide receiver R.J. Janeczek, senior utility Shane Richey, senior running back Sean Larkin and junior receiver Chevesee Covin. The Crimson Knights also all five starters back on the offensive line, which never hurts.

Wall is still an unknown, but certainly has the potential to have its best season in years, even in a division as stacked as Class B North. We know what Ocean is, to a degree, and of course all eyes will be on Pickett. Does Wall have enough on defense to contain him or to keep up with him on offense? I picked Ocean but would not at all be surprised if Wall came up with the win on the road.

Welcome Back

Frank Edgerly doesn’t exactly get to ease back into his second stint as Red Bank Catholic coach, as the Caseys get top-ranked Middletown South at Count Basie Field on Friday night.

Edgerly’s return to the Shore Conference is one of the top storylines heading into the season, while Middletown South remains loaded one year after going 12-0 and finishing as the No. 1 team in New Jersey.

The general consensus about RBC seems to be that the Caseys will be back to their old self sooner than later, but early in the season, with a host of new starters at key positions, they could struggle a bit. Having Middletown South right off the bat isn’t exactly the best scenario, but the Caseys will have, presumably, seen the best the division has to offer in their first game.

Photo by Ray Richardson.

Middletown South has an intriguing quarterback battle with seniors Brendan Donlon and Aneesh Agrawal vying for the starting job. Donlon is the incumbent in that he has been with the program, where as Agrawal was a two-year starter at Holmdel before his family moved to Middletown. Agrawal goes to High Technology High School in Lincroft, so he hasn’t actually switched schools, academically. Elsewhere, Middletown South has experience on the offensive line and at wide receiver. Cole Rogers is gone as a two-year stud at running back, but with Maxx Imsho, Samson Dube, Chaz Alessi and Anthony Summey in the fold the running game should be fine.

Defensively, the Eagles lost star linebacker James McCarthy to an ACL injury, but have senior standout Kevin Higgins to lead the linebacking corps with Imsho, a first-team All-Shore player at safety, and senior Will Gulick and junior Jake Krelin anchoring the defensive line. Middletown South is No. 1 for a reason.

If Red Bank Catholic can hang with Middletown South it will say a lot, but the expectation is the Eagles will be in control. These have been two of the top teams in the Shore Conference for a long time, so there is still plenty of interest. Add in Edgerly returning and Count Basie should be rocking.

Proving Ground

Middletown North and Neptune essentially switched spots with the Lions moving from Class A North to Class B North and the Scarlet Fliers moving from B North to A North. Middletown North has one of its best seasons in decades last year and is looking to take the next step with a large group of returning starters, while Neptune also has a cast of experienced returners hoping to turn it around.

The Lions are led by senior quarterback Donald Glenn, a four-year starter, who threw for nearly 2,000 yards last year. He has his favorite target back, senior Brendan Kube, who also happens to be last year’s leading receiver in the conference. Middletown North also has a solid running back in junior Connor Welsh, who started several games last year filling in for injured starter Chad Freshnock.

Middletown North senior quarterback Donald Glenn. (Photo by Bill Normile).

Defensively, Middletown North has linebacker Nick Kish and defensive back Dwight Wilkerson leading the way. Wilkerson is one of the more underrated players in the Shore Conference as a four-year starter on defense and a threat on offense at wide receiver and in the backfield.

Neptune was a young and inexperienced team last season which now has several returning starters. Junior Chase Fairbanks is at quarterback with speedster Marvin Morgan and 6-foot-2 senior Kahmar Rice as his main targets. In the backfield look for senior Ahmad Coleman and freshman Malik Ingram to lead the way. The Scarlet Fliers also return three starting offensive lineman in seniors Naji Jordan, Gary Hoover and Damien Valentine.

This isn’t a divisional game so a loss by either team isn’t the end of the world, but a win could really get the ball rolling for two teams looking to make noise this season.

Who Runs the Town?

The annual Brick vs. Brick Memorial game is one of the most physical and intense of the season between two bitter rivals, and this year’s version again takes place in Week One when the Mustangs host the Dragons on Saturday afternoon.

Brick has won the last three meetings and outscored their crosstown counterparts 99-20. Both teams enter the season with plenty of question marks, but both also expect to remain contenders and reach the playoffs. The Dragons return plenty of skill players, led senior wide receiver Ja’Sir Taylor, who is committed to Temple. The challenge for Brick is replacing several standouts on the offensive and defensive lines.

Brick seniors Ja'Sir Taylor (6), Jay Obenauer (22), John Prato (12), Dean Helstowski (34) and Jack Finelli (73). (Photo by Ray Richardson).

Brick Memorial is in the same boat in that it has to replace arguably the best group of linemen in program history, but the Mustangs also have the task of replacing two-year starting quarterback Tim Santiago. The good news is they do bring back junior running back Tony Thorpe, who ran for over 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns last season as the secondary option in ‘Stangs flexbone offense. Mustang fans will see a tweak to the offense with head coach Walt Currie going to a pistol formation, but it’s still option football. Junior Grant McKelvey takes over at quarterback.  A player to watch is junior Blaine Netterman, who will start at H-back and at safety, and will be an important player for Brick Memorial.

Not only is this a divisional game, but a very emotional contest, as well. The aftermath usually lasts for weeks. Last season Brick won and started 7-0, and in 2014 the Dragons began the season 4-0 en route to winning a state title. The last time the Mustangs won in 2012 they started 4-0.

Recapping the Rest

FRIDAY

Colts Neck at Howell: The Rebels have a ton of starters back under third-year head coach Luke Sinkhorn and look to turn the corner. The Cougars will be in their first full year under Darian Barnes and also have their eyes on a bounce-back season.

Freehold at Freehold Township: The Patriots made a run to the playoffs in the first year under Cory Davies and look to build off that in their wide-open ‘Air Raid’ offense. The Colonials graduated a lot of starters but return standout running back Ashante Worthy.

Monmouth at Holmdel: The Falcons look to rebound after at Week Zero loss while the Hornets try to start strong under first-year head coach Jeff Rainess.

Matawan at St. John Vianney: The Huskies turn the page after quarterback George Pearson transferred out. There’s still plenty of talent in the program for the perennial contenders, however. The Lancers begin life without Anthony Brown, but should have a power running game with Chris Chukwuneke at running back and Micah Clark and Jamaal Beaty on the line.

JFK-Iselin at Red Bank: There are very few holdovers from last season’s 11-1 sectional finalist team for Red Bank. The Bucs will look to start strong against the Mustangs, who were 1-9 last season.

Toms River East at Central: The Golden Eagles won head coach Justin Fumando’s debut with a great second half against Southern. Now they’ll try to spoil the debut of first-year Toms River East head coach Kyle Sandberg and move to 2-0.

Jackson Memorial at Jackson Liberty: This has been a lopsided game in Jackson Memorial’s favor since they two started playing. Look for a big game from Jaguars running back Mike Gawlik.

Southern at Toms River North: The Rams are trying to rebound from a Week Zero loss to Central, but are really up against it versus a loaded Toms River North team. We get our first look at what should be a nuclear Mariners offense.

Shore at Asbury Park: The Blue Devils graduated a ton of starters from last season’s 12-0 team, but are still the favorites in a Class B Central division they’ve won three years in a row. Can the Blue Bishops catch them before the new starters have had a chance to settle in?

Keyport at Point Beach: A sneaky-good matchup this weekend. The Garnet Gulls return several starters and look to be a playoff team again, while the Red Raiders begin their first season under Jay Graham, who is a former Keyport player and longtime assistant.

Barnegat at Donovan Catholic: The madness that is Class B South begins. One of the burning question is how Donovan Catholic will look under Tom Tarver, and we’ll get a few answers Friday night.

Pinelands at Point Boro: The Panthers have a huge group of new starters and a new head coach in Matt Cilento, who has been and still is the team’s defensive coordinator. The Wildcats really feel they can climb out from one and two-win seasons in their fourth year under head coach Brian Wilkinson.

SATURDAY

Manalapan at Marlboro: We get our first look at a Braves team that is the Class A North favorite and looks to be a state title contender yet again.

Lacey at Toms River South: Lacey is in B South now, but opens up with former A South rival Toms River South.

Long Branch at Manasquan: This is a huge game between two programs trying to get back to their winning ways. It’s also a crucial game to get a victory before facing the favorites in Class B North.

Keansburg at Mater Dei Prep: Keansburg is excited about its offense under quarterback Danny Vital. Everyone wants to see what the new-look Seraphs have become with George Pearson at quarterback throwing to FBS wide receiver Eddie Lewis under new coach Dino Mangiero.

Manchester at Lakewood: The returning Class B South co-champion Piners begin their quest toward another title. Josh Lezin is a force along the defensive line and could have a huge start to the season.

 

Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.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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