Most teams wouldn’t mind having a whole bunch of returning starters heading into their junior year, and Holmdel is glad to be such a team this year.

Another reason for excitement in Holmdel camp is something that many other players in high school football might take for granted: the coach is back.

Coaching turnover has plagued the Holmdel program for the better part of the last decade, so the fact that head coach Jeff Rainess and his staff return along with a slew of seniors would seem to bode well for a program looking to turn the corner in a difficult Shore Conference Class A Central division that houses the likes of St. John Vianney and Rumson-Fair Haven.

“I’ve been coaching most of these guys since they were young so I felt comfortable with them as players when I took over (last year),” Rainess said. “The main challenge here was establishing a culture and a level of expectations – not necessarily about how many games we’re going to win or how far we’re going to go in the playoffs – but just in the commitment level. We want guys to understand what it takes to compete and I think the first year was about establishing what we expect from them on a daily basis: on the field, in the weight room, in the classroom – all of those things.”

From left to right: John Mackey, Johnny Christian, Scott DuPont and Johnny O'Beirne. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

As much as the coaching consistency should help Holmdel this year, the returning players will have more to do with any step forward that the Hornets take this year. Johnny O’Beirne is a returning senior among the wave of juniors and he is in line to lead the team in carries while also anchoring the defense at linebacker.

“The transition between last year and this year has been so much easier,” O’Beirne said. “You actually know what to expect when you come to practice and that just makes it easier to focus on the game.”

“We know the coaches and the coaches know us,” junior Jack Tedeschi said. “We know what to expect from them every single day and they know what we’re capable of.”

Junior Jeff DeCicco also returns after starting at quarterback last year as a sophomore. Holmdel ran an offense heavy on the triple option, which Rainess picked up as a player at Morris Knolls and plans to use going forward. Junior Dean Gallo will also join O’Beirne in the backfield as one of the options at running back.

Like the rest of the team, the offensive line will consist of players with varsity experience. Juniors Brandon Saghafi and Tedeschi are back at the two guard spots, while juniors John Kipnis and Austin Fischer line up at tackle with Sean McCann, Jack Kapcsos and Mike Iulo in the mix as well. Seniors John and Ryan Mackey also figure into the offensive line, as does junior Chris Muldoon.

Although Holmdel’s primary plan of attack involves keeping the ball on the ground, the Hornets have a collection of juniors to go with DeCicco that will make the passing attack more of a threat this year. Junior Mac Byrne saw significant time as a sophomore and has the potential to be a No. 1 weapon in the passing game, while seniors Scott DuPont and Johnny Christian also bring back experience at the position. Senior Alex Galarza is in his first year of varsity football and will see time as well.

“There is a huge difference for me between this year and last year,” DeCicco said. “We were so young as a team last year so not only was I learning the offense, but everyone around me was pretty much getting used to it too. I feel like we started to jell late in the year and then when you add in an offseason, as a quarterback, it’s huge for your confidence to know everyone is on the same page coming in.”

Holmdel’s defense starts with its collection of linebackers, which include O’Beirne, Saghafi and DeCicco, as well as Muldoon and sophomore Cameron LaMountain. DeCicco’s value at quarterback could limit his exposure on defense, so the Hornets will try to lean on depth.

Tedeschi leads the defensive line from one of the defensive end spots, while Kipnis, McCann and Kapcsos figure into the equation at defensive end as well, along with juniors Dan Tempone, Mike Carella, Alex Starr and Nick Spinelli. Ryan and John Mackey, Iulo, Fischer and junior Marvin Ling are among the group of defensive tackles.

The secondary consists of Byrne and DuPont at the safeties and the rest of the wide receiver candidates vying for time at cornerback. On the whole, the defense made strides over the course of 2016 and with so much of last year’s lineup back, the Hornets should make similar progress over the course of the next two years.

The Hornets responded to a 0-5 start by winning two of their final five games, including a divisional win over Matawan and a non-divisional win over Manchester.

“I can’t tell you how many games we’re going to win, but I expect we’ll continue to improve,” Rainess said. “No coach goes into a season hoping to go 2-8, but I think with the way we finished the year, we felt like things were definitely moving in the right direction. It sent us into our offseason on a high note and I think our guys had a positive message to take with them. Now, it’s our job to keep that going.”

 

 

Head Coach: Jeff Rainess, second season

Career Record: 2-8

2016 Record: 2-8 (1-5 in Class A Central)

Assistant Coaches: John Principe (Def. Coordinator/Assistant Head Coach), John Gazerwitz (DB), Chris Germinario (DL), Drew Piscatelli (WR), Tommy Hennessey (RB), Steve Barry (Freshman), Brian Schwarz (Freshman), Shannon Davis (Athletic Trainer)

Big Shoes to Fill: Mac Byrne, WR

Byrne returns with experience as a varsity wide receiver and in the secondary and now that he is a junior on a junior-heavy team, he’ll be among the players expected to step up. One of the few seniors Holmdel lost to graduation was Vincent Vitiello at receiver and in the defensive backfield, so Byrne is a leading candidate to pick up the mantle and lead those two units.

X-Factor: Experience

Holmdel was as sophomore-heavy as any team in the conference last year, so in that sense, the Hornets have a chance to be significantly improved. It goes beyond just on the field as well. Holmdel has lacked continuity in the coaching staff in recent years, so the return of Rainess and his staff along with most of the players from last year give Holmdel an element continuity it hasn’t really had in a while.

Glue Guy: Johnny O’Beirne, RB/LB

One of only seven seniors on the roster, O’Beirne is an established starter on both sides of the ball who leads both by example and his play. As the group of juniors continue to grow into what Rainess hopes will be a markedly improved team by next year, O’Beirn can help set the tone for a surprising season this year.

Impact Newcomer: Alex Galarza, WR

Galarza is new to the program despite being a senior, but Rainess expects that he will be able to contribute as a receiver and perhaps in the secondary. Holmdel will again work off the triple option, but with an experienced quarterback and a handful of capable receivers, the ball could be in the air a little more often than it was a year ago.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 9 at Monmouth

Holmdel improved over the course of last season and the hope among the Hornets this year is that the improvement will carry into the beginning of the schedule. Holmdel opens up against David Brearley and will follow that up with a trip to Monmouth Regional on Sept. 9. Monmouth defeated Holmdel last year, so if Holmdel can turn the tables this time around, it would signify notable progress.