For 10 years, the Holmdel football team was an ultimate underdog. The Hornets went nine seasons without a winning campaign and on the 10th try, they turned the proverbial ship all the way around with a winning season in 2017.

Now, not only is Holmdel returning the vast majority of its starters from a 6-4 team, but the Hornets are also moving out of a division that included the likes of St. John Vianney, Rumson-Fair Haven, Monmouth Regional, Raritan, Matawan and Red Bank and into one with four Group I schools and two larger programs that have had mixed results in recent years. All that makes for some lofty expectations.

“We’re more experienced, it’s our senior year and we want to go out with a championship,” senior tackle Austin Fischer said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

“We’re a real tight group of kids,” senior defensive end Alex Starr said. “We believe in our coaching and we believe we can do special things here, and that wasn’t always the case in past years.”

All signs point to a banner year at Holmdel and that is exactly why third-year coach Jeff Rainess is imploring his senior-laden squad to forget all of the outside noise and maintain the same edge that won them six games against a trying schedule last year.

Photo by Steve Meyer

“There can be no letdowns,” Rainess said. “If you want to go do something special, if you want to go deeper into the playoffs or whatever the case might be, those things have to happen now. So no letdowns in the weight room, no letdowns in the classroom, no letdowns on the practice field or when we’re in meetings. They need to give 100 percent 100 percent of the time. If you have the kind of goals we want to have, you have to prepare for that goal today.”

Holmdel will have an advantage in experience relative to the rest of its division thanks to a group of seniors that have been a major part of the team in each of the past two seasons. Four senior linemen return and senior Chris Muldoon is the early favorite to take over at center. Tackle Sean McCann and guard Jack Tedeschi make up the left side of the line while guard Mike Iulo and Fischer anchor the right side. Seniors Brandon Saghafi and Dan Tempone return at tight end and will be an extension of the offensive line when either is on the field.

“It’s extremely important to have pretty much all the same guys back (on the offensive line),” said Fischer, who was an All-Class A Central selection by the coaches last year. “We’re bigger, stronger, tougher and we’re ready to get after people.”

Fischer and Tedeschi have been mainstays on the line and McCann has turned himself from an undersized underclassman looking for a position into one of the team’s most reliable players.

“I was 160 pounds and I didn’t really know what I was doing and coach (Rainess) really helped me learn how to put the work in in the weight room and in practice,” McCann said. “That’s how it’s been for a lot of guys out here. We were always one of the smaller teams and we’re still probably not the biggest, but we’ve all worked hard to get stronger and learned how to play with what we have.”

The skill positions are also overrun with experience, led by senior quarterback Jeff DeCicco, who will run Holmdel’s triple-option attack for the third straight year. The Hornets lost bruising back Johnny O’Beirne to graduation but return junior Cameron Lamountain and senior Dean Gallo. Junior Tommy Ammirati will offer a change of pace with his speed out of the backfield, as well.

Senior Mack Byrne will be the deep threat for DeCicco, lining up out wide on the offensive side of the ball. Byrne caught four touchdowns a year ago despite playing in a run-heavy offense.

“We have a pretty difficult split-back veer offense that we like to run,” Byrne said. “We have a smaller group of kids and we’ve been practicing it for a couple of years, so it’s kind of hard to stop and it’s definitely hard to figure out how to defend. That also opens up the passing game and it’s hard to figure out when it’s coming.”

Holmdel will work out of multiple fronts on defense with the personnel slightly favoring a 4-3 look. Fischer and Tedeschi will play tackle while Tempone and Starr are the defensive ends.

Saghafi takes over the middle linebacker spot for O’Beirne and will be flanked by juniors Joe D’Acunto and Nick Bauman, with DeCicco also playing some outside linebacker in certain schemes.

“DeCicco has been pushing to play defense for the last two years and we’re going to give him a shot this year,” Rainess said. “He’s ready to hit somebody.”

Holmdel’s biggest graduation hit came in the secondary with the loss of Scott DuPont and Johnny Christian. Byrne will work in at safety with juniors Ryan Jennings and John Tomasulo while Gallo and junior Evan Jennings lead the field of cornerbacks.

Although Holmdel’s schedule is far more manageable than it has been in recent years, there is no guarantee it will actually help the Hornets in light of the new, more opaque power points system. While no team on the schedule represents the kind of competition that St. John Vianney or Rumson offered, there will be a host of solid teams who view Holmdel as a team to beat. Factor that in with the reduced power-point impact of Holmdel’s schedule and the Hornets might not have much margin for error when it comes to carving out a favorable seed in the Central Jersey Group III section.

Whatever the outcome, Rainess and his players can at least take some form of consolation in the fact that not only are expectations high within in the program but also among those outside the nest who saw first-hand the progress the team made last year. That might not feel like sufficient consolation if the Hornets can’t win the National Division title or advance deep into the state playoffs, but it certainly marks a change in culture for the once-downtrodden Holmdel program.

“We’ve been preparing these guys for this for two years,” Rainess said. “We told them as sophomores that before they know, senior year is going to be here and now it’s here. It’s hard to explain the sense of urgency that comes with being a senior on a high school football team, but those guys have that now. As coaches, we just want them to make the most of the opportunity.”

 

At a Glance

Head coach: Jeff Rainess, third season

Career record: 8-12

2017 record: 6-4 (3-3 in A Central)

Offense: Triple Option

Defense: 4-3/Multiple

Coaching staff: Joe Principe (Def. Coordinator/LB), John Gazerwitz (DB), Michael Dorsi (DL), Anthony Dorsi (RB), Tom Hennessey (QB), Drew Piscatelli (WR), Steve Barry (Freshman), Colin Hart (Freshman), Shannon Davis (Athletic Trainer)

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Dean Gallo, RB/DB

Gallo plays in two of the position groups affected by graduation, so his experience and leadership will be a major factor in helping the Hornets overcome the likes of Johnny O’Beirne at running back and Johnny Christian and Scott DuPont in the secondary. Gallo ran for 1,017 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

X-FACTOR: Schedule

Holmdel is one of the Shore’s greatest beneficiaries in the new realignment, losing St. John Vianney and Rumson-Fair Haven on the schedule while joining a division with four Group I schools and two more that have not done a lot of winning recently. That could, of course, backfire if Holmdel doesn’t rack up a big win total because the power points won’t come as easy playing against smaller schools. There is also the question of whether or not the Hornets will be properly-tested come playoff time, but the lessons of the past two seasons should help with that.

IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Evan Jennings and Ryan Jennings, DB

Rainess believes his group of juniors has a chance to open some eyes on a senior-heavy team this year and the Jennings boys will be a duo to watch in a relatively young Hornets secondary.

PIVOTAL GAME: Oct. 5 at Donovan Catholic

The two supposed favorites in the National Division are Holmdel and Donovan Catholic and they will not meet until Week Five in Toms River. Donovan Catholic is loaded with juniors and is attempting to build a non-public power in Ocean County, somewhat similar to the way Mater Dei Prep has overhauled its program over the past five-to-seven years. The Griffins have their sights set on the top of the Shore Conference in years to come, but Holmdel has a chance to stall their rise to the top this year.

 

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