Joining Forces: Daquane Bland-Bennett and Shakeem Richardson
Since they were 10 years old, Neptune's Shakeem Richardson and Asbury Park's Daquane Bland-Bennett could count on the fact that every season they were either lining up on the same team or playing against one another.
After flip-flopping from teammates to opponents throughout the years, they will once again be wearing the same jersey as part of the Monmouth County squad that will take on Ocean County in the 37th annual U.S. Army All-Shore Gridiron Classic at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Brick Township's Keller Memorial Field. That will just be the start of them becoming teammates again, as both are headed to Division II West Virginia Wesleyan College to continue their careers.
"It's definitely going to be fun,'' Bland-Bennett said. "He's one of my closest friends off the field. During the season there was a little hostility because it's Asbury vs. Neptune, but it's all love."
Bland-Bennett and Richardson played against one another in Pop Warner when they first started playing, and then Richardson played with Bland-Bennett for Asbury Park Pop Warner in seventh and eighth grade. Both of them then went to Neptune, seeing some time as sophomores on the Scarlet Fliers team that took home the program's first NJSIAA title since 1998 when they won the Central Jersey Group III crown in 2011.
They once again became rivals when Bland-Bennett transferred to Asbury Park before his junior season, where he helped the Blue Bishops make a pair of state playoff appearances. As a senior, he earned All-Class B Central honors after he ran for 445 yards and six touchdowns on an average of 8.7 yards per carry, finished with 13 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown, and averaged 22.3 yards per kick and punt return to finish with 1,005 all-purpose yards.
Richardson, who was also a standout point guard on the basketball team, remained at Neptune. He played cornerback on the team that made a return trip to the sectional final in 2012 before he stepped in as the Scarlet Fliers' starting quarterback this past fall as a senior, earning All-Class B North honors as a utility player. Richardson also finished with the upper hand in bragging rights as Neptune beat Asbury Park in their longtime Thanksgiving rivalry game in each of the past two seasons.
The two old friends have had some fun in practice this week, as Richardson will be playing cornerback for Monmouth County while Bland-Bennett will be a slot receiver and kick returner. The two have been going head-to-head occasionally in drills.
"We practiced jam drills,'' Bland-Bennett said. "I put him down one time. He got the best of me once. It's been fun."
"It's been great to go against him and the other top guys from the Shore,'' Richardson said. "Nobody has any big attitude. We all just want to go out and play our best and represent Monmouth County."
Bland-Bennett, who played running back, receiver and defensive back in addition to returning kicks for the Blue Bishops, was recruited as a slot receiver for West Virginia Wesleyan. After he signed, he had another player in mind whom the Bobcats might be interested in.
"He was asking me about the school, and it hit me like, 'Come to Wesleyan,''' Bland-Bennett said. "I called the coach, told him about (Richardson), and they had already seen him and liked his film, so they wanted him."
"I had actually applied to the school before (Bland-Bennett) committed and then once I contacted the coach, it all came together,'' Richardson said.
Thursday's game will give them a chance to experience playing their projected college positions in a faster game with higher-level talent before they head off to the next level in mid-August.
"I couldn't wait to get back to playing defense,'' Richardson said. "Everyone knows I'm an athlete and Cicc (former coach Mark Ciccotelli) had to find an athlete to play quarterback this year. Now I get to go back to playing the position I played all my life."
"I noticed that the first day of (Monmouth County) practice,'' Bland-Bennett said about the speed of the game. "I went to run an inside slant route, and I wasn't expecting that much force from the linebackers, so I had to buckle down a little bit. With guys like (Long Branch linebacker) Deon (Williams) out there, you have to be quicker in your routes."
As it has been for every Asbury Park player over the years, the Gridiron Classic is a chance for Bland-Bennett to show that guys from small Group I schools can compete with anybody.
"Certain guys you would think would be a lot more cocky are real down to earth, and I didn't expect that from a lot of guys,'' Bland-Bennett said. "We get a lot of respect out there. People throw shame on our rings (at Asbury Park), saying we don't play anybody, but the kids we play with on this (Monmouth County) team respect us athletically, and we respect them back. I didn't think that would be the case."
Richardson and Bland-Bennett are each the lone representatives from their schools playing in the game, so now that they're back on the same squad, they look to make their mark under the bright lights in Brick on Thursday.
"I can't stop thinking about it,'' Richardson said. "I can't wait for Thursday, and I can't wait for the future."