Back in 2015, the Raritan football team proved that if a team can just get into the NJSIAA Playoffs, just about anything is possible. The Rockets went from a 3-5 team on a five-game losing streak at the start of the postseason to a sectional champion.

The last two seasons, however, were a sobering reminder that those types of postseason runs by teams hovering around .500 are the exception rather than the rule and this year, the Rockets have a renewed appreciation for the process required to put themselves in position to win a championship.

“Whether we wind up being in Group 2 or Group 3, we show our guys every year that our record vs. Group 2 schools is pretty impressive," said Raritan head coach Anthony Petruzzi. "When we lose in Group 2, it’s usually to a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the playoffs and we don’t play those schools until we get to the playoffs. Our guys understand that our regular-season schedule helps us in the playoffs and if they get after it against some of these bigger schools, they are going to be ready for anything.”

Last year, Raritan did qualify for the playoffs at 4-4 but fell to Point Boro in a lopsided first-round game. The Rockets then lost their regular-season finale to Holmdel to end in disappointing fashion. Among the highlights last year was the performance of running back P.J. Buccine, who is entering his senior season after leading the team in rushing both as a sophomore and as a junior.

Photo by Steve Meyer.

“On the offensive side of the ball, we’re looking good,” Buccine said. “We don’t have the biggest guys, but we’ve got a lot of heart and a lot of hard-working guys, which is what this program has been all about.”

This year’s offense will be more tailored to Buccine and the running game, with the Rockets returning to the spread offense but working in more veer concepts, as Petruzzi explained.

A major reason for the change in offense is that Raritan will be turning to a new quarterback, which will come down to either Dan Caponi or D.J. Dekis, both of whom are juniors.

“We don’t have to be a team that just plays one quarterback,” Petruzzi said. “They both do things well and they both do things differently. There is a different flavor to both of them and as long as they are both doing when they are coached to do, we’re going to give everybody an opportunity to make their mark.”

Raritan’s new offense also means that two of its wide receivers from a year ago – junior Dan Fiore and senior Nick Kenneally – will be featured more as slot backs than traditional wideouts. Kenneally was the leading receiver on the team last season. Junior Mike Fiore and sophomore Luke O’Hea will also be part of the backfield picture.

The offensive line will lose two key pieces in brothers Sean and Ryan Greaves, but there is some experience returning up front. Seniors Hunter Neville and Joe Sidisin will play tackle, with senior defensive standout Justin Acevedo possibly playing some, as well. Junior Kevin Lind is back at center and Justin Trotta and Kyle Mulvey will take over at guard.

Raritan is inexperienced at wide receiver and likely won’t rely on the position as a whole to pick up a high percentage of yards in the new offense. Junior Kevin Haug, senior Chris Carton and senior Rob Bologna are three potential wide receivers while Dan Fiore and Kenneally are also proven at the position in certain formations.

Neville, Lind and Sidisen will be the three primary down lineman in Raritan’s 3-4 front, but will get help from senior Jared Reick, junior Tom Casiano and senior George Mazur as part of a rotation.

Acevedo and senior Tom Dorsey will lead an experienced group of linebackers that also includes juniors Dan McCormack and Mike Fiore. The linebackers are the most settled of the three levels of the defense, according to Petruzzi.

“We have a senior group with a lot of team chemistry,” Acevedo said. “Looking back at last year, we probably didn’t give 100 percent all the time and this year has just been a lot different.”

Raritan will go with a full-on rotation rooted in competition in the secondary. Dan Fiore and Jon Carton will be the starters at safety and Kinneally at cornerback, but Petruzzi is adamant that all three get a chance to rest when possible. That means Haug, O’Hea, senior Kenny Smith, senior Danny Lugli and junior Jaylen Smith will all be asked to step in and play meaningful snaps at different spots around the secondary.

The Rockets have been grounded by 0-3 starts in each of the past two seasons after starting their 2015 championship campaign 3-0. Each of the 0-3 starts came against St. John Vianney, Rumson-Fair Haven and Wall and the schedule – while challenging – will be significantly more manageable this year at the onset. Raritan starts the season with Neptune, Monmouth Regional, Manasquan and Colts Neck before playing a Point Boro team that knocked the Rockets out of the Central Jersey Group 2 playoffs.

“We took too many shortcuts last year and that probably hurt us,” Buccine said. “We needed leaders to step up and not just captains who are talking. We needed guys who lead and guys who work hard to do their job and we have that going for us heading into the season.”

 

At a Glance

Head coach: Anthony Petruzzi, ninth season

Career record: 30-42

2017 record: 4-6 (2-4 in A Central)

Offense: Spread-Pistol

Defense: 3-4

Coaching staff: Chris Damian (Off. Coordinator); Jeff Struble (Off. Coordinator/QB), Matt Dempsey (OL); Dave Ernst (OL); Jerome Dean (LB); Joe Schroeck (DB); Joe Schillaci (Strength and Conditioning); Mike Nunes, Nick Buzzo, Nick Sparacello (Freshman); Mike DeSocio (Athletic Trainer)

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Joe Sidisin, Sr., OL/DL and Hunter Neville, Sr., OL/DL

Sean Greaves was an All-Division offensive lineman last season and, along with his brother Ryan, set the tone for the offensive line throughout the year. Sidisin and Neville will be tackles this year and Sidisin will also help out on the defensive line, where both Greaves brothers made an impact, as well.

X-FACTOR Quarterbacks

Raritan is looking to employ a more run-heavy look on offense this season, which will include moving receivers Dan Fiore and Nick Kenneally into slot back roles. It also includes a new quarterback, a position that will be filled by the winner of a competition between juniors Dan Caponi and D.J. Dekis.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Luke O’Hea, So., RB/DB

O’Hea comes into the season as a sophomore with a chance to make a difference with the ball in his hands on offense, as well as on defense. He will work in with a deep mix of ball carriers on offense and is among the contenders for playing time at cornerback.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 14 vs. Monmouth

Last year, Monmouth made a jump in the standings at the expense of Raritan, and for the Rockets to recover this season and reclaim their territory in the new Liberty Division and later in the Central Jersey Group 2 playoffs, beating the Falcons will be the first sign they are ready to do it.

 

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