MARLBORO - The continued progression of Marlboro as a football program shouldn’t be solely based on wins and losses. To do so, would be to miss the point.

Instead, try and appreciate the strides the Mustangs have annually made over the past three seasons, ones that don’t necessarily show up in the win column but are the stepping stones laid down on a trail to respectability that’s quietly being earned.

The ’18 installment has no plans to break this ascending trend. In fact, they’ve fully invested in their own stock, committed to its rise. Certain aspects of game, some subtle and others far more tangible, provide a glimpse into a team not to be taken lightly.

The rough start Marlboro endured for a great deal of the first half against Lakewood may have unnerved another Mustang group, but not this galvanized bunch. Instead, it unflinchingly stuck with specific trademarks – notably a straight-ahead ground game and a swarming defense intent on establishing a physical presence – and shed some additional light on a football IQ only soaring higher.

Senior tailback Dontrell Alston lit an inspiring spark with a blistering touchdown dash just before intermission, linebackers Steven Cassidy and Jake Feiss orchestrated a mob-mentality within a congestive defense and first-year quarterback Alex Schutzer exemplified the unspoken bond between a signal caller and his coaching staff with one impeccable read and throw as Marlboro countered a sluggish start with a thorough completion en route to a 22-14 triumph over Lakewood on Saturday.

There was a tough-guy overtone to a defense that took the Piners’ best shots but withstood the blows, one shared by an offense that made some play-calling adjustments that resorted to its meat-and-potato roots. And, there was vision from Schutzer, a senior confident enough in his new setting to check out of a play when recognizing a matchup advantage and exploiting it with timely, precision touch.

“We tried to get a little too cute in the first half and do things not in character for myself or the team,” admitted Marlboro head coach Jason Dagato, after his team fell behind, 6-0, through the combination of a 45-yard TD burst by Lakewood senior RB Dante Morris and three consecutive three-and-out possessions that yielded a mere two yards. “We said let’s go back to basics, double tight and get after it. Our kids want to run the ball right at you and say ‘come stop us.’ That was the mentality change.”

The change in direction bore fruits for its labor. Alston popped off left tackle, following the lead block of Cassidy at fullback, and scampered 84 yards with 1:13 left in the second quarter and senior Matt Budveit ran in a two-point conversion to suddenly put Marlboro (1-1, 1-1) on top, 8-6.

“It was a slow start, but all we needed was one big play,” said Alston, who finished with 153 yards on 16 hauls. “Steve said just follow me and I could have walked to that touchdown. Our game plan was to run the ball. This program continues to get tough and better.”

Seizing the lead was somewhat of an impressive feat for Marlboro considering the Piners (0-2,-0-2) dominated time of possession in the first half, running 38 offensive plays to the Stangs’ dozen.

Yet, despite its extensive work, Marlboro’s defense embraced the load. Cassidy, Feiss and junior defensive lineman Paul Damato led a band of tacklers that regularly convened to the ball. The unit conceded ground. Morris ended with 78 yards on 20 hauls and junior QB TJ Paturzo completed 11 of 20 throws good for 158 yards,  including four strikes to senior wide receiver Sincere Moore, who compiled 110 yards, capped by a late 50-yard touchdown.

However, the Marlboro defense gradually gained the upper hand in the war of attrition, wearing down Lakewood with its sheer force in numbers and allowing just 102 yards of offense to the Piners in the second half.

“We want to hit them harder than they hit us. That is what we do,” said Cassidy. “And, that’s a testament to our coaches. They are always on us, pushing us in the weight room. I give them a lot of credit. Lakewood is a good team. They are quick and have size. But, each one of our kids did their job. We didn’t give them cutback lanes.  We have one rule….11 helmets to the football. If you don’t swarm, get off the field and we’ll bring in someone else who will.”

Marlboro increased its advantage with 9:02 showing in the third. Noticing a favorable matchup on the perimeter, Schutzer checked out of the initial call and hooked up with Budviet on a pretty 28-yard wheel route that featured awareness and a deft release.

“It’s a big-time advancement and he has taken ownership of the position,” praised Dagato of Schutzer, who saw limited action at wide receiver last fall. “He has started to embrace the position. I do give him the freedom on certain plays where he can check to options. He saw something, he was right, he went with it and he completed it. The initial reaction is he better complete it. The follow up is thank God he completed it.”

“I noticed the matchup on the corner and we attacked it,” added Schutzer. “My confidence is pretty high. I know my receivers can go and get the ball because they are good, strong players. I see our program doing big things. We expect to be a playoff team.”

Junior running back Vinny Spitalieri, who gained 90 yards on 13 carries, capped a string of 22 unanswered points with a 23-yard TD run in the fourth. The Mustangs finished with 268 yards of offense, 241 via the ground.