The Evolution: Barnegat’s Swift Rise to Becoming a State Title Contender
Before any Barnegat player had ever gained a yard or made a tackle, Rob Davis was envisioning a day like this coming Saturday.
“I’m a dreamer, and it was my ultimate dream to go to a state championship game and win a state title,’’ Davis said.
In only the eighth season of its existence, Barnegat (10-1) is in its first state final, where it will face Delsea (9-2) at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Rowan University in the South Jersey Group III championship game. The Bengals have also won two Class B South titles in the last three seasons, so this is the latest step forward in a swift rise.
Under Davis, the only head coach in the school's history, they have achieved these milestones remarkably fast for a young program. Take a look around at several of their competitors in Class B South that have been in existence for decades. Pinelands has won one state playoff game in its history and has never made a final. Manchester has never won a state playoff game. Central has been to one state final in its existence, and that was in 1994. Monsignor Donovan has won one state playoff game on the field in its existence. Lakewood has only made one state final, and that was in 1986. Jackson Liberty started its varsity program a year after Barnegat and has made one state playoff appearance, losing in the first round.
Even Southern, the school where Barnegat residents used to play before the creation of Barnegat High School, has won two division titles since 1972 and didn’t make its first appearance in a state final until 2008. So how did Barnegat accomplish so much so fast?
“We tried to create a team, a family thing, and the kids bought into it,’’ Davis said. “We’re proud that we built a program. People laughed in my face at the beginning and said, ‘Don’t expect to win too many games your first couple of years,’ but we survived. We held our own.”
A crucial reason for Barnegat’s early success was the creation of a middle school football program in town that gave the Bengals an immediate feeder system.
“When I got hired, I wanted to start a middle school program, and they said, ‘If you can get the budget passed to pay for it, we’ll have it,'’’ Davis said. “I went door-to-door to people’s houses to lobby for it.”
Initially, the middle school team had to play programs from South Jersey in places like Millville and Vineland because there weren’t any other programs in Ocean County. Since then, programs have sprung up in places like Southern and Pinelands as well as in Monmouth County at St. Mary’s, the feeder program for Mater Dei Prep.
Once that was in place, the next step was creating a dynamic offensive team that created excitement and made younger players want to come out for the team.
“We knew we would be behind the eight-ball immediately, so we had to be good at what people are not used to seeing, and that’s throwing the football,’’ Davis said. “We didn’t think we could punch people in the face and be Manasquan running ‘iso’ the whole time. We didn’t have those kind of kids yet.”
The Bengals ran a spread offense that quickly produced multiple 1,000-yard rushers and produced prolific quarterback Nick San Giacomo, who went to Tulane as a freshman and has since transferred to play for Central Connecticut State.
“They were fun to watch,’’ said Barnegat senior defensive end Greg Moran. “There was a lot of excitement in town and it was something that you wanted to be a part of.”
A third important development in Barnegat’s evolution was the amount of stars it immediately produced to generate enthusiasm and attention for the program. Former tight end Jarrett Darmstatter became the first FBS recruit and is currently a junior tight end at Boston College. He was followed by San Giacomo and tight end Ryan Morris, who is now at Purdue. Former star quarterback Mark McCoy is now a pitcher at Wake Forest. On the current team, junior quarterback Cinjun Erskine and junior lineman Sam Madden currently boast multiple FBS offers, and junior linebacker/wideout Manny Bowen could be another FBS recruit.
“We used to take the middle school kids to other big games in the area, but their attention span wasn’t there,’’ Davis said. “We didn’t have that kid who went through the Barnegat system. As the years go on, the kids start seeing that’s how Mark McCoy did it, that’s how Nick San Giacomo did it. Now we have good leadership and have been there and done it.”
The Bengals made the state playoffs in their first year of existence in 2006 and then didn’t make it for three years, increasing their hunger to improve.
Erskine and Madden in particular illustrate the growing strength of the program in that they attended South Jersey power Holy Spirit as freshmen after growing up in Barnegat. However, they transferred following a coaching change there, coming to their local public school. The fact that a Barnegat program still in its relative infancy was considered a worthy alternative to a perennial power was an endorsement of what the Bengals have done.
“When you come to our school, you’re going to play competitive football, compete for division championships, and now look to compete for state championships,’’ Davis said. “We also regularly have college coaches in our school at all levels, and that’s what kids and parents like to see.”
The team that used to have to use some offensive gimmicks to generate enthusiasm has now taken the next step in its development. Barnegat has bulldozed people up front with its massive offensive line, averaging 249 yards rushing per game and 359 yards per game overall. Erskine has thrown for 1,061 yards and run for 630, and the Bengals have four players with more than 400 yards rushing. The defense has also continued to improve with every season.
“We can punch people in the face now,’’ Davis said. “We don’t have to be fancy. We are playing more physical football, especially on defense. We’re scoring points like we did in the beginning of the program, but now we are getting big stops, which is why we’ve been able to take the next step.”
“Defense is what wins championships,’’ Moran said. “We just try to be physical, and we work very hard in practice.”
The Bengals will see how far they’ve come when they take on a team with the pedigree of Delsea, which has 10 state titles in its illustrious history, including winning it last year. The Crusaders are appearing in their 14th state final, and they bring a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in fullback Rob Hooks and halfback Isaiah Spencer as well as a fast, hard-hitting defense. However, they won’t be facing a team just happy to be there.
“We want to win,’’ Davis said. “We aren’t satisfied just getting to the championship game.”
With a junior-laden core, this may only be the beginning of a great run for Barnegat, where winning has become ingrained in less than a decade.
“We’re just used to winning,’’ said senior wideout/safety/kicker Ryan Ulrich. “We went undefeated as eighth-graders. We’re used to leading. It was very quick, but we knew coming into this year, we were going to have a big year and do something no other team has done.’’