The Fifth Down: Week Zero
Note: The Fifth Down will appear weekly, looking back at the previous weekend of Shore Conference football action with news and notes from around the Shore.
*Updated 9/9/14, 8 a.m.
Week Zero in Shore Conference football only featured five games, but there was plenty to learn from some intriguing openers.
Leading the way in opening some eyes was the tandem of Freehold Boro and Freehold Township. Those teams were a combined 3-17 last year, but both of them picked up solid victories in Class A North games.
Freehold Township won its season opener for the first time since beating Marlboro 12-0 in 2008 by posting a 40-20 win over Howell, which marked the first time the Patriots hit the 40-point plateau since beating Marlboro 42-7 in 2006. To put that in perspective, Freehold Township scored 87 points all of last season in finishing 1-9.
The switch from the triple option to a spread offense under coach Mike D'Antonio clearly has made a difference so far. Ironically, the Patriots were looking to get more balance on offense by employing the spread to take advantage of the dual threat ability of junior quarterback Jack O'Brien as well as playmaking wideout Tyree Wilson in the passing game, but it was the running game that put on a show against Howell.
Senior Matt Pine had himself a day even before halftime arrived, running for three touchdowns and taking a pick-six 25 yards to the house on defense. Collin Bitsko led the Patriots with only 412 yards rushing last year. Pine had 126 by himself on Friday, with the team rolling up 234. With defenses now having to worry a little more about getting burned by the passing game, it looks to open up running lanes for Pine and others.
As for Freehold Boro, the Colonials went on the road and knocked off Middletown North, a Central Jersey Group IV playoff qualifier a year ago, with a 26-14 win for their first victory in a season opener since 2009. The headliner was senior tailback Josh Dixon, who had 217 yards rushing and all four touchdowns and also had a drive-killing interception in the red zone on defense.
Two of the most impressive aspects of the win were Freehold's resilience and its conditioning. It was a hot, humid night on the artificial turf, with players cramping right and left. Almost everyone in Freehold's starting lineup plays both ways, yet the Colonials had enough left in the tank to fight off Middletown North's comeback attempt in the fourth quarter. Dixon dropped the hammer with a 60-yard touchdown run that all but put the game away, and simply was playing harder and had more burst left than anyone on the field.
"We knew that we were going to have to push hard with a lot of guys going both ways,'' head coach Dave Ellis said. "The kids bought into the conditioning and the way we train. I told them that if we want to win games in the third and fourth quarter and turn things around here, we have to push through when we're tired, and they did that tonight."
"Coach has really been on us about conditioning,'' said outside linebacker Jamel Smith-Rush. "It's been hard, but this win shows why it's important."
Freehold Township hosts Freehold Boro on Friday night, as their annual Thanksgiving game has been moved to Week One. This is the most buzz this game has had in years thanks to the opening statements made by each team. It's also now a divisional game, as Freehold Boro was realigned into Class A North from Class B North this season. Either Freehold Boro will tie its win total from all of last season or Freehold Township will surpass its win total, so there will be a storyline one way or another.
Despite the loss to Freehold Boro, Middletown North junior running back Chad Freshnock was outstanding with a career-high 250 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns.
He looked a little tentative early on in his first non-scrimmage since having surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee that he suffered during the 7-on-7 tournament at Rutgers over the summer. However, he picked it up in a hurry, breaking off a 66-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
This play below was what really stood out to me as far as recovering from that knee injury. Even though he got away with one here (his left knee was down but the officials didn't catch it), it showed his balance and strength.
He appears poised for a big year after rushing for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore. The Lions just need to get the passing game on track and shore up their run defense in order to get back in the Class A North race.
Middletown North senior wide receiver Keshawn Williams, who was removed from the field by a spine board and taken by ambulance to a local hospital during the second quarter of the Lions' game against Freehold, is thankfully recovering. Williams took a booming hit after a short pass into the flat while he had a second defender wrapped around his legs.
Williams has a bulging disc in his back and has to see a neurologist this week, according to Lions coach Steve Bush.
From European to American football
Another storyline that emerged from Week Zero was Donovan Catholic junior kicker GianCarlo Stigliano, who was on the soccer team at Christian Brothers Academy last year but transferred to play football for the Griffins. In his first football game ever, he nailed a 35-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining for a 10-7 win over Pinelands.
It was an emotional win for the Griffins and head coach Dan Duddy, whose son, Francis, 19, died tragically in an auto accident in Toms River in February. It also showed that Stigliano has quickly become a special teams weapon for a squad that graduated all of its offensive statistical leaders.
While players coming over from the soccer team to kick for the football team is nothing new, the caliber of players coming over is surprising. Usually it's a player who can't crack the varsity lineup or is languishing on JV who gives football a try. However, Stigliano and several other new kickers around the Shore are players who were starters or important contributors to their soccer teams, as Shore Sports Network boys soccer writer Matt Manley noted. Matt also pointed out an interesting aspect that I had no idea about regarding playing academy soccer and football.
Hahn Dazzles for No. 1 RBC
Junior dual threat quarterback Eddie Hahn put on a show for Red Bank Catholic in its 55-6 win in the season opener by accounting for five touchdowns, several of the spectacular variety.
Hahn has been projected as a standout from the minute he showed up as a freshman. The coaching staff had serious discussions about starting him at quarterback on varsity as a freshman, but decided to groom him for the spot. He rotated with the now-graduated Pat Toomey last year while also starting at safety as a sophomore, and now has taken over full time.
The impressive thing about his running ability besides his elusiveness is the length of his strides. He doesn't look like he's running exceptionally fast, but he's eating up chunks of yardage with every long stride. He reminds me of former Bergen Catholic star Tanner McAvoy, who is now the starting quarterback of Wisconsin. McAvoy is a little bit taller at 6-foot-6, but Hahn has that same athleticism.
Antonucci Gets Win No. 150
Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci picked up win No. 150 with a 56-0 rout of Marlboro in the season opener on Saturday behind a combined five touchdowns from junior running back Cole Rogers and sophomore running back James McCarthy.
Antonucci achieved the feat in the first game of his 16th season, which averages out to 10 wins a year at a public school. That is about as rarefied as the air gets in the Shore Conference. Antonucci is up in the Vic Kubu stratosphere with the pace that he is on with the Eagles. Antonucci may be the fastest coach in Shore Conference history to reach 150 wins, and if he isn't, it's probably Kubu.
Kubu's teams won a Shore Conference-record 11 state titles between his stints at Middletown North and Manasquan, and Antonucci has five so far in his tenure at Middletown South. He knows all about the Manasquan tradition, considering he and his family are long-time Manasquan residents. Antonucci also played for a legend as he starred at Keyport in the late 1980s for the recently-retired Mike Ciccotelli.
As for the Eagles, they dominated from beginning to end on Saturday. Talking to coaches who scouted the game, they said it was hard to tell just how good the Eagles are because Marlboro was so overmatched. However, we will definitely find out this week as Middletown South hosts South Brunswick, a top 15 team in the state headlined by senior wide receiver Dontae Strickland, who is committed to Syracuse. That looks to be one of the top games of Week One.
Kicking for a Cause
I will probably break this out into a separate post, but it's worth having it in multiple places. Middletown North senior kicker/punter Nick Banta is doing a great thing this year as part of "Kicking for the Dream," which was created by Cleveland Browns kicker Billy Cundiff.
Kicking for the Dream works with Colleen's Dream Foundation, which was founded in 2012 to support research for early detection and improved treatment for ovarian cancer. Banta was at a kicking camp over the summer where Cundiff made a presentation about Kicking for the Dream, inspiring Banta to participate. He is looking to raise funds and awareness through his own page on the Kicking for the Dream. You can make donations on Banta's page here.
"When I heard the staggering statistics about ovarian cancer and the fact that all women have a chance of developing it at any age, I knew I had to take part of this program and take action,'' Banta said.
Banta, a four-year starter, booted a pair of extra points during Middletown North's season-opening, 26-14 loss to Freehold.
Helping Restore the Shore
Speaking of helping out, I didn't get a chance to mention this during the preseason on account of that whole "800 previews and 92-page football magazines while working full time at another job" thing, but the players at Spotswood did a great thing when they helped pitch in to help the ongoing rebuilding effort in Union Beach nearly two years after it was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
On Aug. 23, members of the Spotswood team went to Union Beach and did demolition work, lawn clean-up and other much-needed work to help residents of the town whose players play for Keyport, which Spotswood will play on Oct. 25. Spotswood has been a regular opponent of Shore Conference teams as part of the Greater Middlesex Conference-Shore Conference crossover schedule, and the Chargers also have local ties because of head coach Andy Cammarano.
Cammarano coached at Shore Regional from 1997-2006 and grew up in Monmouth County, and he wanted his team to help give back to an area in need.
"This is important to me, and I know that the people we work with want everyone to realize that the Shore is still in need of help,'' Cammarano wrote in an email.
As I reported in the past few days, two high-profile transfers will have to miss four games by sitting out the first 30 days of their senior season via the NJSIAA transfer rule.
Neptune quarterback/cornerback Royal Moore and Jackson Memorial wide receiver/safety Matt Castronuova will not be in uniform when the season starts for both teams on Friday. Neptune will travel to face Moore's former team, Ocean, while Jackson Memorial will head to Castronuova's former team, Jackson Liberty.
The main other intrigue involves the five new transfers at St. John Vianney - running back/linebacker Aaron Mora (Neptune); wide receiver/safety Dan Calabro (Colts Neck); running back/linebacker Calvin Beaty and running back/cornerback Khalil Haskins (both Matawan) and running back/defensive back Jeff Sheard (Keyport).
St. John Vianney athletic director Rich Lamberson told me on Monday that he would know within a day or two which players may have to sit and which will be eligible for Friday's season opener against Matawan, so stay tuned for that.