Manalapan graduated one of the top running backs in Shore Conference history, a three-year starter at quarterback, two standout receivers, standout offensive and defensive linemen, an All-Shore linebacker and then lost one of the best defensive players in the Shore to a season-ending knee injury. For most programs it would be an obvious rebuilding year. At Manalapan, they don’t operate like that.

“It’s hard to replace that group (last year’s seniors) but these guys are hungry and their goal is the same as everybody else’s,” said Manalapan head coach Ed Gurrieri. “They don’t want to take a back seat to anybody. They feel they’ve worked as hard as the ones before them and now it’s their time.”

Manalapan is one of the programs in the Shore which has shown the ability to contend for championships on a yearly basis no matter who graduates. The Braves are 81-15 since 2010 with six trips to a state final, including winning the Central Jersey Group 5 crown in 2014.

Manalapan's Alan Pressler (44), Dale Sieczkowski (13), Alex Claro (4), Tommy Pearce (49) and Dashon Taylor (2). Photo by Steve Meyer.

Four starters will return in the Braves’ multiple-I offense and the remaining seven will do their best to replace a tremendous cast from last season. The shoes to fill don’t get much bigger than the ones left behind by running back Naim Mayfield. Now a freshman at Fordham University, Mayfield had the greatest statistical season ever by a Shore Conference running back with 2,681 yards rushing and a state-record 48 touchdowns, setting the state single-season scoring record at 282 points. You don’t just replace that kind of record-setting production, but the Braves will move forward with senior running back Dale Sieczkowski. Nico Santorelli will also see time in the backfield

“Sieczkowski is going to be a downhill, hard-nosed runner and wear a defense out,” Gurrieri said. “Nico Santorelli is a different look back there, more foot in the ground and cut, but both are very good. Dale has always been a running back but he had to sit behind Naim. Now’s his chance.”

Taking over for three-year starting quarterback Luke Corcione will be left-handed junior Sean Kehley. He saw limited action last season and now takes the reigns of the Braves’ offense, which averaged 42.4 points per game last season.

“He can throw the ball well and is a good-sized kid,” Gurrieri said. “He has great knowledge of our offense and makes the right reads.”

Stepping in as the starting wide receivers will be seniors Kyle Spilsbury and Lou Marzo with seniors Lucas Demato and Nick Cusumano also in the mix at wideout.

The tight end group is very strong for the Braves with seniors Alex Claro and Alan Pressler both returning as starters and senior Dashon Taylor figuring to rotate in regularly. All three can do everything asked of the tight end position in Manalapan’s offense.

“It’s a great group of tight ends, probably the best we’ve had in a long time,” Gurrieri said. “All three bring attributes to where they can run, catch and block. They can do all three. We’ll be fine with them at the point of attack.”

The ever-important fullback role in Manalapan’s offense will be filled by seniors Tyler Ciemniecki and Tyler Bottone, replacing the multi-talented Chris Maksimik.

Manalapan has been a factory for All-Shore offensive linemen over the years and returns two starters to a perennially strong group. It’s a junior-heavy line this season with returning starters Nick Cavallaro and Matt Kovacs at center and right guard, respectively. The left tackle is 6-foot-5 junior Mateusz Zielinski and the left guard will be junior Charlie Paulucci. At right tackle is the lone senior of the group, 6-foot-5 Nick Holowach.

“We had an amazing offense last year, but that was last year,” Claro said. “We have a whole new offense except for a few guys who are returning, and it’s about us now. We’re going to get it done.”

Manalapan had the Shore’s No. 1 defense last year, which allowed just 11.5 points per game and posted four shutouts. Several top players graduated, however, including First Team All-Shore linebacker Sal Tardogno, First Team All-Shore defensive back Symir Blacknall and Second Team All-Shore defensive lineman Antonio Deieso. The Braves also lost returning All-Shore linebacker Tommy Pearce to a season-ending knee injury during the preseason.

Despite those losses, the Braves don’t expect to take a step back.

“We have enough guys to get it done,” Claro said.

In the Braves’ 3-4 front, Taylor is a three-year returning starter at defensive end and Pressler is also a returning starter at defensive end. Taylor recorded 76 tackles and five sacks last season. There will be a three-man rotation at nose tackle between Kovacs, Cavallaro and junior Joe Berry.

Claro is a returning starter at inside linebacker and the other inside linebacker position is between Ciemniecki and Bottone. Sieczkowski was a Second Team All-Shore linebacker last season and returns at outside linebacker. He had 97 tackles, two sacks and one interception last season. Junior Matt Benedetti will start as the other outside linebacker with junior Hayden Hess also pushing for time.

In the secondary, junior Justin Reilly returns as the strong safety and senior Josh Schoenhaus takes over full time at cornerback after starting four games last season. Senior John Scharaldi is the other cornerback and senior Nick Marzo is the free safety.

“We have two real good ones on the first level with Dashon and Pressler, at the second level we have two good ones with Sieczkowski and Claro and we have Reilly in the secondary, so I think we’ll be okay,” Gurrieri said of his defense.

“Everybody on this team has talent and has been working hard,” Taylor said. “Now it’s their time and they’re ready.”

The kicking and punting duties will be handled by senior Jack Dematteo, who takes over for All-Shore selection David Gelb.

Divisional realignment has the Braves in the American Division with district rivals Howell and Freehold Township plus Middletown South, Central Regional and Toms River North. Manalapan has won seven division titles in the last eight seasons and will try to make it three in a row and eight of nine. The Braves also plan on being back in position to win another state title after a heartbreaking 18-14 loss to South Brunswick in last season’s Central Jersey Group V final.

“At the end of the day, the main goal is a state championship,” Taylor said. We got that taken away from us last year, but we’ll be back.”

At a Glance

Head coach: Ed Gurrieri, 12th season

Career record: 98-27.

2017 record: 11-1 (6-0 in A North)

Coaching staff: Dan D’Avanzo (off. coordinator/QB); Dom Lepore (def. coordinator/DB); Joe Tetley (assoc. head coach/OL); Dom Pollifrone (special teams/DL); Jim Papcun (WR) Bill Smith Sr., Cody High; Shannon Tomasula (athletic trainer).

Offense: Multiple-I

Defense: 3-4

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Dale Sieczkowski, Sr., RB

Sieczkowski is a returning All-Shore linebacker, but on the offensive side he will now be the starting tailback. He takes over for the best running back in school history, Naim Mayfield, who ran for 2,681 yards, scored a state-record 46 rushing touchdowns (48 total) and set the state single-season scoring record with 282 points.

X-FACTOR: Running game

This is Manalapan’s bread and butter, but the Braves do have several new players at key positions. If they’re back to their old self on the ground they’ll remain one of the Shore’s best teams.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Sean Kehley, Jr., QB

Kehley takes over as the starting quarterback and follows three-year starter Luke Corcione as the pilot of Manalapan’s offense.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 14 vs. Middletown South

The on-again, off-again rivals are back in the same division and meet in Week 2 in a game that will certainly have division title implications in the new-look American Division.

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.

 

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