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Turning the Corner: Struggling Programs Having Instant Success in 2012

It’s not something that can be simulated in practice. There is no drill to work on it.

It’s one of the toughest intangibles for a team to gain – confidence. In the past two seasons, Keansburg went 1-9. Holmdel went 1-9 last year, while Marlboro finished 0-10. Through only two weeks of this season, those teams are a combined 5-1, opening eyes around the Shore Conference with rapid improvement.

Keansburg and senior quarterback Ryan Kurtz have won more games in the first two weeks of the season than in their last two years combined. (Photo credit: Bill Normile).

The question is how they turned the corner after seasons where it would have been hard to find a ton of positive things to build upon. How do teams that could not get out of their own way last year and found ways to lose in the fourth quarter now confidently close out victories?

“Having a lot of seniors helps a lot,’’ said Keansburg senior quarterback Ryan Kurtz, who has helped the Titans to a 2-0 start. “The last two years, we were starved for leadership with only small groups of seniors. Now when you have a large group of dedicated players, we’re setting a good example for the younger players and playing with confidence.’’

Clearly, having a senior group that believes has a trickle-down effect, but you also have to get results quickly or that belief is going to fade. In Keansburg’s case, many of its seniors have been varsity starters for three years, so they have the system down cold. It allows the coaches to throw in more wrinkles, particularly offensively, because there is not as much teaching as there is refining. Kurtz has taken a big step forward as a senior, which has included putting up 411 total yards and five touchdowns in a 48-35 win over Spotswood last weekend.

“Definitely our work ethic has led to our success so far,’’ Kurtz said. “We’re being more dedicated, watching more film, and we’re more focused during practice time. I’m working harder than I ever have, just trying to lead my team.’’

Besides physical maturity, another benefit of a strong senior class at a program that has struggled is the urgency of senior year. It’s now or never. This is their last chance to change their legacy or be remembered as a group that didn’t do much winning during its tenure.

“I think they’re a different breed of kid,’’ Holmdel head coach Frank Papalia said about his seniors. “They refuse to let the last two years influence them at all this year. We’re a new team. They believe, they practice hard, and they prepare hard.’’

Just like in the case with Keansburg, improved quarterback play can lift the confidence of an entire team. The Titans averaged 16 points per game last year, while Holmdel only mustered eight points per game. So far, Keansburg is averaging 38 points per game, while Holmdel is at 25 points per game thanks to the improved play of Kurtz and the insertion of Holmdel senior Rob Cantelli at quarterback to start this season. Marlboro is averaging 21 points per game after averaging 12 last year with returning starter Parker Hoch at quarterback and an improved running game.

Marlboro has installed the spread, while Holmdel is now running the option after running the spread last year with former quarterback Matt Muh, who is now at Shore Regional.

“Our option scheme plays to our strength,’’ Papalia said. “We run the ball, kill the clock and play strong defense. The biggest key this year is that when our kids look at our quarterback, they truly believe. They know he can make a play with his feet or throwing the ball, and they know he’s unselfish and will get it to the right guys to make plays.’’

An improved offense can be the difference in closing out tight games in the fourth quarter because it ensures that the defense isn’t gassed from being on the field the whole time. The perfect example is Holmdel, which was right in the game with several top 10 teams at halftime last year only to fade in the second half because its defense never came off the field while the offense either sputtered or turned the ball over deep in the Hornets’ territory.

The teams also take different approaches to the futility of last year. Some choose to remember it to be used as motivation, while others dismiss it entirely and claim to be starting fresh.

“In times of need, we always bring it out as fuel to our fire,’’ said Kurtz, whose Titans have already avenged losses to Mater Dei Prep and Spotswood from last year.

“When we beat Barnegat in the opener, we didn’t say, ‘Wow, we won!’’’ Papalia said. “They came in with a business-like attitude that we’re supposed to beat Barnegat, and we’re supposed to beat Middlesex. Last year is never even brought up.’’

A winning start is crucial not only for confidence but because of the boost it provides in other areas that can nurture success.

“I think everyone in our school is happy for us,’’ Kurtz said. “Everyone is coming to the games again. We have had some of our biggest crowds in years. That just makes you want to play even better for your fans.’’

These teams have taken the important step in showing that this season will not be like last year. Now comes the really hard part – proving this first two weeks were not a fluke against other teams destined for bad seasons. Keansburg is looking for its first state playoff berth since reaching the Central Jersey Group I final in 2007, Holmdel is gunning for a trip to the postseason for the first time since a school-record 10-win season in 2007 and Marlboro is in search of its first winning season since 1999.

“It’s been two long years before this year,” Kurtz said. “Now we just have to keep rising.”

 

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