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Shore Conference football fans came come out of hibernation now. The wait is over.

High school football resumes around New Jersey today with a small slate of games collectively known as “Week Zero”. It is the appetizer to the main course that will be served one week from today when the rest of the conference begins its season.

For football fans starved for action, however, this tiny morsel is a welcome sight. Four Shore Conference teams will kick off the 2015 season tonight at 7 p.m., beginning what they hope is a journey that ends in a championship. Southern Regional will host Class B South co-champions Central Regional in a nondivisional clash while Pinelands will host Donovan Catholic in a Class B South contest.

For the Rams and the Golden Eagles, they will be a familiar sight to one another. Central’s 16-6 victory on Thanksgiving was the final game of the 2014 season for both teams. The win capped off Central’s best season in 20 years as the Eagles finished 8-3, won a share of their first division title since 1994 and also won the program’s first state playoff game since 1994 with a 28-14 victory over Oakcrest in South Jersey Group III.

Central junior running back/linebacker Mike Bickford. (Photo by Bill Normile)

The catalyst for the turnaround under now third-year head coach Willie Jacobs was a senior-laden offensive line and the emerging stardom of running back Mike Bickford. As a sophomore, Bickford exploded onto the scene with a school single-season record 2,052 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns. He was selected as the Class B South Offensive Player of the Year by the coaches and was a Shore Sports Network first-team All-Shore pick.

The Eagles also have a dynamic threat at quarterback with now-senior Mike Miserendino. As a junior he ran for 693 yards and seven touchdowns while passing for 780 yards and eight touchdowns. Both Miserendino and Bickford were also standout defensive players last season. Miserendino finished with 66 tackles from the secondary and Bickford had 65 stops, eight pass break-ups and an interception return as a linebacker.

Much of Central’s success had to do with its powerful offensive line under the direction of former Manalapan head coach Tom Gallahue. Four of the five were seniors last season, however, including SSN second-team All-Shore selection Liam Christensen. Gallahue is also not coaching this season because he is now a school administrator, so there is work to be done there. At the least the one returning starter is a massive force in 6-foot-2, 320-pound tackle Darius Marrow. He is also Central’s heavyweight wrestler, so he brings good footwork and athleticism to the position for a player his size.

Despite some losses via graduation, expectations are still high for Central. Tonight’s game will be the first chance to see a presumably bigger, faster, stronger Bickford as he looks to power the Eagles to another championship.

Southern, meanwhile, enters off its second straight 5-5 season and is looking to turn the corner and climb the ladder in what is arguably the Shore Conference’s toughest division: Class A South.

Sophomore linebacker Joe Miele returns after leading the team with 80 tackles and four sacks as a freshman. (Photo by Bill Normile).

Southern has used several different offenses over the past 10 seasons, from a barebones I-formation attack to using more spread concepts in recent years because of its personnel (see: Mike Gesicki). This season the Rams are aiming to be more of a pro-style team thanks to a versatile group of running backs that includes brothers Pat and Dane Walker and Joe and Vin Miele. Add Brandon Barnetti to that mix and the Rams feel they finally have a backfield that can do a little bit of everything.

When I visited camp there was still a battle for the starting quarterback spot between juniors Jackson Donahower and Sam Cammarata. My gut feeling was that the 6-foot-3 Donahower had the edge, but we’ll find out for sure tonight. He is a straight drop-back passer who obviously has the height to see downfield, and also has the arm to deliver the ball all over the field.

The challenge for Southern is completely rebuilding its offensive line after all five starters graduated. Line coaches Dylan Larson and Chuck Donohue Jr. always have that unit ready, but I’m sure it will take time to get all five on the same page.

The biggest task tonight falls on Southern’s defense and coordinator Matt Abbato to limit Bickford. Senior Doug Vande Velde leads the defensive line in front of the strength of the Rams’ unit. Their linebacking corps is deep and talented, led by sophomore Joe Miele, who was a sensation last season as a freshman when he led Southern in tackles with 80. Pat Walker and 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior Jesse Amirr are returning starters to bolster the unit. The group gets a stern test right off the bat.

The questions for Central entering this game center on whether the Eagles have put their offensive line back together enough to allow Bickford and Miserendino to do their thing, or if Bickford is going to be a monster again no matter what.

For Southern, will the Rams’ offense have enough firepower with a host of new skill players and an entirely new offensive line? The Rams are usually solid defensively, and we’ll find out just how good they are right away in facing a returning 2,000-yard running back.

Eleven miles south on Route 9 will be the other game of Week Zero between Donovan Catholic and Pinelands in Little Egg Harbor.

This game was a thriller to open last season, and ended with GianCarlo Stigliano kicking a 35-yard field goal with just nine seconds left to propel Donovan to a 10-7 victory. The victory was later changed to a forfeit, however, as the Griffins were ruled to have used an ineligible player. The forfeit left Donovan with an 0-10 season, while the Wildcats finished 2-8 in their second year under head coach Brian Wilkinson.

Pinelands-Donovan, 2014

The Griffins have a lot of new players in the lineup as they try to climb back out of the hole after a winless season. Their biggest weapon is senior David Calderon, who will play running back this season after being the team’s quarterback as a junior. He has great speed and can scored from anywhere on the field, so head coach Dan Duddy will try to get the ball in his hands early and often.

The biggest issue for the Griffins last season was defense, as they allowed an average of 32.4 points per game. Last season’s game with Pinelands was a low-scoring affair, however that has much to do with the offensive style Pinelands plays with.

The Wildcats enter their third year with Wilkinson at the helm and are excited to see how much they can improve in 2015. Going from 1-9 in 2013 to 2-8 last year doesn’t seem like a major improvement, but Pinelands really closed the gap after getting blown out in nearly every game the year before. They chopped nearly 20 points off their defensive average thanks to an offense that held the ball a lot more with its double tight, double wing rushing attack.

Pinelands was eventually awarded a win for this game because of the forfeit, but Wilkinson felt it was a game his team should have won outright if not for some easily correctable mistakes. Getting a win tonight at home would be huge confidence booster for the program.

It has been 271 days since the final football game of the 2014 season was played. Now it is time to rejoice, football fans. The 2015 season has arrived, and less than 12 hours from now we will be off and running.

The wait is over. Let the games begin.