Shore Conference realignment has shifted a number of rivalries and for the Shore’s four Group 1 programs, the benefit is clear: no more Mater Dei Prep.

Mater Dei has built a burgeoning powerhouse under coach Dino Mangiero and the prospect of Group 1 schools competing with that is borderline ludicrous.

Don’t tell that to the players on Asbury Park. They welcome the challenge of playing the Shore’s best and they are hoping that attitude and a wave of young talent will earn them a distinction as a team nobody wants to play.

“I’m actually kind of disappointed we’re not playing Mater Dei this year,” senior running back Quadir Lawson said. “I feel like we’ve matched up well against them and we always get hyped to play them. We still got to play some good teams so we need to bring that same intensity.”

Photo by Steve Meyer.

Last year, Asbury Park fell just short of a stunning upset in a 14-13 loss to Mater Dei Prep, which came after the Seraphs added their six transfers to the active roster. Mater Dei’s next closest game against a division foe was a 22-point win over Point Pleasant Beach.

That loss to Mater Dei was an eye-opener for anyone not aware of Asbury Park’s potential, but it was not an effort the Bishops consistently replicated over the course of the season. They finished the year 6-4 with narrow divisional losses to Shore and Point Beach and fell to Burlington City in the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I playoffs after winning the section one year earlier.

“We had an up-and-down season last year, especially coming off the state championship the year before,” fourth-year coach Tim Fosque said. “All our losses were close games and I think the younger guys got to learn from some of the mistakes we made as a team. They saw what happens when you have a let down in any part of the game.”

“Finish,” Alexander Peavy said, referring to the emphasis in camp. “Whatever we do, whether it’s in practice, in a scrimmage, a game: we got to finish.”

While the Blue Bishops hope to build off last year’s high points, they will have to do it with plenty of new players. Donte Abrams, Ja’King Agostini, Javon Higgs and Jaylen Paige were impact players and just four of many Asbury Park is looking to replace.

A talented sophomore class – one that went undefeated as an eighth-grade team and mostly played up with the varsity squad last year – will account for a good deal of the open spots, including at quarterback. Najier Massey takes over for Agostini as the signal-caller in Asbury Park’s spread offense, and the early reviews from his coaches and teammates are positive.

“Najier has shown a lot of leadership for a young guy,” Fosque said. “He has been in that role with other guys his age and now he’s learning how to do it at a higher level. He’s doing a nice job grasping what we’re giving him and the older guys are responding to him and helping him when he needs help.”

Asbury Park’s running game should remain potent thanks to the return of Lawson, who led the team in rushing last season. Senior Alexander Peavy is also back and is trimmed down to a more explosive 190 pounds, making him a legitimate threat as a slot back. Senior Kharod Young and sophomores Knajee Alston and Kaliq Walker will also be threats with the ball, mixing in at slot back and receiver.

Lawson played his first two seasons at Shore Regional before transferring to Asbury Park ahead of last season. The Asbury Park vs.Shore rivalry was a casualty of realignment and Lawson will not get another shot at his former team after the Blue Devils beat Asbury Park, 12-6, in last year’s opener.

“I’m disappointed I won’t get to play those guys but, hey, now that we don’t have to play each other, I wish them the best,” Lawson said. “That was my team when I was a sophomore but this (Asbury Park) has always been my team. I played Pop Warner here and these are my guys. I’m happy to be home.”

Sophomore Mikai Brown-Jones is the top returning receiver for the Blue Bishops after opening some eyes during a season that was cut short by injury. He made a highlight-reel, one-handed catch in an overtime win over Keyport to establish himself as a freshman and Fosque thinks he can develop into one of the Shore’s top receivers over the next three years.

“He has a chance to be really special when you think of some of the best receivers in the Shore Conference,” Fosque said. “He came in as a freshman and did some really impressive things, and we’re only expecting him to get even better.”

Asbury Park has some pieces to replace on the line, but the prospects to do so are promising. Senior Lazarus Chathauant returns at center and junior Haleem Stephens is back at left guard after getting some time on the line last year.

“He’s like a coach on the field,” Fosque said of Haleem Stephens. “He is playing with a lot of confidence right now. He is going to be the anchor of that line for us.”

Sophomores Jarred Chathuant and Dante Moore will make for a young left side of the line, with Chathuant at guard and Moore at tackle. The lone senior on the line is Steven Stephens, who did not play football last year but will be a significant addition, according to Fosque.

Like most Group 1 teams, Asbury Park won’t have the luxury of platoons at most positions, but the Blue Bishops have enough depth to get most of their guys a breather when needed. Moore and Haleem Stephens will be part of the defensive end rotation in Asbury Park’s four-man front along with sophomore Anthony Swerine, while the other three starting linemen work in at defensive tackle.

Peavy and Lawson will be the outside linebackers alongside sophomore middle linebacker Junior Houghton, who started as a freshman last season. Houghton could also get some time on offense at fullback.

“It was definitely a challenge to come in and start as a freshman,” Houghton said. “This year has been a lot easier so far. I got a lot stronger and now I know what I’m doing. We have a lot of younger guys so I’m just trying to help them the way the seniors helped me last year.”

The secondary will be the least experienced unit on the team, led by Young at safety. Alston will play the other safety while Walker and Besean Frazier will form a sophomore duo at the starting cornerback spots.

“As the senior, I’m just trying to be the example for the young guys like the guys last year were an example for me,” Young said. “So far, I think we’ve been very good defensively.”

The talent of the sophomore class should pay dividends at some point for Asbury Park, and the Bishops players and coaches are hopeful that point will be by the end of this season. The Blue Bishops don’t open the season until Sept. 14 against Keansburg so they will have some extra time to prepare their young-but-promising squad.

One thing is clear: the Bishops don’t plan on this being a rebuilding year. They returned to the top of Central Jersey Group 1 two years ago and they don’t plan on falling out of the championship picture, even with a young roster.

“We’re aggressive, we hit hard and we’re fast,” Lawson said. “That’s Asbury Park. That’s what we always are here.”

At a Glance

Head Coach: Tim Fosque, fourth season

Career Record: 19-12

2017 Record: 5-4 (2-3 in B Central)

 

Coaching Staff: Lamar Davenport (Off. Coordinator/WR), Matt Ardizzone, Rob Ward, Nick Chiarmbrone, Keith Killea, Barry Baity, Paul Zurella, Kyle Weedon, Gary Salerno, Nancy Saphow (athletic trainer).

Offense: Spread

Defense: 4-3

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Kharod Young, Sr., WR/DB

Asbury Park lost a number of key playmakers from a year ago, none more so than Donte Abrams – who inflicted damage as a receiver, ball carrier, defensive back and in the return game. Young is one of several players who have come into camp improved and he's ready to use his own standout athletic tools to help the Blue Bishops on both sides of the ball.

X-FACTOR: Youth

Fosque is excited about the potential of the current class of sophomores based on the success it had while going undefeated as eighth graders. That certainly bodes well for Asbury Park’s prospects in 2019 and 2020 but this year, the class remains the wild card. The Blue Bishops do have their share of senior leaders so if the young guns catch up quickly, the window opens this year.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Steven Stephens, Sr., OL

Stephens did not play football last season and his return to the program helps the Blue Bishops plug an opening on the offensive line. Some inexperience up front last year might have hampered Asbury Park but that should not be as much of an issue, especially if Stephens can pick everything up quickly.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 28 at Donovan Catholic

To a man, the Asbury Park players are disappointed they won’t play two-time defending Class B Central champion Mater Dei after the Blue Bishops gave the Seraphs all they could handle in a 14-13 Mater Dei win last year. Instead, up-and-coming Donovan Catholic will be Asbury Park’s opportunity to make a statement, especially considering both teams will be relying on a lot of young players this season.

 

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