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With one of the youngest rosters last year in a deep Shore Conference Class A North division, Freehold Township head coach Mike D’Antonio expected to watch his team take its lumps against the top teams in the division while hardening his players with an eye on this season.

It has become commonplace to expect Freehold Township to take its lumps in one of the Shore’s most grueling divisions, senior-laden or not. The Patriots have made the NJSIAA Tournament just once in the history of the program and are coming off a 1-9 season.

There have been other seasons in which the Patriots players and coaches have felt on the cusp of breaking through, but D’Antonio and his squad are excited that this is the Freehold Township team that will finally make the push toward a winning record and state playoff berth.

Freehold Township’s makeover starts on offense, where the Patriots have overhauled the scheme and personnel. With junior quarterback Jack O’Brien back under center, D’Antonio and his staff are fully committing to the spread offense with a heavy dose of no-huddle. The hope is that the offense will better employ outside threats like senior Tyree Wilson, who still managed 27 catches while playing in the run-heavy flex bone offense.

Freehold Township defensive coordinator Gene Blanco with seniors Frank Suglia (24) and Nate Corvil (7). (Photo by Matt Manley)

“We’ve never had this many high-quality athletes who can run and catch the ball, so it just makes sense,” said D’Antonio, a former wide receivers coach at Staten Island power Tottenville. “We’ve been contemplating making the move to this kind of offense once we felt like we had the players, and we have the players.”

“As a receiver, this offense fits me well because I feel like we’re looking to get the ball down the field more,” Wilson said. “I’m excited to see how it all pans out, not just for me but for everybody to get an opportunity and hopefully be a better offense.”

Although the spread offense will give the skill players like O’Brien, Wilson and senior running backs Matt Pine and Colin Bitsko different responsibilities, the coaching staff has poured more focus into improving the offensive line than any other position, according to D’Antonio. After scoring only 81 points in 10 games, the Patriots offense will look to improve behind an offensive line of five seniors, with a number of sophomores who are pushing for playing time as well.

“You definitely don’t realize the potential of all our players until you see them in this system,” Pine said. “The system gives us a chance to exploit all of our tools.”

Right tackle Mike O’Brien, center Mike Petrula and left tackle Tommy Benedict are all back on the offensive line, while senior Al Santorelli moves to left guard after playing fullback in the flex bone last year. Freehold Township’s biggest addition on the line – and perhaps anywhere on the field – is senior guard Jimmy Purcell, who missed all of last season with various ailments after being named to the coaches’ All-Class A North team as a sophomore.

“It’s been great to see him 100 percent healthy again,” D’Antonio said of Purcell. “Last year was hard on him, and we definitely suffered not having a guy like that. Bringing him back this year is almost like signing a big free agent. It gets you pumped.”

At 6-foot-5 and 279 pounds, junior Alex Schlumpf leads a wave of younger line talent that could push for time on the offensive line and, at the very least, provide some depth for the senior group.

Pine and Bitsko are the two leading returning rushers from last season, with Bitsko amassing 470 yards and Pine rushing for 293. They will provide O’Brien with two options out of the backfield, but the offense will revolve around the junior southpaw slinger. O’Brien threw for 974 yards and six touchdowns while completing just under 50 percent of his passes out of the flex bone, and also rushed for 233 yards.

“Obviously, as the quarterback, I’m probably more excited than anyone about this offense,” O’Brien said. “It’s been awesome. We’ve got a lot of good athletes to get the ball to so it should be fun.”

A fast and experienced secondary will lead Freehold Township on the defensive side of the ball. Sophomore Anthony Lotti and senior Nate Corvil make up a formidable cornerback duo. Corvil intercepted two passes last year and covered the top opposing receiver throughout the season. Pine will play both ways, playing alongside senior Nas Haines to account for the two safety positions.

Senior Al Santorelli is moving from fullback to offensive guard while holding down a spot at middle linebacker, but he still gets a practice carry from time to time. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Junior Nick Galanti and Santorelli are athletic linebackers who provide some balance to the defense while trying to pick up the slack left behind by the graduation of All-Division linebacker Dan Weissman. Galanti will also see time as a tight end, as will Haines, who is also one of the top sprinters in the Shore Conference.

There have long been quality athletes that have passed through the halls of Freehold Township and it has translated into success in other sports. A lot of those athletes have even played football and been successful on an individual basis. D’Antonio is hopeful that the same quality of athlete is abundant on the roster this season and will begin to translate to wins right now. With a large group that was thrown into the proverbial fire last year, this will not be another rebuilding year by the team’s expectation.

“We had a lot of young guys running around out there last year, and we knew there were going to be growing pains,” D’Antonio said. “The plus side to that is guys learn, they get better and they come back this year with more confidence. When you throw in some of the speed and skill we’re seeing, we like what we have. We’re in a brutal A North division, so it’s going to be a challenge. But we’re cautiously optimistic.”


Head Coach: Mike D’Antonio, fifth season

Career Record: 10-30

Assistant Coaches: Gene Blanco (def. coord/LB); Dan Shine (DL); Mark Migliori (QB); Dan Cooper (OL); Kevin Popek (DB); Ed Von Nessen (LB); Gerard England (off. asst.); Mike Burlew, Brian Glick, Frank Ferrara (freshman); Mike Stoia (scout); Cindy Carter (athletic trainer).

2013 Record: 1-9 (1-5)

Big Shoes to Fill: Nick Galanti, Jr., LB

There were not many seniors on last year’s Freehold Township team, but among them was the team’s leading tackler and All-A North linebacker Dan Weissman. Galanti is a standout athlete who is built for the position, so the physical part of anchoring the middle of the defense should not be too tall an order.

X-Factor: Jimmy Purcell, Sr., OL

After losing his junior season to a list of injuries, Purcell is back to 100 percent and will help anchor an all-senior offensive line to open the season. With an all-division sophomore season already under his belt, Purcell will be one of the biggest additions of any team in Class A North, especially for a team that needs help on the offensive line.

Glue Guy: Al Santorelli, Sr., OL/LB

Santorelli is the kind of player who can line up in a number of positions, and his coaches will put that versatility to use this year. The senior will move from fullback to left guard this season while also playing one of the middle linebacker spots on defense.

Impact Newcomer: Shane Laricy, Jr., LB

A transfer from Freehold Boro, Laricy will see time at outside linebacker along with senior Chris Maguire.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 12 vs. Freehold Boro

Not only is this a rivalry game that is now also a division game, but for Freehold Township, it is followed by consecutive games against Manalapan and Middletown South, with a bye week mixed in. If Freehold Township can’t get off to a fast start against Howell and Freehold, 0-4 will be a strong possibility for a team that is desperate to turn things around.