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By Art Gordon - Shore Sports Network contributor

The high tempo and enthusiasm generated at Holmdel's preseason practices are good indicators of how excited the Hornets are to get started under new head coach Jay Graham as they try to go from a three-win team to making the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Graham returns to Holmdel after previously spending three years as an assistant there before moving on to be an assistant under Hall of Famer Mike Ciccotelli for 14 years at Keyport. Graham also previously has been the head wrestling coach at Holmdel. He takes over for Frank Papalia, who stepped down during the offseason.

The program comes into the season on a two-game winning streak from last year and hopes to extend it when they open the season on the road against Monmouth Regional.  They will compete in the always-tough Class A Central division, but gone from their schedule are top-ranked Red Bank Catholic and state finalists Barnegat and Shore Regional.  Matawan replaces RBC in A Central, and the Hornets' nondivisional games are now against Pinelands, Red Bank Regional and Spotswood.

This year's team returns 20 seniors, most of them having seen significant playing time, led by senior running back and linebacker Frank Condito, a rare four-year starter. After two strong years, he battled injuries throughout last season as a junior. The injury bug has bitten him again as he is currently nursing a slight knee injury, but he is looking forward to opening day.

Senior running back/linebacker Frank Condito (#44) returns as a four-year starter for the Hornets. (Photo by Bill Normile)

“I really think that what is happening is good for us,'' Condito said about the new coaching staff. "We loved playing for our staff last year but feel maybe a change can help turn things around. I am looking to be a role model on and off the field. Football is very important to me, and I think I can help bring Holmdel football back.”

The turnaround will start with their retuning seniors, who have decided that the best way to accomplish their goals is to outwork their opponents and stress the little things.

"Everyone must work hard because we are not the strongest or fastest, but we can certainly outwork everyone,'' said senior co-captain Kyle Rooney. "We have different coaches with different ideas and different drills and hopefully that will lead to a different result.”

“We have a new mentality this year,'' said senior running back/safety Adam Ibrahim. " We are working on improving the little things like our feet alignment or how to carry the ball. We realize that doing this will help us in the long run."

The Hornets will run out of a shotgun veer offense with plenty of option mixed in under new coordinator Pete Christathakis.  Most of the positions are still being contested, but the quarterback spot looks like it will fall to either sophomore Aneesh Agrowal or senior Erik Alvino.  Both saw time last year due to injuries.

Condito returns at running back looking to regain the 1,000-yard form of his sophomore year if he can stay healthy. Juniors Matt Nuzzi and Jovanny Rodriguez are also expected to get some carries out of the backfield. The wide receivers/slot backs competition is between Ibrahim, Rooney and seniors Corey Nuzzi, Thomas Torrese and juniors Steve Walier, Peter Savrides, and Will Van Name.

Adam Ibrahim will either be in the backfield as a slotback or split out wide in Holmdel's new offense. (Photo by Bill Normile)

Senior Ryan Nolan will hold down the center position with sophomore Seamus Wood backing him up. The battle being waged for the guard spots is between seniors Andelo Arena, Matt McDonald, Matt Mallon, junior Christian Tascione, and sophomore James Hyde.  Rounding out the offensive line will be senior tackles Jack Russo and Matt Nelson along with junior Dan Graw and sophomore Matt Brady in the mix to see time.

“We are hoping that our O-line will work hard, learn from each other and grow together,'' Nolan said. "I am working hard on making the offensive line calls."

The defense will be an attacking 3-3-5 stack with constant pressure.  It will be led by Condito in the middle at inside linebacker, flanked by Matt Nuzzi and Walier. The outside stacks will be manned by Nolan, Corey Nuzzi, Rodriguez or senior Robby Disko. Russo and Justin Ruiz also are expected to see minutes there.

“Our strength is in our linebackers,'' Ibrahim said. "They can all run to the ball and have been bringing pressure when called upon."

“We are stressing to the players to finish everything,'' Graham said. "Every play, every quarter, every practice. We have to raise the expectation level and change the culture regarding Holmdel football."So far things have gone very well. The kids have bought in and are working very hard.  Our leaders are helping with the younger kids, and if we continue down this road we think we can be very successful."

Head coach: Jay Graham, first season

Career record: 0-0

Assistant coaches: Pete Christathakis (asst. head coach/off. coord.); Brian Kmak (WR/DB); Scott Cannon (OL/DL); Jimmy Maguire (QB/RB/DB); Colin Hart, Sean Devaney (freshman); Makenzie Atherton (athletic trainer).

Big Shoes to Fill: Steve Walier, Jr., WR/LB

Walier will try to fill the spot vacated by all-purpose threat Matt Dixon, who was able to play multiple positions on offense and defense.

X-Factor: The offense.

The Hornets only averaged 9.7 points per game last season, so if the new offense installed under Graham can find a way to double that production after finding where the personnel fits best, it would go a long way toward getting back above .500.

Glue Guy: Ryan Nolan, Sr., OL/LB

The senior co-captain is a quiet type who leads by example but will be crucial to Holmdel's success as the starting center in an offense that will operate out of the shotgun. He also will be a leader on the defense at outside linebacker.

Impact Newcomer: Matt Nuzzi, Jr., RB/LB

Nuzzi will be at fullback and also will start at outside linebacker, plus he is versatile enough to play at the other linebacker spots in the defense.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 13 at Monmouth.

Monmouth returns some good individual skill talent, so this will be a strong test for the Hornets right off the bat and a chance to gain some immediate confidence in their first game under Graham. It also is a divisional game in Class A Central.