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Over the first five games of last season, Lacey was a top-three team in the Shore Conference and on its way to what looked like a championship season. But after starting 5-0, the wheels feel completely off the bus as the Lions spiraled to five straight losses while allowing a staggering 40 points per game.

It was a jarring, almost unbelievable sight to see what has traditionally been a stingy defense give up so many points. For the players returning this year, it’s all about redemption.

“We have to bounce back and be tougher this year,” said senior wide receiver/defensive back Mike Bocchini. “We were a little mentally weak when we started losing. We were 10-1 the year before and started last year 5-0, and it got to us. A team effort this season where everyone does their part, and we’ll be back. We’re not letting last year happen again.”

The Lions I-spread offense will have to replace quarterback Tom Kelly, the school’s all-time leading passer, and 1,000-yard receiver Christian Tutela, but is in a good position to fill those gaps with a strong corps of receivers and an experienced quarterback returning. Senior Conor Davies is back after starting a pair of games and playing half of another last season when Kelly was injured.

He threw for 743 yards and five touchdowns with a 78 percent completion percentage. Since the passing game is designed by his father, former Howell head coach Cory Davies, he enters his first season as the Lions’ full-time quarterback with both knowledge and experience.

Senior quarterback Conor Davies returns as Lacey's starter after throwing for 743 yards in limited action as a junior. (Photo by Bob Badders).

“It’s almost like I’m a returning starter, so I feel very comfortable,” Davies said.

“Conor is a very confident quarterback,” Bocchini said. “He’s done it before and we’ve played with him our whole lives, so we have a level of trust.”

Senior George Sayre returns as the team’s starting running back with sophomore Connor Wilson backing him up. Junior Jacob Post is the fullback and senior Isaiah Brown returns as the starting tight end. Bocchini returns at wide receiver after catching 27 passes for 394 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. Opposite him will be senior Ethan Blackwell with junior Scott Tutela also in the mix, as well as sophomore Zach Larney as the second tight end.

As Lacey tries to get back to its roots as a power running team while still utilizing an explosive passing attack, it can lean on an offensive line that returns three starters. Joe MacAvoy, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound junior, returns as the left tackle with 230-pound senior Frank Cimmiro back at left guard. The center is also a returning starter, senior James Peaney. The newcomers on the line are 275-pound senior Paul Colucci and 220-pound senior Mike Damiano. Tarique Smith, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior who saw time on the line last season, is also at tackle.

Senior running back George Sayre. (Photo by Bob Badders).

Defensively, the Lions know they have to improve after allowing over 30 points per game last season. Four starters return in their multiple front defense, including Smith, Post, Sayre and junior Aaron Boos. Injuries at linebacker hit the Lions hard as senior Lucas Sirotniak tore his ACL during lacrosse season and is out for the year. Junior linebacker Luke Bivona was injured early in training camp and will be out for a significant amount of time.

“Last year our offense was so potent, but the question was stopping people,” said head coach Lou Vircillo. “We have to establish ourselves like we did two years ago.”

MacAvoy is the nose tackle with Cimmiro also at the position. Smith returns as a starter at defensive end with Brown playing the other end. Post returns as a starter at linebacker after making 60 tackles last season. The other linebackers are senior Matt MacGillvary and juniors Nick Caputo and Mark Sheppard in a rotation.

The outside linebacker/strong safeties are Sayre, who started at cornerback last season, and senior Brett Kinsey. Boos started two games last season and will start at one cornerback spot. Bocchini, Davies and senior Will VanSchoick will rotate at the other cornerback position. The free safety is sophomore Chase Stephensen.

Junior lineman Tarique Smith drives into a tackling sled while assistant coaches Mike Stuppiello and John Tierney look on. (Photo by Bob Badders).

“On defense we have a huge rotation in the secondary, and that should help us stay fresh and have more on both sides of the ball,” Davies said.

Junior Pat Davis returns as the team’s kicker and punter. He was 29-for-31 on extra points last season while hitting three field goals with a long of 40 yards.

Vircillo is one win away from passing the late Vic Kubu of Manasquan and Middletown North fame for second all-time in career wins in Shore Conference history. Vircillo will begin his 34th season as the only coach in Lions’ history tied with Kubu with 263 wins.

Lacey also has a trio of former star players now on its coaching staff in Warren Smith, Mike Stuppiello and Chris D’Amico.

“It’s like having your heroes back,” Sayre said. “They’re always upbeat, and you just want to pick their brains and learn from them.”

Unlike most years, Lacey will not be the favorite to win a division title with Brick and Toms River South leading the pack in Class A South. But the Lions have enough experience and talent to be a factor, and the way last season ended for them continues to serve as a huge motivator.

“This year is about working hard and proving everybody wrong,” Sayre said.

“I think we can compete for a championship,” Bocchini added. “Every game is tough, and we have to go in every time fully loaded. It’s hard work, and we know that. We just have to do our thing and we’ll make it through.”

“If we play at the level we’re capable of there’s no doubt we can win A South,” Davies said.

 

Head coach: Lou Vircillo, 34th season

Career record: 263-118-3

Assistant coaches: Cory Davies (off. coord.); John Tierney (OL); Shane Allen (DL); Warren Smith (QB/LB); Joe Tobin (DB); Mike Stuppiello (DL); Chris D’Amico (RB/LB); Scott Delconzo, Watson Heleila, Danny Fornoff (freshman); Jack Bush (film); Lee Emery (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 5-5 (3-4)

Big Shoes to Fill: Ethan Blackwell, Sr., WR

Blackwell steps into a starting role for the graduated Christian Tutela, who led the Shore Conference with 54 catches and 1,053 yards last season.

X-Factor: Defense

Lacey’s offense has proven it can be explosive, but as last year showed it won’t translate to wins if the defense isn’t back to playing its normal physical and stingy style.

Glue Guy: Conor Davies, Sr., QB/DB

Davies may technically be a first-year starter, but his knowledge of the offense and experience last season in leading Lacey to a pair of wins off the bench has his team firmly confident in his abilities.

Impact Newcomer: Chase Stephensen, So., QB/S

Stephensen steps in as the starting free safety and is also the backup quarterback.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 20 vs. Jackson Memorial

The Jaguars hung 62 points on Lacey last season, so the Lions will surely be looking to return the favor this season against the defending A South champs.