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For three straight years, Manalapan has been one win away from its first state title in program history, only to leave a state final in frustration.

Last year it was a 21-0 loss to Hunterdon Central in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V final that put the only blemish on the Braves’ record and once again left them determined to finish the job. Despite graduating a host of All-Shore talent, including Penn State freshman wide receiver Saeed Blacknall and Shore Sports Network Defensive Player of the Year Chris Noesges, the Braves are intent on filling in the only gap in their resume during a brilliant run over the past three seasons.

Manalapan senior Dan Anerella returns as the Braves' quarterback after throwing 14 touchdown passes as a junior. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle).

“We’re all pushing forward again,’’ said senior quarterback Dan Anerella. “When you fall so many times, the fire really burns brighter.”

“We’re proud of what we’ve done the last four years,’’ head coach Ed Gurrieri said. “We feel that this program has everything in place. The great thing about these guys is that nobody feels sorry for themselves and everybody knows that what doesn’t kill you makes you better, so they work harder. Our goal as a team hasn’t changed. We want to win a state championship this year.”

With an experienced quarterback, a deep backfield, some promising receivers and a defense that returns talented veterans on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary, the Braves will look to continue their domination of Class A North and make another march to a state final. They enter the season having won 25 straight games against Shore Conference competition and four straight division titles without a divisional loss. Red Bank Catholic and Manalapan are each bidding to be the first Shore team to win five straight division titles since Middletown South won seven straight from 1999-2005.

“Coach Gurrieri always says that we have a target on our back and every game we play is everyone else’s biggest game, so we just have to be ready and bring our best no matter who it is,’’ said senior defensive end Kyle Mullen.

Anerella is back for his second year as the starter in Manalapan’s pro-style offense after engineering a unit that averaged 36.3 points per game last year. He threw for 913 yards and 14 touchdowns on 57 percent accuracy with only four interceptions in his first season as the starter. For the first half of last season, he rotated series during games with classmate Charles Lombana, but now Lombana will start at safety this year while serving as the back-up quarterback.

“I think Dan Anerella from last year to this year has grown,’’ Gurrieri said. “His arm is certainly stronger, and he has a very good grasp of the offense. This year we’ll give him a little more of the reins, and we think he is going to have a great year.”

He also will have plenty of help, as the Braves return one of the Shore Conference’s deepest backfields. Even though they graduated leading rusher Tyler Leonetti, they return seniors Imamu Mayfield, John Cheung and Dan Debner. Cheung and Debner are also special teams dynamos as returners, and Mayfield hinted at his potential with 469 yards rushing and eight touchdowns on nearly seven yards per carry last year to generate FCS interest in the offseason.

“It’s definitely a different feel because I have more responsibilities,’’ Mayfield said about stepping into the starting role. “I’ve been trying to lead the team in the weight room and other areas.”

The Braves should be able to roll out fresh backs all game with Cheung and Debner also capable of making big plays. All three are also dangerous receivers out of the backfield in the passing game.

“I think that Imamu is one of the best football players in the Shore, not just as a running back, but as a two-way player,’’ Gurrieri said. “That three-headed monster at tailback, they’re going to have a good year.”

“It’s unlimited what we can do with those three,’’ Anerella said. “We could have two of them out on the field, one of them catching passes, forget about it.”

Senior Imamu Mayfield takes over as the starting tailback for Manalapan and also will be at linebacker. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Manalapan also has three capable fullbacks who will rotate between seniors Ben Sieczkowski, Nick Surhoff and Carlos Teixeira. Mullen and senior Brian Conforth will be at tight end, where the Braves graduated three-year starter R.J. Krause. At wide receiver, they lose Blacknall, who had 52 catches for 707 yards and 15 touchdowns, and will break in 6-foot-2 senior newcomer Tyson Plummer, who has received FCS interest, and senior Gerard Hodge-Rocourt.

“It’s never going to be easy when you lose stars like that, but we have a bunch of really good players that make one great team,’’ Anerella said.

“You’re never going to replace a kid who has a chance to be an NFL player, but I think this new group is going to be fine,’’ Gurrieri said.

The Braves’ offensive line, which is perennially one of the Shore’s best, brings back a pair of starters in 6-foot-2, 295-pound junior right guard Joe Sellmeyer, who was a second-team All-Shore selection as a sophomore, and 280-pound senior left guard Pete Williams. Six-foot-4 junior Reily Radosevich steps in at right tackle, junior Anthony Tardogno will be at center, and left tackle is a competition between juniors Jake Levine and Mitchell Trabb.

Manalapan’s special teams, which were a standout unit last season, return one of the top kicker/punter combos in New Jersey in first-team All-Shore selection Mike Caggiano, a senior. The All-Class A North selection averaged 34.3 yards per punt with a long of 56 yards and dropped 12 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. As a kicker, he blasted 40 touchbacks out of 74 kickoffs and led all Shore Conference kickers in scoring by going 57-for-60 on extra points and 3-for-6 on field goals. Cheung also returns after averaging 50 yards per kickoff return, and Debner is back after averaging 15 yards per punt return.

Defensively, the Braves will have to replace a pair of All-Shore first-teamers in Krause at noseguard and Noesges at linebacker in their 3-4 scheme, but return a host of experienced talent from a unit that allowed only nine points per game last year. Mullen, who has received FCS interest, is back at defensive end after finishing with 70 tackles and 2 ½ sacks last year. Sieczkowski returns with experience at the other defensive end spot, where Radosevich also should see time. Senior Noah Groninger steps in for Krause at noseguard, where Surhoff and junior Alec Mahon are also expected to see minutes.

Senior Joe Mendez, an All-Division selection last season who has received FCS interest, returns at outside linebacker after making 42 tackles and finishing second on the team with five sacks. Teixeira steps in for Noesges at inside linebacker and has the coaching staff believing he's poised for a big year after being stuck behind one of the Shore’s best. Mayfield will be at the other inside linebacker spot, with senior Simon Bublis manning the other outside linebacker position.

“They all played in games last year because most of our games were lop-sided, and coach Fumando (defensive coordinator Justin Fumando) did a great job of getting them all time,’’ Mendez said about the newcomers. “We have depth at a lot of positions.”

Lombana steps in at safety, and Debner is a returning starter at cornerback to anchor the secondary after making a pair of interceptions last year. Senior Marc Goldstein will be the starter at the other safety spot, and junior Anthony Bassani will man the other cornerback position.

“We’re never going to replace Chris Noesges,’’ Gurrieri said. “He was like having another coach on the field, but the players that we have in place, I think that we’ll be all right. Last year we gave up one score a game, and I think it might not be that good, but I think we’ll be fine.”

That group will look to keep its grip on the Class A North crown and prove those wrong who think they might take a step back because of the graduation losses.

“We’re still the kings,’’ Anerella said.

They will also need seniors to fill the leadership void of those who graduated in order to get back to the state final and finish the job.

“We have to find more leaders on the team because a lot of the people who graduated, they led us very well and now they’re gone, so people need to take charge,’’ Mayfield said.

“We felt that pain of what it was like to lose last year, and now we’re going to do everything we can to get back there,’’ Anerella said. “We’ll be back, don’t worry.”

 

Head coach: Ed Gurrieri, 8th season

Career record: 59-19

Assistant coaches: Justin Fumando (def. coord.); Dan D’Avanzo (off. coord./QB); Joe Tetley (OL); Dom Lepore (DB/spec. teams); Bill Smith Sr. (LB); Jimmy Papcun (WR); Andy Sliwoski (football operations);  Bill Smith Jr., Jon Harrison, Alex DeCastro, Bobby Schreck, Reggie Grant (freshman); Shannon Tomasula (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 11-1 (6-0)

Big Shoes to Fill: Carlos Teixeira, Sr., LB

Teixeira, who started his career at Manalapan, transferred to St. John Vianney and then transferred back before last season, takes over for Shore Conference Defensive Player of the Year Chris Noesges at inside linebacker. He has been waiting for his chance and has the ability to make sure there won’t be a major drop-off in production from this spot. Senior Tyson Plummer also will be counted on to help fill the shoes of Penn State recruit Saeed Blacknall at wide receiver.

X-Factor: The passing game.

Nearly every touchdown pass Dan Anerella threw last year was to Saeed Blacknall, so the new group of receivers will have to step up and try to approximate Blacknall’s production. Teams know Manalapan is going to run the ball, so if Anerella can keep them honest by going over the top, this offense should once again be one of the Shore’s best.

Glue Guy: Dan Anerella, Sr., QB

Anerella has emerged as a team leader and now has a season under his belt in running the offense. He seized the job last season and looks to become more of a playmaker as a senior.

Impact Newcomer: Carlos Teixeira, Sr., LB

Stuck behind some of the Shore’s top linebackers last season, Teixeira is poised for a breakout year in his one and only season as a starter.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 17 vs. Middletown South.

This once again looks like a huge game that will go a long way toward deciding the Class A North title and boosting the playoff seeding of the winner. The Braves are the rare team that has had Middletown South’s number four straight times, and they will look to keep the upper hand.