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With the Shore Conference’s top returning passer and a 1,000-yard rusher back to ignite the offense, Middletown North is hoping the promise it hinted at last season can translate into a jump in the win column this fall.

The Lions returned to the state playoffs for the first time in four years last season, giving Nottingham all it could handle in a 35-33 loss in the Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinals. They may have only won three games, but their prolific spread attack under coach Steve Bush has Lions fans looking forward to two more years of watching the tandem of sophomore quarterback Donald Glenn and junior tailback Chad Freshnock.

Sophomore quarterback Donald Glenn is poised to build on an outstanding freshman season for Middletown North. (Photo by Scott Stump)

“We work together,’’ Freshnock said about Glenn. “He keeps them out of the box, I keep them in the box. When they come in the box, we throw, when they go back up to cover the passing, then I run all over them.”

Glenn was thrown into the fire as a freshman and responded with 1,557 yards passing and 15 touchdowns, which are believed to be Shore Conference records for a freshman quarterback. Now in year two in Bush’s spread offense, Glenn will look to boost his accuracy after going 116-for-241 (48 percent) and throwing 14 interceptions while making the leap from youth football all the way to varsity. His improvement should help the Lions take a step forward after averaging 21 points per game last year.

“This team, we worked a lot harder in the offseason,’’ Glenn said. “The players helped me a lot being with me in the offseason. I’m a lot more comfortable with this team, the coaching staff and all the players.”

“I expect big things,’’ Bush said. “He’s a hard worker, a guy who wants to be good. He’s gotten much better command of the offense and a lot more poise and understanding of defenses. He did a great job as a freshman playing that position at the varsity level, throwing for 15 touchdowns and over 1,500 yards. He threw a lot of interceptions, too, because his age and inexperience showed up at times, and I think we can eliminate some of those things and take what the defense gives us.”

While the Lions have to replace leading receiver Jake Betkowski and his 54 catches, they do return two primary playmakers poised for big seasons. Senior wide receiver Jordan Pitts is a returning starter who had 24 catches for 341 yards and 3 touchdowns, and versatile senior tight end Troy Thompson is back after making 13 catches for 283 yards and three touchdowns. Thompson is athletic enough that he can line up at tight end, in the slot, and split wide to make the Lions more difficult to defend.

“Jordan Pitts has done some good things, and Troy Thompson has gotten bigger, stronger and faster, so those two guys will be real good,’’ Bush said.

Senior Keshawn Williams will be another part of the wide receiving corps and has had a good preseason thus far after making five catches as a junior. He will be joined by 6-foot-2 junior Josh Gomez and sophomore Dwight Wilkerson as other targets for Glenn.

Freshnock, who is also a standout wrestler, returns to lead the running game after finishing with 1,056 and 11 touchdowns on 175 carries as a sophomore. He underwent surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee that he suffered during a 7-on-7 tournament at Rutgers this summer, but has been practicing and said he will be at 100 percent going into the season.

“He worked very hard in the offseason,’’ Glenn said. “You can only expect great things from him.”

His presence makes defenses think twice about selling out to send pressure at Glenn. Aaron Borrero, a good athlete who has come out for the team as a senior, also could see some carries at tailback along with junior Demetrius Radway.

“We were almost exactly 50-50 last year in run-pass, so we’d like to be balanced and make teams defend both,’’ Bush said.

Crucial to the offense’s success will be the offensive line, which returns only one starter, senior captain Vincent Pianoforte, who will be at tackle. Junior Mike Hoverson steps in at center, 275-pound senior Joe Antonio will be at guard after starting one game as a junior, 6-foot-2, 260-pound junior Pat McGowan will be at the other guard spot, and senior Constantine Dudzinski will be at the other tackle spot, with senior Parker Anderson also seeing time in the offensive line rotation.

“The offensive line is looking really good,’’ Freshnock said. “They’re working really hard.”

“We’re a lot further ahead this year than we were this time last year as far as them knowing who to block and the protections and just understanding what we’re doing,’’ Bush said.

Senior Nick Banta is a returning starter as the placekicker and punter after booting 20 extra points and a pair of field goals last season.

Senior Jordan Pitts returns as the top wideout and a starting safety for Middletown North. (Photo by Scott Stump)

An area the Lions have to improve to take a step forward is the defense, which gave up 30.6 points per game last season against a tough schedule. The front in their 4-4 scheme will be especially important because several of their opponents will try to control the clock and keep the ball  out of Glenn’s hands by pounding the Lions with the running game.

Dudzinski, Antonio, and juniors Tyler Vivian and Mike Behan make up the rotation at defensive tackle, while Pianoforte, Anderson, junior Matt Dombrowski and senior James Courtney will all see time at defensive end. Freshnock returns with experience at inside linebacker, and Pianoforte’s twin brother, Anthony, will be at the other inside linebacker spot after coming out for the team as a senior. Junior Brodie DiGennaro should also see time at inside linebacker.

“I think we’re running to the ball better, and I think on that side of the ball we understand better what we’re supposed to be doing,’’ Bush said about the defense. “We’re further along as far as people knowing their responsibilities.”

Thompson (86 tackles, 3 sacks) and senior captain Dylan Hallard (56 tackles) are both returning starters at outside linebacker, where sophomore Nick Kish could also see some time. Pitts returns to anchor the secondary at free safety after making 44 tackles last year. Junior Matt Harrison also should see some time at safety, and the cornerbacks will be Wilkerson and Borrero, with Radway also in the mix.

After generating some excitement with their playoff berth last season, the Lions have now set their sights high in Central Jersey Group IV while also looking to be a factor in the Class A North race.

“I expect to go all the way,’’ Freshnock said.

Bush is hoping the inconsistency that came with youth and inexperience last year can be eradicated to make Middletown North a threat every week.

“I thought we got better as the season went on last year and started to make some real progress, but I thought we took a step backwards in our Thanksgiving game (a 43-6 loss to Middletown South),’’ Bush said. “Now we’ve got to be able to take the next step and play more consistently and play up to the higher level of competition.”

 

Head coach: Steve Bush, 2nd season (15th overall)

Career record: 3-7

Assistant coaches: John Denuto (def. coord./LB/WR); George Kostas (OL/DL); Geoff Massimini (TE/DB); Jason Pino (RB/OLB); Larry McKnight (OL/DL); Randy Kalman (WR/LB); Dana Webster, Lyndon Johnson, Matt Rosner (freshman); Danielle Kanski (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 3-7 (3-3)

Big Shoes to Fill: Jordan Pitts, Sr., WR

Jake Betkowski set a school record with 54 catches to go with 686 yards and 6 touchdowns last season as the Lions’ top wideout to earn second-team All-Shore honors. Pitts now moves into that No. 1 slot and needs to keep the production high.

X-Factor: The defense.

If the defense can take a jump forward after giving up 30 points per game last season and ensure that teams can’t bleed the clock and keep the offense off the field, the Lions can make that leap to the six- or seven-win mark.

Glue Guy: Troy Thompson, Sr., TE/LB

A two-way starter at tight end and outside linebacker, Thompson plays crucial roles on both sides of the ball and also has emerged as a team leader.

Impact Newcomer: Aaron Borrero, Sr., RB/DB

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior has just come out for the team this year and looks to give the Lions another weapon in the backfield to complement Freshnock while also being a factor in the secondary.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 2 at Manalapan.

If they have any designs on competing for the Class A North title, the road goes through four-time defending champion Manalapan, which beat them 42-14 last year. A win over the Braves would be the type of stunner that shows this team has arrived as a serious contender, and it also would be a huge boost to their playoff hopes.