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Raritan took an important step forward in rebuilding its program last year, so now the task is making that next leap to become a state playoff team for the first time in five years.

With one of the Shore Conference’s top passers returning along with a solid group of skill players and an experienced defense, the opportunity is there for the Rockets to continue their rise from the ashes of a winless season two years ago to reach the postseason.

Raritan senior Riley Sullivan looks to build on a 1,300-yard passing season in his second year as the starter for the Rockets. (Photo by Scott Stump)

“We thought we worked hard last year to get those three wins, but if we put in the same amount of work, that will just keep us where we are,’’ said head coach Anthony Petruzzi. “We have to work much harder than we thought we worked last year in order to get where we want to go.”

Senior quarterback Riley Sullivan returns to lead Raritan’s multiple pro offense under new coordinator Jeff Struble after throwing for 1,385 yards and nine touchdowns in nine games last year, the second-most yards of any returning quarterback in the Shore Conference. Raritan averaged only 12.7 points per game last season and was shut out twice, so the offense will have to improve to make a playoff push.

“Our offense has to be more efficient, and I think we’re working towards that now,’’ Sullivan said. “I learned how to read defenses a lot better, and now I’m learning when to run and when to pass, and other situational things. I think our offense is going to surprise people.”

Petruzzi has stressed to the strong-armed lefty that the high-percentage short throw can be just as effective as bombing it deep.

“We just want him to take control of the game and protect the football,’’ Petruzzi said. “He can make all the throws, and he wants to take deep shots, and he has weapons, but we have to stay out of bad situations, move the chains and keep him upright.”

Six-foot-4 senior Dylan DeWysockie returns at wide receiver, where he should be a threat downfield and in the red zone with his height and long arms. Last year, he had 14 catches for 404 yards, an average of 28.9 yards per catch, which included a 99-yard touchdown. Junior Jahciere Jones brings a speed element and should be another weapon, while senior Colby Jones, a returning starter on defense, also should see time at wide receiver along with junior Nick Pasquin. Junior tight end/H-back Mason Sheehan also returns as another target.

Senior Rich Salerno takes over at tailback after rushing for 198 yards in relief of graduated starter Jared Collins last year, and junior Derek Ernst also will see plenty of carries in the running game.

“Our running game has been good so far,’’ Petruzzi said. “I like our two backs, and I like the guys up front. I think we have enough complementary players at all positions where it's going to stress defenses.”

Up front, the Rockets return two starters at the tackle spots, seniors Chris Vurchio and Nick Buzzo, and senior Malcom Daniels will start at center after starting on defense last year. Six-foot-4, 280-pound junior Bo Bentley steps in at guard, while the other guard spot is still being contested. Senior Anthony Zabe was projected to start but is currently injured, so juniors Mike Gillen and Billy Hutchins and sophomore Paul Bavaro are in the mix to start at guard. The placekicker job is up in the air, and Sheehan will handle the punting and kickoffs.

Defensively, the Rockets have tweaked their scheme to more of a 4-2-5 look to compensate for their lack of size and to take advantage of their speed on a unit that allowed 25.6 points per game last year. A big focus has been forcing turnovers, as they finished last season at minus-8 in turnover ratio. They also will be focused on swarming to the ball in a division that features several potent running attacks.

“We need to generate more turnovers defensively and do a much better job of taking care of the ball (on offense),’’ Petruzzi said. “We're expecting a double-digit positive number in turnover ratio this year.”

Sophomore Matt Thompson started at defensive end as a freshman and now will also play some defensive tackle this year. Daniels is a returning starter at defensive tackle, where Vurchio will rotate in as well. Sheehan, Gillen, sophomore Sean Agar and junior Sean Friedman make up the rotation at defensive end.

“We’re looking to get as many shutouts as we can,’’ Colby Jones said. “We’re trying to start a new shutout board.”

Junior Sean Ennis is a returning starter at linebacker who showed playmaking ability as a sophomore, and senior Mike Santillo also is a returning starter at linebacker. Sophomore Ryan Dickens will step in at the other linebacker spot. Ernst and senior Peter Terranova are both returning starters at the strong safety spots in the back, and Jones is a returning starter at free safety. Senior Kevin Koehler will see time at safety and at cornerback. DeWysockie returns at one cornerback spot after playing both ways toward the end of last year, and senior Collin Williams and junior Antwuan Bowens also will rotate in at cornerback.

“Our secondary and our D-line are 10 times better than I think they were last year,’’ DeWysockie said.

The Rockets snapped a 14-game losing streak with a victory over Monmouth in their fifth game last season to start the turnaround. That helped boost their confidence to win two of their last four games, including a 38-18 win over playoff qualifier Colonia on the road.

“I think once we won those games, we had blood in our eyes and were just ready to go,’’ Colby Jones said. “We knew that we could take down quality opponents like that if we play as a team.”

Raritan’s schedule also isn’t as unforgiving as it has been the past two seasons. Outside of a challenging Class A Central slate, they have replaced playoff qualifiers Neptune, Carteret and Colonia (combined 19 wins in 2013) with Red Bank, Freehold and Point Boro (combined four wins). The goal is to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

“We want to get back on the map, and show our community that we’ve gotten better and we’re ready to play,’’ DeWysockie said.

“I think this is a playoff-quality team, but you have to win the games,’’ Petruzzi said. “Matawan didn't make the playoffs last year, and defensively they were the best team we played last year, and that's including RBC, so you never know what can happen. If we just compete in our division, then the (playoff) section will work itself out.”

 

Head coach: Anthony Petruzzi, 5th season

Career record: 13-27

Assistant coaches: John Principe (def. coord.); Jeff Struble (off. coord./QB); Billy Kvalheim (DB); Matt Dempsey (OL); George Gibson (DL); Chris Raitano (DL); Matt Walsh (WR); Mike Nunes, Mike Thaner, Nick Sparacello (freshman); Amanda Stump (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 3-7 (2-4)

Big Shoes to Fill: Sean Ennis, Jr., LB

After a solid sophomore season, Ennis will be called upon to replace the production lost by leading tackler Tyler Jones at linebacker. Senior safety Colby Jones will also try to fill the leadership void left by his older brother.

X-factor: Offensive line.

If the improvements the coaching staff has made in being able to pick up pressure can be executed by this unit, it should go a long way toward boosting the offense to one that can average 20-plus points per game. An improved running game would also help keep Raritan out of obvious passing downs and prevent defenses from consistently bringing pressure on Sullivan.

Glue Guy: Riley Sullivan, Sr., QB

In his second year as a starter, Sullivan is an indispensable part of Raritan’s success. He has to boost his production and efficiency while cutting down on mistakes for the Rockets to make the leap to a playoff team.

Impact newcomer: Jahciere Jones, Jr., WR

Jones was plagued by nagging injuries all last season, but should be a weapon at wide receiver with his speed and elusiveness to complement the big-play threat on the outside of wide receiver Dylan DeWysockie.

Pivotal game: Sept. 12 vs. Manasquan.

This game is huge for the Rockets for multiple reasons beyond just being the season opener. A victory immediately makes them a darkhorse contender in Class A Central, gives them the confidence that they can beat a strong program like Manasquan, and most likely nets them crucial power points that would put them in a good position to make a run at a playoff spot right off the bat. While Raritan has never won on Manasquan’s field, this game is on their home turf, where they have knocked the Warriors off multiple times in recent years. They will have to find a way to close a big gap after losing 42-3 at home to Manasquan last year.