2014 Red Bank Catholic Football Preview: Finishing the Job
Just like last year, the mission is the same for Red Bank Catholic – maintain its dominance in the Shore Conference and find a way to finish the job in the state playoffs against New Jersey’s best.
For the second straight year, the Caseys won a school-record 10 games but had their season come to an end at the hands of perennial state power St. Joseph’s-Montvale in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III semifinals for their only loss. They have another talent-packed roster led by Miami recruit Jamie Gordinier ready to make a run in the wake of a 28-7 loss to the Green Knights last year.
“I think we’ve learned that we’re just as physical as (St. Joe’s),’’ said Gordinier, a senior tight end/linebacker. “I think we can compete with the teams up north and that each year we’re getting closer. I think that this year we can win a state championship.”
“You learn the level that you need to be at – the speed of the game, how well they execute and how strong they are, and it helps us,’’ head coach Jim Portela said. “That’s what we’re striving to be.”
The Caseys, who have been one win away from their first state final appearance since 1980 the past two seasons, have won 33 straight games against Shore Conference competition and four straight division titles. The only mountain left to climb is St. Joseph’s-Montvale, which finished No. 1 in the state last year in winning its 17th state title.
“I feel that we’re right there,’’ said senior lineman Ryan Kroeger.
“We learned the speed of the game,’’ senior running back/safety Mike Cordova said. “The first year we went up there, it was just chaotic, and we were trying to catch up. Last year we caught up a little bit, but then we tailed off. We’re working hard to try to get back there."
After averaging 43.5 points per game last year and racking up a school-record 479 points, the scary thing is that the Caseys’ offense has a chance to be even better. They graduated Notre Dame recruit Quenton Nelson and Lehigh recruit Tim O’Hara on the offensive line as well as first-team All-Shore running back Larry Redaelli, but return a host of other weapons. Junior Eddie Hahn, who already has an offer from North Carolina State, will take over full time at quarterback after rotating with graduated starter Pat Toomey last year.
Hahn threw for 367 yards and 6 touchdowns on only 33 attempts last year and also ran for 245 yards and four touchdowns on an average of 10 yards per carry. His dual threat capability gives RBC an extra dimension outside of its punishing running game.
“We’re happy with the way we’re throwing the ball, and I think we’re throwing the ball as well as we have since 2005 with (former star Ryan) Kalish at quarterback,’’ Portela said. “We always want to be a physical football team, establish the run and play great defense, but we do feel like we have some weapons in the passing game.”
Senior Trevor Cowley is a returning starter at wide receiver, which is a deep group that also includes seniors John Portela and Nick Lubischer, who saw time last season. Senior Mike DeMonte, a standout defensive back, also will play some wide receiver this year in addition to junior Dan Lukawski and senior Joe Luff. Another weapon in the passing game is Gordinier, who returns as a starter at tight end, where he is athletic enough to line up in the slot and even split out wide. Senior Doug Zockoll also will see action at tight end.
The running game has perennially become one of the Shore Conference’s best, and that should be no different this year with Cordova and fellow senior Tommy Spernal as the tailbacks. Cordova rushed for 223 yards and 7 touchdowns last year while Spernal finished with 353 yards and 4 touchdowns on an average of 10 yards per carry. After being complementary threats to Redaelli last year, they should be one of the better tandems in the conference. Clearing the way for them in certain packages will be the rotation of junior Dylan Murphy, senior Nick LaGrippo and junior Joey Hagan at fullback.
“I think this year we have our best skill position players we’ve had in a while,’’ Gordinier said.
“Eddie is going to have a really good year, and we’re going to have a really good rotation at running back,’’ Kroeger said.
The offensive line looks to once again be one of the deepest and most talented units in the Shore, led by Kroeger, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound Fordham recruit who returns at guard, tackle Liam Smith, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound junior who has multiple FBS offers, and senior returning starter Nick Roy, a 265-pound center.
“I love seeing Liam Smith coming around the corner and running right behind him and Kroeger,’’ Spernal said.
Senior Neil Horenburg, who is 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, will be at the other tackle spot after starting two games as a junior. Six-foot-3, 275-pound senior Danny Wilen steps in at the other guard spot. The group of seniors Mike Reverendo, Cole Cornacchia, and Ryan McCue, and juniors Ryan Oneidas and Charlie Gargiulo will also see time in a deep rotation up front. Senior Vinnie Gallo, who has come out from the soccer team, is auditioning to replace Toomey, one of the top kickers in the Shore Conference last year. Hahn will handle the punting.
Defensively, the Caseys should once again be right there at the top of the Shore Conference after allowing only 7.7 points per game last year, including only 5.7 against Shore Conference teams. They have six returning starters and several others who saw time last year in their 4-3 scheme. After making 53 tackles and three sacks last year, Kroeger is a returning starter at defensive tackle, which will feature a rotation that also includes Horenburg, Roy, Smith and 6-foot-2, 315-pound senior Pat Cino. Wilen is a returning starter at defensive end after registering 34 tackles as a junior, and Zockoll will be at the other defensive spot in replacing first-team All-Shore pick Shawn McCord, with Gargiulo and senior Steve Duistrian in the rotation at that spot.
Gordinier, who had 86 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss and 3 sacks as a junior, returns as one of New Jersey’s best at strongside linebacker after verbally committing to play for RBC graduate Al Golden and Miami. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he is versatile enough to rush from the edge, drop back in coverage and stuff the run between the tackles.
“Last year he took a big step forward and was much more physical,’’ Portela said. “He has a knack for running to the football, he can rush the quarterback, he can cover, and I think that’s what the colleges liked about him. They didn’t say he was going to play the mike or defensive end, they just plug him into their system because he’s able to play anywhere.”
“I worked on improving my reads this year and studying other teams and knowing exactly what they do, so that I feel confident going into each game,’’ Gordinier said.
Murphy will be the weakside linebacker, and LaGrippo and Reverendo are competing for minutes at middle linebacker. Junior Mike Wilen and seniors Mike Travers and Trevon James also should see some time at linebacker.
The secondary looks to be one of the Shore’s best with Hahn and Cordova both returning as starters at safety, where Cordova earned second-team All-Shore honors last season with 69 tackles and a team-high 5 interceptions. DeMonte, who has Division II and FCS offers, returns at cornerback after registering 55 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Lubischer, who saw time last year in nickel packages, steps in as the other starter at cornerback. Spernal, Lukawski, and senior Jonathan Leach make up the rotation at cornerback, while Cowley, junior Colin Shaughnessy and senior Nick Cella will help spell Cordova and Hahn at safety.
“I think we’re a lot faster on defense,’’ Cordova said. “We try to go game speed all the time in practice, and we’ve got some guys who can move.”
Along with Manalapan, the Caseys are bidding to become the first Shore Conference team to win five straight division titles since Middletown South won seven straight from 1999-2005. They have been realigned into the competitive Class B North this year after winning Class A Central last season, and they have nondivisional games against Manalapan, St. Joseph’s-Metuchen and Jackson Memorial. Eight of the nine teams on their schedule made the playoffs last year, and Manalapan, Jackson Memorial, Ocean and St. Joseph’s-Metuchen are all defending division champions.
Add that to the 33-game winning streak against local competition, and there is plenty to keep the Caseys sharp as they make their ultimate push toward getting over the hump in Non-Public Group III.
“We don’t want to be that team to lose that streak, so it keeps us hungry,’’ Gordinier said. “Every team has us circled on their schedule.”
“I’m sure Manalapan feels the same way because I know when one of us stumbles, it’s going to be a story for weeks,’’ Portela said. “I think we’ve grown to understand that we’re marked men, and we’re going to play that way.”
Head coach: Jim Portela, 6th season
Career record: 44-9
Assistant coaches: Matt Ahearn (off. coord.); Keith Hugger (spec. teams); Mike Rosenfeld (QB/DB); Nick Varanelli (RB/LB); Dom Pollifrone (OL/DL); Matt Bijas (TE/DB); Joe McAuliffe (strength & conditioning); Tony Flego, Joe Lanza, Joe Gallagher (freshman); Mike DeSocio (athletic trainer).
2013 record: 10-1 (6-0)
Big Shoes to Fill: Mike Cordova, Sr., RB/DB
Cordova has to replace Larry Redaelli, a first-team All-Shore tailback who led the Shore with 29 touchdowns and ran for 1,660 yards last year. Another candidate is junior Liam Smith, who takes over for one of the best offensive line recruits in the last 30 years in the Shore, Notre Dame freshman Quenton Nelson.
X-factor: The passing game.
With the strong-armed Eddie Hahn running the show, this is an area the Caseys look to expand this year to give them more balance for when they enter the minefield in Non-Public Group III and potentially run into nemesis St. Joseph’s-Montvale.
Glue Guy: Jamie Gordinier, Sr., TE/LB
A team leader and one of New Jersey’s best linebackers, he can be used in all types of packages on defense and also is a versatile offensive weapon at tight end because of his athleticism.
Impact newcomer: Liam Smith, Jr., OL/DL
Smith was not a starter last year but is expected to be a force in stepping in for Notre Dame freshman Quenton Nelson at offensive tackle and also seeing time on the defensive line. Smith, who transferred from Red Bank Regional before last season, already boasts offers from Miami, Rutgers, Syracuse and Virginia.
Pivotal game: Oct. 24 vs. Manalapan.
This was the game everyone wanted to see last year, but it still involves two teams that have each won four straight division titles. RBC has plenty of challenges on its schedule, so the Caseys will have to stay sharp to keep their winning streak against Shore Conference competition intact.