2014 Rumson-FH Football Preview: Staying Hungry
Three days after Rumson-Fair Haven captured last year’s NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II championship, the returning players were back in the weight room with a new motto: “Stay hungry.”
“That Monday after, we said we’re not going to accept how good we are,’’ said senior tailback and captain Charlie Volker. “A lot of people are saying 12-0 or bust (this season), but right now we’re just focusing on Matawan. We aren’t worrying about anything other than that.”
No Bulldogs team has ever won consecutive state titles, as last year’s was the second in program history and the first since 2010. They reached consecutive finals in 2010 and 2011, splitting with Matawan, so now the goal is to become the first team to repeat in Central Jersey Group II since Manasquan won a Shore Conference-record five straight titles from 1998-2002.
“We don’t really think of that as our championship,’’ said senior safety Jackson Reid, who is also a team captain. “That was more of (last year’s) seniors’ championship. This is a new team, and we’ve got new people coming up. We’re still hungry, and we want to go back.”
With perennial power Red Bank Catholic now off its schedule because of a switch to a new Thanksgiving rival in Shore Regional, the opportunity is there for the Bulldogs to become the first team in program history to go 12-0 after winning a school-record 11 games last season. Their lone loss was a 45-0 defeat by the Caseys, but they have a challenging schedule this year that includes their Class A Central slate and nondivisional games against Central Jersey Group II semifinalist Lakewood, playoff qualifier Long Branch, and state finalist Shore.
“It’s in the forefront of people’s minds in the public,’’ second-year head coach Bryan Batchler said about going undefeated. “I think the expectation around here has been raised. We’re focused on one thing and one thing only, and that’s beating Matawan.”
Rumson returns a key piece in its quest for division and state titles. Volker, the reigning Shore Sports Network Offensive Player of the Year, is back after leading the Shore Conference with a school-record 2,108 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns in his first season as the starting tailback. Verbally committed to Princeton, Volker has bulked up his upper body in anticipation of another heavy workload after leading the Shore with 278 carries, 57 more than any other back in the conference. He also has improved his speed to the 4.5 range in the 40-yard dash thanks to running track in the spring and a rigorous weightlifting regimen.
“I wanted to add a little bit of weight so I could start running people over more,’’ he said.
Volker was a complete unknown heading into last season, but now he is circled on every opposing scouting report.
“We’re not going to change our gameplan too much,’’ Volker said. “We’re going to do what we do best, and I think that’s to just keep pounding the ball.”
“It’s a major challenge,’’ Batchler said. “Other kids are going to have step up. I think maybe people don’t know, but we’re deeper than one kid. The other thing is, people might be focused on Volker, and they know we’re going to run ‘power left’ and they know we’re going to run ‘power right,’ but they’ve still got to stop it.”
Also seeing carries out of their multiple-I offense under new coordinator John Corneliusen will be seniors Seamus Walsh and Lucas Seckler. Junior Butchy Clark and sophomore Mike Murdock make up the fullback rotation. The quarterback spot is between Reid, who started at safety last year, and talented newcomer Mike O’Connor, the Bulldogs’ quarterback of the future who starred on Rumson’s dominant freshman team last season.
The wide receiving corps features senior Murray McHeffey, who saw time last season, along with junior Lachlan Hull. O’Connor will also play wideout if he does not start at quarterback. Another weapon will be 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior tight end Kenny Ferrare, who saw time last season.
The offensive line has to replace multiple starters, including first-team All-Shore talent Peter Righi, who is now at Monmouth University. Senior Greg Elsas will be at center after starting six games last year, and senior Cooper Cuje is a returning starter at right tackle. Senior Brendan Carr and 6-foot-2, 240-pound sophomore Jack Woods are fighting for minutes at left guard, while junior Max Pfrang and sophomore James Melia are in the mix at right guard. Junior James Oncea is at left tackle, where he is being pushed by 6-foot-2, 255-pound sophomore Tim Leonard.
“We got a lot of young guys putting up huge numbers in the gym who are stepping up and filling those positions,’’ Volker said about the offensive line.
Senior Connor Kelly returns as the placekicker, and sophomore Thomas Chapin will handle the punting.
Defensively, the Bulldogs graduated an outstanding group that included Rutgers recruit Donald Bedell at defensive end and first-team All-Shore safety Thomas Martello off a unit that allowed 11.2 points per game and held nine opponents to one touchdown or less under veteran coordinator Jerry Schulte. A host of newcomers does not necessarily mean a drop-off, given that the Bulldogs replaced eight starters on defense in 2010 and won their first state title.
They have experience returning at all three levels in their 4-3 scheme starting with senior noseguard Ben Eisenstadt, who had 6 ½ sacks last season. Sophomore Liam Adams could also see some time at that spot, while Woods and Cuje make up the rotation at the three-technique position.
The Bulldogs have to replace one of the top defensive end tandems in the Shore in Bedell and Kevin Clayton, but Elsas is a promising playmaker who saw some minutes there last season behind the two standouts. Yet another member of Rumson’s talented sophomore class, Mike Ruane, is at the other defensive end spot, where Woods and senior Izzy Dunning look to be in the rotation.
Pfrang is a returning starter at middle linebacker after finishing with 70 tackles as a sophomore between playing middle linebacker and weakside linebacker, and senior captain Tucker Briggs is a returning starter at strongside linebacker. Melia, Murdock and Clark are all in competition at the weakside linebacker spot.
“Everyone here is just as hungry now as we were last year,’’ Briggs said. “We graduated so many seniors that people are eager to prove themselves and prove that (the title) wasn’t just them.”
Senior captain Sam Eisenstadt and Reid both return to anchor the secondary as the safeties after combining for seven interceptions last season. Eisenstadt moves to safety after registering a team-high four picks at cornerback last year. O’Connor and junior Griffin Schultz also should see time at safety. Junior Mike Caruso and senior Grant Rataski are battling for one cornerback spot, while junior Matt Waters and Kelly are competing for the other cornerback position.
“I’m confident guys are going to step up,’’ Sam Eisenstadt said. “They do every year. I think our secondary is going to be pretty solid, and our linebackers will be solid. Our D-line is a newer group, but I have confidence in those guys.”
With Red Bank Catholic now in Class B North, the opportunity is also there to make a run at the division title before setting their sights on making another piece of school history in the state playoffs.
“You go into every game knowing it’s a huge game for the other team because they know we’re defending champs, so we have to go into games being ready for teams to throw everything at us,’’ Sam Eisenstadt said.
“If we want to get back to where we were, we have to be hungrier than everyone else,’’ Batchler said.
Head coach: Bryan Batchler, 2nd season
Career record: 11-1
Assistant coaches: Jerry Schulte (def. coord./LB); John Corneliusen (off. coord./QB); Charlie Pirello (quality control); Joe Murphy (OL); Jeremy Schulte (DL); Bill Lagrotteria (DL); Rob Orrok (RB); Chris Quinn (WR); Frank Papalia (TE); Charlie O’Brien (DB); Jerry Gagliano, John Bellevance, Jason Lippart (freshman); Joe Lagrotteria (quality control); Alex Stein (athletic trainer).
2013 record: 11-1 (5-1)
Big Shoes to Fill: Greg Elsas, Sr., DE
There are plenty of positions this applies to, as offensive lineman Peter Righi, defensive end Donald Bedell and linebacker/safety Thomas Martello were all first-team All-Shore selections who graduated. Elsas has to replace Bedell, who is now at Rutgers and had 97 tackles and a team-high 12 sacks last year.
X-factor: The passing game.
Rumson doesn’t have to be world-beaters in this area, but whoever wins the starting job between Reid and O’Connor will have to do enough to keep defenses from putting nine guys in the box to stop Volker.
Glue Guy: Sam Eisenstadt, Sr., DB
A vocal team leader and returning starter in the secondary, Eisenstadt helps set the tone for a team that will look to keep its edge and fight complacency after winning a state title last year. He led the team with four interceptions last year and also returns kicks, plays gunner on punts and can step in to run the ball if needed.
Impact newcomer: Mike O’Connor, So., QB/WR/DB
O’Connor is part of a talented sophomore class that dominated as freshmen with him as the quarterback. He is a good athlete who will either start at quarterback or see time at wide receiver. He also should see plenty of minutes at safety, particularly if Jackson Reid ends up starting at quarterback.
Pivotal game: Sept. 19 at Matawan.
Usually the season opener isn't the most crucial on the schedule, but this has become a great rivalry, and with Matawan realigned from Class B North back into Rumson's division, it's a huge Class A Central game between two teams expected to be right there for the title. Someone will immediately have a big leg up in the race, while the loser will have little margin for error, and it will be Matawan's second straight challenge to start the season after facing rival St. John Vianney in its opener. It also should be a solid power-point haul for the winner. Rumson has a first-week bye, so this is its first game of the season.