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While last year did not go as planned for Toms River East, the Raiders are hoping the experience of a group of young players thrown into the fire down the stretch can supply them with the momentum to turn things around.

The Raiders played a host of sophomores toward the end of the season, so even though they graduated a solid senior class led by Villanova recruit Matt Gudzak, they return plenty of experience, particularly on defense. After turning in their third straight losing season, they look to get back on the winning track by building off two straight victories to end last year.

Senior running back/linebacker Jeff Wood returns as a leader on both sides of the ball for Toms River East. (Photo by Scott Stump)

“Our juniors got a lot of experience as sophomores, and they’re a hard-working group,’’ said head coach Charlie Diskin. “Plus the seniors that are returning are great leaders.”

Toms River East is striving for consistency after an odd season in which it was outscored 86-0 in its first two games but then later hung 42 points on Central Jersey Group IV champion Brick in a victory and scored 40-plus-points two other times. They ended on a positive note with a 7-0 shutout of rival Toms River North on Thanksgiving.

“Once we changed back against Lacey to more of the multiple wing offense, that gave us the spark,’’ Diskin said. “It took a while for the younger kids to jell. We made a commitment to go with the young guys on defense knowing that we would take our lumps, but they grew up during the season.”

“This year we’re better than last year and working our butts off every day,’’ said junior two-way lineman Brandon Burdge. “Some guys weren’t firing off the ball like they were in the first half last year, and we got tired too easily, so aggression and conditioning are two big things for us.”

The Raiders will once again employ the multiple wing attack after averaging 19.6 points per game last season, and they have to replace Gudzak, a two-time, 1,000-yard rusher and one of the Shore Conference’s top backs. Senior Jeff Wood, an All-Class A South linebacker, steps into the fullback role vacated by Gudzak after rushing for 328 yards and two touchdowns on 6.7 yards per carry last season.

“With the wing, it's kind of running back by committee, but that guy in the middle, Jeff Wood, we have all the confidence in the world in him,’’ Diskin said. “He's a workhorse, he’s explosive, and he's a competitor.”

Also see some carries at fullback will be promising freshman Tommy Ferrante, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound battering ram. Senior Ryan Wasilick, who started on defense last year, will be one of the halfbacks after seeing a handful of carries last season, and he will be joined by the group of juniors Nick Grande and Michael Grasso and senior J.T. Davidyock in the backfield. Junior Dan Gilligan, who had his appendix removed during the preseason, also should see some carries once he gets healthy. The quarterback spot is being contested between senior Jay Venezia, who is currently sidelined with a concussion, and junior Dylan Savulich.

“(Gudzak) was a lethal weapon and we used him a lot, so now more guys have to step up,’’ Burdge said.

Junior Avery Del Valle is a returning starter at tight end, where senior Jay Lameo and sophomore Landon Zagacki will also see time. Senior Joe Davidyock leads the wide receivers after seeing time last season, and juniors Pat Saunders and Norian Davis also will be targets in the passing game.

Junior Joe Lawson, who is 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, is a returning starter who will move to center after playing right tackle last season. Burdge, who started on defense as a sophomore, will also play guard this year along with junior Kelly Conklin. Junior Brandon Brush will start at one tackle spot, and the other one is being contested by senior Justin Sauers, who started multiple games last year, senior Tylor Quintana, and senior Brody Idzinski.

Linebacker Jeff Wood (left) and two-way lineman Brandon Burdge (right) look to help Toms River East end a skid of three straight losing seasons. (Photo by Scott Stump)

Senior Matt Contos has come out from the soccer team and will handle the placekicking and also possibly be the punter, where Venezia is also in the mix. Junior Hunter Gibbons has shown a strong leg and could be a kickoff specialist and long-range field goal kicker.

The Raiders return plenty of experience in their multiple four-man front on defense, which looks to take a leap forward under new coordinator Kyle Sandberg after allowing 29 points per game last year. They are led by Burdge at defensive tackle, Del Valle at defensive end, Wood at outside linebacker, and Wasilick in the secondary. Joining Burdge in the middle up front will be Sauers, Gibbons, Quintana and senior Diego Altamirano. Lameo and Idzinski will be in the defensive end rotation with Del Valle, who made 50 tackles, 7 for a loss, as a sophomore.

Wood anchors the linebacking corps after making a team-high 74 tackles last season. J.T. Davidyock and Gilligan will see time at the other outside linebacker spot.

“We are fast and more disciplined on defense this year,” Wood said. "We should be much better."

Ferrante will start at inside linebacker as a freshman, and Conklin will be at the other inside linebacker spot in the 4-4 packages. In the secondary, Grande is a returning starter at free safety after making 31 tackles last year, and Joe Davidyock will be at strong safety. Wasilick is a returning starter at cornerback who was second on the team with 68 tackles last season. Saunders, Grasso and Davis are all in the rotation at the other cornerback spot.

“The big thing will be depth with so many guys playing both ways,’’ Diskin said. “It’s all about staying healthy and playing hard. I think the experience and the reps those guys got last year on defense should benefit us.”

The Raiders will have to find a way to carve out some victories in the rugged Class A South, which once again looks to be one of the Shore Conference’s most competitive divisions top to bottom. Many of them ran the gauntlet as young players and are ready for the challenge.

“We are not intimidated,’’ Burdge said. “We will go up against anybody.”

 

Head coach: Charlie Diskin, 9th season (10th overall)

Career record: 48-44

Assistant coaches: Damon Coiro (off. coord./OL); Kyle Sandberg (def. coord.); T.J. Tkac (LB); Sam Iacobone (RB); Joe Zaccone (WR); Bill Beining (DL); Billy Byrne, Vinnie Arminio, Tim Gilmartin, Joe Arminio Jr., Kevin Kanarkowski (freshman); Mike Bronstein, Flo Price (athletic trainers).

Big Shoes to Fill: Jeff Wood, Sr., RB/LB

Wood steps in as the primary ballcarrier at fullback to replace current Villanova freshman Matt Gudzak, who rolled up 1,043 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground last year along with catching 10 passes for 133 yards and two scores.

X-Factor: Defense. The Raiders allowed 33 points per game in 2012 and 29 per game last year, so that number has to improve if they are going to hold their own in a division that features some of the Shore Conference’s most explosive offenses.

Glue Guy: Jeff Wood, Sr., RB/LB

Wood is a mainstay at linebacker who leads the defense and now takes over the reins as a tone-setter at running back on offense. He has to have a big season for the Raiders to get back to the playoffs.

Impact Newcomer: Tommy Ferrante, Fr., RB/LB

Already 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Ferrante has great size and will be one of the rare freshman to start for the Raiders. He has star potential if he continues to progress, and this season will be all about getting acclimated to the speed and intensity of varsity football.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 19 at Toms River South

If the Raiders have any designs on making a darkhorse run at the division title, this will be a great test in a rivalry game against a strong Indians team that has some of the most dynamic playmakers in the Shore on its offense. The Indians wiped out the Raiders 35-0 last year, so this is a chance to see if the gap has closed.