Big-Stage Crew: 2018 Mater Dei Football Preview
Mater Dei’s championship season in 2016 was an obvious sign that the program had reached new heights under new coach Dino Mangiero, but the team’s disappointment after a two-loss 2017 season that ended in another state final appearance might be even more telling about the degree to which the team’s expectations have shifted.
The Seraphs were plugging along at 5-0 last season before a self-imposed penalty took two coaches off the sidelines – reportedly Mangiero and offensive coordinator Lance Bennett – for the remainder of the year. Mater Dei used six ineligible players during a Sept. 30 game against international opponent Canada Prep – one week before they were due to become eligible.
Mater Dei then lost to Delbarton to snap a 17-game winning streak that started at the beginning of the 2017 season and fell to St. Joseph of Hammonton in the Non-Public Group II final, 30-14.
“One hundred percent (it was a distraction),” senior Calogero Amorelli. “We need everyone together at practice and in the game because that’s what makes our team great. We have great coaches so not having them made things different.”
“I don’t think it was a distraction,” senior Russell Ferrisi countered. “They were with us at practice and once game day comes, we know what we’re supposed to do. It’s not an excuse.”
Not all, however, was lost last season. Mater Dei went on the road and knocked off a talent Holy Spirit team, 35-34, in the sectional semifinals. The Seraphs now head into this season with a host of quality returnees and a handful of impact newcomers that will fill a number of the open spots.
“We look good,” senior Izaiah Henderson said. “We have the chemistry throughout the summer and I think we have more talent than we have ever had.”
The Seraphs defense will be among the Shore’s best thanks the return of a pair of Boston College commits in Henderson (defensive line) and outside linebacker Shittah Sillah. Henderson committed last school year and Sillah joined him over the summer.
“We’re good friends, so he obviously had some questions about the process since I was already committed,” Henderson said. “I tried to answer whatever questions he had but for the most part, I tried to stay out of the process and let him make his own decision. I’m really happy with the choice I made and I’m excited that I’m going to be playing with one of my teammates.”
Ferissi will be equally important as a returning two-year starter on the defense. Mater Dei also has an abundance of defensive line talent to complement Henderson, including senior Kajell Whyte and junior Malachi Treadwell.
Two of Mater Dei’s top imports via transfer this season will play on the defensive line, as well. Junior Amir Coleman was a Class A Central All-Division defensive lineman at Matawan last season while fellow junior Khurram Simpson left Montclair Immaculate to join the Seraphs.
Juniors Clarence Lewis and Isaiah Noguera return at both cornerback spots and Amorelli is back at the strong safety spot in Mater Dei’s base 4-4 look. Senior Sincere Saunders is also a valuable returning piece who can help in the secondary.
The offense will look different as far as the personnel goes, but Mangiero and Bennett will not have to overhaul the system thanks to the arrival of senior quarterback Rob McCoy Jr. For the past two seasons, George Pearson gave Mater Dei one of the Shore’s top quarterbacks before heading to Central Michigan. With McCoy transferring in after starting the past two years at Camden Catholic, the transition should be a relatively smooth one. In his two seasons with the Irish, McCoy posted a record of 17-3, with both seasons ending at the hands of St. John Vianney in the Non-Public Group III playoffs. He threw for 1,630 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
“We’ve got a guy who’s an experienced guy,” Mangiero said of McCoy. “He has already been a starter for a couple of years. He’s very, very smart – he’s picking up our system very quickly. We love him, we think he’s going to be a very good player for us.”
McCoy’s receiving corps features a number of capable options, although it will be without last year’s leading receiving Kyle Devanney, who moved on via graduation. Noguera and Lewis were second and third on the team, respectively, in receiving yards, while 6-foot-4 senior Isaiah Alston will also be a top target for McCoy.
“We got (McCoy) adjusted early and we’ve got that chemistry going right now,” Alston said. “He’s good. He has studied the plays, we are ready to go catch the ball for him and he’ll be ready when it’s time to play.”
Senior Gunny Bloodgood, meanwhile, will play in the slot – a role similar to the one Devaney played in each of the past two seasons.
“I learned a lot playing with (Devaney) but I think we’re different,” Bloodgood said. “He had his way of doing things, I have mine and I’m just going to try to go hard and help us win.”
One of the more intriguing players on the Mater Dei roster is 6-foot-7 senior tight end Chris Autino, who has made a name for himself as a center on the Ranney School’s Shore Conference Tournament championship basketball team. Ranney does not have a football team and entered a co-op with Mater Dei in football, so Autino will play his first season of high school football at the school that has served as Ranney’s most bitter rival on the basketball court over the past three seasons. Alston has also been part of the rivalry, coming off the bench for the Seraphs as a junior last year.
“He’s a good athlete, he’s very smart and he really hasn’t played a down of football yet,” Mangiero said of Autino. “So we’ll see. I think he’s a great athlete, he’s a great kid, he has a very high work ethic. I’ve only known him four or five weeks, but I love him and I’m rooting for him.”
Autino is still refining all of his responsibilities as a receiver and blocker and will be an extension of an offensive line that has some key horses to replace. Henderson will also play on the offensive line while senior tackle Nolan Aloia also returns as an imposing figure at 6-foot-5 and 390 pounds. Senior Joe Cerrato, sophomore Rakim Cooper Coleman and Whyte are all in the offensive line mix, as well.
The offensive line will work in front of a deep collection of running backs, led by Saunders and junior Malik Ingram. Ingram transferred from Neptune last season and led the Seraphs with 1,251 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Sophomore Jaqual Talmadge has also carved out a role on the offense during the preseason.
“We have a lot of quality backs on the team, which is always nice,” Mangiero said. “Malik Ingram came in last year and did a real nice job as our leading rusher, so he’s going to be a key guy for us again. We lost a couple good football players on the line but we’ve got some guys who have impressed us so far so I think we’ll be pretty solid there.”
McCoy’s season-ending losses to St. John Vianney in each of the past two seasons could be significant, even in a new program. Mater Dei has been bumped up from Non-Public Group II to Non-Public Group III, which means the Seraphs will be in the same section as fellow Shore Conference powers Vianney and Red Bank Catholic. During Mater Dei’s resurgence under Mangiero, the Seraphs have yet to face either team.
Not only has Mater Dei not faced Vianney or RBC – the Seraphs have yet to face a Shore Conference team ranked in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 under Mangiero. That could change this year with games scheduled against Manasquan and up-and-coming Ocean County non-public Donovan Catholic.
“We don’t worry about (the schedule) because we want to play those teams,” Alston said. “We want to play the hardest teams. That’s what makes us better and gets us ready for the next level. A lot of teams doubt us and we just want to show them what Mater Dei football is.”
Shore Conference realignment bumped Mater Dei into the Patriot Division, which keeps the rivalry with Shore Regional intact while adding Matawan, Barnegat, Pinelands and Jackson Liberty to the schedule. Throw in another game vs. Canada Prep and a regular-season finale against Connecticut power Cheshire Academy and the Seraphs will have a regular season mix they hope will prepare them for a step up in competition once the postseason rolls around.
“I don’t think it matters who we play,” Ferissi said. “Regardless of who the opponent is, we prepare the same way. We take it week-to-week, step-by-step and just try to keep getting better. If we keep doing that, we’ll be ready to play whoever we have to play.”
At a Glance
Head Coach: Dino Mangiero, third season
Career Record: 20-2 (In N.J.)
2017 Record: 8-2 (5-0 in B Central)
Coaching Staff: Lance Bennett (Off. coordinator); Jake Pew (def. Coordinator); Greg Gigantino; Shannon Hoadley; Chris Parker; John Ferreanci; Christian Sparachio; Jesse Ascolese; Dan DeShong (athletic trainer)
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Rob McCoy, Sr., QB
McCoy is a two-year varsity starter with a winning track record at a high-level program, so the pressure of replacing Mater Dei’s offensive leader from a year ago should not phase him. With turnover to Camden Catholic’s coaching staff, McCoy was among the players to leave and Mater Dei will be the beneficiary this season.
With a new quarterback in place, Mater Dei’s group of receivers will look to get on the same page with McCoy in a system that otherwise remains the same. The loss of leading receiver Kyle Devaney to graduation leaves a void, but Isaiah Noguera and Clarence Lewis return with experience and Isaiah Alston and Gunny Bloodgood look to be impact players.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Amir Coleman, Jr., OL/DL
Coleman was an All-Division defensive lineman in Class A Central as a sophomore at Matawan last year and will make an immediate impact in his first year as a part of Mater Dei’s imposing front four.
Pivotal Game: Oct. 20 vs. Donovan Catholic
In a lot of ways, Donovan Catholic is trying to accomplish what Mater Dei has over the past five-plus years and the Griffins will get a chance to measure themselves against the Seraphs late in the year. From Mater Dei’s perspective, most of the games during the season once again look like mismatches on paper, so the Seraphs’ chance to make a statement will come outside the division against Manasquan and up-and-coming Donovan Catholic.