Breaking Through: 2023 Southern Regional Football Preview
In life and in football, balance is the key. It was a trait that Southern Regional lacked during the 2022 season.
On one hand, the Rams had a solid defense, yielding 17.2 points per game to finish tied for 16th in the Shore. The Rams played even better than that number would indicate thanks to a lopsided loss to powerful Toms River North, but they showed just how good of a defense they were in a 7-0 shutout over a playoff-bound Long Branch team and in holding five other opponents to two touchdowns or fewer.
On the flip side was an offense that just couldn’t get on track. The Rams scored 28 points in their season-opener but only approached the total one additional time the rest of the season, finishing 40th in the Shore at just 10.4 points per game. The result was a 4-5 finish that wasn’t bad by any stretch, but it lacked consistency. Fast forward to this season and Southern still has its work cut out to achieve homeostasis.
The offense returns nine players who either started or played a significant number of snaps, and thus, expectations are that the unit will improve. Defensively, however, the Rams bring back just four players. Finding a balance where the offense and defense complement each other appears to be the difference in whether Southern will have a middling season or challenge for the Freedom Division title.
On paper, it’s an even division with Howell, Jackson Memorial, Lacey, Marlboro, Middletown North, and Southern. Jackson Memorial went 7-3 last season and shared the Constitution Division title with Colts Neck, Marlboro went 6-4 and won a playoff game, Lacey and Middletown North made the playoffs, and Howell finished with a 5-5 record. It’s conceivable that each team could challenge for the division crown.
Southern’s offense will run a Multiple Pro-I scheme that has experience along the offensive line and in the backfield. The trenches will include six players who have started games over the past two seasons as senior Matt Nolan (6-2, 230) is the left tackle, senior Nick Roesch (5-10, 200) will be a three-year starter at center, right guards PJ Dolan (Jr., 6-1, 205) and George Favire (5-11, 180) have both started and junior Cayden Parkhill (6-1, 195) returns at right tackle. Southern also gets back senior Nick Abt (5-11, 215), who was a starter as a sophomore but missed his junior season due to an injury. There’s also junior William Bucci (5-9, 240) at left guard, junior Joe Spina (5-11, 210) at center, and junior Gabe Wyrsch (6-0, 210) at right tackle.
That group will try to pave the way for the returning starting running backs, senior Mike Zecena (5-11, 195) and junior DJ Halm (5-8, 190). Also at running back are juniors Justin Silva and Colin Markoski.
Senior Armando Sanchez was a wrecking ball on defense last season and also a starting tight end. He’ll return in that role along with junior Dan Unger and senior Luke Robinson. The wide receivers are senior AJ Sanchez, junior Cole Cramer (6-2, 185), and junior Talon Plenge.
Throwing to that group of pass catchers will either be senior Caden Oravets or junior Cooper Dempsey.
The star of Southern’s defense last season was Armando Sanchez. As a junior, the defensive end was third in the Shore Conference with 10 sacks and added 64 tackles and 15 tackles for loss en route to Third Team All-Shore honors. He is back as a starting end but is the only returning starter in the front seven on Southern’s 4-2-5 defense.
Joining Sanchez along the defensive line will be Nolan and junior Zach O’Brien (5-11, 250) at defensive tackle and Unger as the other defensive end. Junior Marcus Tucker is the middle linebacker with Halm and junior Evan Wyrsch as the outside linebackers.
The secondary features the most experienced varsity players with Plenge at cornerback, Cramer at strong safety, and Silva at free safety all having started somewhere in the defensive backfield last season. AJ Sanchez is slated to be the other starting cornerback.
The kicking and punting duties will be handled by a combination of Zecena and junior Keegan Foote.
Four seasons removed from winning the Constitution Division title, Southern has been in football purgatory the last few years with records of 5-4, 4-5, and 4-5. The Rams have been competitive and had their moments but have not been able to punch through in the division or in the state playoffs. Is this the year the Rams break that trend and return to championship contention?
At a Glance
Head coach: Chuck Donohue Sr., 26th season (50th overall)
Career record: 272-201-4 (133-118 at Southern)
2022 record: 4-5
Offense: Multiple Pro-I
Coaching Staff: Matt Abbato (Defensive Coordinator); Eric Sharkey (Special Teams Coordinator/WR); CJ Tomeldon (RB/OLB); Dylan Larson (OL/DL); Eric Fierro; Chuck Donohue Jr. (OL/DL); Andrew Beckett (Head Freshmen Coach); Sean Sweeney (Freshmen); Mike Conforti (Freshmen); Dan Abbato (Head Middle School Coach); Rob Barrett (Middle School); Nick Jinks (Middle School); Nick Scaramazza (Head Athletic Trainer); Joe Carrubba (Assistant Athletic Trainer).
Circle the Date: Week 3 – Friday, Sept. 15 at Lacey
Southern’s rivalry game with Central in Week 1 also stands out, but this mid-September game at Lacey will be the Rams’ fourth game of the season and feels like it could provide a turning point for both teams. If Southern is going to challenge for the division title and make a playoff run, beating one of its Ocean County rivals will go a long way.
Player to Watch: Armando Sanchez, Sr., DE/TE
Sanchez was tremendous last season for a defense that kept Southern competitive in most games. His 10 sacks were third in the Shore and he added 64 tackles and 15 tackles for loss.
Impact Newcomer: Dan Unger, Jr., TE/DE
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior will start at defensive end along with getting opportunities at tight end.
Did you Know?
Southern has produced three NFL players in program history, including two who are active players. Tight end Mike Gesicki began his career with the Miami Dolphins and signed with the New England Patriots this offseason. Long snapper Clark Harris will be entering his 16th year in the NFL, the last 15 with the Cincinnati Bengals, and made the Pro Bowl in 2017. Linebacker Glenn Carson, who starred at Penn State, played five games with the Arizona Cardinals in 2014.
|Friday 8/25||West Windsor-Plainsboro||6pm|
|Friday 9/22||Middletown North||7pm|
|Friday 9/29||Toms River North||7pm|
|Friday 10/13||@Long Branch||6pm|
|Friday 10/20||@Jackson Memorial||6:30pm|