Chip on their Shoulder: 2020 Wall Football Preview
Wall High School football is in a good place these days; a great place, really. The entire program, from the youth teams to the varsity level, is stocked with talented players. The pipeline looks to have the Crimson Knights contending for championships for years to come and the competition in practice has raised the bar for everybody.
“Football is really big right now in Wall,” said head coach Tony Grandinetti. “With the success we’ve had and having a great relationship with the AYF, it’s a great position to be in. We’re very fortunate.”
Yet, despite the stocked cupboard that features a senior class led by three of the Shore Conference’s best and a junior class that is among the most talented groups in program history, there is a rather large chip on the collective shoulder of Wall football. The Crimson Knights started last year ranked No. 9 in the Shore before rattling off 12 straight wins, claiming the Colonial Division championship, winning the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 3 title to become the first team in program history to win 12 games in a season and finishing No. 1 in the final Shore. The only blemish was a 12-7 loss to Woodrow Wilson in the NJSIAA South-Central Group 3 Bowl Game.
It is that defeat that has stuck in the craw of the entire program, however, and set the stage for the 2020 season.
“Everybody recognizes the 2019 season and how good it was, but people don’t realize there is a lot of anger in this program,” Grandinetti said. “There is a chip in the shoulders of all these players because of that loss last season. It’s written in the weight room: Woodrow Wilson, 12-7. We enjoyed last year and embrace it, but at the same time we remember we didn’t finish the way we wanted to.”
Wall played the 2019 finale without standout running back and cornerback Casey Larkin because of a concussion suffered in a Thanksgiving Day win over Manasquan. The Knights refused to even entertain the notion of using that as an excuse for scoring a season-low seven points, but the absence of his dynamic presence was certainly felt. Defensively, however, Wall played its best game of the season in holding a juggernaut Woodrow Wilson offense stacked with FBS recruits to just two touchdowns.
The silver lining to the loss, which prevented Wall from becoming the first team in Shore Conference history to go 13-0, is that much of last season’s starters return. Larkin, who is verbally committed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, is one of four returning Shore Sports Network first-team All-Shore selections for Wall. He ran for 1,038 yards and 12 touchdowns, caught 19 passes for 388 yards and three touchdowns, recorded 41 tackles, intercepted three passes and returned one for a defensive touchdown. Quarterback/free safety Logan Peters is another two-way All-Shore standout. A three-year starter, Peters threw for 1,301 yards and 15 touchdowns with just two interceptions and added 630 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. On defense, Peters made 43 tackles with a team-leading four interceptions. Leading one of the Shore’s best offensive lines is senior left guard Grant Puharic, who helped the Crimson Knights average 26.6 points per game and score 15 touchdowns, including 30 on the ground. On defense, junior inside linebacker Charlie Sasso started as a freshman and then turned in a great sophomore season with 127 tackles (73 solo) with 3 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries and 1 forced fumble for a defense that was second in the Shore allowing just 9.5 points per game.
Additionally, the Crimson Knights have two more players who were named to the SSN Preseason All-Shore team. Junior inside linebacker Colin Riley starred as a rush linebacker last season and recorded 11 sacks, 69 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 1 fumble recovery and 1 forced fumble en route to a second-team All-Shore selection. Junior center Brian Byrne is another standout up front who should also see time on the defensive line this year.
In total, Wall has eight returning starters on offense and six returning starters on defense, including the aforementioned standouts along with wide receiver Matt Dollive, tight end/defensive end Blake Rezk plus Oakley and three-year starter Eddie Van Woudenberg along the offensive line. The Knights also return kicker Max Oakley and once again boast an elite long snapper in senior Ryan Legere, who is an FBS prospect.
Wall won’t get to avenge its lone defeat in the traditional sense, not with the COVID-19 pandemic changing the structure of the season, eliminating divisions within the Shore Conference and limiting the NJSIAA postseason. Entering the season as one of the best teams in New Jersey, Wall will play a six-game regular-season schedule against some of the Shore’s best before setting its sights on another championship in a truncated playoff format. The expectations are sky-high.
“We don’t look at it that we can’t accomplish the goals we want to; the one thing I preach is that you have to adapt,” Grandinetti said. “Complaining is not a conversation. We are grateful for any opportunity we have and with the team we have coming back the expectation is to compete in every game. Every time the scoreboard gets turned on we’re going to compete and be grateful for the opportunity.”
At a Glance
Projected starters (RS=returning starter, 3RS=3rd-year returning starter)
QB: Logan Peters, Sr., 3RS
RB: Casey Larkin, Sr., 3RS; Charlie Sasso RS (fullback in 2019)
FB: Kyle Pettit, Sr.
TE: Blake Rezk, Jr., RS; Jaquari Medler, So.
WR: Matt Dollive, Jr., RS; Jackson Coan, Jr.; Rocco Palmieri, Sr.
LT: Max Oakley, Jr., RS
LG: Grant Puharic, Sr., 3RS
C: Brian Byrne, Jr., 3RS
RG: Keisun Sanders, So.
RT: Eddie Van Woudenberg, Sr., 3RS
NT: Brian Byrne, Jr.; Joe Sommers, Jr.
DE: Blake Rezk, Jr., RS
DE: Grant Puharic, Sr., RS
ILB: Charlie Sasso, Jr., 3RS
ILB: Colin Riley, Jr., 3RS
OLB: Lou Pilla, Jr.
OLB: Max Oakley, Jr.
CB: Casey Larkin, Sr., 3RS
CB: Rocco Palmieri, Sr., or Orlando Valeriano, Sr.
SS: Jake Davis, Jr.
FS: Logan Peters, Sr., 3R
K: Max Oakley, Jr., RS
P: Max Oakley, Jr.
Long snapper: Ryan Legere, Sr., RS
Head coach: Tony Grandinetti, fourth season.
Career record: 23-10
Team record last five years:
Assistant coaches: Jeremy Balina (defensive coordinator); Mike Cerminaro (QB); Bob Grace (RB); Fred Sprengel (WR); Kyle Watson (WR); Joe LaFerlita (DB, special teams); Tim Heaney (DL); James Cadigan (DL); Brian Duffy (OL); Chris Quinlan (OLB); Victor Rivera (head freshman coach); Dan Shine (assistant freshman coach); Matt McDonough (athletic trainer).
Players to Watch: Logan Peters, Sr., QB/FS and Casey Larkin, Sr., RB/CB
Wall has many playmakers on both sides of the ball, but we’ll go with their two senior leaders who are integral to the Crimson Knights’ success. Peters is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback as well as a standout safety. His athletic future is on the lacrosse field, as he is one of the best midfielders in the state who is committed to Rutgers University, so expect his final season of football to be his best yet.
Offensively, Larkin, who recently committed to Army, is a multi-talented running back who was Wall’s leading rusher and receiver last year. He is a big-play threat on the ground and through the air but can also move the chains with tough yards between the tackles or a drive-extending reception. The Crimson Knights sorely missed his presence in the loss to Woodrow Wilson last season. On defense, he’s a lockdown cornerback who is also effective at coming up to play the run and was recruited as such by Army.
Players Under the Radar: Brian Byrne, Jr., C and Eddie Van Woudenberg, Sr., RT
Not often can three-year starters be thought of as being unheralded players, but given that Byrne and Van Woudenberg are humble offensive lineman on a Wall team stacked with standouts at the skill positions, they aren’t the first players who come to mind. Wall had arguably the best offensive line in the Shore Conference last year and both Byrne (center) and Van Woudenberg (right tackle) made major impacts in that regard.
“I work closely with (offensive line coach Brian) Duffy and the O-line,’ said Grandinetti, who was Wall’s offensive line coach prior to becoming head coach. “Brian Byrne is going to be a different player this year. I’d be surprised if he’s not a first-team All-Shore type of player, he’s getting that good. His footwork has improved, his size, strength; he looks the part now and he has the confidence to match.”
“Eddie is another kid who is so underrated even though he’s been playing for three years. He won’t say two words but he’s a high-quality offensive lineman.”
Impacts Newcomer: Jake Davis, Jr., SS and Jaquari Medler, So., TE
At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Davis probably would have started on many teams in the Shore Conference last season, but on Wall he was stuck behind some of the Shore’s best players. With two spots opening up in the secondary it will be his time to step in at strong safety. He could also be the quarterback of the future and will serve as the backup to Logan Peters. He has great football genetics as his father, Scott, played in the NFL.
Medler (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) gives Wall another potential standout to pair with 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior Blake Rezk, who is among the Shore’s best tight ends.
Top Position Group: Inside linebackers
Picking this group was splitting hairs but we’ll go with the inside linebacker tandem of standout juniors Charlie Sasso and Colin Riley. Sasso will be entering his third year as a starter and earned first-team All-Shore honors last season. He’s a complete linebacker who excels at playing the run, rushing the quarterback and dropping back in coverage. He does a little bit of everything and will surely have even more on his plate as a junior. Riley was among the Shore’s best edge rushers last season (11 sacks) and a second-team All-Shore selection. He will also be entering his third year as a starter and will slide inside next to Sasso.
Big Shoes to Fill: Keisun Sanders, So., RG
Ian Ackerman was a first-team All-Shore defensive lineman last season and also the Crimson Knights’ starting right guard. With him moving on via graduation, Sanders steps into his position along the offensive line as the starting right guard and could also see time along the defensive line. Sanders (6-foot, 225 pounds) does have varsity experience on the wrestling team where last season he was a district runner-up as Wall’s 220-pounder.
X-Factor: One game at a time
“As cliché as it sounds, it’s simple enough for us,” Grandinetti said. “Goal No. 1 is to win the first game and think that’s very important to get off on the right foot. Second is usually to win the division, get a home playoff game and make a deep run. Without the ability to have some of those concrete goals we’ve simplified things. Now, our goal is 1-0, so we don’t look past anyone. With a team like this that has played in really big games, that is going to help us.”
Friday, Oct. 2 vs. Point Boro, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 9 vs. Neptune, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 16 at Jackson Memorial, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 23 at Manalapan, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 30 vs. Manasquan, 7 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 6. vs. Middletown South, 7 p.m.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.