Eyes on the Prize: 2023 Rumson-Fair Haven Football Preview
Rumson-Fair Haven’s 2022 season was an excellent example of a familiar sports cliché: it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.
The Shore Conference’s American Division is a six-team gauntlet with no easy outs, and on top of that, Rumson opened last season with a nondivisional game against a loaded Toms River North team that finished the season No. 1 in the Shore as undefeated Group 5 state champions. The Bulldogs fell to the Mariners, then suffered a defeat to Donovan Catholic the following week to drop to 0-2. When faced with that adversity, however, Rumson reminded everyone why it has been one of the best public-school football programs in New Jersey over the last 15 years.
Asked about the Bulldogs’ juggernaut of a schedule ahead of last season, first-year head coach Jeremy Schulte said as long as they found a way to get to four wins and were healthy heading into the playoffs, they’d be in good shape.
He was spot on.
Rumson won three in a row to get above .500 before a loss to Middletown South, a win over Freehold Boro, and a loss to Red Bank Catholic put the Bulldogs at 4-4 heading into the NJSIAA Tournament. They easily qualified for the Group 2 state playoffs and were seeded second in the South Jersey section. From there, Rumson did what Rumson does, winning eight of its next 10 games, including a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback to defeat Raritan, 34-27 in double overtime, to win the program’s seventh sectional championship in program history while playing in its ninth straight sectional final. Rumson then blew out Central Jersey Group 2 champion Willingboro, 42-6, in the Group 2 state semifinals. It took an undefeated team with the state’s longest active winning streak to end Rumson’s championship run as Caldwell scored an 18-14 victory in the Group 2 state title game. RFH finished with an 8-5 record and ranked No. 5 in the final Shore Sports Network Top 10.
It was a tremendous playoff run for a team that has had its share of postseason triumphs, and the feeling around the program is that the best is yet to come. The (true) state championship era arrived last season for New Jersey high school football, and the Bulldogs are focused on their quest to add an overall state championship to their trophy collection.
Rumson does have to deal with considerable losses to graduation such as Second Team All-Shore linebacker Luke Mikolajczyk, Second Team All-Shore wide receiver Scott Venancio, First Team All-Shore defensive back Ryan Kalman, Second Team All-Shore defensive back Beau Kemler, two-way lineman Julien Devlin, defensive lineman Marshall Halfacre, tight end Will Rehder, running back Brayden Dill, defensive back Nick Costello, and First Team All-Shore kicker/punter Oli Lorraine. This is a program that routinely restocks its coffers with quality players from its youth level and develops them into high-level varsity players, so the expectation is that trend will continue. Oh, and the returning starters are pretty darn good, too.
Rumson returns a total of 11 starters with seven on offense and four on defense. The offense is a multi-faceted attack that had a bit of a new look last season behind the arm of now-junior quarterback Owen O’Toole. Routinely possessing a punishing rushing attack, Rumson did not have a 1,000-yard rusher last season, its first season without hitting that milestone since 2012 (not counting the shortened 2020 season). The offense was just fine, however, as O’Toole led the Shore in passing yards and touchdowns with 2,161 yards and 25 touchdowns against just seven interceptions as Rumson finished with the No. 10 scoring offense in the conference at 26.5 points per game. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder is one of the top quarterbacks in New Jersey and gives Rumson a proven veteran in the huddle.
O’Toole’s top target also returns in senior wide receiver Nick Rigby. The sure-handed 6-foot, 180-pound pass catcher led the Shore in both receptions and yards by catching 61 passes for 789 yards and seven touchdowns, including catching five passes or more in five of 13 games and 10 receptions or more three times. Senior Sean Trinder (6-0, 180) is also a returning starter, and junior Nick Thomas (5-10, 165) steps in as the No. 3 wideout. Senior Jackson Gallagher (6-3, 220) is the starting tight end.
Senior running back Alastair Orr led the Bulldogs in rushing with 592 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns and returns as a starter along with senior Griffin Kolb, who saw action last season (18 carries, 186 yards, 2 TDs). Also in the running back room is standout sophomore Kellen Murray, who tore it up on the freshmen team last season.
Longtime Rumson offensive line coach Joe Murphy is one of the best in the Shore Conference and has a mix of seniors and underclassmen battling to start in the trenches. The entire group has great size, starting with senior right tackle Zack Factor (6-2, 300) and senior right guard Caden Winters (6-0, 265), both of whom are returning starters. Junior center Jake Mauthe (6-0, 250) is also a returning starter. The left side of the line will be comprised of new starters with junior Matt Smith (6-2, 265) at left tackle and sophomore Jack Harris (6-3, 305) at left guard. Harris, who played his freshman year at The Hun School of Princeton, has already received interest from FBS college programs. Also working in at guard are junior Hayden Edwards (6-1, 240) and senior Luke Marascio (6-0, 210).
Given the program’s history, it’s a reasonable assumption Rumson’s rushing attack will return to form this season. And if that happens, coupled with their excellent passing game, the Bulldogs’ offense could be electric this fall.
Rugged defense has been the hallmark of Rumson’s championship success since its first sectional title in 2010, and the constant throughout has been the presence of Jerry Schulte. He was Rumson’s defensive coordinator, then head coach, and now defensive coordinator again after his son, Jeremy, moved from defensive coordinator to head coach last season. Rumson didn’t have a huge year, statistically, finishing 16th in the Shore in scoring defense at 17.2 points per game, but this is a perennially strong unit guided by a Hall of Fame coach that expects to be among the best in the conference every year.
The challenge on defense will be to replace the production of several standouts who matriculated out of the program in June. Just four starters return, led by senior defensive tackle Cooper Bunnell. A three-year starter, the 6-foot-1, 265-pounder was a First Team All-Shore selection last season with 105 tackles, a team-high 15 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. Senior Reed Elsas (6-0, 220) returns as a starting outside linebacker after totaling 101 tackles and 10 tackles for loss last season, and junior Austin Kiernan (6-0, 220) is a returning starter at inside linebacker off a year in which he recorded three sacks. Senior cornerback Wesley Kennedy is the lone returning starter in the secondary.
Rumson’s 4-2-5 defensive alignment has Bunnell and Harris at defensive tackles in what could be a terrorizing duo in the interior. Winters is also working in at defensive tackle. Seniors Will Tenzca (6-2, 230) and Gus McCarthy (6-4, 210) are the defensive ends. Kiernan is the middle linebacker with Elsas and Orr as the starting outside linebackers. Gallagher and sophomores Toby Najenson (6-3, 200) and Luke Dougherty (5-10, 195) are also working in at outside linebacker.
Kennedy is the aforementioned returner for a young secondary that lost All-Shore players Kalman and Kemler to graduation. Seniors Gavin Kiley and Danny Cook have been working at the other cornerback spot while junior Jacob Tobias and senior DJ Devine have been battling at strong safety and junior Cole Pangborn and senior Chris Russo are at free safety.
On special teams, senior Ryan Child and junior Carson Memmott are battling for the starting kicker position while Gallagher and Child are doing the same as the punter.
Rumson enters the 2023 season as a contender for division, sectional, and overall state titles, just as it has for the past decade and a half. They play in a powerhouse division that also includes Red Bank Catholic, Toms River North, Middletown South, Donovan Catholic, and Wall, so the path to a title will be arduous. Still, this is a program that has earned these annual lofty expectations. With great talent, an established winning culture, and an excellent and respected coaching staff, it would not be surprising in the least if Rumson finished the season as the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference.
At a Glance
Head coach: Jeremy Schulte, 2nd season
Career record: 8-5
2022 record: 8-5
Coaching staff: Jerry Schulte (Def. Coordinator/LB); John Corneliusen (Off. Coordinator/QB); Chris Quinn (Special Teams Coordinator/WR); John Andl (RB); Joe Murphy (OL); Brandon Wall (OL/JV Off. Coordinator); Kyle Marinelli (DL, JV Def. Coordinator); Glenn Grainger (DB); John Bellavance (DB); Mike Zadlock (K); Rob Orrok (Strength & Conditioning); Jerry Gagliano (Freshmen Head Coach); Randy Kalman (Freshmen); Ryan Meyers (Freshmen); Jack Velcamp (Video Coordinator); Alex Stein (Athletic Trainer).
Circle the Date: Week 4 - Friday, Sept. 22 vs. Red Bank Catholic
The two rivals separated by just a few miles are contenders for the American Division title and this will no doubt be a pivotal game, regardless of its division championship implications. Expect a massive crowd and a tremendous atmosphere at Borden Stadium.
Player to Watch: Owen O’Toole, Jr., QB
O’Toole was a Second Team All-Shore selection last season after leading the conference with 2,161 yards and 25 touchdowns. With No. 1 wide receiver Nick Rigby back, as well, and a plethora of other talented players around him, O’Toole projects to be one of the top pocket passers in New Jersey this season.
Impact Newcomer: Jack Harris, So., OL/DL
Harris spent his freshman year at Hun and his return to Rumson gives the Bulldogs an immediate difference-maker and a potential star on both sides of the ball. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder moves like a player much smaller in size and is high on the list of breakout candidates in the Shore.
Big Shoes to Fill: The Secondary
Rumson graduated Ryan Kalman and Beau Kemler, both of whom were three-year starters and All-Shore selections, plus starter Nick Costello. In a division that features tremendous talent and production in the passing game the development of Rumson’s secondary will be crucial to the team’s defensive success.
Did you Know?
Rumson’s seven NJSIAA sectional titles are tied for the third-most in the Shore Conference with Matawan, Brick, Shore, Asbury Park, and Toms River North. Manasquan (12) and Middletown South (10) are No. 1 and No. 2. All seven of RFH’s sectional championships have come since 2010.
|Toms River North
|Red Bank Catholic