With a good number of starting spots vacated by graduating seniors, the theme of training camp at Raritan has been intense competition. It’s a shift from the last two seasons where the Rockets had a lot of returning starters, but a situation that has actually been of great benefit to the team.

“The competition has been so good that it’s going to force us as coaches to make tough decisions, and that’s a good thing,” said Raritan head coach Anthony Petruzzi. “Last year we were coming off a state championship and had a lot of guys that were entrenched in their positions. Now it’s a bunch of guys fighting for playing time and they’re making each other better.”

Coming off a 6-4 season and an appearance in the Central Jersey Group II playoffs, the Rockets are hoping they can plug in new starters alongside the veterans and made a run at division and sectional championships.

Five starters are back in their multiple offense that will operate out of the shotgun. Senior Dan Vanmeerbeke takes over as the Rockets quarterback after starting three games last season when two-year starter Marc Carnivale had an injury.

“Dan has been doing a great job so far,” Petruzzi said. “He is a guy that would be playing defense or wide receiver for us if not at quarterback because he’s a really good athlete. He throws a very nice ball. All we’re trying to do is get him to be him and play within himself. He’s starting to get on the same page with the receivers and understanding the blocking schemes. Even though he played last year, it’s different when you’re the guy now. There’s a learning curve.”

Left to right: Ryan Greaves, Justin Acevedo, P.J. Buccine, Vincenzo DiCarlo, Sean Greaves. (Photo by Paula Lopez/PAL Images).
Left to right: Ryan Greaves, Justin Acevedo, P.J. Buccine, Vincenzo DiCarlo, Sean Greaves. (Photo by Paula Lopez/PAL Images).

Lining up next to him in the backfield is an emerging star running back in junior P.J. Buccine. As a sophomore he was a great compliment to 1,200-yard rusher Vito Aleo, using his physical style to rush for close to 800 yards and six touchdowns. Now it will be Buccine as the workhorse in Raritan’s running game.

“P.J. plays the part of a football player,” Petruzzi said. “He’s physical, has quick feet and is cut in that old-school mode. He has the ability to run past you or run you over. He’s a weight-room guy that had high 90 percentages in all his lifts. He’s done his job to fit the part of a tailback in the Shore Conference and is a guy that wants to be up there where our last two guys (Aleo and Derek Ernst) have been.”

Junior Tyler Bruno will also see time at running back. The tight end is senior Justin Goggins, a returning starter. Senior Vinnie DeCarlo is a returning starter at wide receiver and will be joined by junior Nicholas Kenneally. Senior A.J. Erven and sophomore Danny Fiore will rotate in at the third wide receiver position.

The Greaves brothers, Ryan and Sean, are the returning starters on the offensive line with Sean at left tackle and Ryan at right guard. There has been a competition for the other three spots with senior Tim Epple at right guard, sophomore Kevin Lind at center and senior John McCabe at right tackle. Junior Hunter Neville can play all three positions and is fighting hard for a starting spot.

“Year in and year out coach Matt Dempsey does a great job with those guys,” Petruzzi said. “They have that mentality of ‘next guy up’. We’ve been switching about seven guys in and out and that has brought the best out of each guy to the point that players that weren’t on our radar at first are now potential varsity players.”

Defensively, Raritan’s multiple 4-3 has Sean Greaves and Epple at nose guard, Ryan Greaves, Goggins and McCabe in a rotation at one defensive end spot and senior Pat Cooney at the other defensive end position.

Junior Justin Acevedo is a returning starter at inside linebacker and will be joined by junior George Burdick. Junior Tom Dorsey will also play some snaps at inside linebacker. The outside linebackers are sophomore Dan McCormick and senior Matt Godkin with junior Anthony Aquilano also rotating in.

Senior Vinnie Hart is the lone returning starter in the secondary and will be at safety. DeCarlo played a little bit last year and will now start at cornerback alongside Erven. Seniors Andrew Bohal and Ryan Sphor will also be at cornerback in a rotation to give a breather to Erven and DeCarlo, who are both also playing on offense. Junior John Carton is the other safety. Kenneally and senior Joe Contino are also in the mix in the defensive backfield.

“We don’t return guys that you’ll know their names, but they are all cut from the same cloth as tough kids that have an edge about them and will play with a chip on their shoulders,” Petruzzi said. “We’ve seen them get better each scrimmage and start to digest more. I think you’ll see a defense that gets better as the year goes on. They’re young and raw, but we’re excited about the potential on that side of the ball.”

It has been a kicker-by-committee approach so far on special teams with Dorsey and sophomore Steve Caponi working at punter and Erven and senior Scott Springstead competing at kicker.

The Rockets have a very tough first two games with Rumson-Fair Haven and St. John Vianney in Weeks 1 and 2. Last year’s team was able to overcome an 0-3 start to the season by following it up with a five-game winning streak to reach the playoffs. The Rockets aren’t planning on a similar start, but Petruzzi wants his team to be able to respond to adversity and continue to battle.

“The nice thing about last year’s team is they started 0-3 and didn’t blink,” Petruzzi said. “They knew they could rally and the morale was still strong. We need to see how this team reacts to adversity, so you do worry about that and need to talk about that. Over the course of the season you can’t get too high or too low.”

At a Glance

Head coach: Anthony Petruzzi, eighth season.

Career record: 26-36.

Coaching staff: Chris Damian (off. coord./RB); Jeff Struble (off. coord./QB); Matt Dempsey (OL); Mike Kinsella (WR); Dave Ernst (OL); George Gibson (DL); Jerome Dean (LB); Nicholas Pydeski (DL); Mike Nunes (freshmen HC); Joseph Schroeck, Nick Sparacello (freshmen); Mike DeSocio (athletic trainer).

2016 record: 6-4 (4-2).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: P.J. Buccine, Jr., RB

Vito Aleo was Raritan’s starting tailback last year and ran for 1,231 yards and 15 touchdowns on 9.9 yards per carry. That’s a lot of production to replace, but Buccine seems more than ready to assume the role.

X-FACTOR: Quarterback play

Vanmeerbeke was solid in his three starts last year. Raritan’s running game looks to be in good hands, so if Vanmeerbeke can elevate his play as a full-time starter the Rockets’ offense will be that much harder to contain.

GLUE GUY: Sean Greaves, Sr., OL/DL

A returning starter on both sides of the ball, Greaves leads the way for the Rockets in the trenches.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: George Burdick, Jr., LB

A wrestling standout, Burdick’s tough, physical style will be a welcome addition at inside linebacker where the defense has to replace All-Shore player Ryan Dickens.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 15 at St. John Vianney

The Lancers are the three-time defending A Central champs and have won 29 straight games against the Shore. If the Rockets have designs on claiming the division title for themselves the road goes through St. John Vianney.


Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.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.


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