Football – Glory Days: 2017 Keansburg Preview
Since the 2013 season, five of the six teams residing in the Shore Conference Class B Central division have won an NJSIAA Sectional championship.
In order to make it six different champions in five seasons, Keansburg – the only B Central team without a state title in the past four years – is calling back to its glory years.
Former head coach Brian Kmak and his former offensive coordinator Tom O’Keefe have joined current head coach John Bird’s staff for the upcoming season and will hope to pass along some of the knowledge that helped them guide Keansburg to the Central Jersey Group I championship game in 2007.
“One of the things that those programs all have going for them in one way or another is tradition,” Bird said of the B Central rivals. “They have tradition and there is a connection to that tradition and I think by having coach Kmak and coach O’Keefe around, guys have a direct link to a period when this program was competing for a championship. They are also both great coaches. Any time you can bring in a coach with the ability to teach the game and also get an element of tradition, I think it’s huge for the players to see that.”
On this year’s team, Kmak will handle the defense and O’Keefe the quarterbacks, namely returning senior and three-year starter Danny Vital. Bird and O’Keefe are hoping Vital can take his game to another level this season with an offense that returns many of its skill position players from a year ago.
“As a quarterback, you always have to be a leader, but when you’re a senior, it’s a different level,” Vital said. “Plus, we have a young offensive line, so it’s even more important for me to make sure I’m a leader. I have to do it because it’s my team now – I have no choice but to do it.”
Over the last five weeks of the 2016 season, during which Keansburg picked up both of its wins, the Vital and the Titans offense averaged 21.8 points after putting up 45 over the first five weeks. The strong close to the season, which included a six-point loss to CJ I runner-up Keyport and a 50-21, state playoff loss to Shore Regional that was a vast improvement on a 42-0 loss to the Blue Devils earlier in the season.
“Having Danny, who has such a great ability to run or throw, helps,” Bird said. “A lot of the stuff we do is reading different defensive guys one way or another on every play.”
Coming off last year’s postseason appearance, the Titans return a packed backfield and a collection of receivers to go along with Vital. Junior Liam Riecks emerged as a capable ball-carrier and senior Joe Osterbye will again be a key cog in the offense as a runner and blocker. Returning senior Miguel Crespo also adds an element of versatility to the offense from the H-back spot, as does senior Justin Alessi.
“Our coaches always say, we just have to do our 1/11th of the offense or defense,” Osterbye said. “Everyone can do one job so if everyone takes care of that job, the team works.”
Seniors Darius Moore and Jashawn Martin return to the receiving corps, while Paul Eckleberry and George Wingender join the all-senior quartet. Eckleberry is a basketball player playing high school football for the first time, while Wingender is a transfer from Georgia. Moore, meanwhile, was the team’s leading receiver a year ago.
The key to Keansburg’s season will likely by its line – both on offense and defense. Only junior tackle Rodney Rotondella returns to the offensive line and juniors Bernie Comey and Ijustice Tucker are the only players who had claimed starting spots through the last weekend of August – Comey at guard and Tucker at center.
“It is a luxury to have so many skill guys, but we’re trying to figure out how to get those guys the ball in space and how to do some things where we won’t be overly reliant on the line until our lineman catch up,” Bird said. “Last year, we had four senior lineman who were three-and-four-year starters and we just told them, ‘Go get a push and we’ll run behind you guys.’”
“If they can just give our quarterback two seconds, we’ll be fine,” Osterbye said. “We have athletes and our athletes are going to make plays for us. The biggest thing is going to be keeping our quarterback safe.”
“We’re going to have to pick them up for the first few weeks, but they’ll get it,” Riecks said. “It’s tough being as young as they are and to have to learn this fast, so as older guys, we have to try to help them.”
Rontondella, Comey, Tucker and the remainder of the offensive line will also comprise the defensive line rotation in Keansburg’s 3-4 look. While the Titans will lack experience up front, they have plenty coming back at the four linebacker spots and in the secondary. Osterbye and senior Deshaun Conaway make up the middle linebackers, while Crespo and Riecks are set to play on the outside.
Vital and junior Hunter MacDonald will occupy the two starting safety spots and the cornerback position will be a three-way rotation between Alessi, Martin and Moore.
“I think we can cover for the d-line with the other positions a little bit better than we can on offense,” Bird said. “The job is probably a little bit easier and we’re really just looking for three down lineman to be tough. Be tough, get hands on a man, hold him up, and we’ll have linebackers and d-backs to swarm and make plays.”
The challenge for Bird and his coaching staff will be to help the new collection of lineman catch up with the experienced skill players and put the rest of the offense and defense in position to move the ball while the line develops. The Titans are coming off a positive season in 2016 in that they reached the NJSIAA Playoffs so it will be important for this group of mostly-senior skill players to build on that.
“It was upsetting to lose in a playoff game, but it definitely made me more humble and made my teammates more humble to actually make it to the playoffs and see what that feeling was like,” Osterbye said. “This year, hopefully, we’re ready for much more than that. We want to be competing for a championship.”
Head Coach: John Bird, third season
Career Record: 3-17
2016 Record: 2-8 (0-5 in Class B Central)
Assistant Coaches: Brian Kmak (Def. Coordinator/DB), Tom O’Keefe (QB), Raffaelle Spagnola (WR), Uriel Morfin (DL), Ryan Burgess (OL), Ben Markus (LB), Jon DeLiso (Volunteer Assistant/DB), Jim Reid (Volunteer Assistant), Jesse Herbert (Media), Kelli Hudson (Athletic Trainer)
Big Shoes to Fill: Rodney Rotondella, OL/DL
Rotondella played as a sophomore, but as the lone returning player on the offensive line, he’ll have to emerge as one of the leaders on offense as a junior. Keansburg’s 3-4 look should make the transition slightly easier on the defense, but there is no doubt the key to Keansburg season lies in how quickly the offensive line comes along.
X-Factor: Danny Vital, QB/DB
With a new offensive line in front of him, Vital will look to be extra sharp in the early going and the coaching staff expects as much from him now that he is a senior quarterback with plenty of varsity game experience. If he can use his many returning weapons wisely, the Titans should be able to work around any growing pains on the line.
Glue Guy: Joe Osterbye, RB/LB
Osterbye has been a hard-nosed player for Keansburg since he was a freshman and now that he is a senior, he is one of the players that makes up the heartbeat of his team. Replacing an entire offensive line is no small task, but Osterbye and his classmates give Keansburg a good foundation as the Titans try to take a big step this year.
Impact Newcomer: George Wingender, WR
A senior transfer from Georgia, Wingender joins a deep and potentially dangerous receiving corps surrounding Vital. Wingender and Paul Eckleberry give the Titans a pair of senior newcomers at receiver and while it might be nice to have some full-gown men showing up to play on the line, it never hurts to have options – especially with an experienced quarterback running the show.
Pivotal Game: Oct. 28 at Keyport
While Keansburg is hoping to get off to a stronger start to their season to build on last year’s postseason berth, the showdown with Keyport is always the big game. The Titans would like to be at least .500 heading into that game to set up, but the record doesn’t indicate how close the game will be. Keansburg pushed the Red Raiders in a 21-15 loss last year.