Football – Gridiron Classic Notes: Monmouth County
Over the past two seasons, few players in the Shore Conference and in New Jersey contributed to a winning cause on the football field more than Long Branch two-sport star Marc Dennis. His versatility was one of the reasons Dennis had to wait until his senior year for a full-time shot at playing quarterback after competing at the position the prior two season.
In Thursday’s All-Shore Gridiron Classic on his home field at Long Branch High School, Dennis is one of three Monmouth County quarterbacks who can play multiple positions and just as was the case for his 12-1 Long Branch squad this year, his coaching staff is turning over the offense to Dennis.
On a Monmouth County squad with an eye-catching corps of linebackers, Dennis will be the focus of the offense after he led the Green Wave to a second straight NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship and a first-ever bowl-game victory.
“Just having that experience at different positions, I think I’m able to catch on to things quickly and that makes things easier for the coaches,” Dennis said.
In his final high-school season, Dennis completed 95 of 145 passes for 1,476 yards and 21 touchdowns against only two interceptions. The 21 touchdowns tied Red Bank Catholic signal-caller Steve Lubischer for the most in the Shore Conference and Dennis’s total passing yards placed him fourth in the Shore Conference.
“To play in the last game after everything we have been through, especially on our home field, it’s icing on the cake,” said Dennis, who was also a 1,000-point scorer for the Long Branch basketball team. “You get walk off the field and realize, ‘Wow, we really did that.’”
The other two quarterbacks on the Monmouth team are Freehold Boro’s Matt Krauss and Shore’s Gil Goldsmith, who combined to complete as many passes (95) this past fall as Dennis completed by himself. Both can also, however, provide the same versatility that Dennis does, with both slated to play wide receiver in the game. Krauss, for his part, caught 18 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns during the season while also leading the Colonials in passing yards (715).
While Dennis is expected to get the lion’s share of work at quarterback, Monmouth coach Jerry Schulte said there are plans in place to get his two other quarterbacks snaps and use their passing ability in creative ways.
“Marc is an excellent safety too and Krauss catches everything you throw at him,” Schulte said. “Athletically, we’re okay at quarterback. We are going to go with Dennis to start and then we’ll work the other guys in, but they are going to play other positions.”
One Last Wave
After winning the Shore 7-on-7 Tournament earlier in the week, Long Branch appears poised to continue the run of success it has enjoyed over the past two seasons. The Green Wave have this group of seniors to thank for both starting the renaissance in 2017 and continuing it last fall.
In addition to Dennis at quarterback, wide receiver Matt Clarke, linebacker Luke Arnold and defensive backs Devyn Blount and Billy Levy will take their home field one last time as a way of celebrating what they accomplished over the past two years.
“It’s a good way to end your high school career,” Dennis said. “We started off on that field and it wasn’t good at all and to end with a state championship and an all-star game on the same field - you can’t really ask for anything better. Then you’ve got the whole town coming out and it’s just a great feeling.”
The five Long Branch seniors were sophomores when the Green Wave went 2-8 in 2016 and their growth helped spark a bounceback 10-2 season that ended with Long Branch winning a sectional championship in 2017 for the first time since 1999. As seniors in 2018, they took the Green Wave even higher during a one-loss campaign.
“You just want to make sure you don’t leave anything behind especially because it’s on your home field,” Arnold said. “Our family, our friends, the whole city is going to be out there watching and you don’t want to let them down. You want to go out there and do your best.”
With the community no doubt eager to send off the five seniors, Dennis, Clarke, Arnold, Blount and Levy want to go out the same way they have to end their last two seasons: as winners. The tone at practice during the week should help them do just that.
“Even though it’s an all-star game, everybody is getting after it,” Dennis said. “Even in practice, they’re hitting, which you might not expect from an all-star game. It’s usually more laid-back but everyone is bringing their best every single day, so it’s great competition.”
“Everybody wants to prove how good they are. Obviously, nobody is trying to kill each other but everybody in Monmouth County and the Shore loves to compete.”
The Other LB(s)
Arnold is one key cog in a loaded stable of linebackers on the Monmouth County roster. On top of Long Branch’s middle linebacker, Monmouth boasts the Red Bank Catholic duo of John Columbia and Steve Cmielewski, Rumson-Fair Haven backer Christian Lanzalotto, Neptune standout Najiere Hutchinson and Middletown South’s Matt Tardy.
“It’s good for everyone,” Arnold said of the talent at linebacker. “The d-line knows they have the linebackers behind them and they don’t have to feel like they have to do everything and the DB’s know they can fly around because we are in front of them.
Arnold, Lanzalotto, Columbia and Cmielewski each recorded at least 100 tackles for the season, with Arnold (146) finishing third in the Shore Conference, Lanzalotto (123) sixth, Columbia (106) eighth and Cmielewski (102) 12th. Cmielewski also finished in the top 10 with 9 1/2 sacks.
Tardy checked in with 75 tackles and seven sacks for the Eagles, while Hutchinson helped lead Neptune back to the .500 mark and went on to perform well in the Phil Simms North-South game.
“It’s great having a lot of guys,” Lanzalotto said. “You can rotate guys in and have fresh legs in the whole time. And you know when those guys get in, they are going to be hungry because they want to prove they deserve to stay in.”
Ocean’s Ryan Moran and Raritan’s Justin Acevedo round out the imposing group, with Moran securing 98 tackles for the Spartans.
The deep talent pool at linebacker has created plenty of competition during the week and while there the non-starters might be annoyed to start the game on the bench, the ability to rotate quality defenders throughout the game will make Monmouth’s second line of defense difficult to penetrate.
“For the most part, we have been pretty cool with each other but when we are getting our reps, everyone is making sure they do the best job they can because everyone out there wants to start on Thursday,” Arnold said. “Nobody wants to be on the bench.�����
Relief at Rumson
Like Long Branch, Rumson is finishing off a championship season with a handful of its seniors playing in Thursday night’s classic. Lanzalotto used a word to describe Rumson’s season that is not often associated with a championship: relief.
In 2017, Rumson’s run of four straight sectional titles came to an end with a loss to Somerville in the Central Group III final and the returning Bulldogs were relentless in their pursuit of redemption. They ultimately got there, defeating Somerville in the championship game before going on to top Woodrow Wilson in their first ever bowl appearance.
“All the build-up from the year before – the stress and the anxiety leading up to this year – it’s a great relief to have it off our backs knowing we got the job done,” Lanzalotto said. “This is definitely a much lighter tone after the year we had. This is more about proving which county is better.”
Along with Lanzalotto, Rumson will send offensive lineman Ethan Ardolino, defensive lineman Kenny Rainey and defensive back Ryan Dupree to Long Branch on Thursday night with Rumson-Fair Haven’s coaching staff, led by Schulte, running the sideline.
“I love our guys – it’s great being around them again,” Schulte said. “We had some other guys who couldn’t be here because they are already at college. There are some kids from other schools who also aren’t here, so everybody is in the same boat.”
Small Schools on the Big Stage
The Gridiron Classic is a chance for players and coaches to familiarize themselves with players they have not seen much of over the course of their regular seasons.
For Schulte and his Rumson coaching staff, that means getting a first look at some of the Group I players on the Monmouth roster, for whom Schulte had plenty of kind words.
“There are kids from those schools who could play for us here (at Rumson),” Schult said. “No question about. So it’s nice to see those schools represented and those kids get a chance to showcase their talent. They don’t really get to play in front of 1,000 or 2,000 people during the season so it’s a great opportunity. They work hard and they deserve to be here.”
The three Group I schools represented on the Monmouth County team Thursday are Asbury Park, Keansburg and Keyport. Running back Quadir Lawson and defensive back Kharod Young are the two Asbury Park representatives while running back Liam Riecks and defensive lineman Ijustice Tucker hail from Keansburg. Running back Devin Wollner is the lone Keyport All-Star.
“It’s nice to see kids from the smaller schools get a chance because they are just as good as the rest of the guys,” Schulte said. “People think small-school kids can’t play. They can play. The difference is at those schools only have two kids like that while we have two dozen. That’s the difference.”