At most schools, a 4-6 season is a throwaway, but that was a banner year in the recent history of the Marlboro football program.

Following the 4-6 campaign of 2012, Jason Dagato took over a program that lost most of its talent from that team and the first-year coach focused his players and staff on building the roster and the players on that roster big enough to compete against the sizable opponents on the schedule.

After spending his first three seasons at the helm helping the Mustangs to chip away and grind with little return with regard to wins and losses, the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to flicker after some progress at the end of last year’s 1-9 campaign and with the returning talent on board this year.

Senior running back Cam Caorsi returns as Marlboro's top offensive weapon after a 1,000-plus yard season last year. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“The attitude and effort is totally different this year,” junior Johnny Helff said. “It’s funny, because I do remember thinking the same thing last year, and it was better. But I think it just shows that we’re getting better and taking the steps we need to take. We took that step last year and now we’re ready to start winning games.”

As much as the positives in camp – attitude, overall team strength, and a deeper roster – reflect Marlboro’s progress, the weaknesses Dagato has been able to pick out do so as well. In prior years, everything needed work and the list of soft spots on which to focus was too long to completely address in one season. Now, Dagato has seen his team’s shortcomings and he and his staff have identified them for the players and are working to correct them.

“We have to work on protecting the ball while at the same time, doing a better job of taking it away by making plays on defense,” Dagato said. “Last year, we showed we could have success running the ball, but we gave the ball away too much without taking it back.”

That aforementioned running game is back in full force for Marlboro, which boasts three experienced, capable running backs to deploy in its pro-style offense. Senior Cam Caorsi enjoyed a breakout season in 2015 by rushing for 1,029 yards and eight touchdowns and will be one of the top backs returning to the Shore Conference this season. Fellow senior Ryan Cassidy will be his lead blocker out of the backfield and will also pick up some production as well – both carrying the ball and in the passing game.

“I had a pretty good year last year, but I’ve been working hard to be even better this season,” Caorsi said. “More yards, more touchdowns and trying to get a ring.”

Helff is in his third year of varsity action after carving out a prominent starting role for himself as a freshman in 2014. Helff will spell Caorsi at tailback when needed and can move around to different spots in the formation. Last year, Caorsi was one of only four Shore Conference running backs to carry the ball 200 times or more, so while Dagato knows he can ride his horse, he also would like to get players like Helff more involved to take some pressure off Caorsi.

“Johnny is a very versatile kid and he is literally the strongest kid on the team,” Dagato said. “He can run the ball well, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, he can block for us. He can get some reps at fullback and the tailback. Cameron is a true tailback, but he hits like a Mack truck, so he can play fullback if we needed it. It’s really just finding different ways to get those guys on the field and finding ways to let them help us win ball games.”

Marlboro’s 2015 season was immediately beset by chaos when projecting starting quarterback Mike Wolff suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the preseason, forcing Jared Wright into the starting role. Wright settled in over the course of the season and even with Wolff nearing full health, Wright will be the starter to open 2016 with Wolff ready if at any point he better suits Marlboro’s needs.

“It’s nice having Jared back with a full season of reps under his belt,” Dagato said. “We went from last year, having to catch him up on the fly to this year, knowing what to expect and giving him a full camp to get ready to play the position.”

The Mustangs are also experienced on the offensive line, with four of the five projected starters returning with starting experience. Senior center Riley Keating is the leader of the group with fellow senior Anthony Mitchell playing guard and juniors Chris Manginelli (tackle) and Anthony Damato (guard) both back as well. Senior Kyle Dade is the new starter in the bunch, as he replaces Joe Leander.

If there is one area Marlboro suffered losses, it’s in the receiving corps. The graduations of receiver Tyler Tanen and tight end Jake Weiner are the significant holes heading into the season, but Dagato has seen progress from a handful of younger players from a year ago. Chief among them are senior Ed Spinello and junior Justin Marcus – both of whom bring size to the outside. Spinello is 6-2 and will likely be the primary target in the passing game for Wright, while Marcus is 6-5 and one of the more improved players in camp, according to Dagato.

On the defensive side, Marlboro will rely mostly on two-way players, but its tandem of senior defensive ends are defense-only players and promising ones at that. Nnamdi Unachukwu and Justin Cohen will bookend the defensive line, with Sean Keenan, Damato, Keating and Manginelli working into the rotation of defensive tackles.

Caorsi, Cassidy and Helff will be the primary linebackers, with sophomore Nick Babic and senior Paul Wagner also figuring into the rotation. Marcus, meanwhile, is the lone two-way player slated for the secondary, with seniors Mike DiGangi, Gio Lasciandra, Rob Simo all lined up for significant time.

One more positive for Marlboro as the season begins is the Mustangs’ schedule. Marlboro squared off against Middletown South, Manalapan and Middletown North in its first three games each of the last two seasons, which buried them in a hole each time. Marlboro will host Manalapan to open this season, then will play Pinelands, Freehold Township, Colts Neck, East Brunswick and Neptune. Last year, those five teams combined for a 14-36 record and none finished better than 4-6.

“It would mean everything for these guys on the team to make the playoffs and compete for a state title this year,” Cassidy said. “Coming from a program that not a lot of people expect to do much, even in our own school, it would be really satisfying. We really feel like it’s us vs. everybody.”


Head Coach: Jason Dagato, fourth season

Career Record: 3-27

Assistant Coaches: Steve Vella (Off. Coordinator/QB), Justin Bloss (Assistant Head Coach/OL), Bob Wietecha (WR), Larry Nikola (RB), Alex Vasilenko (DL), Jim Papalia (Def. Coordinator/LB), Cory Varrial (Freshman), Tyler Palagonia (Freshman), Mark Bramble (Athletic Trainer)

2015 Record: 1-9 (0-6 in A North)

Big Shoes to Fill: Justin Marcus, WR/DB

The graduations of Tyler Tanen and Jake Weiner leave Marlboro without two weapons in the passing game, but the return of Spinello at one wide out and the experience of Wright at quarterback should mean that Marcus can progress at his own pace as he looks to become a complementary target for the Mustangs.

X-Factor: The quarterbacks

Wright is the starter to open the season, but he is also a capable defensive back who could move to the defensive side of the ball if Wolff is healthy and ready to take the reins on offense. No matter which signal-caller seizes the opportunity, Marlboro will need improved quarterback play to play off of what should be a quality ground attack.

Glue Guy: Johnny Helff, RB/LB

Helff could probably be a 150-plu carry running back for a lot of teams, but his versatility makes him useful in other spots considering Marlboro has Caorsi and some overall depth at the position. Helff is also the team’s top tackler and its leader on defense.

Impact Newcomer: Nick Babic, LB

If Caorsi’s workload is as heavy as it was last year, the Mustangs will need depth at linebacker to allow for him to catch a breather. That will be easier for Dagato to do if Babic continues to play well, which he has done throughout camp, according to his coach.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 1 at Colts Neck

The early part of Marlboro's schedule is far more forgiving this year than it has been in past years, and the fourth game of the season at Colts Neck could establish the tone for the rest of the season. The Mustangs have every reason to believe they can come out of that week no worse than 2-2, which would be a great position for a team that has won three games over the last three years.