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In a stark reversal of fortune, one of the Shore Conference’s powerhouse football programs will not be fielding a varsity team in 2021.

After going 43-10 during an unprecedented run over the last five years and transforming into a perennial top-20 team in New Jersey, Mater Dei Prep will play a junior varsity-only schedule for the 2021 season, Mater Dei Athletic Director Rich Buckheit and Shore Conference President Will Sundermann confirmed to Shore Sports Network on Wednesday.

Mater Dei notified the Shore Conference of its intent to play a JV-only schedule on June 4.

Since the 2016 season under recently retired head coach Dino Mangiero, the Seraphs went from a team usually at the bottom of their division to a state championship team overnight. In Mangiero’s first season, Mater Dei, armed with several high-impact transfers, went 12-0 and captured the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 2 championship in miraculous fashion, both of which were firsts for the program. The Seraphs reached four straight state finals in either Non-Public Group 2 or 3 from 2006-2019 and also won three Shore Conference division titles. They reached the semifinals of the Shore Conference's "Pod A' tournament last season when there were no NJSIAA playoffs.

Mangiero stepped down as Mater Dei head coach in February and the team’s offensive coordinator, Taylor Groh, was named the new head coach. Since Mangiero announced he was leaving, however, many players have transferred out of the school.

Among the standouts who left are rising senior quarterback Alex Brown, rising senior running back/linebacker Ra’Jahn Cooper and rising senior offensive lineman Ashton Mejias, each of whom have transferred to Red Bank Catholic, plus rising senior defensive end Tafari Thompson (Irvington), rising senior offensive lineman Vinny Ciulla (Old Bridge), rising senior defensive back Tyler Malik-Ismail (Union), rising senior nose tackle Elijah Wilson (Hudson Catholic), rising junior linebacker Christian Buchanan (St. John Vianney), and rising sophomore lineman Adam Yevchak (Don Bosco Prep).

“With the coaching change, a lot of the student-athletes decided they were going to move on and, unfortunately, that took a toll on us, attrition-wise,” Buckheit said. “That led us to a decision that is in our best interest and that’s to have only a JV team. We’re light on upperclassmen but we have good numbers in our incoming freshmen class and sophomores.”

Buckheit said the program averaged between 75 and 80 players in recent years but did not provide a current count for the upcoming season.

“It’s decreased a lot, but those numbers are ever-changing,” Buckheit said. “We’re still open for business so we’re still getting interest from kids who want to come here.”

Buckheit said the school anticipates returning to varsity football competition in 2022.

“We’ll continue to grow and try to get the program back to what it’s been, and I’m confident we can do that,” Buckheit said.

Mater Dei was aligned in the Shore Conference’s Colonial Division along with Middletown South, Jackson Memorial, Manalapan, Southern Regional and Holmdel. With Mater Dei no longer on the schedule, those teams can pick up a game for the week they were scheduled to play the Seraphs or they can use it as a bye week.

“Because of the timing of their announcement to us, the division is now one team smaller but we still have enough to keep it intact,” Sundermann said. “No forfeits will be awarded because (Mater Dei) won’t have a varsity team and no games have been played yet.”

Those five Colonial Division teams are also not required to play Mater Dei at the JV level if they pick up another opponent for the open week. For example, if Holmdel finds a new opponent on the week it was scheduled to play Mater Dei and that school wants to compete at varsity and JV, Holmdel would be allowed to schedule both games and cancel with Mater Dei.

The 2021 New Jersey high school football season officially begins with the “Zero Week” on Friday, Aug. 27 and Saturday, Aug. 28. Week 1 begins Thursday, Sept. 2.



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