Football – Brand New Day: 2015 Mater Dei Prep Preview
On a Friday morning in mid-August, for the first time since the start of preseason camp, a rain storm threatened a scheduled morning practice for the Mater Dei Prep football team, as it had for any number of high school teams in New Jersey scheduled for an outdoor morning workout.
Outside of a practice field that was slicker than usual thanks to some early morning showers, the Seraphs had their usual practice.
“There was a dark cloud hanging over our heads, but we stayed together through storm and now, there is nothing but blue skies,” first-year Mater Dei coach Shannon Hoadley said that Friday morning.
Although the sky above him at that moment was indeed blue and his team uninhibited by the rain, Hoadley’s statement was not a weather report, but rather a metaphor for the last six-plus months of Mater Dei football and Mater Dei Prep High School as a whole.
A little more than six months after the Diocese of Trenton announced the school would be closing its doors and approximately three months after the school announced it would remain open after raising the necessary $1 million, Mater Dei football is back to work trying to continue an unexpected football renaissance at a once downtrodden program at a school that is unexpectedly still open.
“There was a lot of indecision, there was a lot of ‘what if?’” said Hoadley, who was hired as head coach on June 4 after serving as the defensive coordinator for former coach Steve Sciarappa. “We called a team meeting and we said that we need to stay together and stand together as a family, and we’re going to be okay.
“The students, especially the football team, saw that there was a lot of support for Mater Dei in the community, and we just started helping out anywhere we could. We were going out to any fundraiser that we could, showing that Mater Dei football is alive and strong to the people who showed us support and made the financial donations that helped keep us open. It really rallied us and brought us closer together as a family and a community, which was great to see.”
The first question that popped in the heads of any Mater Dei student – particularly its athletes – was, “Where will I go next year?” Junior wide receiver Eddie Lewis was the litmus test for how much the threat of the school closing would force an immediate exodus. While Lewis – one of the top returning wide receivers in the Shore Conference – certainly entertained the idea, his response set a tone for the rest of his team.
“I really didn’t know what was going on or what to think, but I just told my guys I had their back, no matter what happens,” Lewis said. “I thought about what I wanted to do, but more than anything, I wanted to stay here if I could. This has been my home and I wanted to finish what we started when I came here, and I was going to stick it out until the very end.”
According to Hoadley, the program lost only one player from a year ago who could have returned, which could have happened in any given year in which there was not an impending shutdown looming. While the Seraphs must replace a number of key seniors, its strong junior class gets to return to play with one another, which is a victory in and of itself.
Mater Dei’s new life makes replacing some of its graduated talent seem like a small obstacle to overcome, but it remains an obstacle nonetheless. First-team All-Shore quarterback Christian Palmer led the Shore Conference with a Mater Dei-record 3,258 total yards – 1,993 yards passing and 1,265 rushing – and accounted for a Shore Conference-record 44 combined touchdowns between passing (27) and rushing (17). Mater Dei must also replace second-leading receiver and All-Division performer Tysaun White, who scored 21 total touchdowns last season between offense and in the return game.
“We can do a lot of the same things we did last year,” Hoadley said. “Obviously, we can’t replace a Christian Palmer at quarterback, but the offensive system that we’ve run over the last two years is the same.”
While no one at Mater Dei is expecting anyone to break records in the manner that Palmer did, the hope among the coaching staff is that the job that Palmer did in helping resurrect the program has created the infrastructure necessary for the next quarterback in line to develop into a similarly-productive player. This year, that player is set to be sophomore Kyle Devaney, and he is already drawing praise from the coaching staff and his older teammates for his work on and off the field.
“He’s been impressive,” Lewis said of Devaney. “He knows the offense, he has great composure and he throws a good ball. It’s going to be an adjustment for him, and we definitely want the older guys to step up and take some of the pressure off of him, but from what he’s been showing, he’s ready to handle it.”
“He got a chance to be the understudy to Palmer last year, and I think Christian spending that time with him really made a big difference,” Hoadley said. “It shows you the kind of kid and leader that Christian Palmer is, but it’s a credit to Kyle for putting in the work and having the wherewithal to understand what someone is showing him.”
In addition to learning from Palmer last year, Devaney will have the benefit of Lewis, who led the team in receiving last year to go with 10 touchdown receptions. His 47 catches were third in the Shore Conference and his 873 receiving yards were second. He enters his junior year with offers from Iowa and Monmouth University as the undisputed focal point of what was a high-powered offense last year.
“I’m not the kind of guy who is going to complain about not getting the ball, so if I’m getting doubled and tripled and we’re still making plays, I’m fine with that,” Lewis said. “I like the challenge, so if teams want to give me that kind of attention, I’m ready.”
The Seraphs figure to be more reliant on the running game this season as Devaney acclimates himself to life as a varsity quarterback, and there are a number of options in the backfield for him. Junior John Lubintus was a fullback last season and is in line for the most carries out of the backfield, while senior David Taylor and freshmen Andre Spann and Syncere Richardson are prepared for carries as well.
“Teams might look at us without Christian and Tysaun and think we’re a one-man offense with Eddie, and that’s fine,” Lubintus said. “If they want to focus everything on stopping one guy, we have a whole bunch of guys who are going to make plays.”
With defenses likely to key on Lewis, Devaney will rely on other targets in the passing game, namely fellow sophomore Ryan Mandelbaum and senior Cole Hardy. After missing last season due to illness, Hardy has been working back in at tight end and in the slot as he looks to make up for lost time. According to Hoadley, Hardy was diagnosed with the intestinal disease diverticulitis before last season and it came back again following Hardy’s All-Division season in baseball. He is now back to practicing without restriction, according to Hoadley.
Mater Dei’s offensive and defensive lines will feature more experience than any other group on the roster thanks to the return of what was a young offensive line last year. Junior Shane Mastro and senior Nick Massaro lead the group on both sides of the ball, with juniors Alex Mercardo, Mario Rodriguez and Kevin Olausen all back as well. Olausen was the only one of the group who was not a full-time starter last year, but he did gain starting experience.
“We were really young last year, but we still held our own,” Mastro said. “Now, we’re a lot stronger after the offseason and the most important thing is we’re playing as a unit right now. We’re a much more cohesive group.”
Lubintus leads a defense that returns six starters from last year’s team and found itself after surrendering 50 points to Dunellen in the second game of the season. After beating Asbury Park 30-20 the following week, Mater Dei did not surrender more than 14 points in any game until the Seraphs lost to NJSIAA Non-Public Group I power St. Joseph Hammonton, 41-18, in the sectional semifinal.
Lubintus will play middle linebacker again, while returning junior Juwan Mitchell and sophomore newcomer Jabril Davidson man the outside linebacker positions. Lewis and junior Justice George will play on the corners and Hoadley is leaning toward starting the young tandem of Mandelbaum and Spann at the two safety spots.
“We have some key guys back on the defensive side and I really like the way the younger guys are playing,” Lubintus said. “I think our defense is much better than it was last year, and I think it’s going to surprise some people.”
Teams with as little senior influence on the roster as Mater Dei has don’t typically enter the season with high expectations, but this is no normal set of circumstances. The Seraphs have a wealth of juniors who played as sophomores, some capable incoming underclass talent, and the peace of mind knowing they get to play a season after a tumultuous couple of months earlier this year.
“It’s a whole new outlook for us,” Lewis said. “We know we have a whole community behind us.”
Head Coach: Shannon Hoadley, first season
Career Record: 0-0
Assistant Coaches: Larry Szabo (Off. Coor./LB), Jeff Rainess (RB/LB), Jesse Ascolese (WR/DB), Dwight Sheehan (OL/DL), John Washington (Staff), Mark Billotta (Staff)
2014 Record: 8-3 (4-1)
Big Shoes to Fill: Kyle Devaney, QB
Christian Palmer had a record-setting career while leading Mater Dei back to the postseason, and not only will Devaney have to follow that act, but he will have to do it on a team that has both high expectations and very few seniors.
The good news out of camp for Mater Dei is that so far, Devaney has both been impressive and has won over the team with his work ethic and ability. He does not have to put up the numbers that Palmer did, but if the sophomore makes a smooth transition and is effective right away, the Seraphs might not miss a beat.
Glue Guy: Jonathan Lubintus, RB/DB
Eddie Lewis is the big name on the roster, but Lubintus is just as vital because of his contributions as a middle linebacker and the physical approach he brings to the running game.
Impact Newcomer: Ryan Mandelbaum, WR/DB
A sophomore who will play on both sides of the ball, Mandelbaum has looked comfortable with his classmate Devaney in the offense and could have a nice debut varsity season with defenses keying on Lewis.
Pivotal Game: Oct. 16 at Shore
Last year might have been Mater Dei’s best chance to knock off Shore and win a Class B Central title, but the division title is still on the Seraphs’ to-do list, and winning Class B Central will almost certainly require beating the Blue Devils. Mater Dei’s defense showed it could handle the challenge in a 14-8 loss to Shore last year.