It is not likely anyone would blame a second-year head coach for enduring a four-win season with a team that returned only three starters from the previous year, but Neptune head coach Rodney Taylor was defiant in the face of the tempered expectations of 2016.

“I never think I’m going to lose,” Taylor said. “I don’t care who shows up, I always feel like we’re going to find a way to win. I thought guys were going to pick it up quick and we’d be competing for a state title and the whole nine.”

Taylor had reason to be confident after an 8-3 campaign in his inaugural season as Neptune’s head coach, but the lack of experience indeed caught up to the Scarlet Fliers en route to a 4-6 finish. The players appeared to round into form over the course of the season, but a 0-4 start against a loaded schedule was too much to overcome.

“It was frustrating and I still think we could have put ourselves in a better position to win some more games and get into the playoffs,” Taylor said. “I don’t think I realized how long it would take for the new guys to fully get what we were doing and then put it to work in the game. I think they started to get it and now that we have most of the team back, it’s like night and day this year compared to where we were at the same point last year.”

A 4-2 finish to the season while laying the foundation for 2016 turned out to be the silver lining to last season’s losing record.

“The past two years, as freshmen and on jayvee, we started 4-0 so to go backwards like that and start off the complete opposite way was really depressing,” senior two-way lineman Damien Valentine said. “It made you consider how much you really loved the game.

“We had a lot of seniors and a lot of people quit during that stretch because they didn’t want to play, didn’t have the heart to play. Coach preaches never quitting and sticking together as a family through tough times and coming out on the other end, and we were able to do that.”

Junior Chase Fairbanks enters his second year as the starting quarterback at Neptune. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The optimism at Neptune for the upcoming season begins with its playmakers on offense – led by receivers Marvin Morgan and Kahmar Rice, who will be catching passes from junior Chase Fairbanks. Entering his second season as a starter, Fairbanks gained valuable experience as a sophomore in 2015 and will not only have a better knowledge of the offense, but also a familiarity with Morgan and Rice.

“Now that I have full command of the offense and I’m the starter, I think there is just a lot more confidence and leadership on my part and the rest of the guys have a lot more confidence in me,” Fairbanks said. “They got me a lot of reps last season because they knew it was going to benefit us this year and I think it has.”

Taylor is also excited about adding seniors Fabrice Bambaata and Jules Calhoun to the receiving corps. Both are basketball players who are playing varsity football for the first time and will add two targets over six feet to the attack.

With Fairbanks and the array of receivers in the passing game, the Neptune rushing attack is flying under the radar despite some upside. Senior Ahmad Coleman looks to be next in line but freshman Malik Ingram has opened eyes during the course of camp and has a legitimate shot to become a starter at some point this year, according to Taylor.

One of the reasons the running game has potential is Neptune’s offensive line, which features three standout returnees and plenty of depth. Seniors Naji Jorden, Gary Hoover and Valentine will lead the unit and will also be three of the team’s overall senior leaders.

The three senior linemen will also contribute on the other side of the ball, particularly Valentine as a defensive end and Jorden as a defensive tackle. Rice and Morgan, meanwhile, will lead the secondary, with Rice on the corner and Morgan at safety as part of Neptune’s 3-3-5 base defense. Senior linebackers Leon Hughes, Benjamin Morales and Isaiah Harrington will also be a strength of the defense.

Last year’s season began with four consecutive losses to Ocean, Middletown South, Red Bank Catholic, and Red Bank Regional – including a six-point loss to Ocean on opening night. This year’s slate has a different look to it, with the Scarlet Fliers joining Class A North. Neptune opens the season Friday against Middletown North – the first of three straight home games to open the season.

“When you lose 22 starters, you are going to go backwards but we went way backwards,” Valentine said. “This year we’re moving forward a lot faster, which we should.”


Head Coach: Rodney Taylor, third season

Career Record: 12-9

Assistant Coaches: Brian Duffy (Off. Coordinator), Jeremy Balina (Def. Coordinator), Frank Iachetta (OL), Vincent Iachetta (DL), Michael Seber (QB), Thomas D’Ambrisi (WR), Netanis Bean (Freshman), John Paczkowski (Freshman), Mysonn Ledet (Freshman), Ronald Puryear (Video)

2015 Record: 4-6 (2-4 in B North)

Big Shoes to Fill: Marvin Morgan and Kahmar Rice, WR/DB

While already established, all-division players, Morgan and Rice have every opportunity to be All-Shore level players and will probably have to play like it for the offense to thrive and for the Fliers to re-emerge as a state-championship contender. With a pair of big-play options, Neptune will be hard to contend with.

X-Factor: The running game

The Fliers look solid at every level, and assuming Fairbanks progresses at the quarterback position, the running game may be the only question, if only because the collection of running backs is unproven.

Glue Guy: Damien Valentine, OL/DL

On top of the athletes at skill positions, Neptune has them on the line with Valentine foremost among them. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he can present problems on both sides of the line.

Impact Newcomer: Malik Ingram, RB

Taylor said he doesn’t see himself as a coach who would start a freshman, but Ingram at least has him considering it. With good size for his 5-10 frame, Taylor expects he can handle the speed of the game right away.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 23 at vs. Freehold Boro

A slow start to 2015 doomed the Scarlet Fliers, so starting fast will be a primary focus this season. The second week of a season is crucial for any team - either going 2-0 or avoiding an 0-2 start - so a game against a competitive Freehold Boro team will be a huge test for the Fliers, regardless of the week one results against Middletown North.