Getting ready for the 2016 football season, Point Boro was faced with plenty of uncertainty. The Panthers had a new head coach and a cast of new starters, and spent much of the offseason and preseason trying to figure out how and where all the new pieces fit.

Fast forward to this season and things couldn’t more different for the reigning Shore Conference Class B South champions. Quarterback James Fara had a breakout season, the defense ascended to a top 10 unit in the Shore and it added up to an 8-2 record and a division title. Now with multiple starters back on both sides of the ball Point Boro knows exactly what it is, and that’s a team that plans on defending its division crown and contending for the Central Jersey Group II title.

“It’s been really exciting because we return a lot more than last year,” Fara said. “Last year we weren’t really certain how the season would go because we lost so many seniors. Now we return our whole backfield, the line is looking really nice and we didn’t lose that many people.”

“This is one of the few times since I’ve been coaching here that we’ve had multiple kids in the system as starters for two or more years,” said Point Boro head coach Matt Cilento. “The kids have been working hard and the kids that are returning like Fara and (Tanner) Gordon and (Brandon) Cipriano, they know the system and they’re leaders in the huddle on both sides of the ball.”

Point Boro’s flexbone offense averaged 27.8 points per game last season centered around the emergence of a junior backfield that averaged nearly 250 yards per game. So much is put on the shoulders of a quarterback in an option offense, so when Fara got off to a fast start and emerged as a top quarterback everything fell into place for the Panthers. In his first year as a starter Fara rushed for 1,293 yards and 19 touchdowns while throwing for 472 yards and five touchdowns. Athletic and quick with his reads, Fara enters his senior year as one of the top returning quarterbacks in the Shore Conference.

“I feel like I’ve improved a lot,” Fara said. “Having experience from last season and not changing anything other than a couple lineman, it’s been pretty easy to get right into it.”

“You know James can run the ball and when he plants that food he can get up field,” Cilento said. “His reads have been real quick this year and now being in the system as a starter for the second year in a row, his dive key, his pitch key is very quick. His choice calls as the line have been very efficient. And when we throw it he can put it out there. We’re looking for some good things from him again this year.”

Lining up directly behind Fara will be senior Tanner Gordon at “A” back while seniors Brandon Cipriano and Nate Chiarello are the slot backs. A physical downhill runner, Gordon ran for 944 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Cirpiano was having a solid year before suffering an injury in Week 4 and missing the remainder of the season, so his presence as a pitch back gives the Panthers another weapon in the running game.

Senior Trevor McNamara returns as a starting wide receiver while junior Kyle Komanitsky will be the other starting wide receiver. Point Boro won’t throw it much as a flexbone team, but the Panthers have traditionally had a big-play receiver to keep teams from overcrowding the box. Last season it was Hayden Frey, who accounted for 82 percent of Point Boro’s receiving yards and caught all five touchdown passes.

“Hayden Frey is one of the best we’ve had and he’s tough to replace,” Cilento said. “We have a couple of kids rotating in that are role players but have good hands, get good separation and have good technique. If they can get that technique down and are running routes the right way we have some kids that can make things happen.”

“Hayden is a big loss for our passing game but we return some key players that are stepping in and getting reps, and I definitely think they can do the job,” Fara said.

Two starters return up front with senior Conor Landis at left tackle and senior Gabe Fattizzi at center. Senior Anthony Bonavito missed all of last season with an injury, but the 6-foot-3, 285-pounder will start at left guard to bolster the left side. A pair of juniors man the right side if the offensive line with Trent LiVolsi at right guard and Scott Franceschini at right tackle.

“We’re definitely stepping up and making improvements really quick,” Bonavito said.

“For us we need those guys in the trenches that have experience,” Cilento said. “It all starts there.”

Before Cilento took over as head coach last season he was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator, and he still runs the defense in its 3-5-3 stack. Point Boro was ninth in the Shore last season, allowing 16.7 points per game, and returns five starters. LiVolsi is a returning starter at defensive end while Landis is the other defensive end and Bonavito is the nose guard.

Gordon and senior Ronnie Leyda are returning starters as outside linebackers while Chiarello is a returning starter at inside linebacker. Senior Tyler Sanchez received significant playing time last year and will step into a starting role at inside linebacker. Garrett Romer will be the starter at middle linebacker.

“It’s great to have experience,” Gordon said. “We’ve been able to come in and not really have to install and learn plays. We’ve been flying around.

Cipriano and Fara are the cornerbacks while McNamara, who had three interceptions last season, is back as the starting safety.

“We have some guys on defense that really show relentless effort,” Cilento said. “We look forward to those kids flying around, really knowing the system and playing fast.”

On special teams, the kicker is Chiarello and the punter will be either Fara or Komanitsky. Chiarello converted 29 of 33 extra points last season.

Point Boro is our favorite to bring home the division title, which would be its third in a row (the Panthers shared the title with Lakewood in 2015). Lakewood is also in the mix, as is a Lacey team that returns its quarterback and running back. With everything the Panthers return, especially in their offensive backfield, the opportunity to also make a deep run in the playoffs is there for this group. With plenty of promise, plus a gleaming new turf field that was installed last winter, the Panther are chomping at the bit to get going in 2017.

“It’s going to be awesome, I’ve been waiting since last year to play again,” Gordon said. “We’re all foaming at the mouth to get back out there.”

“They do a good job competing week-in and week-out,” Cilento said. “This is a team that wants to compete. If we keep working hard and stay focused, stay on track and trust our systems on both sides of the ball good things will happen for us at the end of the year.”

Head coach: Matt Cilento, second season.

Career record: 8-2.

Coaching staff: Tom Orrok (pass game coord./WR/LB); Brian Staub (offensive coord./QB); Ryan Canary (OL/DL); Shane O’Connor (RB/DB); Dave Johnson, Dan Drzymkowski, Ty Hughes (volunteers); Pat Brady, Dave Drew (freshmen); Jonathan Madden (athletic trainer).

2016 record: 8-2 (7-0).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Trevor McNamara, Sr., WR

McNamara started last season but looks to be the new No. 1 wide receiver for the Panthers. He’ll take over for Hayden Frey, who had 82 percent of Point Boro’s receiving yards and all five receiving touchdowns last season.

X-FACTOR: The passing game

Point Boro ran the ball very well last season and returns nearly all the key components in its flexbone offense. The one question mark is the passing game, where the Panthers don’t have to air it out but do need to make enough big plays to keep teams honest.

GLUE GUY: James Fara, Sr., QB

Fara begins his second year as the Panthers’ starting quarterback and is coming off a very good junior season where he ran for 1,293 yards and 19 touchdowns while also throwing for 472 yards and five touchdowns. A lot falls on the shoulders of an option quarterback and Fara is the unquestioned leader in the huddle.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Anthony Bonavito, Sr., OL/DL

An injury derailed Bonavito’s junior season when he was slated to be a starter. At 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds he gives the Panthers a big boost in the trenches.

PIVOTAL GAME: Oct. 14 at Lakewood

This matchup has decided the division championship each of the last two seasons, and with the Piners returning several key players there’s a good possibility it will once again.


Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.