Football – Surviving the Game: 2016 Brick Preview
With 26 wins over the past three seasons, Brick has re-established the winning tradition the program has known for most of its existence. To keep it going, however, the Dragons will have to replace several standouts along the line of scrimmage while navigating one of the most treacherous starts of any team in the Shore Conference.
Brick’s first four games feature four state finalists, two of which are returning state champions. The early-season gauntlet does no favors to a team with just one returning lineman on each side of the ball, but it’s nothing the Dragons feel they can’t overcome.
“Four returning finalists and two returning champs is not an easy way to start the season, but we think with the senior leaders we have we’ll be up for the challenge,” said senior Dean Helstowski. “We just have to weather the storm through those first four games. We have great respect for those teams but it’s not like we’re scared. We’re not fearing anybody.”
The good news for Brick is that it returns a bevy of skill players, led by Temple recruit Ja’Sir Taylor. Quarterback Anthony Costanza, running backs Jay Obenauer and Rashan McCall, Taylor and John Prato at receiver along and newcomers Cole Groschel, Johnny Leblo and Brandon Williams have the Dragons confident they can contend for championships once again.
Brick’s multiple offense features five returning starters, led by Taylor at wide receiver. The FBS recruit led the Dragons in both receiving and rushing last season en route to being a second-team All-Shore selection. A varsity player since his days as a freshman, Taylor enters his senior season bigger, faster stronger, and even a little louder.
“I feel like I’ve improved my game,” Taylor said. “I hit the weight room hard. Not only can I juke a defender, I can run through them now. I’m kind of a quiet person so I lead more by example, but I’m trying to be more of a vocal leader.”
Costanza returns as the starting quarterback after seizing the job a few games into last season. Prato has also been working in at quarterback while figuring to start opposite Taylor at wide receiver. Obenauer and McCall are the running backs with senior John Chelston and Groschel also in the mix. Helstowski is the tight end with junior Chris Hirtes also at the position.
Leblo, Groschel, Williams and senior Rob Spinella round out the corps of wide receivers.
The main question surrounding Brick’s offense is how quickly its new-look offensive line can come together. Senior Liam Poland at left tackle is the only returning starter, but the situation isn’t as dire as it looks on paper.
“We lost a lot of good players off the lines and that’s the biggest thing we have to replace,” said Dragons head coach Len Zdanowicz. “We have some good kids, they just don’t have varsity experience. They’re eager to play and prove they can do the job.”
Senior Jack Finelli steps into a starting role at right tackle after starring on defense last season. Senior Kyle Jaggers is the left guard, senior Chris Juliano is the center and the right guard spot will be manned by either sophomore Christian Malta or junior Pat Giesler.
“So far it’s looking very good,” Finelli said. “We just have to trust each other and be aggressive.”
“We have some new guys that have to step up, it’s not really if they can, they have to,” Helstowski said. “We have four big games to start off and they have good front lines. I think they’ll be ready for the challenge but they have big shoes to fill.”
Brick sported one of the Shore’s best defenses a season ago that fueled its 8-0 start. The Dragons allowed just 8.1 points per game and posted five shutouts. Five starters also return here, but once again the task is rebuilding what was a dominant defensive front.
Gone to graduation are second-team All-Shore players Jordan Keefe and Dan Finelli, plus starters Nick Tartaglione and Anthony Rusignuolo. Jack Finelli is the only holdover, although Poland will now start on defense and has experience as a starting offensive lineman. Both Finelli and Poland will be inside at tackle with Giesler, while the ends are Spinella and senior Ryan Anastasia.
Helstowski is the middle linebacker and a returning starter with senior Joe Woods also seeing time there. McCall returns as a starting outside linebacker with Obenauer and Chelston also there. Chelston was slated to see major playing time last year before an injury in the first game ended his season.
The secondary has both its starting corners returning with Taylor and Prato. Tyler Giesler will also see time there. The safeties are Groschel and Leblo with Williams also in the mix. Prato could also move back to safety in certain situations.
“Our line is pretty solid up front with Jack and Liam, and Pat Giesler is the strongest kid on the team - just a freak in the weight room,” Zdanowicz said. “The back seven has some good linebackers and some sophomores pushing for time in the secondary. Those kids have been stepping up and doing some good things.”
“We just have to keep the same culture on defense,” Helstowski said. “It’s going to be hard to shutout all those teams like last year, but we have good linebackers like Jay and Rashan and in the secondary with Ja’Sir and Prato. I think we’ll be fine, defensively.”
Senior John Bruno will handle both the kicking and punting duties.
The Class A South schedule is tough in general, and there’s no denying Brick has a daunting task in facing Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial, Toms River North and St. John Vianney over its first four games. It may be cliché, but Dragons can’t look any further than their next opponent.
“We have some tough ones, that’s for sure,” Zdanowicz said. “We know what those first four teams are, but the Memorial game is the only thing that matters for us right now.”
Head Coach: Len Zdanowicz, second season.
Career Record: 8-2.
Coaching staff: Brian McNamara (def. coord.); Chris Blackburn (DL); Chad Dougherty (OL); Kevin Stockhoff (QB); Dave Christopher (RB); Jay Groschel (WR); Al Saner (off. asst.); Donovan Brown (LB); Rob Brown (DB/ST); George McNamara (quality control); Scott Lloyd (strength and cond.); Kurt Weiboldt (kickers); Jim Barber (athletic trainer).
2015 Record: 8-2 (6-1).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: All the new starters on the lines
With Brick losing so many key offensive and defensive linemen to graduation the onus is on the entire group, not just one person, to step in and do the job efficiently.
X-FACTOR: Surviving the schedule
Brick’s first four games can make or break its season. How the Dragons come out of it will be a big factor in how much success they have.
GLUE GUY: Jack Finelli, Sr., OL/DL
Finelli will look to lead a new group of starters on the defensive front while also becoming a starter on the offensive line, a position Zdanowicz said he could have held last season if the Dragons didn’t play a two-platoon system.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Cole Groschel, So., WR/RB/DB
Groschel will see time on both sides of the ball and looks to be a versatile player on offense at both receiver and running back.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 10 at Brick Memorial
One of the Shore’s most intense rivalries gives the winner a big boost, something Brick could certainly use given the gauntlet it has to begin the season.
Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.