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Imagine putting it all on the line and coming within a game of reaching a state sectional championship game only to come up short and having to look forward to next year.

The Lacey Lions were better than many thought they could be in 2019 and a lot of the players who developed quickly are back for another run in 2020.

Wall was an unstoppable force last season but they were tested by this Lions team in the Central Jersey Group 3 semifinals even leading 6-0 after the first quarter before the Crimson Knights put the game away in the second half.

There's a good nucleus of young players back for another round this season including junior quarterback Noah Brunatti and junior fullback/linebacker Scott Stevens.

Each year though, head coach Lou Vircillo starts from scratch, not continuing what happened a season ago but assessing where they stand heading into the season, where each athlete will play and how to manage the schedule game by game.

"I get the team to concentrate on improving themselves each and every day as an individual and as a team," said Vircillo, who enters his 40th season on the Lions sideline. "I try not to get them to think of any particular team or goal except opening day, which this year is Manchester."

While they have traditionally sharpened their skills ahead of the season, Vircillo has been able to help them focus on the game and each other.

"Our challenge is always to develop our chemistry and our leadership," Vircillo said. "You take kids from last year and try to get them out of the summer mode of things and into a work mode."

As they prepare for a shortened and different kind of season due to Covid-19 restrictions and everything being delayed, Vircillo is relying on his senior leadership to help get the team started off right. He's asked the team as a whole to focus on the present and the task at hand.

"The focus is to prepare for one game at a time, prepare for that one game, don't get lofty at all," Vircillo said. "If they take care of each game and be as competitive as they can possibly be, then they'll win their share of games. We're (the coaching staff) working to have them be the best that they can be."

In his more than four decades of being a head coach, Vircillo has totaled 294 wins and is closing in on a milestone number heading into the 2020 season, trailing only the legendary Warren Wolf, who had 364 victories across 51 seasons at Brick and one season at Lakewood, for the most wins in Shore Conference history

For Vircillo, 300 wins is just a number. What matters more to him is all the teams he's coached over the years and the time they spent together on the field.

"People on the outside talk about this a lot more than I do," Vircillo said. "To be quite honest, I just cherish the fact that we can come out here and practice."

In a six-game season, the Lions would need to run the table to give Vircillo win number 300 in the regular season, but there are always the playoffs, and if it doesn't happen this year there's always next season.

This is also season number 40 as the head coach at Lacey for Vircillo and he has no plans on slowing down and retiring.

He still enjoys driving to practice, to games and being there with his team on the sidelines instructing them on how to get better and making the tough calls with the game on the line.

This is what drives him to continue coaching day by day and minute by minute for however long it is and coaching past the flashes of 'this is it' because he loves the game and working with the student-athletes.

"Those moments have been precious to me like I would believe any moment in anyone else's life and I've been happy to be able to work with athletes and see them do well in life," Vircillo said. "As most coaches do, we want to see the young men that we teach and coach do well in life and make the right choices. I've been blessed to be able to coach and if God willing it's meant to be that I continue, then I continue, and if not, then I don't, so it's day-to-day."

 

At A Glance

Projected starters (RS=returning starter)

Offense: Multiple

QB: Noah Brunatti, Jr., RS

RB/FB: Scott Stevens, Jr., RS

RB: Tynan Jensen, Sr., RS; Chase Granit, Sr.

WR: Andrew Tobia, Jr., RS; Matt Coon, So.; Jake Houle, Sr.; Matt McClung, Jr.

TE: John Dodero, Jr.,RS; Brandon DeAngelo Sr.

LT: Padraic Banfield, Jr., RS

LG: Nick Christina, Sr., RS

C: Damian O'Loughlin, Jr., RS

RG: Nick Povia, Sr., RS

RT: Joe Kudlacik, Jr.

Defense: Multiple

DE: Nick Christina, Sr., RS

DE: Austin Chadwick, Sr., RS

DE: Nick Povia, Sr., RS; Gerard O'Connor, Sr.; Mario Ramirez, Sr.

NG: Damian O'Loughlin, Jr., RS

DT: Dakota Schwab, Jr.

MLB: Scott Stevens, Jr., RS

ILB: Christian Boos, Sr.; Dominic Tarricone, Jr.

OLB: Tynan Jensen, Sr., RS

OLB: John Dodero, Jr., RS, Gaetano Dimiele, Jr.

FS: Liam Sanger, Sr., RS

SS: Dylan Hilshiemer, Sr., RS

CB: Andrew Tobia, Jr., RS

CB: Zach Stroin, Sr.

Special Teams

K: Jack Borel ,Jr., RS

P: Dominic Tarricone, Jr.,RS

KR/PR: Chase Granit, Sr.

 

Head Coach: Lou Vircillo, 40th season

Career Record: 294-148

Team Record Last Five Seasons: 

2019: 7-4

2018: 5-5

2017: 7-3

2016: 6-4

2015: 3-7

Assistant coaches: Warren Smith (QB); Mike Stuppiello (DE); Chris DiMicco (LB); Bob Nani (DT); Matt Kiefer (OL); Shane Allen (DB); Shawn McAndrew (WR); Jack Bush; Joe Tobin; Lee Emery (athletic trainer).

 

Player to Watch: Tynan Jensen, Sr., RB/OLB

The Lions continue to be a factory of producing solid running backs and Tynan Jensen is no different. Justin Gorski got the bulk of the carries in 2019 but when an injury kept him out of the lineup, Jensen was one of the players getting more carries. He'll be tasked with getting most of them this year. Jensen is also a key part of the Lions' defense at outside linebacker.

 

Player Under the Radar: Chase Granit, Sr., RB/OLB

A series of injuries since the beginning of his sophomore year when he appeared well on his way to a 1,000 rushing yard season has left Granit on the sidelines eager to get back out there. His senior year is his final chance to put it all on the line and in doing so could help the Lions make a big statement in the Shore Conference.

"Some unfortunate things have happened to him over the last couple of years and he hasn't been able to stay healthy. It was a pre-game sprained ankle and then became a pulled hamstring. Last year he suffered an injury in the summer and was never able to play," Coach Vircillo said. "This year he seems healthy. He's very capable as a running back."

 

Impact Newcomers: Gaetano Dimiele, Jr., RB/OLB and Mike Rozell, Jr., WR/CB

The linebacker corp for the Lions has been strong for years and it has a lot of depth heading into the 2020 season. Dimiele played his freshman year at Lacey, then transferred to Rumson-Fair Haven where he attended school but did not play football and is now back playing for Lacey again. He's been competing in the preseason for playing time and reps with Tynan Jensen and John Dodero.

Rozell is a junior wide receiver who transferred in from Toms River South who Vircillo says has a chance to play a lot this season. It would give quarterback Noah Brunatti another weapon at receiver to help offset the loss of his favorite target, Bobby Evans, to graduation.

 

Top Position Unit: Running backs

When the running game is going strong for Lacey as is often the case, good things are happening on the field. Scott Stevens, who will mostly play in the fullback position, is a "scholarship type of player", Vircillo said, and he'll be getting the bulk of the carries along with Tynan Jensen this season with Chase Granit poised for a Comeback Player of the Year kind of season. If these three and the depth behind them continue to have the success they did in the backfield last season, the Lions will be a top contender this year and make 2020 memorable even in a shortened season.

 

Big Shoes To Fill: Damian O'Loughlin, Jr., OL and Joe Kudlacik, Jr., OL

Lacey lost its center and right tackle to graduation after last season so O'Loughlin and Kudlacik will have the task of ensuring a strong offensive line that can give Noah Brunatti plenty of time in the pocket and provide gaps for the running backs to sprint on through.

 

X-Factor: Strength and endurance

The restrictions and guidelines put in place by the state and NJSIAA have made coaches and teams have to find new ways to prepare for the season. Players have more work to do on their own than in previous seasons in terms of being physically and mentally prepared. The Lions have been getting their practices and workouts in but can the team who fought tough with Wall last season in the semifinals find a way to be prepared for the six games in front of them? If they're well-conditioned and strong physically and mentally in being game-ready and focused, they will find success.

 

2020 Season Schedule:

Friday, Oct. 2 – vs. Manchester, 6:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 9 – at Pinelands, 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 16 – vs. Brick Memorial, 6:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 23 – at Central, 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 30 – at Barnegat, 7 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 6 – vs. Freehold Township, 6:30 p.m.

 

You can follow Vin Ebenau on Twitter and Instagram and email at vin.ebenau@townsquaremedia.com.

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