Getting Defensive: 2019 Pinelands Football Preview
Pinelands has had some solid offenses over the past 10 years, most recently with Evan Burton rushing for over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. The issue for the Wildcats has been on the defensive side, but they are optimistic this is the year that changes.
After going 4-5 last year largely thanks to the ground game with Burton and Nik DiLeo and complimentary play from quarterback Garrett Brown – all of whom are gone – Pinelands will look to its defense to lead the way as it searches for its first winning season since 2004.
After undergoing several scheme changes, Pinelands settled on a 3-5-3 alignment four years ago and also installed it at the middle school level where current defensive coordinator Joe Adelizzi was the head coach. Of the seven returning starters Pinelands has on the defensive size, five are juniors who have run the same system for the last four years. Senior John Moin is back as the nose guard and junior Jack Lawrie returns as the starting free safety. In between, all five of Pinelands’ linebackers are returning starters with senior Andrew Bartlett and juniors Andrew Jenkins and Shayne Michot at inside linebacker and the Harris twins, Connor and Aaron, at outside linebacker.
The only returning starters in Pinelands’ run-heavy double-wing offense are Jenkins at tight end and Bartlett, who played nearly every position. Burton and DiLeo accounted for 94 percent of the Wildcats’ rushing yards last season, and with Burton having graduated and DiLeo transferring to Barnegat, there’s a huge void to fill. Promising sophomore Nunes Bukula leads the new-look backfield with Bartlett and Aaron Harris also expected to get carries. The offensive line is entirely new, however, so that is a major question mark entering the season.
Division realignment has Pinelands moving from the Patriot Division where it played Mater Dei Prep, Shore, Jackson Liberty, Matawan, and Barnegat, to the National Division where it will tangle with Manchester, Asbury Park, Keyport, Keansburg, and Point Beach. The Wildcats will play Colts Neck, Manasquan and Barnegat in nondivisional games.
Pinelands will also get to play a true home game for the first time since 2017. The Wildcats played eight road games and had one ‘home’ game at the Little Egg Harbor Sports Complex last year while their school and field were undergoing construction and renovation.
Player to Watch: Connor Harris, Jr., OLB
Harris (6-1, 180) was second on the team in tackles last season and added one sack and four tackles for a loss. He’ll be back at outside linebacker and is also competing to start at quarterback. If he doesn’t play quarterback he’ll play somewhere on offense whether it be in the backfield, at tight end, wide receiver or along the offensive line.
Player Under the Radar: Joe Vitello, Sr., QB/DB
A key newcomer as a senior, Vitello has a chance to start both ways as he’s currently competing for the starting quarterback position and is slated to start in the defensive backfield at cornerback.
Top Unit: Linebackers
The strength of Pinelands’ team is certainly on the defensive side, and the strongest position group there is unquestionably the linebackers with all five starters returning, four of which are juniors. Michot led the Wildcats in tackles last year and returns at inside linebacker with Jenkins and Bartlett. The outside linebackers, who also serve as hybrid strong safeties, are Connor Harris and Aaron Harris.
Pinelands will be successful if…=
…The offensive line comes together. Pinelands is going to run the ball. A lot. The Wildcats feel good about their new skill players but that won’t mean anything if the offensive line is shaky.
Junior Tommy McNiel is at center with Morin backing him up. The left tackle is sophomore Dan McNemer and the right tackle is junior Matt Prez. Michot is at left guard and juniors Andrew Staub and Abdulah Elsayed are battling for the starting spot at right guard.
Home Sweet Home
After playing without a home field, a locker room or a weight room last season, Pinelands is eager to return back home. Construction at the high school threw the district into disarray with the high school students moving across the street to the junior high school. At the same time, the district was re-sodding the football field, leaving the team without a field to play its home games. The football team was able to salvage a bench press and some weights from the weight room at the high school, but everything else was off-limits while the renovations were being done. It was a tough year that will make the season-opener against Asbury Park a special night.
At a Glance
Head coach: Matt Fuller, third season
Career record: 6-13
2018 record: 4-5 (2-3 in Patriot Division)
Assistant coaches: Anthony Allocca (off. coord.), Joe Adelizzi (def. coord), Scott Peterka (OL), Todd Kaiser (QB), Gennaro Balleta (WR), Albert Rowland (DB), Dom LaFragola (DL), Brooke Mackie (athletic trainer).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Kendrick Johnson, Sr., CB
Johnson will start at cornerback and fill a spot where Garrett Brown played last year and led the team in interceptions en route to being an all-division selection.
X-FACTOR: Starting strong
The Wildcats begin the season with two straight home games and will play their entire division schedule in the first five weeks of the season. If they are going to make a run at five wins and a playoff spot, they’ll have to start fast out of the gate.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Nunes Bukula, So., RB
A promising prospect throughout his youth days, Bukula will make his varsity debut after starring on the freshman team last year. Evan Burton ran for more than 2,000 yards over the last two seasons so Pinelands is hoping he can step in as a sophomore and help replace that production.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 13 vs. Asbury Park
Finally, a home game. Pinelands last home game came on Nov. 9, 2017, when it hosted Oakcrest in an NJSIAA regional crossover game. Last season, the Wildcats were road warriors, playing all but one game - their senior night was played down the road at the Little Egg Harbor Sports Complex - on the road. The players and community will be fired up for another game under the lights, and it also happens to be an important division game against the Blue Bishops.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.