Holmdel surges into the playoffs with shutout win over Raritan to claim Battle of the Border trophy
HAZLET – Given the season they’ve had so far and the manner in which they just defeated their biggest rival, it would have been understandable to see the Holmdel football team raucously celebrating on Friday night.
Instead, the Hornets gathered around head coach Jeff Rainess following a 31-0 victory over Raritan with tempered excitement and a business-like attitude. For a program that has had fleeting success throughout its history, this Holmdel team is certainly acting like it’s been here before.
“We’ve played together for so long that we’ve been through everything, the rough parts and the good,” said senior defensive lineman Alex Starr. “Our goal was to get a home playoff game this season and now we want to keep building off that. Next week is the biggest game.”
With a playoff berth guaranteed, next week certainly is the biggest game the Hornets have played in over a decade. In 2007, the Hornets fielded a similar squad to the one they have this year, a senior-laden group that had been building toward a special season from the time they first stepped into a varsity lineup. Holmdel finished with a school-record 10 wins that season, going 10-1 with a division title and a playoff victory at home.
But since that memorable season 11 years ago, Holmdel has been a middling program with just two winning seasons and two playoff appearances, both of which have come in the last two years. The Hornets expected to be exactly where they are now, however, following a promising 6-4 season last year with a cast filled with impact juniors. Now they’ll enter the postseason with a 7-1 record and as the No. 10 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10.
“We knew we had some talent coming back and we worked extremely hard in the offseason,” said Rainess, whose teams have authored consecutive winning seasons for the program for the first time since 1986-1988. “After a pretty good year last year I was worried about (a letdown) and I just wouldn’t let them become complacent. We worked our tails off every day so coming into it we thought we had a chance with some talent and a real cohesive group.”
“I’m happy for the community of Holmdel football right now. It’s been a long time since they’ve been able to have something like this and it’s special. I want the kids to understand if you work hard for something good things can happen.”
Holmdel’s 7-1 record is a product of solid play in all three phases, and that was on display Friday against Raritan. A fumble recovery by Nick Fanzini on the opening kickoff led to a 40-yard field goal by senior Alex Unanski. Later in the first quarter, Tom Ammirati blocked a punt that was recovered by Evan Jennings and returned 27 yards for a touchdown.
The Hornets’ lead grew to 17-0 when senior quarterback Jeff DeCicco broke a 44-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. The Hornets had easy points coming in what would have been a 20-yard field goal attempt by Unanski late in the first half, but Rainess elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line. Following a timeout, Gallo burst up the middle for a touchdown and a 24-0 halftime lead.
The start of the third quarter was more of the same as Gallo took the second-half kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown to extend Holmdel’s lead to 31-0. The defense took over from there to post its fourth shutout of the season and allow the Hornets to retain the Battle of the Border trophy. Holmdel yielded just 83 yards of offense to Raritan, including 33 yards rushing.
Holmdel’s split-back veer offense is now averaging 34.9 points per game with a three-headed rushing attack and a game-breaking wide receiver. Gallo leads the way with 907 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns on a phenomenal average of 10.4 yards per carry. Bruising junior running back Cameron LaMountain has added 536 yards and six touchdowns with an 8.1 yards per carry average and DeCicco has thrown for 510 yards and nine touchdowns while rushing for 321 yards and five touchdowns. Senior Mack Byrne, who is committed to Bryant University, is a big play waiting to happen. He has just 16 offensive touches this season (11 receptions, five carries) but has accounted for 365 yards and five touchdowns, plus a kickoff return touchdown.
An all-senior offensive line has made it all come together with Sean McCann at left tackle, Jack Tedeschi at left guard, Chris Muldoon at center, Mike Iulo at right guard and Austin Fischer at right tackle along with senior Dan Tempone and junior Bob Eknoian at tight end. That group has paved the way for the Hornets to average 265 yards rushing per game
Under the guidance of veteran defensive coordinator John Principe, Holmdel has shut out half of its opponents and allowed a measly six points per game. Senior middle linebacker Brandon Saghafi is their leading tackler and junior linebackers Nick Bauman and Joe D’Acunto along with Tempone, Starr and Byrne have been key contributors. Holmdel’s offense gets much of the attention, but its defense has been just as important.
“Internally we know how hard the defensive works,” Rainess said. “Coach Principe and his staff have done a tremendous job. He worked (at Raritan) for a long time so I’m sure it’s special for him to come back and so what he did tonight. His importance can’t be overstated, having a guy like that who’s had 25 years as a football coach with the amount of knowledge he brings to that side of the ball. I think we’re doing a good job in all three phases but the defense is flying around.”
Holmdel also has a reliable kicker in Unanski, who has missed just one extra point (it was blocked) and kicked field goals of 31 and 40 yards this season.
“It’s exciting because we knew we put in the work in the offseason and now that work is paying off,” Starr said.
Holmdel’s season resume includes a 43-6 win over Manchester, a 35-0 win over Keansburg, a 42-0 win over Keyport, a 21-11 victory over Donovan Catholic, a 38-0 shutout of Asbury Park, a 43-3 win against Point Beach and Friday night’s 31-0 triumph over Raritan. The one blemish is a 28-26 loss to Red Bank on a touchdown pass with 10 seconds left. It’s hardly a bad defeat since the Bucs are 6-1 and ranked No. 5 in the SSN Top 10.
If you’re going to lose the hope is that something positive will come from the defeat, and that has been the case with Holmdel. They’ve been able to draw on situations in the loss to Red Bank and learn from their mistakes, most notably in a key win over Donovan that propelled them to the National Division championship.
“We had a moment in the Donovan Catholic game late where it’s 14-11 and we had to make a stop,” Rainess said. “I called timeout and pulled the kids together, and I said ‘Remember, we’ve been here before. Somebody has to step up and make the play’. We knew it was going to help us at some point and there’s been some moments since then where the kids have been able to draw on that.”
Holmdel entered Week 8 with a United Power Rank of 7.6 to put them ninth in the South Group 3 rankings. When the 16 playoff qualifiers are split into South and Central sections the Hornets will almost certainly land in the Central Jersey Group 3 bracket. The 31-point win over a 5-2 Raritan team could have them moving up and earning a top-four seed, which would give them a first-round home game at Bob Roggy Memorial Field.
The Hornets will find out their playoff opponent when the brackets are released by the NJSIAA on Sunday afternoon. No matter who it is, they can be comfortable in knowing what to expect. Last year’s playoff game against A.L. Johnson ended in a 34-6 defeat, but valuable lessons were learned. Now comes the test.
“We thought about this in the offseason and did some research on leadership and how to handle the big moments a little better,” Rainess said. “Last season we played Johnson in the playoffs and they were a good football team, but I don’t think we handled the moment well. We’ve been building for that in hopes we would be able to get a playoff game again.”
“Now it’s all about how we handle that moment; how we grasp that moment and go take what we want.”
No. 10 Holmdel 31, Raritan 0
Alex Unanski 40-yard field goal
Evan Jennings 27-yard blocked punt return (Alex Unanski kick)
Jeff DeCicco 44-yard run (Alex Unanski kick)
Dean Gallo 3-yard run (Alex Unanski kick)
Dean Gallo 88-yard kickoff return (Alex Unanski kick)
RUSHING – H: Cameron LaMountain 14-76, Dean Gallo 13-65, Jeff DeCicco 10-56, Tom Ammirati 3-14, Ryan Jennings 2-1; R: P.J. Buccine 13-44, Nick Kenneally 3-13, Danny Fiore 1-12, Luke O’Hea 1-4, Mike Fiore 1-3, D.J. Dekis 1-(-9), Steve Coponi 9-(-34).
PASSING – H: Jeff DeCicco 1-4-0 35, Mack Byrne 1-1-0 37; R: Steve Coponi 3-8-0 44, D.J. Dekis 1-1-0 6.
RECEIVING – H: Nick Fanzini 1-37, Mack Byrne 1-35; R: Nick Kenneally 2-32, Joseph Callahan Jr., 1-12, Luke O’Hea 1-6.
Managing 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.