Leap Year: 2018 Marlboro Football Preview
Jason Dagato’s five seasons as Marlboro head coach have marked a precipitous climb toward a .500 mark and a postseason berth. Where there was no foundation before – Marlboro graduated the vast majority of a 4-6 team right before Dagato took over – there now is one, and the Mustangs will once again attempt to jump to the next level in 2018.
To this point, Marlboro has shown it can keep trending in the right direction despite losses to graduation, and 2018 looks to be its toughest test under Dagato based on some of the talent that graduated. That the Mustangs have plenty of reason for optimism is a good early sign.
“We’re replacing some key guys, but I think we’ve seen some good things from the guys who are returning and stepping into some of those key roles,” Dagato said. “Replacing a quarterback and two very good linemen isn’t always easy but I feel we’ve had some guys step up and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Marlboro’s quarterback, top running back, top receiver and top two linemen heading into last season were all seniors, but the Mustangs found a standout running back due to an injury to senior Johnny Helff. Dontrell Alston, now a senior, took over duties as the primary ball-carrier and racked up 1,233 yards on 213 attempts as a junior.
“I feel like my individual expectations should go up a lot,” Alston said. “Now that I’m a leader on the team with a lot of young guys, I feel like I’m a role model for a lot of them. Without me working hard, it’s not going to work, so I need to step up my game, do what’s best for the team and hopefully get us where we need to be.”
Junior Vinny Spitalieri and sophomore Andrew Spinella will back up Alston as ball-carriers and junior Steven Cassidy is in line to play fullback, giving the Mustangs three players who will all be back in 2019 a chance to work in and contribute right now alongside their feature back.
Accounting for the loss of senior wide receiver Justin Marcus – who is a freshman at Monmouth University – and quarterback Kyle Moore will determine how much Marlboro gets out of its passing game this, and to this point, the Mustangs have shown promise in that pursuit. Senior Alex Schutzer has made the conversion to quarterback from receiver and is looking to hold off a challenge from sophomore Caden Lawless.
“We don’t have to change the offense depending on the quarterback, but there are some differences,” Dagato said. “Alex has a strong arm, he’s a senior and he is doing a nice job learning to put touch on his throws. Caden has a lot of touch on his throws and he’s got a really good feel for a sophomore. They are both smart players and we feel good playing either one of them.”
Schutzer had success with his group of receivers over the summer in the 7-on-7 circuit, namely returning senior starter Malik Carey. After Carey, senior Matt Budveit is settling in as the No. 2 receiver with sophomore Nick Wright, junior Christian Puleo and junior Christian Trombetta providing depth. Senior Billy Delaney and junior Dom Palumbo will be the tight ends, with Palumbo showing some athleticism and big-play ability so far, according to Dagato.
“The skill guys looked strong in 7-on-7’s, the line is getting better every day so everything looks like it’s coming together pretty good,” Delaney said.
Anthony Damato and Chris Manginelli were All-Shore Gridiron Classic selections as seniors last year and were the core of a strong offensive line. Although replacing both will be a tall order, the Mustangs otherwise return three starters up front in senior right tackle Charlie Marinello, junior center Alan Volant and senior left guard Jordan Hanley. Damato’s younger brother, Paul, will take over the left guard post for his brother as a sophomore while the battle to replace Manginelli at left tackle is ongoing between senior Gabe Goykhman, junior Adam Mirza and sophomore Angelo Tropeano.
“The guys who we lost were better players than the guys replacing them, so we’re going to have to figure out how to make that up,” Hanley said. “The line is where it all starts for us so the guys who are back, we have to be better than we were last year so we’re not asking the new guys to take on more than they are ready to handle.”
Palumbo and Delaney will be the defensive ends alongside a rotation at nose guard that includes Damato, Hanley and Marinello. The defensive line is more settled than the linebacker spots in Marlboro’s 3-4 look, which will rely on a pool of players to cover the four spots. Cassidy is a clear candidate at one outside linebacker, while senior Josh Larys, senior Andrew Frydman, senior Jake Feiss, senior Jake Leonard and junior Anthony Carcaldi all vie for time at the three other spots.
Carey and Alston bring plenty of experience and ability back to the secondary as the two safeties, while Budveit also returns at cornerback. Spitalieri has distinguished himself as the other cornerback opposite Budveit, but Wright and Lawless figure to see the field in some packages as well.
“We feel really good about the guys on the line and at linebacker," Dagato said. "We don’t really know who is going to come out on top of those position battles, but the competition has been really good and whoever we end up going with is going to be somebody we’re comfortable with.”
“There are about eight to 10 guys we can throw on the field at linebacker at any time,” Cassidy said. “It just makes everyone work harder in camp. It makes you want to step up and take one of those spots.”
Marlboro’s move away from some of the Class A North goliaths of recent years could also contribute to the team’s first winning season since the early 2000’s, but there are still some challenges on the schedule. Wall appears primed for a rebound season, Jackson Memorial and Southern are two more big schools with which to contend and Lacey and Lakewood have been tough opponents year-to-year, as well. The nondivisional schedule makes up the final four weeks of the season, with matchups against Colts Neck, Freehold Township, Matawan and Barnegat.
“We’re coming along quicker than I expected in a few areas, so I’m cautiously optimistic,” Dagato said. “Our schedule is still tough, but not having to play Manalapan in Week 1 will be nice. I know the idea behind the new divisions is to make it more competitive, so after competing in A North I expect us to be competitive every week.”
At a Glance
Head coach: Jason Dagato, sixth season
Career record: 9-41
2017 record: 3-7 (2-4 in A North)
Coaching staff: Reid Stapp (Def. Coordinator), Jim Papalia (RB/LB/Special Teams), Tom Caporale (WR/DB), Mike Seber (QB/DB), Bill Cook (OL/DL), Cory Varrial (Freshman), Bill Opplinger (Freshman), Mark Bramble (Athletic Trainer)
Offense: Pro style
Big Shoes to Fill: Paul Damato, So., OL/DL
The Mustangs will fill the open left guard spot left by Anthony Damato by calling on his younger brother, Paul, to hold down that spot. Like his brother, Paul Damato will also play on the defensive line as part of a rotation at nose guard
X-Factor: Passing Attack
The Mustangs had some success during the 7-on-7 portion of the offseason and have some dynamic options both in the backfield and among its receivers. Within the passing attack, the variable is at quarterback, with senior Alex Schutzer impressing during camp and sophomore Caden Lawless pushing him.
Impact Newcomer: Dom Palumbo, Jr., TE/DE
The Mustangs like working out of two-tight-end sets and Palumbo is a big-play option at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds with speed. With Justin Marcus graduated and now at Monmouth University, Palumbo will be among the top targets in the passing game while also contributing at defensive end.
Pivotal Game: Sept. 22 at Southern
At Week 3 trip to Southern marks Marlboro’s first test against a Group V school and it will come against an opponent that, like the Mustangs, finished 3-7 last year. Marlboro probably has to win at least one of its first two games (against Lacey or Lakewood) to position itself for a playoff run and if the Mustangs do get one, the trip to southern Ocean County will be a big one.