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Manalapan is one of those teams within the Shore Conference that expects to contend for division and state championships every season. That won’t be possible in the traditional sense this year due to the altered structure of the season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean the Braves have changed their mentality.

Despite some key losses via graduation, Manalapan has eight returning starters on offense and seven returning starters on defense. One year after going 6-5 playing in the juggernaut American Division that featured NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 3 finalist Rumson-Fair Haven, South Jersey Group 5 semifinalist Toms River North and Non-Public Group 3 semifinalist Red Bank Catholic, plus regular stalwarts Middletown South and Long Branch, the Braves are eying a bounce-back season. This year’s six-game schedule balances district rivalries with a pair of games against two teams that figure to once again be among the Shore’s best – Wall and Mater Dei Prep.

The calling card of Manalapan football has long been a power running game and a stout defense, and that identity will remain the same under first-year head coach Dom Lepore, who was hired as Manalapan’s head coach in June after longtime head coach Eddie Gurrieri resigned. Lepore had been Manalapan’s defensive coordinator since 2016 and on staff since 2013. He was the head coach at Freehold Township from 2000-2009, coached at Manalapan in 2010 and was Neptune’s defensive coordinator when the Scarlet Fliers won the Central Jersey Group 3 title in 2011 and reached the final in 2012.

“Running the ball and playing tough defense, that will never change,” Lepore said. “Eddie has laid the foundation and built the house, and it’s a great house. As a new head coach, you get the opportunity and you’re going to come in and have your spin on some things. I compare it to, you might touch up a bathroom or redo the kitchen, but the structure stays the same. He did a tremendous job building it and my job is to come in and continue what has been developed.”

Regarding the running game, the offensive line has just two returning starters with three-year returning starter Mike Maksimik at left guard and senior Victor Berrios at right tackle. Last year’s feature back, Andre Johnson, has graduated, leaving senior Ray Vender and junior Elijah Marquez to likely split the workload unless either emerges as the clear-cut standout. Regardless of the names, Manalapan usually figures it out on the ground and even though that will be a challenge with several newcomers and with longtime offensive line coach Joe Tetley having retired, the running game doesn’t figure to be an issue.

An area to watch is at the quarterback position where three players are vying to take over after two-year starter Sean Kehley graduated. Seniors Mike DeMayo and Keegan Streimer and junior Mike Heckel have been battling since practice resumed and the competition will likely go down to the wire. With teams being allowed only one scrimmage this preseason, Manalapan’s annual scrimmage with Jackson Memorial will be big for position battles, especially under center. DeMayo and Heckel have sub-varsity experience within Manalapan’s system while Streimer was a two-year starter for Tri-Valley High School in the Catskills Region of upstate New York. Tri-Valley competed in an eight-man football league and Streimer was a standout, but more of a running quarterback and posting consecutive 1,000-yards rushing seasons. Last season as a junior he ran for 1,248 yards and 19 touchdowns on an average of 6.1 yards per carry and threw for 315 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception on just 36 pass attempts.

“We’ll see which one of those quarterbacks step up and take charge of the team,” Lepore said. “Unfortunately in the situation we’re in this year, we’re trying to evaluate those guys in one scrimmage and just a couple weeks to get ready. We’ll be keeping a real close eye on that position and see who handles what in the Jackson scrimmage.”

The unquestioned strength of the offense and a position group that will greatly aid whoever emerges as the starting quarterback is the wide receiver corps. All four wideouts are returning starters with seniors Anthony Matrone, Chris Marzo and Ethan Rodriguez and junior speedster Paul Wojciechowski back to reprise their roles. Manalapan graduated standout tight end Matt Benedetti, who was the team’s leading receiver last year, but have three tight ends/fullbacks who will all see time in what will be more of an H-back role. Senior Justin Nyers is a returning starter and will be joined by senior Gavin Claro and promising junior Dante Barone, who stands 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds and could emerge as a major weapon in the passing game.

“It’s a good feeling to have all those guys and we have to find a way to get the ball in their hands,” Lepore said. “They can all make plays so as a defense you can’t just key on one guy. And Barone is a guy we’re excited about. He can create mismatches versus linebackers and strong safeties.”

The front seven of Manalapan’s 3-4 defense will feature a rotation along the defensive line with Claro and Berrios anchoring the unit at defensive end. Vender is the only other returning starter in the front seven, moving to outside linebacker from safety. Like the wide receiver group, the secondary is experienced with Rodriguez at cornerback, Matrone at strong safety and Marzo at free safety. The other cornerback spot looks to be manned by either Wojciechowski or junior Tyler Walker.

Manalapan once again has one of the state’s best kickers, continuing its special teams legacy. Senior Vincenzo Rea is a returning Shore Sports Network first-team All-Shore selection after kicking six field goals with a long of 43 yards last season.

Speaking of Manalapan’s kicking legacy, former standout Mike Caggiano, who kicked collegiately at the University of Massachusetts, is on the coaching staff as the kicking and punting coach. So is quarterbacks coach Dan Anerella, who helped lead Manalapan to its only state sectional title in 2014. Another of Lepore’s former players on staff is defensive line coach David Calderon, who started at Neptune when Lepore was the Scarlet Fliers’ defensive coordinator.

“When I think about it, this is my 11th year as a head coach and this is the best group I’ve had the opportunity to work with in terms of experience, youth, alumni, energy; it’s just a great mix of guys,” Lepore said. “We have guys who have played in the Shore and either won or coached in state championship games, which is so important. They know how to translate the attitude and work ethic that it takes to win.”

Manalapan will open the season with three games against district rivals before hosting Wall, the reigning No. 1 team in the Shore Conference. There’s also a home game against Mater Dei Prep, which has reached four straight state finals.

“We always enjoy the local rivalries and adding Wall into the mix, which has done very well over the last 10 years, similar to what we’ve done, and then Mater Dei, who we played last year, we’re excited about the schedule,” Lepore said.

Mostly, the Braves are just excited to get back on the field and play some football even though the season will be different than anything they’ve ever experienced.

“At one point you didn’t really know if it was going to happen but now we’re getting so close,” Lepore said. “The kids, the coaches, all the people around the program are excited.”

 

At a Glance

Projected starters (RS=returning starter, 3RS=3rd-year returning starter)

Offense: Multiple

QB: Mike DeMayo, Sr. or Keegan Streimer, Sr. or Mike Heckel, Jr.

RB: Raymond Vender, Sr;  Elijah Marquez, Jr.

FB/TE: Justin Nyers, Sr. RS; Gavin Claro, Sr.; Dante Barone, Jr.

WR: Anthony Matrone, Sr., RS; Chris Marzo, Sr., RS; Ethan Rodriguez, Sr., RS; Paul Wojciechowski, Jr., RS.

LT: John Kokkinakos, Sr. or Max Shrayfel, Sr.

LG: Mike Maksimik, Sr., 3RS; also Giancarlo Nevarez, Jr.

C: Liam O’Connell, Sr. or Corey Holowach, Jr.

RG: Mario Chierchia, Jr. or Kevin Craddox, So.

RT: Victor Berrios, Sr., RS. 

Defense: 3-4

NG: Giancarlo Nevarez, Jr. and Kevin Craddox, So.

DE: Gavin Claro, Sr., RS; Max Shrayfel, Sr. will rotate in

DE: Victor Berrios, Sr., RS; Justin Nyers, Sr. will rotate in.

ILB: Matt Sadler, Sr.

ILB: Jordan Gravesande, Jr.

OLB: Raymond Vender, Sr., RS

OLB: Elijah Marquez, Jr. or Dante Barone, Jr.

CB: Ethan Rodriguez, Sr., RS

CB: Tyler Walker, Jr. or Paul Wojciechowski, Jr.

SS: Anthony Matrone, Sr., RS

FS: Chris Marzo, Sr., RS

Special teams

K: Vincenzo Rea, Sr., RS

P: Vincenzo Rea, Sr., RS

 

Head coach: Dom Lepore, first season at Manalapan (11th overall)

Career record: 36-64

Team record last five years:

2019: 6-4

2018: 11-1

2017: 11-1

2016: 6-5

2015: 11-1

Assistant coaches: Cody High (Offensive coordinator/WR/DB); Bill Smith Sr. (TE/OLB); Bill Smith Jr. (OL); Jon Harrison (Special teams/ILB); Dan Anerella Jr. (QB); Mike Caggiano (K/P); David Calderon (DL); Rich Nyers (RB); Freshman coaches: Andrew Jones, Alex Mattina and Reggie Grant Sr.; Volunteers: Tim Fleming and Steve Vella; Shannon Tomasula (athletic trainer).

 

Player to Watch: Anthony Matrone, Sr., WR/SS

Matrone started at wide receiver and in the secondary and even played a little bit of outside linebacker last season. He’ll once again be relied on for production and leadership. Last season, he caught 12 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown and made 49 tackles with one sack and one interception.

 

Player Under the Radar: Chris Marzo, Sr., WR/FS 

“He is a quiet guy but he does such a solid job,” Lepore said. “He goes about his business with a great work ethic and is a student of the game and also a great student in the classroom. He’s the type of player you win with.”

Manalapan senior Chris Marzo. (Photo by Richard O'Donnell).

 

Impact Newcomer: Elijah Marquez, Jr., RB/OLB

A 5-foot-10, 200-pound junior, Marquez is slated to share the backfield with senior Ray Vender and see significant snaps at outside linebacker.

 

Top position group: Wide receivers 

The Braves have a deep group of pass-catchers with seniors Anthony Matrone, Chris Marzo and Ethan Rodriguez and junior Paul Wojciechowski, all of whom are returning starters. Junior Dante Barone is listed as a tight end but the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder could also have a major impact in the passing game. Together they’ll give whichever player wins the starting quarterback job plenty of options.

 

Big Shoes to Fill: Dante Barone, Jr., TE/LB

Barone has a chance to make a major impact on both sides of the ball. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds with good hands, he should be a reliable option and a chess piece who can create mismatches on offense. Defensively, he’ll get snaps at outside linebacker.

 

X-Factor: Quarterback play

Manalapan has three players – Mike DeMayo, Keegan Streimer and Mike Heckel – competing for the starting quarterback position and the battle won’t be decided until just a week before the season starts. Manalapan won’t need either of them to drop back and throw 20 times a game, but they will have to manage the offense and be an effective leader.

 

Season Schedule

Saturday, Oct. 3 – at Freehold, noon

Friday, Oct. 9 – at Howell, 6:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 16 – vs. Freehold Township, 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 23 – vs. Wall, 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 30 – vs. Colts Neck, 7 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 6 – vs. Mater Dei, 7 p.m.

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.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.