New Direction: 2018 Colts Neck Football Preview
Matt Ahearn has been around a lot of winning during the last 17 years of his coaching career, which he spent as an assistant coach at Red Bank Catholic in several capacities.
Ahearn was most recently the defensive coordinator for a Caseys program that has won at the highest levels of high school football in New Jersey and now it's his time to lead a program of his own, which he will do at Colts Neck this upcoming season.
Ahearn takes over a program still searching for an identity since reaching the Central Jersey Group 4 final in 2013. From 2014 to 2018, the Cougars have posted a 9-31 record and have not gone better than 4-6 in any of the four seasons, a trend that Ahearn and his staff hope to reverse in short order.
“On the field, it’s not much different, but there is a lot of off-the-field stuff to deal with as a head coach,” Ahearn said. “A lot of paperwork, talking to the press, things like that. Once you get past all that, it’s just trying to bring a group of young men into a winning team and I’m looking forward to getting a chance to make that happen here.”
Getting the ship turned around this season following a 2-8 campaign will depend on a number of players delivering in new, more expanded roles. The Cougars will boast new starters at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and along most of the offensive line with the defensive depth chart looking similar.
“All of those tough losses last year and the losses over the past several years, they just fuel us to get better every day,” senior lineman Dom Velardo said. “We know how to practice and we know what our energy has to be every practice.”
Colin Campbell, Connor Butz and Matt Scully have battled for the No. 1 quarterback spot throughout the preseason, with Campbell and Butz owning the senior edge and Scully looking to impress enough to both play now and begin looking to the future.
“The coaches are pushing us harder than any coaches I’ve ever had,” said Campbell, who will also play in the defensive secondary. “They are all over us and it’s making us better. They want to win just like we do.”
The Cougars will have to replace a near-1,000-yard back in Joey Mauriello and will rely on a committee to pick up the slack. Luciano Pabon and Karim Khalil are the seniors in the mix, while sophomore Joe Barsky has established himself as a potential running back of the future for Colts Neck. Sophomore Mark Beclarle, meanwhile, has gained the inside edge as the starting fullback.
Last year’s starting fullback, senior Tristan McMurty, will play tight end this season and will be part of a retooled but promising offensive line, as well as a deep receiving corps. Junior Tom Lindondici, senior John Giacalone, Velardo, senior Mark Salib and junior Jackson Sparacio will line up across the line while senior G.P. Oriolo, senior Justin Dibsie, senior Brendan Wei, junior Gabe Lugo and junior Aidan Horan give the Cougars a mix of experience and new blood at receiver as well.
“We may not be a huge team, but we’re strong,” Ahearn said. “We got a lot stronger in the offseason. Our two guards are the strongest guys on the team and that’s a good thing to have.”
The offensive linemen will double as the defensive line rotation in Colts Neck’s 4-3 defense, which will be directed by former Red Bank Catholic head coach Jim Portela, who is flip-flopping roles with his former defensive coordinator.
“This is a very professional coaching staff, more so than what we were used to,” Giacalone said. “We’re learning a lot of new techniques and concepts and it’s been exciting to go to practice every day.”
Pabon, Butz, McMurty and sophomore Jake Lupo back up the linemen at linebacker and Wei, Campbell, Oriolo and Scully will make up the defensive backfield, with Chase Masterson and Lugo also vying for time in the secondary.
As part of the Shore Conference realignment, Colts Neck’s schedule should be a little more forgiving without Manalapan and Howell on the slate, even if challenging games against Manasquan, Point Boro, Monmouth Regional and Raritan are part of the Liberty Division. Perhaps that opens up the window enough for the Cougars to surprise some teams over the course of the season and make a late-season run at the playoffs.
“Win states,” Giacalone said. “Win it all. That’s the goal.”
At a Glance
Head coach: Matt Ahearn, first season
Career Record: 0-0
2017 record: 2-8 (1-5 in Class A North)
Coaching staff: Jim Portela (Def. Coordinator); Scott Messler (OL/DL); Jeff Papcun (RB/LB/Special Teams); Ryan Byrne (TE/LB); Bill Hill Jr. (WR/DB); Mike Negron (QB/DB); Tom Bonman, Joe Cognhan, Ryan Kroeger (Freshman); Eric Nussbaum (Athletic Trainer)
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Luciano Pabon and Karim Khalil, Sr., RBs
Joey Mauriello finished just shy of 1,000 yards last year and the Cougars will try to replace that production by committee with the likes of Pabon and Khalil, as well as sophomore Joe Barsky.
X-FACTOR: The lines
From what Ahearn and his staff have seen early on, Colts Neck’s offensive line is the farthest along of all the position groups. The Cougars are going to lean on some of the varsity experience they have up front to help the offense move the ball and the defense get in the way of the opposing offense.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Tom Lindondici, Jr., OL/DL
Lindondici was a varsity player last year and will have an increased role as a starting tackle on the offensive line and as part of Colts Neck’s defensive line rotation.
PIVOTAL GAME: Saturday, Oct. 13 vs. Marlboro
For Colts Neck to have a chance to make the playoffs, they will almost certainly have to beat Neptune in Week 3. If the Cougars can do that, they will set up a big game against Marlboro in mid-October after the Mustangs edged them last season. Colts Neck then closes with games against Pinelands and Toms River East, which is a more winnable stretch than the early-season slate that includes Point Boro and Manasquan.