Ready to Eat: 2018 Toms River North Football Preview
The Toms River North roster reads like the menu at a buffet. There’s an assortment of appetizers to satisfy every palate. Experience, size, skill, speed, depth. You can find it all. What’s the entrée, you ask? Let’s just say the Mariners will dine on a plate piled with a juicy serving of well-prepared incentive to address a starving appetite ready to feast its way back to prominence.
Two years ago, Toms River North was widely regarded as the premier public-school program in New Jersey on the basis of a memorable 11-0 run that ended in shattered heartbreak with a 22-16 loss to Millville in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 5 final. The encore was a bitter 1-9 showing last fall, hindered by an offense that averaged less than 10 points per contest - a stark contrast to the 44.3 average of 2016 - and a defense that conceded 24.4 to opponents.
It would not have been fair to expect last year’s installment to match its predecessor’s accomplishments based on the significant turnover in talent. But, this year’s edition strives to be the bridge some of the gap and steer the Mariners back to respectability…and, maybe beyond.
“It was brutal for the senior class last year,” admitted head coach Dave Oizerowitz, reflecting on the 2017 season. “You never want to use the word rebuilding, but it was pretty apparent as we got into the schedule, we were outmanned. We tried to grind through it, to tweak it and compete. By the time we got to Toms River South (in Week 8), we got some of the younger guys on the field to get a head start on this season.”
Don’t underestimate how much stock those subtle introductions to the varsity level meant to underclassmen auditioning for meatier roles. The Mariners have seen a good deal of those understudies develop into the integral parts they’ll be counting on as the bedrock for an uptick.
If an improvement in the scoring department materializes, a good deal of the credit will be heaped upon an offensive line which is sizable, linked and imposing. Senior Stavon Drew (6-2, 260) is back at right tackle and towering 6-7, 300-pound junior Najae Hallenbeck, who’s already been offered by Rutgers, is a powerful athlete primed to dominate.
Senior Danny Crow (6-1, 260) slides from left tackle to center while classmate Nick Renda (6-2, 260) will be at left guard for a second straight year and promising junior Cross Conlin (6-0, 250), a transfer from Florida, is the frontrunner at right guard. Junior John Muller (6-0, 205) headlines a list of reserves ready for action.
“We have just enough experience on the line, which you always need, especially against the big schools we play,” said Oizerowitz. “I feel good about that. They’ve got the size and knowledge of what we try to do schematically, but we’ll have to be more physical than a year ago.”
The front five will serve a maturing collection of running backs and protect a new quarterback.
Senior Dashawn Wilder, junior Jared Pruitt and sophomore Jordan Grey, who, as a freshman, anchored North’s 4x400 track team in the spring that won the Meet of Champions, form a three-pronged stable in charge of moving the chains on the ground. How well they instill their will could determine how often 6-foot-2, 185-pound sophomore quarterback Jake Kazanowsky goes to the air.
Kazanowsky has impressed with his ability to deliver strikes and has an arsenal of weapons to utilize on the perimeter to strike offensive balance and rhythm. Junior Dominick Jacob and senior Aaron Craig are a gifted pair of 6-foot-2 wideouts who will invite opportunities to soar above coverage while Wilder’s versatility allows him to slip into the slot to exploit his quickness in space.
A pair of 5-foot-11 sophomores, Zach Goodale and Zach Browne, have shined in the preseason, providing reliability to encourage stretching a defense to its limits if the Mariners go empty out of the spread. Underrated senior H-back Will Marsh (6-3, 205) is another handful to contain in the passing game and offers a noticeable option underneath.
“On the perimeter, we feel like we have a quarterback that can take advantage of our length at wideout with Jacob and Craig,” Oizerowitz noted. “We have speed in the slot with Wilder. Goodale runs sharp routes and has good hands and Brown is another talented kid. We can hurt people out there on an island with the pass game.”
The Mariners also have the potential to inflict pain through their kicking game. Junior Sergio Borda will kick extra points and be the probable option on short field goal attempts while senior Joe Romeo packs the power to drive a kickoff through the end zone as well as the range to bury field goals from long distance.
While the offense is undergoing a modest overhaul, the defense will remain in a 3-4 look that’s energized by a seasoned front seven.
Despite missing a good deal of the preseason due to injury, senior Tommy Monica (6-0, 270) is expected to be ready to resume work on the nose, flanked by junior C.J. Niedzielski (5-11, 245) charging off the weak side. The Mariners can pick from Hallenbeck, Drew, junior Myron Ford or senior Alex Pedre to lock down the strong side. Sophomore Jake Szigeti (6-1, 280) has gotten quality reps during Monica’s recovery and bolsters the depth on the nose.
The linebacking group is equally long and productive, led by three-year starter Jordan Johnson on the inside. His instincts and engine set the standard high for expected activity and are traits shared by inside partner Vinny Palmieri as well as Colin Bennett. North will also be rigid on the exterior with 6-foot-2 sophomore John O’Donnell, Romeo and 6-foot-3 senior Ryan Holland, who earned a starting spot as a junior only to suffer a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 against Southern.
Junior Matt Spalletta and Borda are expected to work the safeties, along with Jared Pruitt, whose older brother, Bryce, will team with junior Ray Carlson and Grey on the corners.
“I think we’re going to be really strong right down the middle,” said Oizerowitz of his defensive unit. “From the nose, through our inside linebackers to the safeties, we have tough tacklers who know how to put people on the ground.”
The table has been set. All that remains is determining how often the Mariners eat. A resident of the newly-formed American Division, they will have divisional encounters with Manalapan and Howell on the road in the first two weeks as well as Freehold Township, Central and Middletown South down the line. The Civil War remains intact with North hosting Toms River South on Oct. 12 and it maintains its other crosstown rivalry, visiting Toms River East a week later before wrapping up the regular season against another old A South foe, Southern.
At a Glance
Head coach: Dave Oizerowitz, sixth season (eight overall)
Career record: 41-34
2017 record: 1-9 (1-6 in A South)
Offense: Power spread
Coaching staff: Mike Oizerowitz (off. coordinator.); Bob Cassidy (DL); Bill Dowd (OL); Gabe Roonan (LB/special teams); Nick Zaza (QB); Anthony Penna (RB); Charlie Monanian (DL); Chris Gold, Bill Wilbert (freshmen); Kendall Culver (athletic trainer).
BIG SHORES TO FILL: Stavon Drew, Sr., OL/DL
The biggest responsibility for Drew doesn’t involve play, which has already been decorated for its technique and dominance, but his presence. Deemed team captain, he was annointed to the position for his character and leadership that his teammates will be asked to emulate.
X-FACTOR: C.J. Niedzielski, Jr., TE/DE
Ticketed for two-way assignment, the junior was entrusted with a dual role because of his athleticism and promise. If he can establish a strong edge on defense to complement bringing some pressure in the backfield, the defense could thrive while his contributions as an H-back or tight end will include blocking to open running lanes.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Jake Kazanowsky, So., QB
There is a quiet buzz brewing about what the sophomore can deliver with his arm. Kazanowsky can spin it and his sturdy 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame stands firm in the pocket. He can see above a defense, maintain poise under duress and should have plenty of options to utilize running the power spread.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 14 at Howell
The Mariners open with back-to-back road games against foes in the newly-constructed American Division. After tangling with Manalapan in Week 1, North heads to Howell, which pinned it with a 30-7 loss last season. How well it fares in those first two encounters will be a telling window into how the rest of the season may unfold.