For a program used to winning double-digit games and playing for state sectional championships, last season’s 6-4 mark was certainly a departure from the norm for Manalapan.

Dive down past than the final scores of the 2018 season, however, and you’ll see a team that lost its first two games by a combined three points – both in the final seconds – and suffered a state sectional semifinal defeat in which injuries hampered some of its top players.

Manalapan was a solid team in 2018 while playing in the Shore Conference’s top division. The Braves will once again play in the top-flight American Division with the likes of Red Bank Catholic, Rumson-Fair Haven, Long Branch, Toms River North and Middletown South. It’s a beastly division that won’t make for gaudy records, but with eight starters back on both sides of the ball, Manalapan is primed and ready to go toe-to-toe with the best of the best.

The goals remain the same for one of the Shore’s most consistent programs: compete for division and state championships as a top-five team in the conference.

Manalapan's Matt Benedetti (18), Sean Kehley (12), Justin Reilly (1) and Anthony Matrone (21).
Townsquare Media NJ

Player to Watch: Nico Santorelli, Sr., RB 

Santorelli was part of a two-headed backfield monster last season, and if Dale Sieczkowski was the thunder, Santorelli was most definitely the lightning. A home-run threat every time he touched the ball, Santorelli ran for 909 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 88 carries, averaging a blistering 10.3 yards per attempt. He had double-digit carries in just four games, but each time eclipsed the 100-yard plateau. When Sieczkowski went down early in a Week 6 game against Brick Memorial, Santorelli assumed the leading role and responded with a 28-carry, 220-yard, two-touchdown performance. Santorelli’s workload could double this season, making a 1,500-yard season very reachable. For a team that thrives on power running and play-action passing, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

“He’s very underrated,” said Manalapan head coach Ed Gurrieri. “He averaged 10 yards per carry and we’re not talking about a few carries, he had almost 90. He’s very subtle in his movements and his cuts, and he has great vision. Sometimes you don’t think he’s doing much but he’s setting things up and then he’s gone. He’s a home-run hitter.”

 

Player Under the Rader: Andre Johnson, Sr., DB 

Johnson played the first two games of his junior year at St. Joseph Regional in Montvale before transferring back to Manalapan. He had to sit out the next four games before suiting up for the Braves. He gave Manalapan another option in the backfield and provided a lift when Sieczkowski and Santorelli went down with injuries, including rushing for 99 yards in a playoff win over Hunterdon Central. Johnson will again add to the backfield depth for the Braves, but it’s on defense where head coach Ed Gurrieri expects him to excel as a shut-down cornerback and give a lift to a defense that will try to improve its 18.2 points per game allowed mark from last season.

 

Top Unit: Offensive line

Gurrieri joked that even if the Braves had five starters back on the offensive line, longtime offensive line coach Joe Tetley would still say weren’t any good. Tetley’s refusal to accept the status quo and continually push his guys in the trenches is why Manalapan usually has one of the Shore’s best group of linemen, and with four of five starters returning in 2019, it should once again be a formidable squad. Hulking 6-foot-6, 270-pound senior Mateusz Zielinski returns at left tackle with 220-pound senior Charlie Paulucci at left guard. The center is 290-pound senior Nick Cavallaro and the right tackle is 250-pound senior Matt Kovacs, who is was also a 20-match winner as the Braves’ heavyweight wrestler. The newcomer is junior Mike Maksimik, a 5-foot-11, 260-pounder who will slide in at right guard. He is the younger brother of former Braves standouts Lee and Chris Maksimik, who were coaching staff favorites because of their hard-nosed, blue-collar style of play. Mike fits that mold, as well.

 

Manalapan will be successful if… 

The Braves need to say consistent on a week-to-week basis and avoid injuries, but the same could be said for any team in the Shore, especially in the unforgiving American Division. Talent and experience are returning on both sides of the ball, and those proven players, guys like Santorelli, Johnson, quarterback Sean Kehley, linebacker Matt Benedetti, safeties Justin Reilly and Anthony Matrone and linemen, Joe Berry, Mateusz Zielinski, Charlie Paulucci, Nick Cavallaro and Matt Kovacs need to play up the standards they set last year.

 

The Slingin’ Southpaw

Sean Kehley took over as Manalapan’s starting quarterback as a junior last season and posted solid overall numbers in throwing for 1,105 yards with nine touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 57 percent completion rate. Manalapan is never going to ask its quarterback to do everything and win the game by himself, especially considering the Braves should have a great rushing attack, but Kehley has earned the trust of the coaching staff and shown an ability to make game-changing plays when given the opportunity. Efficiency is the magic word for Kehley. The yard and touchdowns will come if he limits turnovers and gets his completion percentage north of 60 percent.

“It’s been a really good offseason for Sean,” Gurrieri said. “He has a grasp of the whole offense and has worked really hard to get much bigger and stronger. He can throw the ball well and does a really good job of reading the defense. Even though Nico is back we lost a fullback and a tight end, so he’s going to have to throw the ball more and I have no problem with that. We’re not putting handcuffs on him. He has full control of the offense and we’re going to try to open it up.”

 

No Fly (or run) Zone

Manalapan’s secondary is another unit that returns almost all its starters and should be a force on the defensive side of the ball. The Braves expect Johnson to be a lockdown cornerback on one side of the field while hard-hitting and versatile senior Justin Reilly and rangy junior Anthony Matrone patrol the middle of the field as the strong and free safeties, respectively. Junior Chris Marzo joins the fold at cornerback opposite Johnson, joining a starting group following the graduation of his twin brothers, Nick and Lou.

 

Depth on the flank 

Last season, Manalapan had an incredibly balanced group of pass-catchers. Although Reilly was the leading receiver with just 180 yards, the Braves had seven players recorded at least 100 receiving yards. Two of those players – Reilly and Matrone – return at wide receiver with Santorelli another player who can do damage out of the backfield. Marzo will play the slot and a group of three sophomores: Mike Bimonte, Tyler Walker and Paul Wojciechowski will all push for playing time.

“This might be the deepest group of receivers we’ve ever had,” Gurrieri said. “We had guys like (Tennessee Titans tight end Anthony) Firkser and (former Penn State standout Saeed) Blacknall but god forbid any of those ever got hurt, we didn’t have the depth behind them. Now, we have five or six guys who can all play."

 

Kicking Factory

Manalapan has fielded All-Shore caliber kickers for the last decade with Mike Caggiano, David Gelb and Jack DeMatteo. Next in line is junior Vin Rea, who will assume both the kicking and punting duties for the Braves.

 

At a Glance

Head coach: Ed Gurrieri, 13th season. 

Career record: 104-31 

2018 record: 6-4 (3-2 in American Division)

Assistant coaches: Dom Lepore (Def. coord/secondary), Dan Devanzo (Off. Coord./QB), Joe Tetley (OL), Dom Pollifrone (DL), Bill Smith Sr. (LB/TE); Jim Papcun (WR), Cody High (DB/WR); Myles Martin (DB/WR); Shannon Tomasula (athletic trainer).

Offense: Multiple I

Defense: 3-4 

 

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Victor Berrios, Jr., DE

Berrios will step into a starting role at defensive end, taking a spot that was occupied by Da’Shon Taylor for the last three years. Taylor was an All-Shore player the last two years and a force along the defensive line who led the Braves in sacks and tackles for loss.

 

X-FACTOR: Starting strong

Manalapan started last season 0-2, and while the Braves rebounded to win their next four games, those early-season losses immediately took them out of contention for the division title. With no room for error this season, a strong start – say, at least 2-1 through the first three games – is a must.

 

IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Mike Maksimik, Jr., OL and Chris Marzo, Jr., WR/DB

Both Maksimik and Marzo are well-versed in the tradition of the Manalapan football program with older brothers who have since graduated. Maksimik is the lone newcomer along the offensive line and will slide in at right guard. If he possesses the same knack for delivering punishing blocks as his brothers Lee and Chris, he will be a welcome addition to a standout group up front. Marzo is also the new starter in his position group, stepping in at cornerback to join an experienced secondary.

 

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 6 at Middletown South

Manalapan opens the 2019 season against a familiar foe and one that beat them on a walk-off field goal in Week 2 of last season. Every week is going to be a slugfest in the American Division, so starting 1-0 is a big deal. If the Braves can open up with a critical road victory it could key the start they are looking for.

 

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.

 

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