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The expression “game of inches” is used often in sports and to be sure, Donovan Catholic’s football players and coaches know first-hand just what it means.

The Griffins came up about 12-18 inches shy of finishing a perfect season last November against Wall in the Shore Conference’s mythical championship game. While the Crimson Knights rejoiced over making a stop on the game’s final play, Donovan Catholic has had nine months to try and erase that sour moment from their memory.

What should not be lost is the improvement the Griffins have made under Dan Curcione who begins his fifth year roaming the sidelines for a program that as recently as 2016 did not win a game. Donovan is 27-12 since the former Wall coach took over and the reward is a move up to the highly competitive American Division and games against elite programs including Rumson-Fair Haven, Toms River North, and yes, Wall (again) on October 8.

The Griffins do bring back a host of talent but they have also lost to graduation the Shore Sports Network Offensive Player of the Year in running back Jahdir Loftland and four other players who earned first-team All-Shore honors in wide receiver Jayon Farrar, offensive lineman Cam McNair and linebackers Quamire Green and Dominick Nocero. Shed no tears because there is plenty of talent returning, led by senior Jalin Butler who takes over as the starting quarterback with the graduation of Evyn Menta. Those two battled for the starting spot last summer and while Butler saw some backup time at quarterback he made his biggest contribution at safety and this fall expect him to start at both spots. There is no questioning his arm and he has plenty of targets, including Mater Dei transfer Kyree Drake, senior Mysun Rush-Esdaile and tight end Levi Wilkins, a starter last season who at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds makes for easy spotting on the field. Senior Connor Farrell will also be on the field especially when the Griffins go to a two-tight-end set.

Nico Ippolito (69), Connor Farrell (44), Jalin Butler (5), Caron McNair (74). Photo by Richard O'Donnell.
Nico Ippolito (69), Connor Farrell (44), Jalin Butler (5), Caron McNair (74). Photo by Richard O'Donnell.

Replacing Loftland, who ran for over 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns, is a tall task but the coaching staff has a lot of confidence in 215-pound senior Nunes Bukula, who made the most of his opportunities last season. Junior Dante Vernieri will back him up and both will run behind senior Nat Ianello, who is an outstanding blocking fullback.

While older brother Cam is now playing at Holy Cross “little” Caron “Taz” McNair (6-foot-4, 290) returns at the left tackle position as does right guard Aaron Crooms (6-foot, 280. Both earned All-Shore honors as juniors. Also back in senior center Robert Madison (5-foot-10, 240) and the rest of the offensive line looks to be in good shape with EJ Smith (5-foot-11, 285), and big Nico Ippolito (6-foot-3, 315). This might be the best unit on the squad with experience and size.

Ippolito also returns as the nose guard where he was dominant at times last season. He is joined up front in the 3-4 set by Wilkins at one end spot and McNair at the other. Three of the four linebacker spots are set with Farrell, Iannello and Jr. Dante Vernieri with a pair of sophomores in JJ Correa and Hunter Johnson battling for the other. Drake will hold down one cornerback spot with senior Isaiah Simmons and sophomore Ethan Mathieu in the mix for the other. At safety will be returning starters Butler and Rush-Esdaile.

Gavin Ngyun returns to handle the kicking chores and Wilkins is back as the punter, something he did not do much of last season when the Griffins averaged 33 points per game.

There are those who have questioned the Griffins schedule in recent years even though they had little control over that. This season finds them in the rugged American Division as mentioned before and their schedule is one of the toughest in the Shore. They open up against Archbishop Stepinac, which has won the Catholic HS League of Metropolitan New York four times in the past six years. The White Plains, NY school did not play last fall because of COVID-19 but went 2-2 in an abbreviated spring campaign. The Griffins will then close the season against a Rahway program that is 36-13 over the last five seasons including a 5-1 record last fall.


At a Glance

Projected starters (RS=returning starter)

Offense: Power Spread

QB: Jailin Butler, Sr.

RB: Nunes Bukula, Sr.; Dante Vernieri, Jr.

FB: Nat Ianello, Sr.; Jake Slaven, Jr.

WR: Kyree Drake, Sr.; Michael Thomas, Fr.; Mysun Rush-Esdaile, Sr.; Ethan Mathieu, So.

TE: Levi Wilkins, Sr., RS; Connor Farrell, Sr.

LT: Caron McNair, Sr., RS

LG: EJ Smith, Jr.

C: Rob Madison, Sr., RS

RG: Aaron Crooms, Sr., RS

RT: Nico Ippolito, Sr.

Defense: 3-4

DE: Levi Wilkins, Sr., RS

NG: Nico Ippolito, Sr., RS

DE: Caron McNair, Sr., RS

ILB: Nat Ianello, Sr., RS

ILB: Dante Vernieri, Sr.

OLB: Connor Farrell, Sr., RS

OLB: JJ Correa, So.; Hunter Johnson, So.

CB: Kyree Drake, Sr.

CB: Isaiah Simmons, Sr.

FS: Jalin Butler, Sr., RS

SS: Mysun Rush-Esdaile, Sr., RS

Special teams

K: Gavin Ngyun, Sr., RS

P: Levi Wilkins, Sr., RS



Head Coach: Dan Curcione, fifth season (27-12)

Career record: 44-27

Team record last five years:

2020: 7-1

2019: 9-2

2018: 7-3

2017: 4-6

2016: 0-10

Assistant coaches: Chip LaBarca Jr. (Asst. Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator); Jack Nascimento (QB); Dean Helstowski (RB); Jon Power (OL/DL); Ryan Wells (OLB); Dean Helstowski Jr. (DB). Freshmen coaches: Mike Heilala, Eric Bruno, Charlie Dowling, Vinnie DeStasio; Strength & Conditioning: Mark Deppen; Athletic Trainer: Bob DeStefano


PLAYER TO WATCH: Nunes Bukula IV, Sr., RB

He comes from great stock as both his father (Nunes) and uncle (Vemba) were All-Shore players at Pinelands which is where Nunes began his career. He was impressive when he got the chance to play last season but with the graduation of Jahdir Loftland, he will be the primary ball carrier and must produce.



He battled for the starting quarterback spot last season which went to Evyn Menta, who went on to complete nearly 75 percent of his passes while earning third-team All-Shore honors. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Butler is a physical presence playing the position and has a big arm. He will need to both throw and run in the Griffins’ offense and just as importantly provide leadership.


X-FACTOR: Schedule

Curcione is excited about the schedule which puts him in the premier division in the Shore Conference and includes tough out-of-area opponents.

“I want my players to be in big games each week, which is part of building a program,” Curcione said.


Season Schedule

Saturday, Sept. 4 – vs. Archbishop Stepinac, 11 a.m. at Rutgers

Friday, Sept. 10 – at Rumson-Fair Haven, 7 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 17 – vs. Toms River North, 6:30 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 25 – at Colts Neck, 12 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 1 – at St. John Vianney, 7 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 8 – vs. Wall, 6:30 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 15 -- vs. Rahway, 6:30 p.m.



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