Rockets on the Rise: 2021 Raritan High School Football Preview
Every year, Raritan head coach Anthony Petruzzi stresses to his team the importance of improving over the course of the season and peaking in time for the start of the NJSIAA Playoffs. That’s been an especially sound strategy for a team with Raritan’s schedule, which routinely prepares the Rockets for the postseason competition.
Had there been a state playoff in 2020, Raritan would have rolled into it on a six-game winning streak. After dropping their opening-week game vs. Holmdel, the Rockets closed the season with six straight victories to climb to No. 10 in the final Shore Sports Network Top 10 and did so with a team loaded with juniors and sophomores who are now heading into their junior and senior seasons this year.
Among the returnees is the quarterback-running back tandem of Ben Hutchins and Kieran Falzon and both the linebacker group and secondary will have plenty of starting experience on the defensive side. The interior line will have some new blood and the receivers and slot backs will all be moving up on the depth chart following the graduation of Luke O’Hea but this group of Rockets already has a winning pedigree.
“We have some key guys who can make plays, plus those glue guys who can bring everybody together,” Petruzzi said. “Expectations are high. The focus for the coaches has been making sure actions match expectations.”
Raritan at a Glance
Projected Starters (RS=Returning Starter)
Offense: Flex Bone
QB: Ben Hutchins, Sr., RS
RB: Kieran Falzon, Jr., RS; Keith Walling, Jr.
Slot: Joe Campanella, Sr., RS
Slot: Dan Calicari, Jr., RS
WR: Robbie Scarola, Sr., RS
TE: Matt Agar, Jr., RS
LT: Aiden Hill, Sr.; Anthony Engels, Sr.
LG: Thomas Jeleniewski, So.
C: Stephen McCabe, Jr.
RG: Kevin Dryjanksi, Jr.
RT: Jason Trotta, Sr., RS
DE: Mani Abas, Sr., RS
DT: Thomas Jeleniewski, So.; Jason Trotta, Sr., RS
DT: Stephen McCabe, Jr.; Anthony Engels, Sr.
DE: Jack Coleman, Jr., RS; Kevin Dryjanski, Jr.
OLB: Anthony Bavaro, Sr., RS
MLB: Alex Dekis, Sr., RS; Nick Godkin, Jr.
OLB: Bobby Mulligan, Jr., RS
CB: Rob Scarola, Sr., RS; Zach Rielley, So.
CB: Joe Campanella, Sr.; Jayden Craft, So.
SS: Dan Calicari, Jr., RS
FS: Matt Agar, Jr., RS; Joseph Murray, Jr.
K: Jeffrey Spengler, Sr.
P: Ben Hutchins, Sr.
Head Coach: Anthony Petruzzi, 12th season
Career Record: 51-56
Record Last Five Years:
Assistant Coaches: Chris Damian (Off. Coordinator), Dave Ernst (RB/WR), Matt Dempsey (OL), Jonathan Rodriguez (Off. Assistant), Marc Carnivale (Off. Assistant), Jerome Dean III (LB), Joe Schroeck (DB), Keith Rescorl (DL), Nick Mahoney (Freshman), Chris Vurchio (Freshman OL/DL), Vito Aleo (Freshman Skill), Mike Desocio (Athletic Trainer)
Offense: Flex Bone
Player to Watch: Alex Dekis, Sr., ILB
The top returning tackler from last year’s team, Dekis will slide to middle linebacker in Raritan’s front while also serving as the emotional leader of the defense. Dekis is a senior captain on a senior-laden team, so while his play will do plenty of talking, he brings a lot to the table beyond just his ability to snuff out ball-carriers.
“He holds kids accountable,” Petruzzi said. “He is a great kid, he does well in school, he volunteers his time. He speaks to everything the program is trying to teach. We have had a lot of good leaders over the years and he stacks up with all of them.”
Player Under the Radar: Joe Murphy, Jr., WR/FS
Like many younger players in football programs around the country, Murphy earned his stripes on his current team by playing mostly special teams and one year later he will have a greater role on both offense and defense. Murphy is in the mix both at safety and in Raritan’s collection of receivers.
“He can play slot, wideout, multiple positions in the secondary and he has looked pretty solid in all of them,” Petruzzi said. “He’s that guy who played special teams as an underclassman, did a good job and now he looks like a guy who can play in a lot of different spots for our team.”
Impact Newcomer: Thomas Jeleniewski, So., LG/DT
The offensive and defensive lines are where Raritan will be less experienced, particularly on the interior of each. Among the players lining up for significant time in those spots, Jeleniewski is the lone sophomore and is already showing glimpses of being an impact lineman right away, as well as a future leader up front.
“We brought (Jeleniewski) after the freshman season was over because we knew he was going to be a key guy for us pretty soon,” Petruzzi said. “We knew we were going to looking for guys to step up on the line and he’ll be someone who plays both ways for us on the offensive and defensive lines.”
Top Position Group: The Backfield
Hutchins and Falzon are two productive returnees within the offense and both are eying even bigger years in 2021. Falzon was only a sophomore when he played his way into a role as a feature tailback, racking up 625 yards on 129 carries and nine touchdowns. Hutchins, meanwhile, completed half of his pass attempts for 867 yards while running a strong touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10-to-2. While those two are the headliners, the Rockets will be seeking good balance of production.
“We started moving the ball better at a higher frequency once (the players) realized it wasn’t about one guy,” Petruzzi said. “Luke (O’Hea) was the guy with more of the highlights, but it all came together when Campanella started touching the ball more and (Rob) Scarola was catching touchdowns to go along with what Luke and Kieran were doing.”
Big Shoes to Fill: Joe Campanella, Sr., Slot/CB
The loss of Luke O’Hea is Raritan’s biggest challenge heading into 2021, but Petruzzi likes his group of returning receivers and slot backs on offense, as well as the group in the secondary. Campanella will be the player the Rockets most need to step up and fill that void and in collecting nine catches for 278 yards and two touchdowns as a junior, there is a solid foundation upon which to build.
X-Factor: Staying Hungry
Petruzzi’s biggest competitive concern heading into the season is not filling open starting jobs, health or the schedule – although all of those are challenges in his mind. After a 6-1 season that ended with a six-game winning streak, the Rockets players have big expectations and Petruzzi wants to make sure they understand that the slate is clean again and the process once again begins from the top.
“It’s nice to have that experience and that success last year as long as we realize that doesn’t help us this year,” Petruzzi said. “It has to remind us how we won games last year and that was by never wasting a day and making the most of every opportunity.”
Friday, Sept. 10 vs. Ocean, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 17 at Red Bank Catholic, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 24 vs. Central, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 1 vs. Manasquan, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 8 at Red Bank, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 15 vs. Holmdel, 7 p.m.