Season Recap and a Look at 2024: American Division
With all but a handful of games remaining between the teams still playing on Thanksgiving and the three Shore Conference teams competing for Group titles next week, now is a good time to look back at how the season went for all 42 Shore teams and take an early look at next year.
Obviously, in the age of rampant transferring, the phrase "will return" is not an ironclad statement, but for these purposes we will work under the assumption that underclassmen will be back with their teams next fall.
Here's how it went this season for the Shore Conference's SEC, the American Division, which featured five teams that will be ranked in the final Shore Sports Network Shore 16. All three of the teams playing for Group titles next week are from this division.
The real question is what other potential team or teams may be realigned by the Shore Conference into this gauntlet next year.
Red Bank Catholic (9-1)
The Caseys are hoping to put the exclamation point on another banner season when they face DePaul on Nov. 28 for the NJSIAA Non-Public B title. They already have won the rugged American Division and cemented the final No. 1 ranking in the Shore. They can lock down a top-three ranking in the state by winning their second state title in the last three seasons.
They will graduate a star-studded senior class led by wideout Emanuel Ross, linebacker Davin Brewton and linemen Lorenzo Portela, Tyler Burnham and Logan Graham, but this is RBC, so the cupboard isn’t exactly bare in 2024. Frankie Williams will return as one of the top quarterbacks in the state, budding star defensive end Lorenzo Tartamella will only be a sophomore, and a host of other key players return in the backfield. They will once again be right in the mix for the Shore’s top ranking and another state title.
Donovan Catholic (9-3)
The Griffins had another strong year, highlighted by a 21-7 regular-season win over Toms River North in which they did the best job against the Mariners’ potent offense of any team this season and ended the Mariners' 17-game winning streak. They will finish ranked No. 2 in the Shore and brought home some of the biggest wins in program history. There’s no shame in a playoff loss to the state’s No. 1 team, Bergen Catholic, but it was frustrating to be without three of their top players in the game due to injury. The Griffins graduate a talented senior class led by defensive linemen Zaier Day and Sam Rock, offensive lineman Adam Yevchak, linebacker Hunter Johnson, quarterback Todd Lambertson and more.
If everyone returns, they will once again be loaded up for a run at No. 1 in the Shore. Running back Najee Calhoun and wide receiver Michael Thomas III are two of the best players at their position in the state, Zach LaBarca is a promising young quarterback, Emanuel Gerena is a standout at WR/DB, and freshman Ethan Nicolas just put up a 100-yard rushing game against Bergen Catholic with Calhoun out injured.
Toms River North (11-2)
The Mariners are looking to put themselves in the pantheon of Shore Conference teams with a second straight Group 5 title when they play Passaic Tech on Nov. 27. Their senior class will go down as one of the most talented groups in recent Shore Conference history, particularly for a public school. Quarterback/safety Micah Ford has put himself up there among the best players ever from the Shore. There’s also running back Josh Moore, WR/LB/DB Jeremiah Pruitt, WR/DB Tareq Council, OL Justin Kaye, the list goes on and on. That will be a tough class to replace, but the Mariners still have plenty of talent.
Quarterback T.J. Valerio returns after impressing this year when stepping in for an injured Ford, while Ford’s younger brother, Mordecai, is also back as a gamebreaker at running back. Two of the top wideouts also return in Nasir Jackson and Cam Thomas. Two-way lineman Ja’elyne Matthews returns as one of the top recruits in the country, and linebacker Blaise Boland will be back after a huge junior season. They will be right in the hunt again in 2024. If they beat Passaic Tech, they will enter next season with a 26-game winning streak against fellow public schools.
Rumson-Fair Haven (8-4)
Another banner season has pretty much gone according to plan for the Bulldogs, and they’re right where they want to be after playing arguably the toughest regular-season schedule of any Group 2 team in the state. They will try to win their first overall Group 2 title when they take on undefeated Westwood on Nov. 27 after having already won their eighth sectional title in the last 13 years. Simply put, they’re on the greatest run of playoff success of any team in Shore Conference history.
As usual, they will graduate a host of standouts like linebacker Reed Elsas, lineman Cooper Bunnell, tight end Jackson Gallagher, wideout Nick Rigby and tailback Alastair Orr. But the factory keeps churning out new models on Ridge Road, so they will be right there again for another sectional title next season. Owen O’Toole will be back for his senior season after piling up more than 4,000 yards passing over the past two seasons. Kellen Murray returns at running back, and promising lineman Jackson Harris and the bulk of their offensive line will be back along with linebacker Austin Kiernan.
Middletown South (4-5)
The math says that some quality programs are going to get caught in the meat grinder in the American Division, and this year that was the Eagles. They are trying to avoid their first losing record in a full season (they went 2-4 in the Covid year in 2020) since 2013 by beating Middletown North on Thanksgiving. They started the season with several top players out with injuries and just never quite put it together against a daunting schedule, and then they lost in the first round of the state playoffs. The main highlights were a wild comeback win over Wall and a 30-14 win over Colonial Division co-champion Colts Neck.
They graduate a strong senior class led by Delaware-bound star linebacker Colin Gallagher, QB/DB/K Jake Czwakiel, WR/LB/DB Owen Richter and running back Donovan Summey. The bulk of their production came from their seniors, and they had some struggles at the sub-varsity levels, so another American Division gauntlet next year could be a tough task for the Eagles. They do return linebacker Liam Curley and multiple starters on the offensive line. The word “rebuilding” is not used at Middletown South, but they will need a lot of new faces to step up next year.
The Crimson Knights will be glad to say goodbye to the American Division and get a proud program back on solid ground if they are realigned to a new division for 2024. They went a combined 1-9 in two years in the division. They nearly took down Middletown South this season before a last-minute loss but lost their four other division games by a combined 151-0. They dealt with injuries to key players, including senior quarterback Andrew Olsen, that made it a struggle offensively in particular. They averaged 13.6 points per game against a brutal schedule.
Wall hopes to end the season on a two-game winning streak by beating Manasquan on Thanksgiving to give themselves some momentum heading into next year. They also showed some fight in giving Central Jersey Group 3 finalist Cedar Creek a game in a 33-20 loss in the playoffs. They lose almost their entire offensive line to graduation but return leading rusher Mason Adam at running back as a key building block on offense. Defensively, they should be strong at linebacker with the sophomore trio of Justin Davis, Dylan Cohen and Tom Plisky all back in the fold.