Season Recap and a Look at 2024: Independence Division
With only three games remaining for the trio of 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 Independence Division, where division champ Brick Memorial had its best regular season in school history, and Freehold Township made noise in the playoffs.
Brick Memorial (10-1)
The Mustangs had the best regular season in school history and tied the school record with 10 wins, but the season ended in frustration with a 21-7 loss to Long Branch at home in the Central Jersey Group 4 semifinals. Brick Memorial went undefeated in the regular season for the first time in program history and started 10-0 before the Green Wave bottled up an offense that entered the game averaging 37.6 points per game. The sectional final was probably as far as the Mustangs were going with Winslow Township being head and shoulders above the field, but they were hoping to get to that game.
Brick Memorial graduates its all-time leading passer and all-time leading rusher, senior quarterback Connor Dietz, who had 2,996 yards and 33 touchdowns combined this season between rushing and passing. They also lose leading receiver Jasaan Whitaker and standout linebacker Nicco Maribo.
However, despite losing Dietz and Co., this team is set up for a multi-year run at some titles. Their sophomore class is one of the best in the Shore Conference, and there’s a talent-packed freshman group right behind them that dominated at the lower levels this season. Sophomore Nazeer Whitaker will be back after 268 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns, sophomore Nyzier Matthews returns after 333 yards receiving plus three interceptions on defense, sophomore Trey Tallmadge (116 tackles, 20 TFLs) is already one of the best linebackers in the Shore, and on top of that, junior running back Kevin Andrews (816 yards, 9 TDs) and nearly the entire offensive line return.
In the one game he played in place of Dietz, sophomore quarterback Jason Lajara put up 266 yards passing and two TDs in three quarters, so they also have a capable talent stepping into Dietz’s big shoes. Much of the starting defense is made up of the junior class, so there should be no drop-off there. While the quest to win their first sectional title since 2008 ended in frustration this year, the wait might not be much longer given the talent flowing through this program over the next few seasons.
Freehold Twp. (7-4)
The Patriots turned in their first winning season since 2017, with the highlight coming in the first round of the Central Jersey Group 4 playoffs when they handed North Brunswick its only loss of the season. Freehold Township picked up just its second state playoff win in program history before running into the brick wall of Toms River North in the semifinals.
It could be just the start of a strong run because Freehold Township brings back quarterback Nick Cardone, who had a huge year with a Shore Conference-best 2,327 yards passing and 24 touchdowns to go with 467 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns. The Patriots will have to replace two of their top receivers in their spread offense, GianPaul Cortes (669 yards, 9 TDs) and Nick Carnevale (475, 8), but Jaylen Gill-Anderson (30-567-4) and Noah Cancela (29-345-2) give them two experienced playmakers returning. They also have multiple starters back on the offensive line.
Defensively is where graduation will take its toll, as they lose their top six tacklers, led by linebacker Sebastian Andujar (82 tackles, 11 TFL). Junior Braden Larkin will return to lead an inexperienced unit next season, but given the firepower they bring back on offense, they should once again be in the hunt in the state playoffs. The Patriots were also one win away from their first division title in school history this season, so they will try to finish the job in 2024.
The Huskies entered the season with high expectations thanks to some top returners and multiple FBS recruits on the heels of a winning season, but it felt like it was a year early. They started 0-4 against a more difficult schedule after getting moved up a division, then rallied to get to 3-4 and make the playoffs before falling to Holmdel, which was undefeated at the time. They pretty much beat the teams they were supposed to beat and lost to the teams they were supposed to lose to.
Next year the expectations will be ratcheted up because almost all their big names will return. Quarterback Am’ir Martinez will be back for his third year as the starter, RB/LB Colin Palumbo (923 yds rushing, 127 tackles) returns, explosive wideout/FBS recruit Welman Crooms will be a junior, Power 5 recruit Jayden Elijah will be back on both sides of the line, and linebacker Morgan Blake Gagneron (114 tackles) returns on defense.
They do lose some key pieces like WR/DB Cameron Cooper (116 tackles) and WR Kyeshaun Sylvester, but the core of this team returns at the skill positions and on defense. It's now or never for the Huskies, who will look to challenge for a division title and be a playoff factor in 2024.
It was a tale of two seasons for the Green Dragons, who started 4-0 and then lost five straight to doom their playoff hopes. They lost an absolute heartbreaker, 19-14, to then-unbeaten rival Brick Memorial that may have catapulted them into the postseason.
They graduate their quarterbacks and the bulk of their rushing yards, but do return sophomore Justice Morgan (459 yds rushing, 3 TDs) and one of the Shore’s best big-play receivers, Jayden Johnson, who piled up 665 yards and 7 touchdowns on an average of 20.2 yards per catch. Germaine Rice is another playmaker at wideout who will be back. They scored 14 points or less in four of their five losses, so a boost on offense will be crucial next year to getting back in the postseason.
The biggest loss will be all-around star Jake Toye, who had 365 yards receiving, over 100 rushing and was dominant at linebacker with 122 tackles and 19 tackles for loss. Travis Trempy is another two-way star they will lose to graduation. They have some building blocks on offense, but Johnson and safety Gavin Maffei (58 tackles, 3 INTs) will have to bolster a defense graduating three seniors with 100-plus tackles.
Freehold Boro (2-7)
The record wasn’t pretty, but this was an important season for the Colonials to get back on some solid ground after a winless season in 2022. They also knocked off Patriot Division champion Keyport to become the only Shore Conference team to beat the Red Raiders this season. Even in games they lost, they were way more competitive than a year earlier, as they dropped three games by seven points or less.
The unfortunate news is that they will get hit hard by graduation. They have 19 seniors, one of their biggest senior classes under head coach Dave Ellis. They will be starting over at almost every position, but do return versatile threat Quamir Everett and receiver Aidan Hamlin-Woolfolk. Sophomores Damere Lester and Julian Isaacs also had some touches in the running and passing game, but the entire offensive and defensive lines were made up of seniors. It could be another uphill battle for the Colonials next season just given the graduation losses.
The Bengals got bumped up a notch in competition by moving to a tougher division, and they did not win a divisional game this season. However, they were right in it against Brick and Freehold in an eight-point loss and an overtime loss, respectively, so they showed they could compete.
They ended the season with a win by beating Neptune, and they do return some talent to try and make headway in the division next year. Their main bright spot this year was junior linebacker Cole Toddings, who set multiple school records on his way to a 139-tackle season with a whopping 23 tackles for loss along with 4.5 sacks. He also had 26 catches as a tight end and returns next season along with 1,000-yard rusher Myquan Rush-Esdaile, quarterback Jack Haviland and running back Johnnel Johnson, so the offense will have experienced returners to try to improve on its 18.3 points per game. The offensive line was mostly seniors, but sophomore Juelz Jarvis returns with experience.
The defense will feature a host of returners next season, including Toddings, Rush-Esdaile, Johnson and Stephen Griffin, who were their top four tacklers. It remains to be seen whether the Bengals will get bumped down a division or kept in this one.