With only three games remaining for the trio of Shore Conference teams competing for Group titles this 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 Patriot Division, where Keyport won its second straight division title and Manchester set several school records. Those two were the only teams with a winning record, and the Red Raiders were the only team to make the state playoffs.

Manchester returns QB Aidan Lunn after a school-record 8-win season. (Photo by Ray Rich Photography)
Manchester returns QB Aidan Lunn after a school-record 8-win season. (Photo by Ray Rich Photography)

Keyport (8-2)

The Red Raiders won back-to-back division titles for the first time since the days of Ken Cattouse and J.J. Bedle in 2002-03 by going unbeaten in the division. They featured one of the Shore’s most exciting offenses, averaging 34.7 points per game this season and recording their most wins since a 10-win season in 2016. At first, it looked like an abruptly disappointing end to their season when they lost to Glassboro in the first round of the playoffs. However, Glassboro went on to win the section and reach the overall Group 1 final before falling to Mountain Lakes, so no shame there.

They graduate one of their biggest stars in recent years, Holy Cross-bound senior Naz Treadwell, who made the switch from running back to quarterback shortly before the season started. He delivered a monster season with 1,368 yards and 24 touchdowns rushing, plus 918 yards and 14 touchdowns passing. The Red Raiders’ defense and offensive line will also graduate some key standouts, led by Ryan Burns (16 TFL) and linebacker Vincent Cavallo.

However, there is plenty of talent returning to make a run at a third straight division title and a deeper push into the state playoffs. Sophomore Mekai Henderson (886 yds, 11 TDSs, 8.9 ypc) is one of the top young running backs in the Shore, and junior Andrei Matthews is also back after making 40 catches for 605 yards and 8 touchdowns. Those two instantly make their offense formidable at the small-school level, and they also have experience back up front, so it’s mainly about who will be playing quarterback. They also return freshman kicker Marshall Colangelo, which is a nice luxury at a small school.

Manchester (8-3)

The Hawks set the school single-season record for wins in a big step forward in the building process under head coach Tommy Farrell. They started 4-0 for the first time in school history and nearly took home their first division title in program history, pushing champ Keyport to the brink in a 35-33 loss. The only blemish was that they didn’t make the state playoffs, mainly due to poor schedule strength, so that’s the next frontier for a program that has only reached the postseason twice in its history.

Senior running back Josh Love had a huge season with 1,479 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns, so his graduation leaves a big void on offense. Sophomore Malik Pharmes will be back after getting some touches this season. The good news is the Hawks also return quarterback Aidan Lunn, who threw for 1,397 yards and 16 touchdowns and also ran for 458 yards and 8 TDs. They also bring back top wideout Marquis Goins (28-435-5) and tight end Ny’Zyr Battle (5 TDs) so they still have weapons to compensate for the loss of Love.

The defense also will have a host of returners, led by linebacker Dante Mortellite and defensive lineman Kurtis Mayer (7 TFL) but they do graduate leading tackler Matthias Payton and defensive back Antonio Sarama, who had four interceptions. Manchester has never had back-to-back winning seasons in program history, so that’s the next milestone they look to reach next year while making a push for a rare playoff berth. A lot of that may come down to whether they remain in this division or get realigned into a higher division.

Jackson Liberty (2-8)

The Lions started off 2-2 before dropping their last six games for a frustrating finish. The Achilles heel was the offense, which averaged 7.3 points during their losing streak, including two games where the defense held the opponent to eight points or less.

Jackson Liberty has had one winning season in its 16-year history and that was in 2012, but this division gives them a chance to get moving back in that direction. They bring back quarterback Mason Ciccariello, tight end/linebacker Corzeek Palms and multiple starters up front on both sides of the ball, but they graduate top running back Joe Accordino and wideout Will Bradley. The hope is that another year of experience for a young group on offense will translate to more wins in 2024.

Lakewood (4-7)

It’s been back-to-back four-win seasons for the Piners as they battle serious depth issues and continue to remain competitive. While they are still searching for their first winning season since 2017, it was a record-setting year for junior quarterback Rahmel Anderson. He led the Shore Conference in rushing with a school-record 2,182 yards on a workhorse 309 carries (7.1 ypc) to go with 23 touchdowns, plus 681 yards and 6 touchdowns passing.

Having him back instantly makes Lakewood an offensive threat next season, and the offensive and defensive lines return multiple starters to bolster them up front. They do lose All-Division wideout Zahmier Anderson, defensive back Anthony Tucker and lineman Amir Enoch. The Piners ended the season with two straight wins, so that’s something to build on for next year with Anderson back in the fold. The main area that needs to improve is the defense, which can be a struggle at Lakewood with so many guys playing both sides of the ball.

Keansburg (4-6)

The Titans nearly made it two winning seasons out of the last three in coming up just short. They only won one divisional game but picked up three nonconference wins, which was an important positive given that they had so much inexperience after graduating 19 seniors from the 2022 team.

They graduate the majority of their offensive and defensive lines, but many of their skill players will be back, led by junior dual threat quarterback James Valle, running back Zion Cooper and wideouts Preston Smith, A’son Young and Jahzier Wynn. Many of them play on both sides of the ball, and kicker Kevin Perez also returns after a strong year. They have enough back next year to make a move up in the standings and possibly challenge for a state playoff berth.

Point Beach (2-9)

The Garnet Gulls persevered through an 0-8 start to win two of their last three games. They picked up their lone divisional victory by taking an 8-6 slugfest over Jackson Liberty to get in the win column. They also routed South River by scoring 41 points after not having scored more than 14 in any game all season. Then they ended the year by losing 46-29 to Highland Park, which snapped a 51-game losing streak with the victory, so it was a rollercoaster finish for Ocean County’s smallest public school. It was basically a rebuilding year considering they only had three starters back on offense.

While they graduate quarterback Thomas Wagner, they bring back junior running back Liam Brosnan, who rolled up 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns at fullback in the Wing-T offense and also had 51 tackles at linebacker. They also return wingback Ryan Scannell and top wideouts Danny Cavanaugh and Elijah Ives, so the returners are there for the offense to make a jump forward. Of course at a small Group I school, all of them also play on defense, where Scannell had a team-high 85 tackles, so the hope is a year of experience pays dividends on that side as well.

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