With scrimmages now underway and the regular season starting for more than half the Shore Conference next weekend, the long wait for the return of Shore football is over.

The conference returns some of the most electrifying players in New Jersey, a defending NJSIAA Group champion, and a host of teams looking to make their presence felt statewide this season.

Week Zero has essentially become Week One with 27 Shore teams scheduled to kick off their seasons in eight days, so time is of the essence with the compressed preseason for dozens of squads.

Let’s take a look at some of the storylines heading into this fall.

Can Toms River North do it again despite a much tougher schedule?  

The Mariners became the first Shore Conference team to ever finish 14-0 after winning the Group 5 title last season in the first year of the expanded NJSIAA playoffs that (thankfully!) now play all the way to a Group champion.

While they lost some Shore Sports Network All-Shore selections to graduation, the big names return. And there is no bigger name than senior quarterback Micah Ford (below), a Stanford recruit.

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He became the first player in Shore Conference history to win Gatorade New Jersey Player of the Year honors last year, and he did it as a junior thanks to some straight-up PlayStation stats. He ran for 2,360 yards and 33 touchdowns on 10 yards per carry and threw for 1,203 and 17 touchdowns. You let him burst through a gap at the line and he’s gone. Plus, he’s a 65% percent passer who only threw two picks last year despite being known as an explosive runner.

The frightening part for opposing teams is that you can’t sell out to stop Ford. Tareq Council and Jeremiah Pruitt also return as two FBS-caliber weapons who can score from anywhere on the field. Up front, they return Jaelyn Matthews, a Penn State commit and one of the top offensive line recruits in the Northeast. In the backfield, they bring back Josh Moore, who was one of the Shore’s top running backs despite dealing with injuries last year. They also return standouts Justin Kaye and Hathem Hooranyi on the line, which was a crucial key to their success last year.

Simply put, this is one of the most explosive offensive teams in the state. The big change this year is the schedule. The Mariners bulldozed the Colonial Division last year, with most of the games decided by halftime. This year they make the move to the Shore Conference’s SEC, the American Division, where every game is a dogfight every week against another Top 10 Shore team.

They also open with a doozy, playing defending Group 4 champion Millville in a showdown of powerhouses as part of a showcase down in Ocean City next weekend. The Mariners already cemented themselves as a tremendous team last year, but if they can duplicate that feat against this schedule and repeat as Group 5 champions, you’re talking one of the pantheon teams in Shore Conference history.

Will Red Bank Catholic reclaim its place at No. 1?

The debate raged for much of the season last year between Toms River North and RBC when it came to the No. 1 ranking in the Shore. The Mariners left no doubt by the end, while the Caseys suffered a pair of losses to nonconference parochial powers in finishing 10-2. The two teams did not face each other because they were in different divisions.

It will get settled on the field this year now that Toms River North has moved into the power-packed American Division. Circle the calendar for Oct. 20 in Toms River North, when the Caseys head to face the Mariners. RBC is the defending division champion, and it will have a bunch of big tests before Toms River North in defending South Jersey Group 2 champ Rumson-Fair Haven, Seton Hall Prep and Central Jersey Group 4 finalist Middletown South.

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Some of the state’s best talent will be on display in that TRN-RBC game. RBC boasts Micah Ford’s future Stanford teammate, explosive wide receiver Emanuel Ross, as well as dual threat quarterback Frankie Williams, Pittsburgh recruit Davin Brewton (above) at linebacker, and scholarship linemen Tyler Burnham and Lorenzo Portella.

They should have one of the most shutdown defenses in the Shore with Logan Graham returning on the D-line, Luke Wassef at linebacker and more talent coming up.

The main question is whether they will be able to generate enough points against fellow elite programs. In their two losses last year, they were shut out 17-0 by Seton Hall Prep and lost 19-17 to DePaul in the Non-Public B championship game.

Wassef and junior James Gutridge look to be the main candidates to replace graduated All-Shore star Sabino Portella at running back. Williams is now in his second year as a starter, so more will be on his shoulders as a playmaker, and they will need more weapons to emerge in the passing game so teams can’t bracket Ross with a host of defenders the whole game.

The Caseys are also testing themselves by playing the best of the best before they enter Shore Conference play. They scrimmaged Don Bosco Prep to a scoreless stalemate on Wednesday, and they open with perennial juggernaut Bergen Catholic, which finished No. 1 in the state last year after winning the Non-Public A title. That game will give a glimpse into whether the Caseys can put up points on an elite defensive unit.

Can Marlboro continue its momentum?

The Mustangs were one of the feel-good stories of the Shore last season when they won their first state playoff game since 1994 by stunning Washington Township on their way to finishing 6-4.

Marlboro persevered despite a season-ending injury to starting quarterback A.J. Schwartz and multiple other injuries to key players.

For an encore, they will try to do something that has never been done at a program that began in 1968: three straight winning seasons. Last year marked the first time since 1993-94 that Marlboro has had consecutive winning campaigns, so this will be a test of whether they are building something to last after two strong seasons.

Senior running back/linebacker Matt Cassidy is back after earning SSN first-team All-Shore honors last season and will be a focal point of the offense and a leader on defense along with senior linebacker Anthony Tropeano. Senior Brayden Klein is also back after being thrown into the fire at quarterback last year when Schwartz went down, so he has plenty of big-game experience. The offense struggled down the stretch last year due to all the injuries and inexperience, but should be solid if everyone can stay healthy this fall.

They graduated a talented senior class that was crucial to their rise the last two years, so this season is a true test of their program depth. And there’s no gimmes, either, as every team on their schedule won at least four games last season, and they picked up perennial power Rumson-Fair Haven outside the division.

Is Matawan ready to return to its spot among the Shore’s best?

It used to be that you would just pencil in the Huskies as a Top 10 team in the Shore without much thought, but they spent some years trying to regroup before emerging with a young and exciting team that won a division title last season. The biggest struggle in recent years has been keeping their homegrown talent from popping up on the rosters of various non-public programs, but they appear to have a core group who can help them take the next step back into the spotlight.

The only teams that beat them last year were South Jersey Group 2 finalist Raritan, South Jersey Group 4 finalist Middletown South and Group 3 finalist Hopewell Valley. The schedule makers noticed their improvement, bumping them up to the Independence Division, but they look to still be right at the front of the division title favorites.

All that young talent returns for what on paper should be one of the Shore���s most fun offenses under head coach Jay Graber. Junior dual threat quarterback Am’ir Martinez returns as the starter and has junior Colin Palumbo, a 1,000-yard rusher last year, in the backfield.

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Sophomore wide receiver/cornerback Welman Crooms already boasts offers from Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Virginia Tech, while 6-foot-8, 290-pound junior Jayden Elijah (above) has numerous Power 5 offers as well. Elijah is athletic and moves well for his size, as he showed in earning SSN All-Division honors this past winter on the basketball court.

They obviously have playmakers, but much of their success will hinge on the offensive and defensive lines, which took some graduation losses. Leading tackler Morgan Blake Gagneron, a junior, is back on defense along with senior safety Cameron Cooper.

The Huskies face defending South Jersey Group 2 champs Rumson-Fair Haven on the road on Sept. 1, so we’ll find out quickly if they’re ready to barrel their way back into being a Top 5 team in the Shore.

Is a more experienced Donovan Catholic team ready to surge to the top?

The constant discussion of the Griffins last year was that they were a season away while playing some star underclassmen against a rugged schedule.

Well, that “year away” is here, so Donovan is ready to try to break through in the brutal American Division. Junior Michael Thomas III, one of the top wide receiver recruits in the state, is back along with sophomore wideout Emanuel Gerena and sophomore Najee Calhoun, who ran for nearly 1,000 yards as a freshman. Senior Adam Yevchak leads the offensive line. Defensive end Zaeir Day returns off a first-team All-Shore season to anchor the defense.

Donovan has arguably the most daunting schedule in the Shore, as the Griffins will play St. Augustine, St. Joe’s-Montvale and Long Branch on top of their American Division slate. Their clash with Toms River North on Sept. 15 should be a good one, as the two teams are right down the road from each other and compete for local talent.

It’s not just the Mariners and RBC that are in their way in the division, either. Don’t forget that Middletown South also beat Donovan last year, and the Eagles return do-it-all senior Jake Czwakiel, reigning SSN Defensive Player of the Year Colin Gallagher and a host of other experience.

Similar to RBC, the main question for the Griffins will be whether they can generate enough offense to break through against the top teams on their schedule and hang with the powerhouses in Non-Public A.

Much of that will hinge on senior quarterback Todd Lambertson, who is in his second season after throwing for 1,200 yards last year. Sophomore Zach LaBarca, the son of offensive coordinator Chip LaBarca Jr., is also pushing for snaps at QB. The running game sets the tone for this team, but the schedule is too tough to tackle without more balance offensively.

Can Rumson-Fair Haven keep its bonkers state playoff streak going?

The Bulldogs are in the midst of the greatest run in Shore Conference history when it comes to the state playoffs. They have played in nine (!) straight sectional finals and have won seven sectional titles since 2010.

Their latest masterpiece came last year when they rallied for a 34-27 double overtime win on the road to beat Raritan and win the South Jersey Group 2 title. They rode that wave to the inaugural Group 2 final, where they came up just short against undefeated Caldwell.

There appears to be no signs of the streak stopping, as the conveyor belt of talent continues to roll out new models every year behind a veteran coaching staff.

Robert Badders
Rumson-Fair Haven returns the Shore's leading passer in junior Owen O'Toole. (Photo by Robert Badders)

Junior Owen O’Toole returns after leading the Shore with 2,161 yards passing to go with 25 touchdowns. O’Toole was the catalyst in the comeback against Raritan, as the Bulldogs had to go to an all-out passing assault while trailing by double digits. He showed accuracy in the quick game and in going deep over the top, as well as incredible poise for a sophomore on the road in a state championship game.

Senior Nick Rigby returns as one of the most productive wideouts in the Shore and senior Alastair Orr is back after leading the team in rushing last year. They will play behind a burly offensive line that includes a pair of 300-pounders.

Defensive Player of the Year candidate Cooper Bunnell returns to anchor the D-line, and linebacker Reed Elsas is back off a 101-tackle season as a junior.

While Rumson has been a heavyweight in the Group 2 playoffs, the Bulldogs can really make a splash by making headway in the American Division, where they finished in fourth place last season. Making it even more difficult is that No. 1 Toms River North has joined the group this year, but Rumson has seen the Mariners firsthand after playing them last season.

The Bulldogs’ defense allowed an average of 37 points in their four losses last year, so that is the area where a marked improvement could push them into the upper echelon of the division. O’Toole’s maturation could also make the offense even more potent to keep up in any potential shootouts with top opponents.

Enough about the American Division. Who are some top players to watch in the rest of the Shore?

There are 46 players returning who earned either first-, second- or third-team All-Shore honors from SSN last year, and only 21 of them came from the six other divisions combined outside the American Division.

Only three returning non-American Division players earned first-team All-Shore honors, and they are a trio who will be huge parts of their respective teams this year.

Point Boro fullback Jake Croce averaged 9.6 yards per carry for one of the top scoring offenses in the Shore. He forms a potent 1-2 with another returning star, senior quarterback Matt Oliphant, for a team looking to finish the job after coming up short in the playoffs last year. Offensive lineman Charles Davison is another returner for the Panthers who earned SSN third-team All-Shore honors last year.

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We talked about Matt Cassidy and Marlboro above, and Brick Memorial senior Connor Dietz (above) is the other first-teamer returning. He has already rewritten the Brick Memorial record books after back-to-back prolific seasons, including an eye-opening 3,968 total yards and 36 total touchdowns last year.

He is now looking for team success to go with his impressive numbers, as the Mustangs try to shore up a defense that had them on the wrong end of multiple shootouts in finishing 6-5 last year. Brick Memorial also will have speedy junior Kevin Andrews, a rushing-receiving threat who earned SSN third-team All-Shore honors last season, back in the fold.

Colts Neck senior Chris Scully, a second-team All-Shore pick a year ago, should be right there again among the Shore’s leading rushers this year as the centerpiece of the Cougars’ run-heavy attack. Third-team All-Shore pick Charlie Whalen returns to anchor Colts Neck’s offensive line.

Two small-school talents to mention are Shore Regional defensive end Jackson Whitacre and Keyport running back Naz Treadwell. Whitacre is one of the best edge rushers in the Shore and is committed to Delaware, while Treadwell is headed to Holy Cross after averaging 8.9 yards per carry last season. Treadwell’s teammate, senior safety Mike Ford, is also back after leading the Shore Conference with nine interceptions last year.

Is Red Bank ready to take the next step?

Things appear to be operating right on schedule in head coach Shane Fallon’s building effort at Red Bank Regional, which won 4 games in his first season and then jumped to 7-4 last season while just missing out on a playoff berth.

Harvard recruit Griffin Egan, a second-team All-Shore pick last year, returns to lead a group of experienced linemen on both sides of the ball, which is always a key building block. Senior Jah’Cire Jones could be poised for a breakout season after rushing for 697 yards last season, and senior Gunnar Eckerstrom returns as another weapon in the backfield for a team that has to replace its quarterback.

The Bucs’ improvement also means they got realigned into the Colonial Division. The newly configured division features two teams (Pt. Boro and Colts Neck) that won division titles last season, a Raritan team that reached a sectional final, a Manalapan team that competed in the ruthless American Division, and the Bucs’ longtime Thanksgiving rival, Long Branch, which reached the sectional semifinals last season.

If Red Bank can get back to 7 wins or surpass that against a schedule that includes a nondivisional game against Donovan Catholic, the Shore Conference will certainly take notice.

Which quarterbacks will make the leap?

It’s always interesting to try to figure out which quarterbacks will go from “showed some flashes in their first year” to “bona fide star” in their second year.

Two candidates are Long Branch’s Earnest Reevey and Middletown North’s Luke Sheehan.

Reevey threw for 1,624 yards and 15 touchdowns in his debut for the Green Wave. He came on strong down the stretch and will need to elevate his game against a schedule in which eight of Long Branch’s nine opponents were playoff teams last year.

Sheehan returns after throwing for 1,188 yards and 8 touchdowns in his first season at the helm for the Lions. Middletown North finished near the bottom of the Shore in scoring at 14.4 points per game last year, so Sheehan will look to jumpstart an offensive improvement that will be needed especially after graduating a pair of All-Shore defensive linemen.

Another signal-caller to keep an eye on is Egan Nelms, the Howell senior who saw time rotating in with the now-graduated Jack Gartenstein last season before getting banged up. He threw for nearly 1,000 yards and showed the ability to extend plays. Nelms also returns one of the Shore’s most productive receivers in senior Kevin Maloney.

What teams may surprise some people?

I feel like the reconfiguration of the divisions allows for a lot fewer surprises now that most of the Top 10 teams all face each other in the American Division. Most of the surprises these days come in the state playoffs, mainly by Shore teams knocking off well-regarded nonconference teams (i.e., Marlboro taking down Washington Township last year).

The only surprise in the American Division would be Wall fighting its way out of last place by taking down some heavyweights. But would it really be that surprising that a team coached by Ed Gurrieri, who built a powerhouse at Manalapan, would knock off somebody? Especially when it was only a few years ago that the Crimson Knights were the best team in the Shore?

It would more be in nondivisional games, like if Long Branch took down Donovan Catholic, or Matawan knocked off Rumson-Fair Haven or something like that. Most of the divisions are evenly matched, so it’s hard to be surprised if one team emerges from the scrum.

I think it would raise some eyebrows if Asbury Park or Shore Regional made a run at the Constitution Division title. Those two Group I schools got bumped up this year into a division with bigger schools Manasquan, Holmdel, Ocean, and St. John Vianney.

But Ocean graduated superstar quarterback Tyler Douglas, Manasquan graduated offensive centerpieces Jhamier Howard and Brett Patten, St. John Vianney graduated a host of talent and Holmdel is coming off a 1-8 season, so the opportunity is there. Still, a Group I team with little depth navigating those teams to finish on top would be impressive.

It also would probably be more labeled a surprise due to a team’s history. For instance, Pinelands has only won one division title, and that was back in 1987. The Wildcats should be in the mix in the Liberty Division, but they are coming off a 7-win season so it wouldn’t be that crazy to see it happen. No other team in the division won more than three games last year.

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