Taking The Next Step: 2018 Toms River East Football Preview
In any rebuilding process the journey to return to winning ways takes time, and as long as progress is being made you know things are working. This year things are looking up for Toms River East under third-year head coach Kyle Sandberg.
This Raiders team had endured over a year plus of losing, including not winning a division game in four years, before conquering the demons on Friday, September 22, 2017 when they took advantage of some turnovers and good field position in a 16-8 win over Southern Regional at Vincent J. Dvorak Field, the first victory under Sandberg as coach.
"It was a cool moment," Sandberg said. "It was a nice feeling for the seniors that had been through those struggles the whole time, for the East community, for our coaching staff. It was a really amazing moment and I'm glad it finally happened."
A win over Manchester the following week capped the total for the season, but they were a team that could have won four to five games last year that turned the other way with two overtime losses, (Central and Marlboro) and a crushing loss to Toms River South in week two.
"My goal last year was to tell these guys to be competitive, if we're competitive in every single game, anything could happen," Sandberg said. "We had a lot of close games (in 2017) and we were in a lot of them."
Sandberg is now looking to use the positives from 2017, those games they were close in, to boost the Raiders to the next level this season and make some noise in the Shore Conference.
He says it's up to the seniors to be the workhorses and show the younger players what that winning felt like in 2017.
"I think those two wins last year changed the culture around here," said senior two-way lineman Liam Meakem. "The returning guys know what it's like to win and are teaching the younger guys what it's like. That older class last year really helped us out and taught us how to do it and now we're passing it down."
Much of the team this season is made up of sophomore's and junior's after 25 seniors graduated last year.
"It's rough losing all those seniors, we lost a lot of players last year," said junior fullback/linebacker Frank Giannetti. "A lot of the younger kids though are really picking it up this year and filling up the roles. I think the team is pretty intense this year and we have a pretty good chance of getting some wins."
A coaching staff comprised mainly of people with Toms River ties will also be crucial.
"A lot of the people that I have here are either East graduates or they've been in town for years," Sandberg said. "I also think a lot of things we do in the building, what (principal) Pat Thomas is doing in the building and what we're doing here on the field is trying to build a community and a football family."
As a result he says they're starting to see students come out for the team who didn't play football last year or years before that, including two players who were on the basketball team last school year, Matt Santos (Jr. WR/LB) and Riley Engelhard (Jr. WR), and Joey Ussery (So. WR/CB), who played baseball at East.
"I'm trying to get the most out of the athletes at Toms River East, and the three-sport athletes to play football," Sandberg said.
There is a message he is relaying to both the newcomers and the returning players that expands on what was expressed to them in training camp heading into last season: be competitive.
"This year, it's now, finish it, finish the deal, finish the games, win the games," Sandberg said. "We've got to build off of what we did last year. As cool as it was to be in those games, the ultimate goal is to win them. We're not satisfied unless we win."
To better help the Raiders prepare for Friday night's in the fall, Sandberg says they're creating that game atmosphere in practice.
"Our practices are set up where it feels like a game atmosphere with the chains out and the crowd and the music going. We're trying to do things in practice that make the kids feel comfortable when it comes to the game," Sandberg said. "Practices should be hard, the games should be easy."
As they head towards the regular season Sandberg is impressed with the youth movement on this Raiders team with much of them comprised of sophomores and juniors you'll see routinely on the field this year.
"Mike Madera has had a hell of a training camp, he's a sophomore who's been doing well at cornerback and running back," Sandberg said. "In our junior class, it's players like Frankie Giannetti (FB/LB) and Anthony Kontogiannis (FB/LB). At quarterback, we're having a battle between Mike Goodall (Jr.) and Nick Totten (So.)."
"That sophomore class that's coming in is really strong," said senior offensive lineman and linebacker Steven Carr. "They're fighting everyday for their positions just like we are."
Carr is one of the seniors who will need to help lead this young Raiders team to become a mainstay in win column.
The division realignments in the offseason take a couple familiar teams off the 2018 Raiders schedule and replace them with a couple Monmouth County powerhouses in Long Branch and Red Bank Catholic to name just two teams inside the Freedom Division.
Sandberg's approach to the 2018 season isn't changing because of the new teams they'll be playing.
"When the schedule came out everyone was like 'oh my God what are you going to do'? and my attitude was 'we're going to play and try to win'," Sandberg said. "You can't be scared, they're going to give it their best effort. I'm not worried about who we play."
As for his goals and expectations for the 2018 Raiders, it relies on how well they play.
"This team can go pretty far I think," Sandberg said. "The senior class is going to be a big part as are the O-line and D-line but looking at our schedule, there's a lot of games we could win and a lot of games we should be in and win. This team is capable of a lot of things and I think a lot of people are going to be shocked to see what we can do."
There's also plenty of young depth on this team that could make the Raiders a sleeper team in 2018.
"Alex Smith is a kid who's been having a great camp at the running back position and he's doing fantastic," Sandberg said. "Tommy Grande is coming back and is someone I want to see do well and Vinnie Farullo is a safety who didn't play a lot last year but he's hungry."
The depth chart is still being worked on and Sandberg's philosophy of earning it still holds as none of the returning starters are guaranteed that position in 2018, so there may be new starters as the Raiders make a push towards the postseason.
It's a philosophy echoed by his seniors and relayed to their younger teammates.
"The message I try and give to everyone is 'leave it all out on the field, try your hardest 120 percent every single day and fight for your job because at any moment in time you could lose that job," Carr said.
At a Glance
Head Coach: Kyle Sandberg, third season.
Career Record: 2-17.
2017 Record: 2-8 (1-6).
Coaching staff: Matt Madeo (RB); Tim Gilmartin (OL); Vinnie Arminio (WR); Frank Giannetti (DL); Kevin Kanarkowski; Joe Arminio Jr. (freshmen head coach); Eddie Goodman, Jake McCartney (athletic trainer).
Base Offense: Two-back pistol
Base Defense: 3-4
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Liam Meakem, Sr., C/DE
Toms River East lost 25 players to graduation in 2017, including four-year varsity player Tommy Ferrante who was one of their most dynamic players on both sides of the ball. One of the players Sandberg is turning toward to be that leader the team can rely on is senior Liam Meakem.
X-FACTOR: The offensive and defensive lines
In order to have an effective running game, especially in a two-back pistol set, you need to have a good line in front of you. In order to win games you also need a good defensive line to rush the passer and limit the gains from the line of scrimmage. Sandberg says the X-Factor for this team to do well falls on the senior-led line group. "We will go as far as our line takes us," Sandberg said.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Mike Madera, So., RB/CB
The Raiders lost two of their big running backs to graduation in Tommy Ferrante and Evan Otten and Sandberg is looking to his younger players to fill that void. Among those players is sophomore Mike Madera, a running back who Sandberg says has really impressed the coaches in training camp.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 21 at Toms River South
If the Raiders are to contend for a playoff bid they'll need to take care of business in rival territory against the Indians, who are also looking to improve in 2018. Opening up at Long Branch and then playing Ocean in Week 2 sets up a scenario for the Raiders to swipe a win in week three no matter their record before hosting Red Bank Catholic the following week.
Vin Ebenau is a Shore Sports Network Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter @VinEbenau. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.