The Brave Way: 2021 Manalapan High School Football Preview
Losing seasons have been an extremely rare occurrence at Manalapan over the last two decades. Heading into last season, the Braves had put together 18 consecutive seasons at .500 or better, including six seasons with double-digit victories.
It’s safe to say their 2020 record of 2-4 did not sit well with anyone in the program.
Dom Lepore was thrilled to take over as Manalapan’s head coach last season after some great seasons as a defensive coordinator for the Braves and at Neptune before that. But things started off on the wrong foot with a pair of tough losses before COVID struck and forced the cancellation of two games. The Braves ended up being 0-4 entering the middle of November before two blowout victories to close the season.
A rough season ended on a high note with Manalapan playing like the Manalapan teams we’ve grown accustomed to. Now, with 15 total starters back, the Braves are ready to get back to their usual spot as a top-10 team in the Shore and a state championship contender.
Manalapan’s multiple offense is experienced in all areas with eight starters returning from a unit that averaged 22.2 points per game last season. Senior Mike Heckel (6-foot-2, 180) is the Braves’ starting quarterback with senior EJ Marquez back as the starting running back. The receivers also have a pair of returning starters among them with senior three-year starter and speedster Paul Wojciechowski leading the way. Senior Tyler Walker (6-foot-2, 175) is also a returning starter and senior Mike Bimonte (6-foot-3, 180) joins the group.
Manalapan usually has one of the best offensive lines in the Shore Conference and this year could produce more of the same. Four starters are back up front with senior right tackle Mario Chierchia (6-foot, 220), a second-team All-Division selection last season, anchoring the unit. Senior Corey Holowach (6-foot-1, 220) is the left tackle, junior Julian Santo (5-foot-11, 235) is the center, and junior Jack Boyle (6-foot, 200) is the right guard. Senior Andrew Roginski steps in as the left guard. The Braves also have junior Preston Birnie (6-foot, 200) and sophomore Joseph Melo (6-foot-3, 200) as tight ends.
The Braves’ defense was tied for seventh in the Shore last season allowing just 13.5 points per game and returns seven starters.
Chierchia and junior Artem Renikov-Jouk are returning starters at defensive end in the team’s 3-4 alignment while Santo steps in as the nose tackle. The linebacking corps has three returning starters with seniors Jordan Gravesande and Jonathan Gelb as the inside linebackers and Marquez as one of the outside linebackers. Bimonte will step in as a starter at the other outside linebacker spot.
In the secondary, Walker and junior Thomas Clark are both returning starters at cornerback with Wojciechowski and junior Darius Colleton backing them up. The strong safeties are seniors Matt Pirozzi and Josh Debner and the free safeties are senior Anthony Conti and junior Alex Dille.
Manalapan will compete in what should be a highly competitive Colonial Division with Holmdel, Jackson Memorial, Middletown South, and Southern. The Braves also have games with St. John Vianney and Freehold. The schedule is challenging but fair, and if the Braves are back to their old ways they have as good a shot as anybody to end the season at the top.
At a Glance
Projected starters (RS=returning starter, 3RS=3rd-year returning starter)
Returning starters: 8
QB: Mike Heckel, Sr., RS
RB: EJ Marquez, Sr., RS
WR: Paul Wojciechowski, Sr., 3RS; Tyler Walker, Sr., RS; Mike Bimonte, Sr.
TE: Preston Birnie, Jr.; Joseph Melo, So.
LT: Corey Holowach, Sr., RS
LG: Andrew Roginski, Sr.
C: Julian Santo, Jr., RS
RG: Jack Boyle, Jr., RS
RT: Mario Chierchia, Sr., RS
Returning starters: 7
DE: Mario Chierchia, Sr., RS
NT: Julian Santo, Jr.
DE: Artem Renikov-Jouk, Jr., RS
OLB: EJ Marquez, Sr., RS
ILB: Jordan Gravesande, Sr., RS
ILB: Jonathan Gelb, Sr., RS
OLB: Mike Bimonte, Sr.
CB: Thomas Clark, Jr., RS; Paul Wojciechowski, Sr.
CB: Tyler Walker, Sr., RS; Darius Colleton, Jr.
SS: Matt Pirozzi, Sr.; Josh Debner, Sr.
FS: Anthony Conti, Sr.; Alex Dille, Jr.
K: Michael Calton, Jr.
P: Michael Calton, Jr.
Head coach: Dom Lepore, 2nd season (12th overall)
Career record: 2-4 (38-68 overall)
Team record last five years:
Assistant coaches: Cody High (Offensive Coordinator/WR/DB); Bill Smith Jr. (OL); Jon Harrison (Special Teams Coordinator/ILB/TE); Lou Profera (RB/DB); Dan Anerella (QB); Mike Caggiano (K/P); David Calderon (DL); Jesse Shenker (DB); FRESHMEN: Andrew Jones, Bryan Doel, Reggie Grant Sr., Pete DiCataldo, Anthony Mucciolo; Shannon Tomasula (Athletic Trainer).
Player to Watch: EJ Marquez, Sr., RB/LB
Manalapan has a long history of All-Shore running backs and Marquez is looking to be the next in that lineage. He’ll also return as a starter at linebacker.
Player Under the Radar: Mario Chierchia, Sr., OL/DL
A second-team all-division selection last season, Chierchia is a two-way, two-year starter who will be a crucial component for Manalapan’s to win at the point of attack.
Impact Newcomer: Michael Calton, Jr., K/P
Year after year, Manalapan has a kicker who is among the very best in the Shore. After graduating two-time first-team All-Shore kicker/punter Vincenzo Rea, Calton will look to be the next standout special teams ace for the Braves. It helps having the best in program history, former FBS kicker Mike Caggiano, on staff as his coach.
Top Position Group: Offensive Line
Manalapan usually has one of the best offensive lines in the Shore Conference and this year’s version has four of five starters returning.
Big Shoes to Fill: Matt Pirozzi, Sr., SS
Anthony Matrone was a do-it-all player for the Braves during his career and was especially effective on defense as a Shore Sports Network second-team All-Shore selection at defensive back. Pirozzi steps into the strong safety spot that Matrone played so well last season.
X-Factor: Staying Healthy
This is true for every team, but the Braves really believe they have the talent and experience to contend for championships once again. If they perform up to par and can avoid any long-term injuries they should be in the thick of it right to the end.
Thursday, Sept. 2 – vs. St. John Vianney, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 17 – vs. Holmdel, 7 p.m.
Friday, 9/24 – vs. Middletown South, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 1 – at Southern, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 8 – at Jackson Memorial, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 16 – at Freehold, 12 p.m.