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When Dan Curcione first arrived in Toms River as Donovan Catholic’s new head coach in 2017, his first order of business was to pull the Griffins out from the basement of the Shore Conference. Check.

Next was to forge an identity and culture that would put Donovan in position to contend for championships. That happened shortly after when the Griffins won seven games in 2018, went 9-2 and won a division title in 2019, and reached the (unofficial) Shore Conference title game during the shortened 2020 season.

The Griffins went from winless to one of the best teams in the Shore Conference in a hurry and are now firmly entrenched as a top-five team in the Shore and an annual contender for the American Division championship. The next step is to finish No. 1 in the Shore and push deep into the NJSIAA playoffs. Those are lofty goals that will be the most difficult to achieve, but that is the position the program has strived to be in. Most importantly, they have the personnel and coaching staff to get it done.

A total of 20 starters return from a team that finished just 6-4 last season but ended the year ranked No. 4 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and reached the quarterfinals of the Non-Public A state playoffs where they lost to eventual state No. 1 Bergen Catholic. It should be noted that Donovan’s losses came to four of New Jersey’s best; Red Bank Catholic, St. Joseph (Montvale), Middletown South, and Bergen Catholic. The Griffins blanked Group 2 finalist Rumson-Fair Haven, 21-0, and scored decisive victories over playoff teams Lacey, Manalapan, and Jackson Memorial among their six victories.

A former standout linebacker at Brick Memorial and the University of Buffalo, Curcione built his reputation as one of the Shore’s top defensive coaches before taking his first head-coaching job at Wall where he led the Crimson Knights to a sectional championship prior to coming to Donovan. He is the architect of a Donovan defense that has been among the Shore’s best in recent years, including last season when it finished eighth in the Shore allowing 14.6 points per game.

Eight starters return in the Griffins’ 3-4 alignment with standouts up and down the lineup. Leading the way is senior defensive end Zaeir Day (6-2, 250), a returning SSN First Team All-Shore selection who recorded 101 tackles, 3 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries. He is one of a whopping 10 players who either started or were key rotational pieces on defense last season. Senior Sam Rock III (6-2, 245) is the other defensive end off a season where he had 69 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss. The nose tackle is 6-foot-1, 255-pound junior Lou “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase (look it up).

The four-man linebacker unit will have to replace All-Shore standout Dante Vernieri, who was the Shore’s leading tackler last season, but has experience at all four positions. The inside linebackers are senior JJ Correa, a three-year starter, and junior Joe Czerwinski. The outside linebackers are senior Hunter Johnson, also a three-year starter, and senior Roman Moyers. Johnson had 85 tackles, 3 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss last season while Moyers posted 70 tackles and Correa made 53 stops.

The secondary has three starters returning with All-Shore wideout Michael Thomas III (6-1, 190) at cornerback, sophomore Emanuel Gerena at strong safety, and senior Najee Morgan at free safety. Junior Isaac Correa steps in as the other cornerback.

On paper, it’s a unit that should once again be among the Shore’s very best defenses.

Donovan Catholic’s offense was 18th in the Shore averaging 21.4 points per game last season but has some electric talent returning in its power spread scheme.

Thomas III is a high-level FBS recruit with offers from the likes of Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin and is coming off a season in which he earned First Team All-Shore honors with 43 receptions for 544 yards and four touchdowns. Gerena also returns as a starting wide receiver.

The tight ends are Johnson and Day, both of whom bring dual-threat ability as punishing blockers and options in the passing game. Each had two touchdown catches last season and Day tied for second on the team in receptions with Gerena.

Najee Calhoun had a very impressive freshman season, rushing for 942 yards and 13 touchdowns on an average of 6.2 yards per carry against a very challenging schedule. There’s a good chance he breaks into the upper echelon of Shore Conference running backs this season, which would obviously help take Donovan’s offense to another level.

Senior Todd Lambertson (6-2, 195) returns as the starting quarterback with sophomore Zach LaBarca pushing for playing time. Lambertson threw for 1,232 yards and 12 touchdowns last season to finish ninth in the Shore in passing yards.

The Griffins have fielded some of the Shore’s best offensive lines recently and this season’s group has the look of another strong fivesome. Senior left tackle Adam Yevchak (6-4, 305) was a Second Team All-Shore selection last season and is committed to Fordham University. Senior Chris Poskay (6-1, 270) returns and is the center, DiBiase is back as the right guard, and sophomore Kai Pritchard (6-4, 275) returns as the right tackle. Stepping into a starting role is 6-foot-3, 280-pound junior James Aldrich at left guard.

On special teams, senior Dante Priolo returns as the kicker and Calhoun returns as the punter. Priolo converted 24 of 30 extra points last season.

Another brutal schedule awaits the Griffins in 2023 with the American Division gauntlet of Toms River North, Red Bank Catholic, Middletown South, Rumson-Fair Haven, and Wall. There are also nondivisional games vs. Long Branch and Red Bank Regional and nonconference games vs. St. Augustine and St. Joseph (Montvale). A schedule like this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, but the Griffins’ have enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the Shore Conference and aim to play the best teams available.

We already know the Griffins will be very good. The question is whether they can be great. The opponents in front of them guarantee the answer will be clear in three months.

 

At a Glance

Head coach: Dan Curcione, 7th season (10th overall)

Career record: 59-29 (42-16 at Donovan)

2022 record: 6-4

Offense: Power spread

Defense: 3-4

Coaching staff: Chip LaBarca Jr. (Offensive Coordinator/Assistant Head Coach); Jack Nascimento (QB); Dean Helstowski Jr. (RB/DB); Ryan Wells (LB); Jack Cluley (WR); Ron Mammano (OL); Charlie Dowling (OL/Freshmen); Vinnie DeStasio (WR/Freshmen); Tim Nascimento (LB); Bob Coates (Director of Football Operations); Sean McIntosh (Quality Control/Media Relations); Mark Deppen (Head Strength Coach); Paxton Titus (Assistant Strength Coach); Bob DiStefano (Athletic Trainer).

 

Circle the Date: Week 3 – Friday, Sept. 15 vs. Toms River North

The Griffins and Mariners are rivals by proximity and are now division rivals after Toms River North moved back into the American Division this season. This is a heated rivalry that presents a chance for the Griffins to make a statement against the defending Group 5 champions and reigning No. 1 team in the Shore.

 

Player to Watch: Michael Thomas III, Jr., WR/DB

Donovan has several players who could be listed here but we’ll go with Thomas, an FBS recruit at wide receiver who had an excellent sophomore season and is entering his third year as a starter.

 

Breakout Candidate: Najee Calhoun, So., RB

Calhoun isn’t exactly a secret after rushing for 942 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman, but considering he accomplished all that as a ninth-grader it will be exciting to see what he can do this year and beyond.

 

Impact Newcomers: James Aldrich, Jr., LG & Isaac Correa, Jr., CB

The Griffins are loaded with returning starters so there aren’t many newcomers who will start. Aldrich is 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds and will slide in at left guard. Correa, whose older brother JJ is a three-year starter, will get a shot to start in the secondary at cornerback.

 

Big Shoes to Fill: The linebackers

Even though four players return who either started or played regularly, replacing some of the production of Dante Vernieri will be important. He made 174 tackles last season to lead the Shore and earn First Team All-Shore recognition.

 

Did you Know?

Donovan Catholic has posted a winning record for five straight seasons, which is the longest such streak in program history.

 

 

SCHEDULE

DateTeamTime
Friday 8/25St. Augustine6:30pm
Friday 9/1Long Branch6:30pm
Friday 9/15Toms River North6:30pm
Friday 9/22@Wall7pm
Saturday 9/30@St. Joseph (Montvale)1pm
Friday 10/6Rumson-Fair Haven6:30pm
Friday 10/13@Red Bank7pm
Friday 10/20@Middletown South7pm
Friday 10/27@Red Bank Catholic7pm

 

 

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