Teams talk all the time about facing adversity, about battling a hardship in their way in order to achieve success. Most times, it’s just rhetoric, but for Pinelands to forge ahead this season the team will have to block out a multitude of distractions surrounding them.

Pinelands Regional High School is one big construction zone as crews work on a $53 rehabilitation project that will have the school closed for the 2018-2019 school year. Grades 10 through 12 will move across the street to the junior high school, cramming the building to its limits. The football team has a very limited weight room. The football field is also being renovated, meaning the Wildcats are not scheduled to play a home game in 2018. On top of that, program participation numbers are low.

If the Wildcats are to rebound from a 2-8 season and contend in the new-look Patriot Division they’ll have to focus only on what they can control and push what’s surrounding them out of the picture.

“We have the motto of ‘no bull’,” said Pinelands head coach Matt Fuller. “We’re not going to worry about anything that’s out there. Last year when I took over I stole (University of Minnesota head coach) P.J. Fleck’s ‘Row the Boat’ (motto) and we’ve used it to show we’ll put blinders on and do what we have to do. We’re not going to let not having a field or not having a locker room or weight room and having to travel to Monmouth County for six out of eight games bother us. It’s kind of helped them focus, and with how many guys we have they can only worry about what’s going on (on the field). They can’t let anything else get in the way.”

“What’s going on with the school is (the district’s) problem, not ours, so we just have to put that out of our minds and keep working hard,” said senior quarterback Garrett Brown. “It’s our season, not theirs.”

Photo by Paula Lopez/PAL Images
Pinelands seniors Garrett Brown (18), Evan Burton (40) and Bryan Mendez (51). Photo by Paula Lopez/PAL Images

While the drastic changes to the school itself are obvious once you step foot on campus, another major restructuring is occurring within the Wildcats’ offense. After employing the run-heavy double wing offense for the last four seasons, Pinelands is switching to a spread look out of the pistol for 2018. Wide receivers are back for the first time since 2013 and although the Wildcats will still be a run-first team, they’ll try to take advantage of their athleticism on the outside.

“We have more athletes in the program than we have had in past years, so that’s awesome,” Fuller said. “We have Evan (Burton) as a three-year player, Garrett is a three-year player, three of the five linemen are two-year starters, and that’s great for us.”

Burton gives Pinelands a proven performer in the backfield as he returns for his third year as a starting running back. A Class B South All-Division selection last season, Burton ran for 1,061 yards and 14 touchdowns last season on an average of 6.1 yards per carry. Sophomore, Nik DiLeo, who is also a returning starter, gives the Wildcats a solid combination in the backfield.

“It’s great to be able to rely on (Evan) and even though we’re in the pistol we’re still going to be a 60/40 run team,” Fuller said. “We’re going to put the ball in his hands when it matters but we do have the ability with Nik DiLeo to be able to spell Evan. We’ll have a 1-2 punch back there and try to grind it out as much as possible.”

“We’re still going to be run-oriented but with the spread look it can open up more opportunities to run because teams will have to cover the outside and deep,” Burton said.

The player who will have to make the biggest adjustment offensively is Brown, who will also be entering his third year as a starter. Pinelands averaged about 10 pass attempts per game last season, a decent amount for a team in the double wing. Brown threw for 578 yards and three touchdowns last season and will certainly have more opportunities through the air this season.

“I have to take a lot more responsibility now,” Brown said. “I’m not just handing it off, now I’m reading coverages and looking at all the passing options.”

“Garrett offers confidence,” Fuller said. “He likes to throw the ball and wants to throw the ball. We haven’t thrown much the past two years but he’s been working on his mechanics and how to read a defense on his own so he’s stepped right in and picked up what we’ve asked him to do. We expect him to manage the game, move the ball down the field and don’t turn it over. He knows the right decisions to make and we’re confident in him doing it.”

The tight ends are sophomore Andrew Jenkins and junior Ed Wilkinson, the latter of whom saw time toward the end of the last season. Junior Andrew Bartlett will serve as the H-back.

The all-new wide receiver corps features seniors Tristin Pharo, Bobby LeFevre, and Kevin Cameron along with sophomore Jack Lawrie. Pharo runs the 400 meter for the Wildcats’ track and field team and brings an element of breakaway speed.

“He’s close to being a sub-50 second guy in the 400 so he’s one of the fastest kids on the school,” Fuller said. “You get him into open space and he can fly.”

Three starters are back on the offensive line, led by senior Bryan Mendez. A returning starter, Mendez played every single position on the offensive line last season. He will be the left tackle this season but his versatility gives the team flexibility. Senior Zach Michot is the center and a returning starter and senior Jacob Lucas is a returning starter at right tackle. The left guard will be either senior Brian McNeil or sophomore Andrew Staub and the right guard will be junior John Morrin.

The double wing won’t completely disappear from Pinelands’ offense, however. In short-yardage situations – at least – the Wildcats can bring out their heavy set and be confident they can get the job done. It also gives opposing coaches something else to think about.

“When we go goal line we can run the wedge and it’s an easy one or two yards,” Brown said. “That option should always be there.”

Pinelands hopes the offensive changes will help them improve upon their 19.3 points per game from a season ago, which ranked No. 23 in the Shore Conference. The Wildcats defense was at the bottom of the Shore last season in allowing 33.1 points per game, however, so tightening up on that side of the ball is crucial. The good news is that the Wildcats’ 3-3 stack defense has been in place for a few seasons and the players – especially the freshmen and sophomores – are familiar with the concepts.

“In our first scrimmage the defense held their own,” Fuller said. “We’re young and we have a lot of sophomores playing, but that bodes well for us because these guys have run the same defense and been in the same positions since seventh grade. We’re not teaching new stuff so these kids can pick it up and go, and you can tell on the field. They’re not thinking, they’re just playing.”

Morrin, who saw time last year, will be the nose tackle while DiLeo and Mendez are the defensive ends. Mendez saw time last season while DiLeo was a starter at linebacker last season.

Sophomore Shane Michot will start at middle linebacker with Burton at strongside linebacker and McNeil at weakside linebacker. Burton is a returning starter and made 54 tackles last season while McNeil started one game.

LeFevre is a returning starter at cornerback while Brown rotated in at corner. Bartlett is a returning starter at free safety and also saw time at middle linebacker last season. The two strong safeties are sophomore brothers Aaron and Connor Harris.

On special teams, Burton will be both the kicker and punter.

Aside from the obvious goals of scoring more points and allowing fewer, Pinelands is focusing on being able to close games out.

“The last two years we haven’t had the best record but I feel like we were in the game in the fourth quarter a lot,” Burton said. “This year I’m hoping we can (finish). “I believe we have a solid chance against everyone on the schedule.”

At a Glance

Head coach: Matt Fuller, second season

Career record: 2-8

2017 record: 2-8 (1-6 in B South)

Offense: Pistol

Defense: 3-3 stack

Coaching staff: Anthony Allocca (off. coordinator); Joe Adelizzi (def. coordinator); Scott Peterka (OL); Albert Rowland (DB); Dom LaFragola (DL); Todd Kaiser (WR); Justin Loomis, Howard Berry (freshmen); Mike Keller, George Martian, Mike Cestare (seventh/eighth grade team); Stacey Childs (athletic trainer).


DiLeo was a starter on both sides of the ball but was the third option in the running game behind Evan Burton and Brennan Richardson. He’ll be the secondary back in taking over for Richardson and will also shift from linebacker to defensive end.

X-FACTOR: Staying healthy

The Wildcats have low numbers and can’t afford an injury. Nearly the entire team is playing both ways, so a player missing an extended amount of time would be crushing.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Tristin Pharo, Sr., WR

The Wildcats haven’t had wide receivers since 2013. Pharo, a track and field athlete, brings an element of speed to the passing game.

PIVOTAL GAME: Oct. 5 at Jackson Liberty

Pinelands has two games on its schedule against old Class B South rivals. Pinelands and Jackson Liberty have a split the last two meetings and the games between the programs have generally been competitive.


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