Up for the Challenge: 2019 Toms River North Football Preview
For a team that went 1-9 the previous season, rebounding with a 6-3 campaign in 2018 could certainly be labeled as a successful year for Toms River North.
The Mariners felt otherwise, however. There was the sting of close losses to Freehold Township and Middletown South – by two and one points, respectively – that wiped away their shot at the American Division title. Then there was the 33-0 loss to Vineland in the first round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 5 playoffs. There was a lot to like about the 2018 season, but when it was time to put the pads in storage for the winter, it was hard to get rid of the bad taste in their mouths.
“To me, being successful is winning your division and making it to a sectional final,” said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. “We started the year really well and kind of hit a wall in the middle, and part of that was breaking in new guys and part of it was team chemistry and playing a pretty tough schedule week-in and week-out. I felt like we had a competitive season but losing the way we did left a bitter taste in our mouths.”
But along with that disappointment was also great optimism heading into the offseason. The Mariners were a relatively young team in 2018 and saw several of their core players develop nicely over the course of 10 weeks. Now, with several impact players returning, including five offensive starters and seven defensive starters, the Mariners are eager to take the next step forward.
“We were disappointed with the end result but felt really good about the team culture, and that’s carried through,” Oizerowitz said. “There are key components at each level on both sides of the ball. We like the nucleus and what it looks like on paper, but it’s a matter of executing on the field.”
Player to Watch: Jake Kazanowsky, Jr., QB
Kazanowsky had a very successful debut season as a sophomore, throwing for 1,437 yards and 18 touchdowns to lead an offense that averaged 28.1 points per game. If he continues to develop and plays like one of the top quarterbacks in the Shore, the Mariners will have a very dangerous offense once again.
Kazanowsky has grown both physically and in terms of football IQ since last season. He’s sprouted to 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, a significant jump from the 6-foot, 175-pound frame he had last season.
“He’s light years ahead of where he was last year,” Oizerowitz said. “He’s a guy who always wants to be better. He’s his toughest critic and a tremendous competitor. He’s super smart, a 4.0 Ivy League-type of kid with academics. We think the world of him. He’s a great leader, earned the captaincy from the coaching staff and he has the utmost respect from the staff and his teammates.”
So far, Kazanowsky has been everything Oizerowitz and his staff has hoped for.
“Every offense is about what the quarterback can do and what he can’t do, and then you tailor the offense around that,” Oizerowitz said. “He can affect every part of the field with his arm and he understands coverage like a coach does.”
Player Under the Radar: Zach Goodale, Jr., WR
After playing sparingly as a sophomore, Goodale will be the No. 2 receiver behind senior Dominick Jacob (a Second Team All-Shore selection) and is expected to be a key component of the offense.
“He’s an impact player for us an nobody really knows about him,” Oizerowitz said. “Between him, Dominick Jacob, Zach Browne and Jordan Grey we think we have really good wideouts with speed and depth. We love Goodale. He’s tough and very athletic and a guy who can also play in the secondary because of his length.”
Best unit: Offensive/defensive lines
Specifically, the interior line with hulking senior Najae Hallenbeck along with seniors Cross Conlin and C.J. Niedzielski. Hallenbeck is an FBS prospect and is a mountain of a human at 6-foot-7 and 315 pounds. He’ll at left tackle along the offensive line and nose guard in the Mariners’ 3-4 defensive front. Niedzielski was an All-Division player last year at defensive end. Conlin (6-foot-1, 270 pounds) is a returning starter at left guard, seniors Frank Davis (5-11, 225) and John Muller (6-1, 225) are battling for the starting center spot, junior Jaden Schlosser (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) and Richie Lopez are competing for the right tackle spot while junior Jamie Hans (6-1, 235) is projected as the starting right guard. On the defensive side, Myron Ford will fill the second defensive end spot opposite Niedzielski.
Toms River North will be successful if…
…It survives the war of attrition. The Mariners have solid depth but the nature of the American Division gauntlet and what kind of toll it will take on teams remains to be seen. Will the teams reach the playoffs only to be running on fumes because of the unforgiving schedule or will they be battle-tested and ready to for a run at a state title?
“With these new divisions the biggest issue is that the team that survives, the attrition rate is going to be high,” Oizerowitz said. “You need to have 15 or 17 guys on both sides of the ball to make it to the end of the year.”
The Big Guy
It’s hard to miss Najae Hallenbeck. The Mariners’ senior two-way lineman is a 6-foot-7, 315-pound specimen with offers from Rutgers, UMass and Central Michigan and interest from several other FBS programs. His size and athleticism more so than his film are the reasons for his college interest, but that’s starting to change.
Hallenbeck is also a standout basketball player and had spent most summers playing travel basketball. This year, he dedicated more time to honing his craft on the gridiron, and the results have been tangible.
“He has developed by leaps and bounds,” Oizerowitz said. “He understands football can be his ticket and this year for the first time he committed to football in the offseason. He worked on his footwork, his kick slide, his power step, which he never really did. We usually never got him until August. He was working on just sheer size and strength and athleticism but didn’t have the football technique down. This year does and I think he’s a can’t-miss left tackle prospect.”
The Total Package
It’s the year of the running back in the Shore Conference with standouts all over Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Jarrod Pruitt isn’t a superstar name, but he gives Toms River North everything it wants from its tailback.
As a junior, Pruitt ran for 945 yards and 13 touchdowns on an average of 5.6 yards per carry and figures to improve on those numbers as a senior. His impact also goes beyond just his rushing yards and touchdowns.
“He can do everything, there’s not a weak spot,” Oizerowitz said. “As a runner, he’s a slasher, quick twitch, and he sees things almost like Kaz does but from the running back spot. He’s a great blocker, smart in the classroom and also a guy who can play all three secondary spots if we need him. He’s also our return specialist. On top of that, he’s a really good teammate; a special player. Players come in all different shapes and sizes and I always kid him about how I like a bigger tailback, but he does it all for us. There’s no one I’d rather have out there.”
Captain of the Ship
Entering his third year as a starter and coming off a 100-tackle season, senior inside linebacker Vinny Palmieri is the man literally in the middle of everything the Mariners do on defense.
“He’s the undisputed leader of the team,” Oizerowitz said. “He’s like a player/coach on defense, an extension of the coaching staff. He’s right there with the top linebackers we’ve had come through here. He’s the most important player on that side of the ball.”
At a Glance
Head coach: Dave Oizerowitz, 8th season (10th overall)
Career record: 47-36
2018 record: 6-3 (3-2 in American Division)
Assistant coaches: Mike Oizerowitz (Off. Coord/WR), Bill Dowd (OL), Nick Zaza (QB), Anthony Penna (RB), Charlie Monanian (DL), Gabe Roonan (LB/special teams); Joe Oizerowitz (DB), Bob Cassidy (DL); Kendall Culver (athletic trainer).
Offense: Power spread
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jaden Schlosser, Jr., OL and Richie Lopez, Jr., OL
Both players are competing for the starting right tackle spot that was occupied last season by Stavon Drew, who was an All-Division selection and one of the team’s leaders. Schlosser (6-4, 250) has the edge with pass protection and outside zone blocking while Lopez is a mauler as a driving run-blocker. Both could certainly see time along the offensive line.
X-FACTOR: Staying healthy
Given how difficult the schedule will be for Toms River North, even one game without a key player could throw off the entire season. As a whole, the team needs to stay healthy if they hope on making a deep postseason march following a run through the toughest division in the Shore Conference.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Justin Burkert, Sr., K/P
A transfer from Jackson Memorial, Burkert connected on five field goals with a long of 37 yards and converted 18 of 21 extra points. He will also serve as the Mariners’ punter and is in the mix for playing time at inside linebacker.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 20 vs. Manalapan
The Mariners open the season with a nonconference game against Cherry Hill West before returning back to the Shore to face longtime rival Southern in Week 1. There’s a good chance they’ll be 2-0 heading into their American Division opener against the Braves at Gernard Field. A home victory over Manalapan could mean a 3-0 start and early momentum in the American Division gauntlet.
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