What to Watch For: Week One
After Central, Donovan Catholic, Southern and Pinelands whet our football appetites with a pair of down-to-the-wire games in Week Zero, the rest of the Shore Conference will deliver the main course this weekend as the 2015 high school football season kicks into gear.
There are 15 games Friday night and another seven on Saturday with every team but Rumson-Fair Haven taking the field. The Bulldogs have the dreaded Week One bye before opening their season next Friday vs. Matawan in a matchup of returning state sectional champions.
There is one battle of top-10 teams this week and it’s a big one between Class A Central foes St. John Vianney and Matawan. The reality is that every game this week is huge. Teams have a chance to set the tone for their entire season with a win, or for the teams that played Week Zero, a chance to move to 2-0 or avoid an 0-2 start.
Here are some things to watch this weekend:
No. 7 Matawan hosts No. 4 St. John Vianney on Saturday afternoon in what is sure to be an emotional, hard-hitting contest between bitter rivals. The Huskies are the defending NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III champions while the Lancers made their deepest playoff run in years in reaching the Non-Public Group III semifinals last season.
St. John Vianney has been one of the most talked about teams in the Shore during the offseason thanks to the departure of former head coach Mark Ciccotelli, who led the Lancers to a program-record 10 wins in his only season at the helm. St. John Vianney is still loaded with talent though, led by Boston College recruit Anthony Brown at quarterback. Brown was a monster last season in throwing for 2,198 yards and 25 touchdowns and running for 805 yards and nine touchdowns. He is among the best quarterbacks in New Jersey and has plenty of weapons surrounding him with all-around threat Khalil Haskins, 6-foot-6 receivers Mike Stapert and Neptune transfer Marcque Ellington, and slot receiver Jeff Sheard. The running game boasts battering ram Calvin Beaty and J.P. Stevens transfer Chris Chukweneke, a 1,000-yard rusher last season. Add in 6-foot-7 two-way lineman Micah Clarke, who boasts FBS offers from the likes of Ohio State and Alabama, and it’s easy to see why there is so much hype surrounding the Lancers.
It will be interesting to see how different, if at all, the Lancers operate under new head coach Derek Sininsky. Ciccotelli, who is now the offensive coordinator at Cranford, maximized the wealth of talent on the offensive side to the tune of the Lancers averaging 42.8 points per game. Will Sininsky keep the same principles in place, or will the offense look different? Saturday’s game will answer many questions.
Matawan, meanwhile, has plenty of talent returning after winning the program’s seventh sectional title last season. Sophomore quarterback George “LC” Pearson threw for a Shore Conference freshman-record 1,956 yards and 16 touchdowns last season to earn SSN third-team All-Shore honors and already has an offer from Temple. On the other side of the ball for the Huskies lurks one of the area’s best defensive players, senior linebacker Aliem Shaw. A two-time SSN first-team All-Shore player, Shaw had 122 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 7 sacks last season. Matawan did lose standout defensive back/wide receiver DeJohn Rogers to Paramus Catholic, but has senior Shawn Ramcheran back to lead the receiving corps. Senior fullback Isaiah Phillip and senior tailback Mikaya Ceasar comprise the backfield, giving Matawan several playmakers on what should be a standout offense.
The Huskies also have one of the top returning kickers in the Shore in senior Adam Elliot, who was second in the conference last season with seven field goals. He kicked the game-winning field goal in a 23-20 win over Ocean in the Central Jersey Group III semifinals.
Last season Matawan didn’t have an answer for Brown and the Lancers’ offense in a 31-10 defeat, but that didn’t stop the Huskies from going from 0-2 (they lost by the same score to Rumson the following week) to state sectional champions. St. John Vianney’s offense has so many weapons that if it is running on all cylinders it’s hard to see anyone stopping it. With Pearson being so good as a freshman it will be interesting to see his progression as a sophomore. With all the offensive talent on the field for both teams this game has the potential to be a back-and-forth, high-scoring affair.
The underlying theme is that these two programs have no love lost for each other. They have been Thanksgiving rivals for years until the game was moved to Week One last season, and the schools are separated by just 1.4 miles. St. John Vianney has two players in Haskins and Beaty that transferred from Matawan to Vianney before last season and has several other players with ties to Matawan. Winning this game could also mean winning the future battle for players.
The Battle of Brick
Another big-time rivalry game on Saturday pits No. 9 Brick Memorial against unranked Brick at the Dragons’ Keller Memorial Field.
This has become one of the state’s best football rivalries over the past few seasons. One of the lasting images of last season for me was the crowd at Brick Memorial in the season-opener. Both stands were packed to the gills and there was barely any standing room along the fence. At halftime there was still a line about 100 people deep waiting to buy tickets and get in.
Brick enters the post-Carmen Sclafani era after winning a Class A South division title last season and the Central Jersey Group IV championship in 2013. The cupboard is far from bare, however, even with the graduation of Sclafani, Ray Fattaruso and James Juliano, among others. Longtime assistant and former Brick player Len Zdanowicz is now the head coach, taking over for Rob Dahl, who resigned after last season. Most of the staff remains in place, but one new addition is former Brick Memorial head coach Fred Sprengel, who led the Mustangs to the 2003 Central Jersey Group IV title and is now the Dragons’ offensive coordinator.
Brick will have a new quarterback in senior Tom Zbranak, so it remains to be seen what he will bring to the table. He won’t be Carmen Sclafani, and I’m pretty sure everyone knows that. He won’t have to be, though, with how Brick’s multiple pro offense is structured. The Dragon’s have plenty of size along the offensive and defensive lines led by three-year starting center Alex Trapasso, defensive end Jordan Keefe and Dan Finelli at defensive tackle, plenty of depth in the backfield and playmakers in the receiving corps. Junior Ja’Sir Taylor is among the top returning wide outs in the Shore after catching 41 passes for 569 yards and 5 touchdowns last season.
Brick Memorial returns several starters, as well, led by senior quarterback Tim Santiago. After taking over as the starter midway through the Mustangs’ second game last season, Santiago accounted for nearly 1,300 total yards and 17 touchdowns to lead the Mustangs into the playoffs. He could be in for a breakout season this year. Four starters return along the offensive line for Brick Memorial, which is always a good sign for a program that aims to be physical with its flexbone offense.
Brick Memorial’s defensive line could be a difference-maker in this game and all season with brothers Anthony and Mike Nobile along with Chris Hayes comprising what looks to be a formidable front.
This should be a physical game where both teams leave everything on the field. The Mustangs have been chomping at the bit to take on the Dragons after losing 42-0 last season. Brick knows it is going to get Brick Memorial’s best effort, and won’t be backing down. This has all the makings of a classic, which is probably why it was voted as the Star-Ledger’s state game of the week.
When No. 10 Ocean travels to face Neptune on Friday night in a Class B North game it will mark the return of senior running back Tyler Thompson, and the two-time 1,000-yard rusher is eager to prove he’s better than ever.
Thompson broke his leg during a Week Eight loss to Red Bank Catholic last season, derailing what would have likely been his third straight 1,000-yard season. He finished the season with 808 yards rushing and four touchdowns, and despite losing him for the stretch run Ocean still managed to reach the Central Jersey Group III semifinals as the No. 8 seed.
All indications point to a highly-motivated Thompson looking to guide a talented Ocean team to a championship season. Teammates have raved about his offseason work to get healthy and back in football shape, and head coach Don Klein said during the preseason Thompson has looked better than before the injury. A hyper-focused Thompson playing with a chip on his shoulder is great news for Ocean, which also brings back talented junior quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Pickett was thrust into the starting role when then-quarterback Royal Moore transferred to Neptune, but didn’t play in the Scarlet Fliers’ season-opening 30-27 win over the Spartans because of the NJSIAA transfer rule. Pickett turned it a great season with 1,438 yards passing and 14 touchdowns. If he and Thompson both have big seasons Ocean will have one of the most balanced and dangerous offenses in the Shore.
Neptune reached the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals last season, but lost a ton of starters to graduation. Only three starters return, so head coach Rodney Taylor and his staff have their work cut out to get a young group ready. Among the returning starters is standout senior wide receiver and defensive back Isaiah Calhoun, so he is definitely a player to watch as senior quarterback Rasheed Martin will certainly look to hit him for a big play.
Wall and Red Bank both look to break out
Wall hosts Red Bank on Friday night in another interesting Class B North game as the Crimson Knights look to turn the corner after a roller coaster 2014 season.
Wall brings back a significant amount of starters, including senior quarterback Matt Cluley. As a junior, Cluley combined for over 1,600 yards of offense and 16 touchdowns and has nearly his entire group of receivers back, headlined by junior R.J. Janeczek. The Knights are also boosted by the addition of offensive coordinator Chip LaBarca Jr.. LaBarca directed Brick’s offense for the past two seasons and was the head coach at Toms River North when the Mariners captured the South Jersey Group IV sectional title in 2007.
Wall showed flashes during a 3-7 season last year, beating Brick 28-27 in double overtime when the Dragons were the No. 1 team in the Shore. We’ll see if the Knights can put it all together this season.
Red Bank, meanwhile, is on a mission of its own after missing the playoffs by a handful of power points last season. The Bucs return a large class of senior starters that have been on the field since they were sophomores, so expectations are high. Syracuse recruit Sadiq Palmer was a human highlight reel last season, scoring on long touchdown receptions and kickoff returns seemingly every week. The 6-foot-2 playmaker has senior quarterback Jack Navitsky back throwing him the ball, so the chemistry is there on offense.
More to watch:
**Top-ranked Middletown South travels to South Brunswick in a marquee nonconference matchup between two teams that were sectional finalists last season. The Vikings have another speedy unit that should be a bear to deal with, and the Eagles are loaded with standout seniors and a tremendous junior class. South Brunswick won 36-24 last season, so the Eagles are looking to settle the score.
**No. 2 Red Bank Catholic begins its state title defense on the road against Long Branch and will likely be without quarterback Eddie Hahn, who is recovering from a knee injury.
**Greg LaCava, who led Colts Neck to the Central Jersey Group IV final in 2013, debuts as Holmdel head coach when the Hornets host Monmouth Regional on Friday night.
**Fresh off its 27-20 overtime win over Southern, Central hosts Lakewood in a key early-season Class B South game. Central’s Mike Bickford and Lakewood’s Amir Tyler are two of the top running backs in the Shore.
**Freehold Township and its “Air Raid” offense debut against rival Freehold on Saturday. The Patriots have the weapons to make head coach Cory Davies’ offense work with senior quarterback Jack O’Brien and senior receivers Nick Galanti and Tyler Von Nessen leading the way, so we’ll see if they can hit the ground running.