Winner’s Mentality: 2020 Keansburg Football Preview
Coming off its first winning season and NJSIAA playoff appearance since 2007, Keansburg continues its steady climb up the ranks of the Shore Conference’s group of small schools. The Titans came excruciatingly close to qualifying for the playoffs in both 2017 and 2018, so last year’s 5-4 season was a breakthrough for the Titans and sixth-year coach John Bird.
Now, the Titans have a group of players who have only known competitive football, with Keansburg’s record over the past three seasons an even .500 (14-14). Bird is hoping that is a sign of a change in culture that will mean even more winning this year and in years to come.
“It felt like losing the seniors from last year was a big loss because they really set the expectation of winning,” Bird said. “I think what has happened though is that the guys who are coming up as seniors and juniors this year have that same attitude and now they are ready to take over the program, which is what every coach wants from a program.”
It’s not just about culture, though. Keansburg has talent and on-field experience. The Titans return eight starters on offense and seven on defense and should have some newcomers ready to step in and help.
“We have an all-division quarterback, we return two starting receivers, three starting linemen, our entire secondary, three linebackers,” Bird said. “We just have one lineman and a middle linebacker to figured out and the other positions we pretty much have figured out. It’ a bunch of seniors who have played a lot and who have gotten used to winning, which is what you want to see coming back as a coach. We’re not very deep so health is going to be a huge factor, but if we stay healthy, this group has a chance to have a pretty good season.”
Projected Starters (RS=Returning Starter)
QB: Mikal Braithwaite, Jr. RS
RB: Patrick Beltran, Sr. RS
RB: Desmond Lawson, Sr. RS
WR: Brendan Flanzbaum, Sr. RS
WR: Connor Graf, Sr., RS
WR: Kycir Robinson, Jr.; Lou Chalmers, Sr.
LT: Hassan Champion, Sr. RS
LG: Keyshaun Coppinger-Ward, Jr.
C: Waylon Manoes, Sr. RS
RG: Jon Beattie, Jr. RS
RT: Tino Valverde, Sr.; Mike Menture, So.
DE: Mike Menture, So.
DT: Jon Bettie, Jr. RS; Keyshaun Coppinger-Ward, Jr.
DE: Hassan Champion, Sr. RS
OLB: Patrick Beltran, Sr. RS
ILB: Desmond Lawson, Sr. RS
ILB: Waylon Manoes, Sr.
OLB: Mikal Braithwaite, Jr. RS
CB: Kycir Robinson, Jr.
CB: Connor Graf, Sr. RS
SS: Lou Chalmers, Sr.
FS: Brendan Flanzbaum, Sr. RS
K: Joe Sautner, So. RS
P: Joe Sautner, So.
At a Glance
Head Coach: John Bird, sixth season
Career Record: 17-31
Record Last Five Years:
Assistant Coaches: Jim Reid (Off. Coordinator/QB/LB), Uriel Morfin (RB/LB), Raffaele Spagnola (LB), Jim Papcun (WR/DB), Nic Vloyanetes (WR/DB), Troy Fowlkes (OL/DL), Richie Squeo (OL/DL), Kelli Hudson (Athletic Trainer)
Player to Watch: Mikal Braithwaite, Jr., QB/OLB
After arriving at Keansburg last season and beginning the year as a slot receiver, Brathwaite showed enough promise in practice to get him a look at quarterback and since then, he has taken off. Still only a junior, the dual-threat signal-caller has a chance to be one of the program’s better all-around quarterbacks and also gives this year’s team a chance to win every game. He is coming off a sophomore campaign in which he racked up 1,502 total years and 13 total touchdowns between his passing and rushing.
“We weren’t sure what we had when Mikal first got here but it didn’t take us long to figure out he was pretty special player,” Bird said. “He’s a competitor. He studies the game, he likes contact he gets other guys going. I had Danny Vital a couple of years ago and I think Mikal could potentially be better than Danny. For me, that’s a major compliment because I think the world of Danny as a player and a leader.”
Player Under the Radar: Patrick Beltran, Sr., RB/OLB
Beltran has been a varsity mainstay for the past few seasons, playing in a part-time role as a sophomore before ascending to regular starting duties last year. The senior will be a leading tailback option and an ideal complement to Brathwaite, who will do plenty of running in his own right. In addition to sharing the backfield, Beltran and Braithwaite will book-end the linebacker corps on the outside.
Impact Newcomer: Keyshaun Coppinger-Ward, Jr., LG/DT
After taking the 2019 season off from football and establishing himself on the Titans wrestling team, Coppinger-Ward is back on the gridiron and poised to make an impact on both the offensive and defensive lines.
“Keyshaun didn’t play for us last year so he doesn’t have the varsity experience that some of the other guys have, but he’s a wrestler and he has a pretty good handle on the physical part of the game,” Bird said. “He’ll be able to jump right in and be a big player for us on the lines.”
Top Position Group: Offensive Backfield
The offense will revolve around Braithwaite and will go as he goes, but his senior backfield mates will help him and the team get where they want to go as well. Beltran and fellow senior Desmond Lawson are the running-back tandem and will provide a more conventional ground attack to go with Braithwaite’s dual-threat game.
Big Shoes to Fill: Brendan Flanzbaum (Sr., WR) and Waylon Manoes (Sr., ILB)
Braithwaite lost his No. 1 target in Nasir Williams but Flanzbaum and Graf are back at wide receiver and are fine-tuning their rapport with the junior quarterback in order to take the passing game to the next level.
“One of our initial thoughts coming out of last year was, ‘How are we going to replace Nasir,’” Bird said. “As we’ve seen what we have, we started to think Brendan Flanzbaum can step in and fill that hole and we won’t lose much, if anything – especially with Braithwaite being a year older and having a better understanding of the offense.”
At inside linebacker, meanwhile, the Titans are looking for a player to pair with senior Desmond Lawson in the 3-4 front after 2019 captain Matt Gillen graduated. Manoes is the early front-runner to fill the open spot and join a strong linebacker corps.
“Matt was a heart-and-soul guy on the team – just a great leader in practice and in the game,” Bird said. “If there is one position where we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to replace somebody from last year, it’s Matt Gillen at inside linebacker.”
X-Factor: Offensive Line
There is a mix of uncertainty and potential up front that makes the Titans offensive line the team’s wild card. Gabe Braithwaite transferred out, leaving a large void previously occupied by the 6-foot-4, 280-pound tackle. Despite that loss, the Titans still bring back three starters in left tackle Hassan Champion, center Waylon Manoes and right guard Jon Beattie, plus add Coppinger-Ward to the mix at left guard. Senior Tino Valverde and sophomore Mike Menture are the candidates to replace the elder Braithwaite on the line and if Keansburg can settle that spot, the Titans have the makings of a quality offensive line that can free up their weapons.
Friday, Oct. 2 at Point Beach, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 10 vs. Roselle, noon
Saturday, Oct. 17 vs. Asbury Park, noon
Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. Keyport, noon
Friday, Oct. 30 at Manchester, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 7 vs. Shore, 2 p.m.