Watchung Hills’ senior linemen Anthony Carbajal and Tom Loeffler have traveled many miles in just three years. The Warriors were rock bottom when they were freshman starters, made some improvement in 2011 and became winners last season.
In collegiate and professional sports that transformation might take a decade, but those two learned a valuable lesson. They saw how hard work, positive attitude and some talent can change things faster than you might expect.
The Warriors went 1-9 in Carbajal and Loeffler’s freshman year, getting outscored 334-82 — 29 of those points coming in a 29-14 consolation game win at Barringer. Two years ago, they went 2-8. In 2013 they outscored opponents 229-163, losing two games by a total of six points.
Former Bridgewater-Raritan and Bernards coach Tony Maglione joined head coach Marc Crisafi’s staff before last season as offensive coordinator and brought the single wing with him. The team had run a spread offense in 2011 and the Delaware Wing-T the season before — the single wing was a great fit for the Warriors.
“Last year, we had a new offensive coordinator and he brought a new life to our organization and it really helped us,” said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Loeffler, a first-team Mid-State 38 Watchung Division offensive lineman last season.
“To go from two years of not being able to move the ball to last year was crazy. Our line was phenomenal,” added Loeffler, who plays outside offensive tackle and defensive end. “Coach (line coach Paul) Shanklin really worked hard with us to get the (blocking) concepts of the new offense down. He was instrumental in teaching us how to look inside when we were pulling and getting our proper angles to reach and down block.”
The Warriors went 6-4, qualifying for the North 2 Group V playoffs. They were beaten 21-0 in the first round by perennial contender and defending section champ Piscataway. But they bounced back to clinch a winning season Thanksgiving Eve by topping Watchung Division champ Ridge. They won despite the loss of standout back Anthony Prus, who left early with a broken ankle.
Prus ran for 1,336 yards and 14 touchdowns; graduated quarterback Tom Giaimo had 664 and nine scores. The Warriors didn’t throw much since they didn’t need it with the linemen rolling and Prus bouncing off tackles, to steal a few more yards.
Now, Carbajal and Loeffler are leaders who are banking on sustaining the momentum despite the loss of so many productive seniors like Giaimo, Prus and two-way lineman Anthony Rizzolo
Rizzolo, inside tackle Ryan Vrindten, center Matt Schenk and tight end Frank Urso are gone, but Players like senior inside offensive tackle Mike Schmidt and senior defensive tackle/defensive end Patrick Campbell are back to join Carbajal and Loeffler. Senior quick left guard Adrian Correa and senior center Aiden Sullivan are the other new starters.
Senior outside linebacker Zack Melillo who got a start as a freshman at safety in the consolation game is another player who hopes experience will help. It’s just part of a public school program’s ritual and challenge, finding new talent to replace graduated reliable players every year.
Now Loeffler, Carbajal and Melillo are the captains, the leaders.
“Last year was a turning point, sure we lost a lot of good players to graduation, but I think more kids have come out because of what we did,” Loeffler said. “We have to build on it.”
Loeffler said he remembers taking quite a bit of grief as a freshman when the Warriors were trying to find their way, trying to survive in fact from week to week.
“It was hard to gain respect (from classmates) as a freshman; they judged us too quickly, but once we strapped it up we came to play,” he said.
Carbajal heard similar words. A friendship started in sixth grade when Carbajal and Loeffler became teammates on the Junior Warriors. The two have become close friends off the field and that relationship has assisted the weathering of the bad times and made last year’s turnaround even better.
“Freshman year was pretty interesting; once you’re thrown to the wolves, you have to react to it and I think I reacted to it very well,” said Carbajal, who started at defensive end as a freshman and now plays quick guard and defensive nose. He made second-team all-division last year on offense.
“But I had a lot of fun. It was non-stop on defense.”
They get the opportunity to make sure the Warriors don’t come full cycle as the team adjusts after finding out how gratifying a football season can be. It’d be nice to feel it again.
“We will just have to step it up, all of us,” said the 5-foot-11, 260-pound Carbajal.