The question in Shore Conference Class A North is this: Will the experience and long-time tradition Middletown South has win out over what has become Manalapan’s recent tradition to reload on the run?
Manalapan has won the Class A North championship the last five seasons, defeated Middletown South in each of those seasons and has not lost a divisional game since the Shore Conference went back to aligning its divisions by enrollment and county in 2010.
Middletown South appears to have the talent, depth and experience to have a special season.
Manalapan has proven recently it does not miss a beat despite who graduates.
Also, look for Middletown North to have its best season in many seasons.
Here is a look at Class A North in predicted order of finish.
1. MIDDLETOWN SOUTH: Most programs would love to get to an NJSIAA sectional championship game.
But, then most programs are not Middletown South, where getting to sectional championship games is something that is expected.
Winning championships is also something that is expected at Middletown South. The Eagles’ nine sectional titles are second in the history of the Shore Conference to Manasquan. They have also won 16 Shore Conference divisional championships, all since 1986.
However, it has been a while since Middletown South has won a championship of any kind. Its last title came in 2009, when it won the then Federal Division championship.
The Eagles have not won a sectional title since 2006, when they won their fourth straight during a 47-1 run from 2003-2006.
Since then, Middletown South has lost in five sectional finals, including a 21-18 decision to Jackson Memorial last year in the Central Group IV final.
“We’ve just played some really good football teams in those finals that we haven’t been able to finish,’’ Middletown South’s 18th-season head coach Steve Antonucci said.
Middletown South appears prime for a big season.
The senior class was unbeaten on the freshman level and several seniors, including standout linebacker Dylan Rogers started on the varsity as freshman.
The junior class was unbeaten and unscored upon on the freshman level.
The Eagles have an outstanding backfield, led by senior Cole Rogers, who rushed for 1,867 yards and 26 TDs last year and is fully recovered from a broken ankle suffered late in the Central IV final. Junior James McCarthy would start on a lot of teams.
Senior Matt Mosquera is in his second season as the starting quarterback and is one of the state’s best field goal kickers. He was 14-for-15 in field goal attempts last season.
The offensive line, with returning starters Tom Lopez, Joe Rutkowski and Mike Wilson, is excellent as is the receiving corp with the likes of Spencer Pereless, Tom Coffey and Tom Marron.
The defense, which recorded six shutouts last year, has an outstanding linebacking corp, led by Dylan Rogers and McCarthy.
“This is a group that can finish,’’ Antonucci said. “This is a group that can go a long way as long as we stay healthy and have a little bit of luck.’’
MEET THE MIDDLETOWN SOUTH EAGLES
Coach: Steve Antonucci, 18thseason (158-37).
Staff: Al Bigos, Steve Roberts, Joe Passo, Joe Mirault, Joe O’Connor, Rich Read, R.J. Read, Tom Grier, Rod Murchie, Rick Taylor, Frank Illiano, Tom Nichols, John Kline, Stacy White (athletic trainer).
Classification: North II, Group IV.
2014 Record: 9-3.
Offensive formation: “Spread Pistol’’
Defensive formation: 4-2-5.
Returning starters: Tom Lopez (OL), Joe Rutkowski (OL), Mike Wilson (OL), Matt Mosquera (QB/PK/P), Spencer Pereless (WR), Tom Coffey (WR), Tom Marron (WR), Cole Rogers (RB/DB)), James McCarthy (WR), Will Gulick (DL), Dylan Rogers (LB), Kevin Higgins (LB), James McCarthy (LB), Rob Hulse (DB), Maxx Imsho (DB).
Top newcomers: Adam Markman (OL), Rob Burke (OL), Kyle Cuccia (OL), Jeremy Joyce (WR), Jeff Lewandowski (WR), Samson Dube (WR/RB/QB/DB), Jake Krellin (TE/H Back/DL), Jeff Uhrig (DL), Steve Shannon (DL), Ian Porter (DL).
2. MANALAPAN: This time of year for the last few summers has been reserved for Manalapan saying what it needs to do to get over the hump and win an NJSIAA sectional title. This year, the topic has switched what the Braves have to do to win another one.
After three straight losses in a sectional final, Manalapan finally found a way to break through when it defeated South Brunswick, 21-7, to win NJSIAA Central Group V championship.
There are some early question marks at the skill positions as this season approaches, but that’s nothing new for the Braves. The goal remains what it always is, playing 12 games.
“We never felt sorry for ourselves, we were never woe is me, our goal was always to get back there and win it,” Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri said. “The goal is to win it again and this group has worked just as hard as the previous groups. The senior leadership has been spectacular and this senior class has taken ownership of what it needs to do to accomplish its goals.”
Gurrieri’s entire offensive line is back from last year’s 11-1 campaign with Jake Levine, Mitch Trabb, Anthony Tardogno, Joe Sellmeyer and Reily Radosevich set to protect a first-year starter at quarterback with Dan Anerella gone to graduation.
Four players are competing for the starting quarterback job in senior Anthony Sciarappa, junior Cody Weiner, and sophomores Luke Corcione and Anthony Naylor. Corcione who is a Manalapan resident has transferred home from 2014 Non-Public Group III champion Red Bank Catholic.
In addition to finding a quarterback, Manalapan will break in a new starting running back, senior Marcus Salinas, after 1,800-yard back Imamu Mayfield graduated.
“Guys are gonna graduate, but our 2’s have gone up against elite guys in practice,” Gurrieri said. “We have numbers. We have depth and the program continues to be in really good shape at all levels, junior varsity and freshmen included.”
Defensively out of the 3-4, the Braves return just three starters. Radosevich will go both ways as a defensive lineman, Anthony Bassani joins him on the line, and Lee Maksimik returns at linebacker.
MEET THE MANALAPAN BRAVES
Coach: Ed Gurrieri, sixth season of second tenure, ninth season overall (70-20)
Staff: Dom LePore, Joe Tetley, Bill Smith Sr., Reggie Grant, Justin Fumando, Bill Smith Jr., Corey DeCastro, Jon Harrison, Dan D’Avanzo, Jim Papcun, Shannon Tomasula (athletic trainer)
Classification: Central Group V
2014 Record: 11-1
Offensive formation: Pro-I
Defensive formation: 3-4
Returning starters: Jake Levine (OL), Mitch Trabb (OL), Anthony Tardogno (OL), Joe Sellmeyer (OL), Reily Radosevich (OL/DL), Anthony Bassani (DL), Lee Maksimik (LB)
Top newcomers: Dave Blumenberg (DB), T.J. Orrico (DB), Scott Scherzer (WR)
3. MIDDLETOWN NORTH: For the first time in 15 years there are great expectations for football on the North side of Middletown,
A season ago, Middletown North went 6-4 for its first winning season since 2000. With a slew of impact players returning at prominent positions, Middletown North is primed to improve upon that mark.
“We’ve taken a little step each year and we want to build off the success we had last year,” Middletown North coach Steve Bush said. “Last season, we won the games that we should have. Now we want to win on the big stage too.”
Bush is in his third season at Middletown North and 10th overall in the state of New Jersey. He also worked on the Miami Dolphins coaching staff in 2008. He believes his players are ready to take the next step because they understand his system better.
One of those players is junior quarterback Donald Glenn, who was thrust into fire as a full-time varsity starter during his freshman season, and has developed into one of the Shore Conference’s most prominent quarterbacks.
“Donald has done a great job so far in terms of leadership,” Bush said. “He seems much more comfortable and sure of himself in his third season. His age isn’t showing anymore. He’s taken the next step. He’s ready to lead this team, and I think we’ll be very effective throwing the ball because of him.”
When Glenn isn’t looking downfield, he’ll be able to hand it off to running back Chad Freshnock, who has made a non-binding oral committment to Bucknell.
“Chad is an explosive, physical ball carrier, but also has the speed to run away from people,” Bush said. “He’s capable of making a big play on the ground, but he’s also a weapon in the passing game. He and Donald should complement each other nicely.”
The Lions will also return two-way starters in senior tight end/safety Josh Gomez ; senior offensive tackle/defensive end Matt Dombrowski; junior wide receiver/free safety Dwight Wilkerson; junior wide receiver Brendan Cooley; senior offensive lineman Pat McGowan; senior offensive lineman Mike Hoverson and junior linebacker Nick Kisch, who led the team in tackles a season ago.
MEET THE MIDDLETOWN NORTH LIONS
Coach: Steve Bush, third season at Middletown North; 10th overall in the Shore Conference (9-11 at Middletown North, 45-41-1 in the Shore Conference).
Assistants: Geoff Massimini, Goerge Kostas, Randy Kalman, Jason Pino, Larry McKnight
Classification: North II Group IV
Offensive formation: Spread Wing Back
Defensive formation: 4-2-5
Returning starters: Donald Glenn (Jr., QB), Chad Freshnock (Sr., RB), Josh Gomez (Sr., TE/DB), Matt Dombrowski (Sr., OL/DL), Dwight Wilkerson (Jr., WR/DB), Brendan Cooley (Jr., WR), Pat McGowan (Sr., OL/DL), Mike Hoverson (Sr., OL/DL), Nick Kisch (Jr., LB).
Key newcomers: Corey Baliatico (Sr., OL/DL)
4. FREEHOLD: Freehold head coach Dave Ellis knew Ashanti Worthy was a star at the Pop Warner level before arriving for his freshman year last fall.
However, Ellis wasn’t sure what he would get out of him immediately.
What Ellis wound up getting was a player who is capable of doing a little bit of everything. Worthy lined up as a wide receiver, saw time at his natural position, running back, behind 1,400-yard rusher Josh Dixon, returned kicks and even punted.
Worthy, Dixon and now-senior quarterback Jake Curry helped erase the memory of several consecutive struggling seasons. Freehold started the season 7-0 and qualified for the NJSIAA Central Group IV playoffs.
“I didn’t know what I would get out of him last year, but as you saw, he did a lot for us on both sides of the ball,” Ellis said. “He can play almost any position, he works hard and he has definitely gotten more mature.”
Curry, a two-year starter, brings continuity to the ‘Pistol’ scheme Ellis employs. Jamel Smith-Rush gives Curry at least one dangerous option at wide receiver. Three offensive linemen, Joel Perez, Todd Hamburger, Nick Eccleston return.
Defensively out of a 3-3 stack alignment, Curry and Smith will go both ways as defensive backs while Xavier Madera and Jared Van Dysen return as starters at linebacker.
Freehold’s 7-0 start was one of the pleasant surprises in the Shore Conference last season, but the Colonials then ran into eventual-Central Group V champion Manalapan and Central Group IV finalist Middletown South. Freehold lost those games by a combined 84-3, then fell to Neptune in the first round of the Central Group IV playoffs, 21-7.
Last season was a big step in the right direction, but the Colonials have not reached their ultimate goals of divisional and sectional championships.
“We have the pieces to be successful,” Ellis said. “Manalapan and Middletown South are excellent teams, being a state champion and a state runner-up. We turned things around, but we didn’t accomplish everything we wanted to.”
MEET THE FREEHOLD COLONIALS
Coach: Dave Ellis, fifth season (14-26)
Staff: Jason Blum, John Kinzel, Matt Whalen, Mike D’Antonio, Mike Elias, Dan Cooper, Matt Stehle (athletic trainer)
Classification: Central Group IV
2014 Record: 7-3
Offensive formation: Pistol
Defensive formation: 3-3 stack
Returning starters: Jake Curry (QB/DB), Joel Perez (OL), Todd Hamburger (OL), Nick Eccleston (OL), Ashanti Worthy (RB), Jamel Smith-Rush (WR/DB), Xavier Madera (LB), Jared Van Dysen (LB)
Top newcomers: Alec Mahon (OL), Marki Gill (OL/DL), Markee Gill (WR), Martelle Tims (WR/DB), Mendelle Tims (WR/DB)
5. HOWELL: For nine years under former head coaches Cory Davies and Derek Reichenbecher, Howell ran the spread offense, but that all changed when Luke Sinkhorn took over as head coach last season.
A disciple of late, legendary Middletown North and Manasquan head coach Vic Kubu, Sinkhorn came in and sought to instill a culture change at Howell.
He put more focus on running the ball and playing defense. That has been maybe a bigger process than he once envisioned, but with the Rebels winning two of their final three games to close 2014, Sinkhorn believes the process is working.
“I’m not sure I envisioned such a big task, but there is good support here, good people who are excited about what we’re doing,” said Sinkhorn, who coached Howell to a 3-7 record last fall after installing a Multiple-I offensive scheme. “By the end of the year, I definitely think the kids were buying in more.”
Mark Iacobino is back as a two-year starter at quarterback, while two of his fellow captains, running back Mike Reilly and wide receiver Nic Rossi, are expected to be two of his primary offensive weapons.
Defensively out of a 4-3 scheme, Rossi, a linebacker, and Reilly, a defensive back, will go both ways. Dan Cacciatore and and Bobby Cavallero are both returning starters at linebacker for a defense that will need to improve after giving up at least 34 points in six games last season.
“Not to souond like a broken record, but I still think we need a culture change,” Sinkhorn said. “We’re running the ball more and we’re going to play defense. We have a decent amount of skill players back, and we’re developing along the offensive and defensive line.’’
MEET THE HOWELL REBELS
Coach: Luke Sinkhorn, seventh season overall, second at Howell (3-7 at Howell, 28-33 overall).
Staff: Bob Mussari, Ryan Klusewicz, Joe Migliore, Joe Santopietro, Zac Cooper, Chris Provow, Shane Baldwin, Matt Wingo, Any Ghione (athletic trainer)
Classification: South Group V
2014 Record: 3-7
Offensive formation: Multiple-I
Defensive formation: 4-3
Returning starters: Mark Iacobino (QB), Nick Rossi (WR/LB), Mike Reilly (RB/DB), Dan Cacciatore (LB), Bobby Cavallero (LB), Noah Powell (DL)
Top newcomers: Mekai Gandy (RB), Eric Keosseian (OL/DL), Mike Ioannides (OL/DL), Nick Chianca (DB)
6. FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP: Any time a program brings in a new coaching staff with the head coach installing the Air Raid offense, it is going to garner some attention.
That is exactly what is happening at Freehold Township.
After 21 seasons, including winning the NJSIAA Central Group IV championship in 2007, at Howell, followed by a stint as an assistant at Lacey, Cory Davies is beginning his first season at Freehold Township. He has brought with him that Air Raid offense which put up big numbers and plenty of wins from 2005-11 with the Rebels.
“They’re very receptive and we have some very talented kids that have really picked it up,” Davies said. “We have some younger kids that have shown they can really catch the ball and it isn’t just our quarterback picking this up. Everyone is.”
That quarterback, three-year starter Jack O’Brien, ran the spread last year under former head coach Mike D’Antonio.
But, the Air Raid, as Davies points out, has different play-calling and terminology for the four-receiver and five-receiver alignments.
Either way, the fact O’Brien is an older kid with two years of varsity experience can only help the Patriots’ cause this fall under Davies.
“Quarterback is obviously crucial to make this work, and the fact he has a few years under his belt his great,” Davies said. “They ran the spread last year, but a lot of things about this offense are different. I think it’s helped he ran the spread last year, though.
With an experienced quarterback, Davies also has veteran receivers to work with in seniors Nick Galanti and Tyler Von Nessen, along with junior Anthony Lotti.
Lotti has been on the varsity since he was a freshman and will now move from cornerback to safety in Freehold Township’s 4-2-5 scheme.
MEET THE FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP PATRIOTS
Coach: Cory Davies, first at Freehold Township, 22nd season overall 105-113)
Staff: Derek Reichenbecher, Gene Blanco, Bill Dague, Dan Shine, Mark Migliori, Ed Von Nesson, Tom Mandese, Mark Burlew, Kevin Popek, Andrew Jones, Mike Kinsella, Gene Blanco Jr, Sean O’Reilly, Tom Martin
Classification: Central Group V
2014 Record: 4-6
Offensive formation: Air Raid
Defensive formation: 4-2-5
Returning starters: Nick Galanti (WR/DL), Jack O’Brien (QB), Gianni Mazzone (OL/DL), Tyler Von Nessen (WR/DB), Quin Cleary (LB), Anthony Lotti (WR/DB).
Top newcomers: Henry Bader (OL/DL), Rychard Hanshaw (RB/DB), Alex Schlumpf (OL/DL), Max Nowak (RB/LB), Chris Gandy (WR/DB), Tyrique Hall (WR/DB), Anthony Rivera (LB), Adrian Rybaltowski (WR/DB), Anthony Papiomitis (OL/DL), Matt Cruz (OL/DL, Adam Fadiga (OL/DL).
7. MARLBORO: Marlboro head coach Jason Dagato and his staff inserted then-sophomore quarterback Mike Wolff as the starter in Week 2 last fall.
That gave them almost a full season to evaluate what they had.
The Mustangs ran the spread, last year. This season, knowing what Wolff is capable off, the staff is going to give the junior more responsibility this fall by switching to the Multiple-I scheme.
“We felt the switch to Multiple-I takes advantage of our quarterback and minimizes his weaknesses,” Dagato said. “He sees the field well pre-snap and we feel like he’s becoming well-educated in the game of football. Multiple-I gives him a better chance to have some freedom in terms of changing the play so we’re giving him a lot more options.
“He’s just becoming smarter and better every week. He asks to meet before school. He stays late so he’s just maturing and becoming a real student of the game. He’s starting to understand the game of football.”
Coming off an 0-10 season last fall, Dagato likes the offensive pieces he has beyond Wolff, specifically in the run game where sophomore Johnny Helff and junior Cameron Corsi have stood out in practice. Dagato also singled out senior wide receiver Tyler Tanen, who saw extended time on the varsity as a junior.
“The kids love this offense,” Dagato said. “Any time you give kids some freedom, and they feel they’re sort of making the calls, they take ownership of it. They don’t want to put themselves in a bad position so they buy in and take ownership of it.”
MEET THE MARLBORO MUSTANGS
Coach: Jason Dagato, third season (2-18)
Staff: Steve Vella, Justin Bloss, Bobby Weitecha, Alex Vasilenko, Ken Wernick, Chris Van Curen, Cory Varrial, Tyler Palagonia, Mark Bramble (athletic trainer)
Classification: Central Group V
2014 Record: 0-10
Offensive formation: Multiple-I
Defensive formation: 3-4
Returning starters: Tyler Tanen (WR/DB), RIley Keating (OL/DL), Jake Weiner (TE/LB), Eric Vogel (TE/LB), Mike Wolff (QB), Nnamdi Unachukwu (DL), Johnny Helff (RB/DB), Cameron Corsi (RB/DB), Bhanu Chadalawada (OL).
Top newcomers: Justin Marcus (WR), Chris Manginelli (OL), Anthony Damato (OL), Ryan Cassidy (LB/RB).