WEST LONG BRANCH – While the area experienced torrential downpours for much of early Tuesday afternoon, the clouds gave way to sunshine just in time for Monmouth County’s best to strap on their helmets and shoulder pads.
Going into their fifth day of practice at Shore Regional High School, the Monmouth County all-stars prepare to do battle with their Ocean County counterpart in the 38th annual U.S Army All-Shore Gridiron Classic on Thursday evening at Bresset Stadium in Long Branch. The Gridiron Classic is New Jersey’s longest running all-star football game.
Shore Regional’s Mark Costantino will be the head coach of the Monmouth County team this year, the first time he’s had the distinction since 1998.
“It’s definitely an honor,” an elated Costantino said. “I was very happy when they asked me. I look forward to it. I made sure my staff was guys I was familiar and friendly with. We’re having a real good time.”
As coach of Shore Regional, Costantino led the Blue Devils to an 11-1 record last season, and he and his boys captured the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I championship.
Costantino will be joined on the sidelines by the likes of John Kaye of Matawan, Steve Roberts of Middletown South, Chris Damian of Keansburg, and Nick Giglio of Red Bank Regional.
Charlie Volker of Rumson-Fair Haven and Dahmiere Willis of Long Branch are expected to be the centerpieces in Costantino’s offense come Thursday Night. While playing against each other for the majority of their high school career, the two star running backs are excited to share the same uniform for one night.
“It’s a great feeling,” Willis said. “We’re going to come in and dominate together. I think I’m more of a speed back, he’s more of a power back. He (Volker) is the kind of back to just run people over. We’re very different in that way.”
Much like Willis, Volker is anxious at the opportunity of getting to play alongside one another.
“It’s a unique experience,” Volker said. “It’s interesting to see him go when I’m off reps, and he’s probably watching me, too. It’s going to be interesting to see how many ways we can get after their defense.”
Both Willis and Volker ended their high school careers on high notes. For Volker, he and the Bulldogs were able to capture their second straight NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II title, while Willis was able to break the Shore’s all-time single-season rushing record, running for 2,589 yards.
While Costantino does possess two of the state’s most efficient running backs, he’s more concerned with making sure every player gets ample time out on the field, for what could be the final time they put the pads on.
“I hate going to all-star games and watching kids not play. I absolutely hate it,” Costantino said. “I tell the kids, ‘If you come to practice, you’ll play a lot in the game’. It happened to my son and a few of his teammates a few years ago. It’s very frustrating to me as a father and as a coach to watch three of my best players not play, and they went to every practice.”
As far as the opposition goes, Costantino feels his boys are hard-working, and come to practice every day with the mindset that they will come out victorious come game night.
“It’s always a hard hitting game,” Costantino said. “It’s a matter of trying not to make mistakes that cost you the game. We’re treating it like a regular game, but we want to make sure they have fun out there.”
Ryan Norton: firstname.lastname@example.org