The football team at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School enters this season in a position it has never encountered in the history of its program.
For the first time since the current state playoff system began in 1974, the Bulldogs come into a season as defending sectional champions. They shocked previously undefeated Matawan, 13-7, to capture the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II crown, their first state sectional title, after having lost to the Huskies during the regular season.
Now comes the hard part – defending it.
“We've never won a state title before so it's certainly uncharted territory,’’ said head coach Shane Fallon, who enters his 14th season with 89 career wins. “Now we have to see how we're going to handle success. So far we're pleased with the way our kids are responding in practice.’’
With seven of 11 starters returning from a rugged defense and some promising newcomers on offense, the ingredients are there for RFH to make a serious run at the Shore Conference Class A Central title, a second straight CJ II championship and an 11- or 12-win season.
“We’re not going to look at ourselves as defending state champs,’’ said senior running back/safety Connor Riley. “We’re just another team out there, fighting to get a state championship ring.’’
The backbone of the team should be a front seven on defense that can be as good as any unit in the Shore Conference. All four starters return from a standout defensive line, led by senior defensive tackles Mike Alonzo and Jack Eisenstadt. Alonzo is a three-year starter who has received interest from Rhode Island, while Eisenstadt is a two-year starter who has garnered interest from James Madison, Monmouth University, Wagner, Bryant University and Rhode Island.
“We’ve been playing together for so many years that it’s like a family,’’ Alonzo said. “We know exactly what the guy next to us is going to do, and we trust everyone.’’
Flanking that tandem in RFH’s 4-3 base defense will be returning starters Jack Miles and Jake Clapp at defensive end, who both are adept at getting to the quarterback. Senior Matt Jewett, a starting offensive lineman, also could see some time up front when the others need a rest.
Senior Brian Truex is a returning starter at outside linebacker, and budding standout Travis Clark, a junior, is a returning starter who will play middle linebacker. He has a chance to be the next star linebacker at RFH and help fill the void left by All-Shore linebacker Mike Huttner, who is now playing lacrosse at Cornell. Senior Will Volker replaces Huttner in the starting lineup, and he will be at outside linebacker.
“It’s definitely a mature group on the defensive side of the ball,’’ Fallon said. “We try to play physical and play downhill. I think our kids last year were thinking, and as the season progressed, they stopped thinking and started reacting. They know their reads and their responsibilities.’’
In the secondary, Riley, who has received interest from Monmouth and Albany, is a returning starter at safety. Next to him will be senior Mike Morralle, one of the fastest players on the team and an excellent student who has received interest from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Monmouth University and other Northeast Conference schools.
Senior Nico Giaimo, who saw time in the secondary last season, will be at one cornerback spot. Senior Dan Babiak, who started four games at safety last season before a bout of mononucleosis ended his year, will be at the other cornerback spot.
Offensively, the Bulldogs hope to rev the tempo on their no-huddle, spread offense even more after forcing teams to try and keep up last season. Junior Danny Roberto replaces graduated standout Mike Villapiano at quarterback and has looked sharp in the preseason against quality competition. Roberto is the younger brother of former RFH standout quarterback Michael Roberto.
“(Roberto) played last year in the Monmouth Regional game and did well,’’ Rileys said. “He’s ready. We’re all confident, and we trust him.’’
“Danny and Mike are two different kids, so we are trying to tailor our offense to what Danny does well,’’ Fallon said. “We don’t expect Danny Roberto to be Michael Villapiano or Michael Roberto. He’s a winner, he’s very competitive, and having him in the lineup gives us our best shot to win.’’
Riley returns at tailback after splitting carries last season, and junior newcomer Connor Walsh has looked very promising in the preseason as well. In the passing game, Roberto will have a plethora of weapons from one of the deepest receiving corps in the Shore Conference.
Giaimo is a returning starter at wide receiver and heads up a group that will also include Morralle, junior John Ryan, and seniors Blake Potter, Kevin O’Connor, Mike Nociolo, Nick Riguardi and Louis Aikins. In addition, Clapp and Eisenstadt are large targets at tight end who are hard to bring down in the open field.
Another area of inexperience is on the offensive line, where Jewett, who will play tackle, is the only returning starter. Junior Gunnar Tilly will be at center, with senior Taylor Avino at one guard spot and the trio of seniors Tim Binns and Joe Brunetto and junior Dan Wojciehowski battling it out for the other guard spot. Junior Andrew Brunetto will be at the other tackle spot.
Volker will be the placekicker and the punter.
A buzz has grown in the preseason that this could be one of the best RFH teams ever, and the seniors are not complacent even though they already have one state championship ring in their possession. With a defense that should be one of the Shore’s best and an offense with skill, making more school history is certainly within reach.
“We still have to make a name for our senior class,’’ Eisenstadt said. “We know we have a lot of tough teams coming after us, so we have to work hard and get better every day.’’
This may be the highest preseason expectations have ever been for the Bulldogs, but they are not backing down from the challenge.
“We put those other rings away,’’ Alonzo said before smiling. “Just let ‘em know we’re ready.’’