Camp Reports: Wall, Manalapan

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Took a trip out west to Manalapan today to catch the Braves after their intrasquad game, and this team has the highest preseason expectations of any Braves team since the days of Cory Brooks at the turn of the millennium. Manalapan has never won a state sectional title, with its only appearance in a final coming when it lost to Brick Memorial in the Central Jersey Group IV championship in 2003. This is one of its better chances to change that history in recent memory.

The Braves return 18 starters, including Rutgers-bound senior quarterback Mike Bimonte, 1,000-yard rusher Josh Firkser, and four out of five starters on the offensive line. Senior Reggie Hodge-Grant is also a three-year starter who should be one of Bimonte’s primary targets at wideout. Essentially, this is a senior class that has mostly been on varsity since sophomore year, so this is the season it has been building up to.

As for Bimonte, I will have a separate feature on his rapid and tremendous improvement in such a short time, which resulted in the scholarship to Rutgers that he verbally accepted on July 30, so stay tuned for that in the next day or so.

The main news recently is that now-former head coach Tom Gallahue resigned the position because he was approved by the Board of Education for an assistant principal job at Manalapan in late July and he can’t be an administrator and a paid coach. That means that on Aug. 30, hopefully, either assistant Dom Lepore, the former head coach at Freehold Township, or assistant Eddie Gurrieri, who was the head coach at Manalapan before Gallahue, will most likely be approved as the new head coach. However, if they can’t get it done by Aug. 30, the next meeting isn’t until Sept. 27, so they would technically go the first three games or so without actually having a head coach. Gallahue will still be around the team, as he was on Saturday, so it’s kind of a murky area right now.

Basically, it seems like the staff is essentially 100 percent intact, but people have or will have different titles and Gallahue obviously won’t be paid any kind of coaching stipend or be referred to as the head coach. Talking to the players, they said it has not been a distraction in the least bit, and that’s the most important part.

The other names people probably already know are senior fullback/linebacker Charlie Adessi and defensive end James DeBlase, who have been mainstays in the lineup. You can read more about DeBlase from a story I did on him before last season by clicking here. (The season once again starts on Sept. 11 this year).

In addition to a veteran line on offense, they also have three of their four linebackers returning, including juniors Alex McPherson and John Sieczkowski, the latter of whom particularly has a chance to be a scholarship player by the end of his career. The Braves have switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 this year because they feel it better fits the wide variety of teams they will play, from Middletown South’s run-heavy, flexbone option attack to Howell’s shotgun, no-huddle spread passing offense.

Two receivers to watch who will try to team with Grant to help replace the production of the now-graduated Kevin Cruz, who had over 1,100 yards receiving last year to set a school record, will be senior Mike Bravaco, who is the fastest player on the team, and a very promising newcomer in sophomore Anthony Firsker, the younger brother of the starting tailback. The younger Firkser is already 6-2 and 210 pounds and started as a freshman on the basketball team. He has great hands and excellent skills and just needs to continue to work on his speed to become a really big-time player. Gurrieri compared him early on to former star Greg DiLorenzo, and he could be even better than that.

While the players are all confident, they also emphasized that they haven’t accomplished anything yet despite all the hype. The title in the newly created Class A North goes through Middletown South, which has proven itself year in and year out, but they know they have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the Eagles. A big key is avoiding the slow starts of recent seasons. Manalapan has played some of its best football in recent years when its playoff hopes are pretty much gone and it can relax without the pressure, but obviously if the Braves want to accomplish something big, it can’t be like that this year. They have to get off to a good start, and they kick the season off with a nondivisional game against Jackson Memorial. They are basically trying the amnesia trick when it comes to forgetting about the slow starts of recent years and simply worrying about Jackson, who ate up their running game last year in a 13-8 win that dropped the Braves into an 0-2 hole and contributed to an 0-4 start.

While Bimonte is poised for a big season, so may be the starting quarterback at Wall, which I visited later on Friday. Junior Steve Cluley clearly has worked very hard in the offseason, as not only did he grow an inch or so to get up to about 6-2, 6-3, he put on 25 pounds, from 165 to a solid 190. He was thrown in the fire midseason as a sophomore and made good strides, culminating in a 9-for-10 passing day in a win over Central Jersey Group II finalist Manasquan on Thanksgiving.

Cluley, who has drawn some preliminary interest from Rutgers and Delaware according to Wall coach Chris Barnes, has returned much more confident and comfortable and will force teams to defend Wall differently after they basically have crowded the line of scrimmage and dared the Crimson Knights to beat them over the top in recent seasons. He does lose his top two targets, All-Division wideout Fred Sprengel and Matt Mancino, who was an All Shore Media first-team defensive back and a top receiver. However, junior tight end Derek Gardner, an imposing presence who almost is like having an extra tackle on the line, returns as a receiving threat over the middle, and the Crimson Knights have also gotten some help from the basketball team. Senior Kyle Janeczek, the leading scorer on the basketball team, has come out for football and is an athletic downfield target. Harry Paytas is another to watch in that area in the early going.

Senior Will Avon takes over as the primary tailback after showing flashes of explosiveness last year. Even though Maurice Washington, who has since graduated, had a 1,000-yard season last year and is a very solid back, I thought Avon was even better from what I saw last season, so we’ll see how he does with more touches this year. I think he can have a big season. Senior Connor Caponegro is back at fullback and will help anchor the defense at linebacker. He mentioned that his older brother, former Wall star tailback Blaze Caponegro, has been practicing with the first-teamers at Temple this spring, which is good to hear.  So, on paper at least, between Cluley and the running game, it looks like this will be the most balanced Wall attack in the past four or five years.

The defense is usually solid under veteran coordinator Al Tirpack, and Wall returns a pair of defensive ends, Caponegro at strongside linebacker, Avon at safety and several others who gained experience last year. One interesting newcomer at running back and at safety is Freehold Township transfer Raul Pola, a senior and solid athlete who could see time on both sides of the ball.

Wall’s schedule is no joke, starting with a bang against a highly-regarded Lacey team. Barnes and the players all said that that game will tell them immediately where they stand in relation to the Shore’s best. It also is a chance for an early statement that Wall is ready to reclaim its place among the Shore’s elite. They also have Point Boro, Ocean and traditional rival Manasquan on the schedule, so they will have their chance to knock off some well-regarded teams. On paper, it looks like the new Class C Central title will come down to which team emerges from the cluster of Wall, Manasquan and Point Boro, with Jackson Liberty as a darkhorse. If Cluley can make the leap to a player who can win games with his arm and help the Crimson Knights rally from deficits late in the game, this team could be poised for a big season.


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