2002-11-27 / Sports
Rivalries bring football season to its conclusion
Freehold Twp. looking to finish with three
Freehold Twp. looking to finish with three
By tim morris
Traditional season-ending rivalries will draw the curtain on the 2002 football season on Thanksgiving Day.
For Dominick Lepore’s Freehold Township Patriots, it’s a chance to salvage a rough campaign. After getting off to a 1-6 start, the Pats upset Lakewood and then won their state consolation game at South Brunswick, 35-0.
When the Pats visit Howell on Thanksgiving morning (10), they are looking at an opportunity to close the season with three consecutive wins. It’s a win streak that would erase some of the memories of September and October when the team couldn’t seen to do anything right.
"We started the season with a young team that was inexperienced," said Lepore. "Opening up with Toms River North, Toms River East and Jackson with our youth was difficult.
"Something clicked at midseason," he added. "After we lost to Marlboro, it made us all take a look at ourselves, coaches and players. We could have packed it in. Our seniors showed great leadership."
According to Lepore, defensive standout Eric Yngstrom wouldn’t allow the Pats to pack it in.
"Eric’s been around; he’s been a starter since he was a sophomore," Lepore pointed out. "He knows what it takes to win. He took the bull by the horns and said, ‘Enough is enough.’
"It was so important to him and the rest of the team that we turn it around," the Pats coach added. "We didn’t want people to say that last year was a one-year fluke."
Lepore and his staff also looked into the mirror and decided to make some changes. The changes and the maturity of the young players have fueled the late-season comeback.
"We changed our offense," Lepore noted. "We went to more of a power offense, running between the tackles. We went to a straight I-formation with a fullback and relied on play action for our passing."
Sophomore J.R. Caleno is one of the reasons the I-formation has worked. Although just a sophomore, he is a very physical player who likes contact. He is more than a blocking back, however. He runs the ball effectively and can come out of the backfield and catch the ball."
With Caleno in the backfield, the Pats have alternated their dangerous tailbacks, Sirad Summerlin and Chris Ramos-Herrer.
"By alternating them, we keep them fresh," Lepore said. "They’ve been making big plays. They feed off each other."
With the change to the offense, the tight end takes on added importance, and the Pats fortified that by moving outside linebacker Billy Smith to tight end. He brings an additional blocker to the line, and he’s proven to be a dependable pass receiver, Lepore said.
With Santos and Kyle Smith, the Pats have a solid receiving corps for quarterback Mike Popek to throw to.
Popek has grown into the job at quarterback, and his continuous improvement has made a difference. He is more confident and throwing the ball with authority.
Township’s offense is playing its best ball of the year, scoring 21 points against Lakewood and 35 against South Brunswick.
Defensively, with the exception of Yngstrom, the Pats started anew this year with graduation depleting the unit.
As expected, the defense struggled early, but has been coming along.
"As the season progressed, the defense jelled and grew together," said Lepore. "Yngstrom has been our stopper. He’s carried the defense.
"Todd Grosky, our free safety, has been playing well, as has Eric Gonzalez since we moved him from the offensive to defensive line."
A philosophical change on the part of Lepore and the staff also led to the turnaround.
Early in the season the Patriots tried two-platooning to keep everyone fresh.
"We went to a one-platoon system," Lepore explained. "We decided that we have to have our best players on the field at all times."
The move was most effective, Lepore said, on the offensive line. Since the change, the line has a very strong unit, pushing teams backward and allowing the team to run the ball.
In Howell (4-5), the Pats are facing a team that is desperate for a win.
The Rebels turned things around this year after a one-win 2001 season and were in the state playoff picture up to the final weekend. But they lost their consolation game to Watchung Hills to fall to 4-5 and are on a two-game losing streak. Howell does not want to see a season of such promise end with a losing record.
"It will be a very intense game," said Lepore.
The play of quarterback Dave Irvin has been one of the keys to Howell’s turnaround. By providing the team with an aerial attack, the Rebels have been a much more balanced team. Terrence Tatum runs as hard as anyone, and Irvin’s passing makes teams defend the run and the pass.
This should be a very good game between two teams needing a win in the worst way. Something has to give with two streaks on the line.
The oldest Thanksgiving Day rivalry is Manalapan-Marlboro. They will be meeting for the 31st time tomorrow.
This year’s game in Marlboro marks the last go-around for seniors like Mike Gaeta, Jon Pappa, Kyle St. Angelo, Sean Boyle and Brenden Provow, who helped restore winning football at Manalapan this fall. The Braves are 6-3 and coming off a 21-13 loss in the state playoffs to Old Bridge. A 7-3 record would look a whole lot better to the Braves than 6-4.
Manalapan, which was 6-1 at one time, does not want to end a season — in which the Braves made such progress — on a three-game losing streak.
Gaeta has sparked the Braves all year with his running and passing. He has been one of the Shore area’s best play-makers. Pappa has been his favorite target, hauling down 41, nine for touchdowns.
Like many rivalries, records can be thrown out. The 1-8 Mustangs would like to make the winter a little warmer with a win against their cross-town rivals. First-year coach Dave Curtin will get his first taste of the rivalry in which Manalapan holds a 21-7-2 edge.
Kickoff in Marlboro is 10 a.m.
Freehold Borough (2-7) and Colts Neck (7-2) are the youngest rivalry, with this season marking the third edition of the game.
The Cougars have won both games thus far and spoiled Borough seasons each time. In 2000, they kept Freehold from a winning season and last fall, handed the champion Colonials their only division loss.
This time around it is Freehold with the added incentive. The Cougars have matched their record for wins in a single season, and a win in Freehold tomorrow would make them 8-2, a new school record. Freehold would like to spoil that in Colts Neck.
The Cougars, who just missed out on the state playoffs on power points, definitely want the single-season win mark. This is a team that has found ways to win all year. The defense has been so important coming up with a variety of big plays. Matt Murphy leads the Shore with six picks and returned one 86 yards for a touchdown. Rayshawn Pitts of Freehold Borough is one of the leading scorers and rushers in the Shore and will be a concern of the Cougar defense.
A sidebar to this game: The Cougars and Colonials possess two of the best place-kickers in the Shore in John DeTulio and Bryan Maida. DeTulio has booted a 42-yard field goal (second best in the Shore) and Maida a 33-yarder. Don’t be surprised if this game comes down to a field goal and if it does, either coach will be very confident.
Start time is 10:30 a.m.