Breaking Out of the Cage: 2021 Pinelands Regional High School Football Preview
What were you doing 17 years ago this fall? It was 2004.
This was the last time the Pinelands Wildcats had a winning season and they've been fighting to break out of their cage ever since hoping to one day see greener pastures.
They've dealt with adversity over the last three seasons alone, including not being able to play any home games.
"My program and that school have gone through a lot in the last five years. I took over five years ago and the situation I took over in wasn't the best," Pinelands Coach Matt Fuller tells Shore Sports Network. "Then we started roof construction, building construction, split-schedule, no locker room, no weight room and then a pandemic. So, for these guys to finally kind of settle in and get back to what we call 'normal' as a program and seeing them come together and handle that and help each other out is fantastic."
The closest the Wildcats have come to a .500 in recent years was when they went 4-5 in 2018.
Most of that team is gone, most of the 2021 team are sophomores and juniors.
But this is a new season. Clean slate, open cage.
In 2021, there is servant leadership, leading by example.
"What I've seen so far is our guys trying to come together and be a family. I've seen older guys trying to coach up and help some of those newer sophomores, giving them tips and walking them through drills when they make a mistake while the coaches are working with another kid," Fuller said. "We're a small team, we've got limited numbers - I think about 35 right now - so we're a close-knit group and that's good to see."
When you don't have much depth, guys are playing both ways and it also presents another challenge -- stay on the field or things can get problematic fast for a team with not a lot of players.
"We do a lot of heavy work in August and once we get into the games, it's a lot lighter and a lot less team period and more mental," Fuller said. We try and focus on getting everything taught and installed now (in training camp) and this way when it comes to getting ready for Monmouth (Week 1), it's just mental preparation at that point in time."
The Wildcats not only have to focus on staying healthy, but once on the field and playing games, how to execute and starting finding their way out of a cage and into winning games.
It's a big-time goal in 2021.
"We've set the goal and the bar that we want to get the monkey off of our back and finally get a non-losing season and get a winning season," Fuller said. "The division that we're in is wide-open, anybody could beat anybody."
At a Glance
Offense: Double Tight, Double Wing
QB: Ryan Allen Jr., 5'11, 170, RS
RB: Anthony Rucci, Jr., 6'0, 165
RB: Connor Bonicky, Jr., 6'0, 170
RB: Stephen Borden, Jr., 5'8, 120
RB: Liam Villinger, So., 6'0, 170
RB: Michael Frawley, So., 6'0, 140
FB: Jack O'Brien, Jr., 5'11, 230
FB: Kenyon White, Sr., 6'1, 207
TE: Mike Hall, Jr., 6'1, 240
TE: Mehki Hall, Jr., 6'1, 195
OL: Daniel McNemer, Sr., 6'0, 240, RS
OL: Chris Caravano, Sr., 6'0, 300, RS
OL: Joe Pufhal, So., 6'2, 280
OL: Sal Esposito, Jr., 6'2, 320
OL: Eric Ciccarelli, So., 5'11, 170
OL: Tyler Glass, So., 6'1, 240
Defense: Multiple 3-Man
DE: Mike Hall, Jr., 6'1, 240, RS
NT: Daniel McNemer, Sr., 6'0, 240, RS; Chris Caravano, Sr., 6'0, 300, RS
DE: Mehki Hall, Jr., 6'1, 195
OLB: Connor Bonicky, Jr., 6'0, 170
ILB: Jack O'Brien, Jr., 5'11, 230
ILB: Kenyon White, Sr., 6'1, 207
OLB: Liam Villinger, So., 6'0, 170
CB: Anthony Rucci, Jr., 6'0, 165
CB: Michael Frawley, So., 6'0, 140
SS: Stephen Borden, Jr., 5'8, 120
FS: Nick Daleo, Sr., 6'1, 180
K: Connor Bonicky, Jr., 6'0, 170/Ethan Woods, So. 6'2, 180
P: Connor Bonicky, Jr., 6'0, 170
Head coach: Matt Fuller, 5th season
Career record: 9-27
Team record last five years:
2017 record: 2-8
2016 record: 4-6
Assistant coaches: Joe Addelizzi (Asst. Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/LB); Scott Peterka (OL); Mike Keller (QB); Gennaro Balletas (RB/DB); Dan O'Rielly (DL/TE); John Tierney (Freshmen head coach); George Martian (Asst. Freshmen Coach); Nick Van Schoick (Asst. Freshmen Coach); Drew Steelman (Middle School Head Coach); Joseph Yglesias (Middle School Asst.); Stacy Childs (athletic trainer).
Players to Watch: Mike Hall, TE/DE, Jr. and Mehki Hall, TE/DE, Jr.
Hall meet Hall. Mike and Mehki are two of the key players on both sides of the ball for Pinelands, especially with the offensive scheme they're running in 2021. How well they play at tight end and defensive end will determine how long Pinelands can stay in games.
Players Under the Radar: Kenyon White, FB/ILB, Sr., and Jack O'Brien, FB/ILB, Jr.
It's a new offense and Pinelands needs good fullbacks. As the team changes things up a bit, White and O'Brien could be the secret weapons the Wildcats need to scratch across a few wins this season.
Impact Newcomer: Liam Villinger, RB/OLB, So.
Pinelands is in dire need of a cement wall, a tough cat on defense, someone to step up and help put an an end to the scoring. The Wildcats gave up 237 points in 2020, including 126 in the first three games of the season to Barnegat, Lacey, and Manchester. Villinger could be that young spark this defense needs.
Top position group: Running Backs
Six running backs totaled 695 rushing yards for the Wildcats in 2020, most of them (309) coming from Nathan Jeannotte. In 2021, the team, back in a ground-and-pound old school offense will certainly look to top that. The running game will dictate whether Pinelands can contend for a division title.
Big Shoes to Fill: Ryan Allen, QB, Jr.
It's a new offense with a new leader. Connor Harris, who ran the Wildcats flexbone triple-option offense last season, (while also being a three-year starter at linebacker), has graduated. Allen takes over the reins looking to take the offense to the next level.
X-Factor: Control The Clock
The Wildcats have a young and eager team clawing their way out of the gridiron doldrums and into the light. In order to do that, they need to get everything out of the players on the team, especially the sophomores and juniors, and execute their old-school run-heavy offense. If they win the battle of the clock, they may very well win the game(s).
"We are foot-to-foot, double tight double wing, we bring football back to the 1900's, we are the polar opposite to about everybody in the Shore Conference," Fuller said. "We want to get the ball to start the game and maybe give it back to you before halftime."
Saturday, Sept. 11 -- at Monmouth Regional, 12 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 18 -- at Lakewood, 6 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 24 -- vs. Keyport, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 1 -- vs. Point Beach, 6 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 8 -- vs. Keansburg, 6:30 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 15 -- at Shore Regional, 7 p.m.