The Manalapan High School football team was not supposed to be good in 2018.
Coach Ed Gurrieri’s team was young, inexperienced and in its first go-round at the varsity level.
But the Braves nearly won the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 5 sectional playoff championship, losing to the eventual state champion, Sayreville War Memorial High School, 24-14, in the state sectional semifinals.
Most of those Braves are back for 2019, and now they are experienced and confident. They are also motivated to win those last two games in the state sectional playoffs. That is Manalapan’s goal this fall.
The Braves will open their 2019 season on Sept. 6 at Middletown High School South. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
“I think we’ll be good,” Gurrieri said.
Gurrieri is confident because he has returning starters filling 16 of the 22 starting spots between the offense and defense. But he is especially confident because of one starter in particular, the player at the most important position on the field–senior quarterback Sean Kehley.
The 6-0, 170-pound, fundamentally sound left-hander earned the starting job a year ago, and he played a game manager role in an offense that depended on a power running game.
But Kehley also proved to be a fairly efficient steward, throwing more touchdowns than interceptions and staying turnover free in more than half of Manalapan’s games.
Now Gurrieri trusts Kehley, and he plans on taking off the quarterback’s training wheels this fall.
“We’re going to open up the whole thing,” Gurrieri said. “He never put us in bad situations, so he earned the right to open it up a little.”
Manalapan relied a lot on power running and play action passing in 2018, and it should be formidable in both areas yet again. Leading rusher Nico Santorelli is also back. As a junior last year, Santorelli rushed for 909 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also averaged 10.3 yards per carry, an absurd figure.
That is a testament to Santorelli’s explosiveness, but it is also a testament to Manalapan’s mammoth offensive line. Four offensive line starters from last year, left tackle Mateusz Zielinski, left guard Charlie Paulucci, right guard Matt Kovacs and center Nick Cavallaro, are returning this fall, and they all weigh at least 225 pounds.
“We knew they were good going into last year. We just didn’t know how long it would take them to jell,” Gurrieri said. “But they jelled quickly.”
Manalapan’s offense scored 25.4 points per game last year, a very strong mark. But Gurrieri is anticipating a step up in 2019.
“Every time we have a QB come back for a second year we always see major improvement,” said the 13th year boss. “And especially with this offensive line to give us a power running game.”
Manalapan’s defense was solid last year as well, allowing less than 20 points per contest and holding Hunterdon Central Regional High School to single digits in a 14-7 victory in the opening round of the state sectional playoffs.
Standouts are returning at every level, too. There’s Joe Berry at nose guard, Jake Freedman and Matt Benedetti at linebacker and Andre Johnson, Justin Reilly and Anthony Matrone in the secondary.
The Braves are well rounded and loaded. Barring injuries or other unforeseen events, they should be in position to win those last two games this time around.
“We’re expecting real good things this year,” Gurrieri said.