By Andy Loigu
With an abundance of experienced players returning, the Hackettstown Tigers and Warren Hills Blue Streaks look forward to successful football seasons in which they will contend for conference and sectional titles.
Hackettstown opens at Dover under the lights, kicking off at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9. The Tigers hope to turn the tables on Dover after losing to the Morris County team a year ago. Dover used a faked punt and a flea-flicker gadget play to pull out a narrow win at Hackettstown last year.
Warren Hills also opens on the road. The Blue Streaks’ season starts at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, at Scotch Plains.
The teams play their home openers the following Friday night, Sept. 16. Hackettstown hosts the Wallkill Valley Rangers and Warren Hills faces the North Hunterdon Lions, both with 7 p.m. starts.
The Tigers’ fourth-year head coach C.J. Robinson has eight two-way starters returning, hoping to improve on a 4-6 season that ended with a North 2 Group 2 playoff loss at Lenape Valley.
He has senior quarterback and defensive back Matt O’Brien returning to lead the team on the field.
The starting backfield is likely to be seniors Zach Nesheiwat, J.J. Carrara, and Anthony Gonzales. O’Brien, who was injured in the third game last season, will once again operate a triple-option offense which is expected to get opened up with returning senior Ryan Gallagher playing at wide receiver.
The other wideout post shapes up as a choice among juniors Eddie O’Melia, Austin Willis, and Matt Macaulay. Juniors Brandon Kuehner, Tyler Johnson, and Shawn Burke are also in consideration for playing time in the backfield. Someone among the throng may also lineup at tight end depending on the game situations.
Blocking will be essential and senior guard Kyle Connelly and juniors Joe Andes and Max Cash are being counted on to be the mainstays of the offensive front. The other probable starters on the o-line are seniors Mike Newkirk and Matt Karnis. Senior Gavin Fezenko is also in the offensive line mix.
Defensively, in the Tigers’ flexible and athletic 3-5 alignment, Connelly will apply pass rush pressure from the defensive end position. Andes also returns as a starter on the d-line. The other starting spot is up for grabs among Newkirk, Karnis, Kuehner, and Fezenko.
Having five linebackers who are mobile, agile, and hostile, is the key to the 3-5. Gonzales and Cash, as returning starters, will be the defensive leaders on the field. Johnson, O’Melia, and Macaulay will also be relied upon to disrupt the opposing offense.
Hackettstown has lots of experience in the secondary, with Gallagher, Nesheiwat, O’Brien, and Carrara all returning.
Willis and Burke provide depth, which will be needed. It is hard to win with the same 11 playing both ways and never coming off the field for a breather.
In the newly aligned North Jersey Super Conference Red Division, the Tigers’ primary competition for the top spot should come from Lenape Valley, who Hackettstown will host on Oct. 14.
Other division foes will be Lakeland (home Sept. 30), KIttatinny (away Oct. 29), rootin tootin Newton (home Oct. 21), and Wallkill Valley (home Sept. 16).
Non- league games, in addition to the opener at Dover, will be at North Warren (an old Skyland Conference rival) on Sept. 23, at Mount Olive on Oct. 7, and (of course) the 91st meeting against Warren Hills, in Washington, on Nov. 4, to finish the regular season.
The Blue Streaks’ football family has a dedication to honor the memory of Evan Murray which has brought the team closer together than ever before, said ninth-year head coach Larry Dubiel. The team grieved last season following the tragic death of their quarterback, and Dubiel said the players will never forget the lessons in leadership they learned from number 18.
Warren Hills returns 12 starters from a 5-5 team, as it hopes to compete for the Mid-State Raritan Division title and a sectional championship in North 1 Group 4. Most of the team’s graduation losses came on the line.
Returning junior Cooper Gabrich will quarterback a West Coast offense with returning senior wideout Matt Duffner, and junior Jarod Ostir being his primary receivers. Senior Neil General, junior Logan Rettino, and sophomore Bryce Kastera also are in the receiving mix.
An experienced backfield will feature returning seniors Thomas Begane, Taylor Hoover, and Rashon Wade-Taylor, who is perfectly set up for the tailor-made nickname of “Rush On.” Sophomore Sean Morris also is a potential contributor in the backfield.
On the offensive line, Mark Formicelli is the only returning starter. Sophomore tackle Nick Galka will bring some needed size, along with junior Anthony Fischer and seniors Ryan Beckler, Connor McCormick, and Kyle McShea.
Defensively, Begane will play at defensive end, with Beckler, Formicelli, and McShea filling out a formidable front four.
Returning senior starters McCormick and Wade-Taylor will anchor the linebackers. Also in the mix for playing time at linebacker are senior Mike Balaney, junior Jake Webber, and sophomores Zach Hamilton, Garrett Koch, and Dylan Stiles.
Ostir, a safety, Hoover, and Duffner are the returning starters in the secondary. Also in the mix are junior Pedro Cruz, General, and Rettino.
The Blue Streaks have a hard stretch of games from Sept. 24 to Oct. 14, when they play three out of four games away.
Warren Hills visits Summit on the 24th (1 p.m. kickoff), and Somerville on the 30th and Montgomery on Oct. 14 in 7 p.m. starts. Those games are sandwiched around a home game at 7 p.m. Oct. 7 against mighty Immaculata.
Hunterdon Central visits Warren Hills at 7 p.m. on Oct. 21 and then the Blue Streaks close the regular season with games involving their most spirited neighborhood rivalries, at Voorhees (7 p.m. Oct. 28) and the Tigers a week later.
Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.