Rockets to rely on experience as they defend state football title

By Matthew Rocco

The Raritan High School football team is entering the 2016 season as the defending NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group II champions, a title that the Rockets earned with a last-second touchdown in last season’s finals.

For any team, topping those postseason heroics would be a difficult task. The Rockets, who are tapping into the experience of their state title run, are keeping the bar high.

Raritan lost several key seniors who were part of the championship team, including wide receiver Nick Pasquin and running back Derek Ernst. But the man under center, Marc Carnivale, is back for another season.

Carnivale was responsible for the throw that put the finishing touches on Raritan’s turnaround, going from five straight losses to a state championship. It was an 11-yard touchdown pass from Carnivale to Pasquin that beat previously undefeated Lincoln High School, 28-26, and brought the first state title to Hazlet since 2004.

The senior quarterback will bring experience to the field this fall, and he’ll lead an offense that also features talented playmakers and veteran linesmen.

“[Carnivale] just needs to concentrate on the little things,” head coach Anthony Petruzzi said. “He doesn’t have to compensate for the seniors who graduated. He just has to make his throws and make the correct decision.”

Carnivale is one of five returning starters on an offense that scored an average of 33.2 points per game during three tournament games and a Thanksgiving Day win over Holmdel High School. As a junior, Carnivale threw for 1,598 yards and 16 touchdowns, and he completed 61 percent of his passes.

He will work behind a senior-heavy offensive line that features Matthew Thompson, Paul Bavaro and Alex Dalmau.

Vito Aleo, who saw time on defense last season, will add the role of primary running back. Petruzzi said the Rockets won’t miss a beat in the running game, despite losing a standout player in Ernst. Aleo is an explosive runner, and the offensive line should be one of Raritan’s best assets.

At wide receiver, the Rockets will count on junior Vinnie DiCarlo and seniors Rory Sullivan and Eugene Kolibas. Sean Agar, another senior, will play tight end.

“We’re always a run-first team. Hopefully, the run will open up what we do in the passing game,” Petruzzi said.

The Rockets are even more experienced on defense, returning eight starters from last season. The team will have its veteran linesmen up front and a linebacker corps led by Ryan Dickens, a University of Connecticut commit. Dickens had a big year in 2015, amassing 127 tackles and five forced fumbles.

The secondary also figures to create problems for opposing offenses. Although most of last season’s group is gone, Raritan will field Aleo and other seniors in the secondary.

The Rockets get an early test to kick off the season, as they travel to Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School to face the 2015 Central Jersey, Group III champions Sept. 9 at 7 p.m.

“We’ve got to be ready for a fourth-quarter football game,” Petruzzi said. “[Rumson-Fair Haven] has established themselves with three straight [sectional] championships. We have the confidence to go into a hostile environment and just concentrate on what we need to do.”

The Rockets will host St. John Vianney High School in their home opener Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.