An experienced and skilled Howell High School football team will pursue a New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association sectional playoff championship this season.
Howell’s coach, Luke Sinkhorn, has his players focused on finishing the upcoming season with a championship trophy.
“We call this year ‘the pursuit,’ and we are trying to be uncommon, uncomfortable and undenied, which means the way we train, the way we pursue our own individual goals and then finally how we come together as a team and hopefully reach the pinnacle,” Sinkhorn said.
The Rebels finished the 2016 season with a 6-5 record and were eliminated in the South Jersey, Group 5 playoffs by Toms River High School North in the semifinals.
Howell lost that semifinals game, 62-34, to Toms River North, which was then defeated in the finals by Millville Senior High School, 22-16.
“Offensively, we did some good things. Defensively, we had to step our game up a little bit more, but we are excited about what we are doing today,” said Sinkhorn, who had coached previously at New Egypt High School from 2009 through 2013.
Sinkhorn played at Manasquan High School, where he graduated from in 1997, and went on to compete as a linebacker at College of the Holy Cross.
“[There are] a couple things [we will] look to improve on this year, but it was a good start [last year], and hopefully that kind of catapults us into some good stuff this year,” Sinkhorn said.
Sinkhorn said he is hoping for balance this season.
“I think last year was definitely an explosive offense. We actually had some defense show up in the first round against Vineland; we had a decent game, but the defense has to close the gap a little bit,” said Sinkhorn, whose team edged Vineland High School, 29-27, in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Toms River North.
Before Howell can zero in on a state playoff title, the Rebels, according to their coach, are focused on winning the Shore Conference A North Division title.
“We talk about being uncommon, uncomfortable and pursuing our goals. We are looking for the big picture these days,” Sinkhorn said.
The coach believes that Howell’s strength is its senior leadership.
Howell will have six captains in total this year, including senior Braedon Baldwin, the middle linebacker who the coach called a “solid quarterback on the defense in the middle,” and Nick Chambers, who was described by Sinkhorn as “a really tough running back.”
Quarterback Eddie Morales III will serve as a captain for the second straight season.
Sinkhorn called Morales a versatile athlete and a throwback player who “lit up the scoreboard with his passing and running ability last year.”
Morales passed for 2,259 yards and 26 touchdowns, while he kept the ball for 387 yards and six touchdowns last fall.
Morales, who also plays cornerback, said that he loves playing defense but quarterback is his main role.
“I came off last year, [and] I was happy with what I did. I set goals for myself, and I exceeded them, but this year is my senior year [with a] good team coming back [and the] same receivers, so I am expecting more from myself,” Morales said.
Another captain, Ryan Mazik, a wide receiver and safety, revealed his confidence.
“I want to exceed more this year with reception yards and be a bigger threat on defense to [opposing] quarterbacks,” Mazik said.
Mazik said he is more of an offensive player, but he planned to become more of a run stopper.
Captain Mark Welsh will dig in on the defensive line standing at 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighing 245 pounds. Welsh is also competing at both guard and center on the offensive side. Also on the offensive line is another captain, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Scott Prendergast.
Welsh dealt with an ankle injury last year, so he is working to remain healthy this fall.
“So stretches, eating right — all that and getting a lot of sleep,” Welsh said about preparing for the season. “Personally, I think our team could do very well. States or bust — we want to win a championship.”
Howell’s seniors will be called on often.
“We have a good, probably 15 [or] 16 seniors. It is a good class. A lot of guys are going to get playing time. A lot of guys are going to play two ways,” Sinkhorn said.
Sinkhorn believes depth will be a key issue.
“We have some good players, but depending on who can fill the gaps as juniors and sophomores, [it] might tell us how far we can go,” Sinkhorn said.
As the team practiced last week at Howell High School on an unseasonably mild August afternoon, the Rebels’ ambition was noticeable.
“We had a good year last year and we have a solid nucleus coming back, so we are excited about that, but the message this year is last year means nothing and [you can’t] rest on those laurels. That is why we talk about being uncommon because if we stay common and stay on that same page, we are not going to do anything. So we are trying to be uncommon and uncomfortable and kind of mess with them a little bit and do some different things that tweaks them and gets them out of their [comfort zone],” Sinkhorn said.