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High school sports teams set to begin 2020 fall campaign

Middletown High School South quarterback Tom Schork escapes past a couple Holmdel defenders for a gain inside the Holmdel five-yard line during a scrimmage on September 24 at Middletown South. Middletown South will host Long Branch in its season opener on October 2.

The 2020 high school fall sports season in New Jersey will begin this week. What many people thought may not have been possible because of the coronavirus pandemic is on the brink of beginning.

“We hope we can get through a full season,” Holmdel High School football coach Jeff Rainess said. “Everyone across the state is doing the best they can to follow the protocols to make it safe. The kids know if they want to play, they have to be smart and do their part.”

Boys and girls soccer teams will try to complete a 14-game schedule. Football teams will embark on a six-game regular season that will end on Nov. 7. A two-week postseason schedule will follow.

Holmdel and Middletown South squared off in a football scrimmage in Middletown on Sept. 24 and played to a 7-7 tie.

Rainess was pleased to see his players, and especially his seniors, get the chance to play after much uncertainty during the past few months.

“To me, the No. 1 blessing in all of this is to watch the seniors get to be with their buddies and do their thing on the field,” he said. “This is about relationships and these are things they are going to remember for the rest of their lives.”

Middletown South Coach Steve Antonucci said the players deserve a chance to compete.

“This is what we worked for all summer and hopefully we can keep it going,” Antonucci said. “This is some sort of normalcy and that’s what we are trying to give back to them.”

Both teams’ offenses struggled in the scrimmage, with numerous turnovers. The Holmdel defense got an interception from senior Tighe Steineke.

The Hornets’ stopped Middletown South twice inside the 10 to begin the scrimmage.

Middletown South finished the first quarter with a touchdown run by Matt Mauro. Holmdel’s Jared Wong scored in the third quarter.

The defense is typically ahead of the offense at the beginning of the season, Antonucci said, but this year even more because of the limited amount of time teams have had to get their offensive reps in practice and in playing fewer scrimmages.

Antonucci said he believes special teams play and how quickly offenses get in rhythm during the season will determine the outcome of most games.

Red Bank Regional High School football coach Dave Schuman found creative ways during summer workouts that complied with the NJSIAA’s Return to Play guidelines. He used five-on-five drills to comply with regulations regarding the number of players in a drill.

The players have not watched film together in a classroom. Instead, they will watch film with their position group or as a team through Zoom.

“We have been able to pick up the pace in practice and get a lot in,” Schuman said. “It’s finally felt real to our guys that football is back. They are playing the sport they love. That sense of normalcy is good for them and helps kids in their development.”

The Manalapan High School football program continues to power along with Dom Lepore having taken the reins as the Braves’ head coach. He said 100 players are in the program.

Manalapan has between 11 and 13 coaches and volunteers working in the program this year and Lepore said that has helped to separate the players into groups of 10 during summer workouts.

The Braves will lean on seniors Anthony Matrone and Chris Marzom both of whom are expected to have a strong season at wide receiver, and junior Elijah Marquez, who is primed to have a breakout season at running back.

Lepore said game management situations and tackling will be areas he is keeping a close eye on at the start of the season because the team has played fewer scrimmages.

Each football coach said the physical standpoint of the game in regard to tackling and blocking will need to be worked on more at the beginning of the season because teams have had a limited amount of time to be in full pads.

Win or lose, Lepore said just getting through a full season will be an accomplishment given the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 situation.

“At any given time the season can be shut down for a couple of weeks, so to get through a full season and play eight games would be a big accomplishment,” he said.

On the soccer field, Monmouth Regional High School boys coach Darren Spadavecchia set up practices differently to begin practices.

Instead of all three levels (freshman, junior varsity and varsity) practicing together as they usually do at the start of preseason practices, the coach initially kept the groups apart. He has since had the JV practice against the varsity.

Spadavecchia said most of his players were able to play a bit together on club or travel teams during the summer.

The Falcons are getting set to open the season against Ocean Township at home in Tinton Falls on Oct. 1. The coach said his players are excited about the opportunity to have a season and he said they have done best they could under the circumstances to get ready for “hopefully” a complete season.

“The kids are doing well and are staying positive,” Spadavecchia said. “They are really excited to get the season going. I’m happy to be back with everyone on the field.”

Middletown North High School girls soccer coach Patricia Misciagna noted how important it would be to the Shore Conference to play a full season. She said that is more important than ever right now, given what everyone has gone through during the past seven months with the pandemic sweeping across New Jersey.

“It will mean a lot to the Shore Conference for the schools to get through a successful season,” she said. “From what I can see, everyone is doing their job and stepping up to make sure they follow all the protocols to make this season happen.”

When the Lions began practice, Misciagna employed a five-phase plan: conditioning/no soccer ball used by a player in their own pod; a player could only use her own soccer ball in her pod for footwork drills; two players could only pass the ball to each other; players could participate in one vs. one drills; and small sided play was eventually permitted in groups of five to 10 players.

Because the preseason was set up differently this year, Misciagna anticipates making a lot of changes with personnel at the start of the season since the coaching staff has had a limited amount of time to evaluate each player.

Misciagna said her players have made the most of the situation and believes the Lions will be competitive as they move from the Shore Conference B North Division to A North.

“Even though we couldn’t do a lot this summer, the girls were just happy to be back out there and have made the most of it,” the coach said. “Everyone is just happy to be able to play again.”

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