Hillsborough loaded up for strong season on the gridiron

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Hillsborough High School defensive back Thomas Amankwaa intercepts a pass during the team's practice on Oct. 6. Amankwaa had seven touchdown receptions last season for the Raiders. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Hillsborough High School quarterback Jay Mazuera looks down field to throw a pass during the team's practice on Oct. 6. Mazuera had two total touchdowns and threw for 152 yards in the team's season opening victory over Montgomery. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Hillsborough High School football player Sean Levonaitis prepares to catch a ball during the team's practice on Oct. 6. Levonaitis has rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Hillsborough High School defensive back Thomas Amankwaa intercepts a pass during the team's practice on Oct. 6. Amankwaa had seven touchdown receptions last season for the Raiders. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Hillsborough High School quarterback Jay Mazuera looks down field to throw a pass during the team's practice on Oct. 6. Mazuera had two total touchdowns and threw for 152 yards in the team's season opening victory over Montgomery. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Hillsborough High School football player Sean Levonaitis prepares to catch a ball during the team's practice on Oct. 6. Levonaitis has rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

The 2020 football season is underway and the Hillsborough High School football team couldn’t be happier about that.

Looking to build off their stellar 8-3 campaign last year, the Raiders are enjoying the opportunity they have of being on the field together this fall after their season hung in the balance during the offseason because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Guys are happy to be at football practice and were all summer,” said Hillsborough Coach Kevin Carty. 

“More than ever, they realize that this could be taken away from them. The mindset of all our guys has been great. Their attitude has been awesome. There is so much excitement every time they’re on the field.”

Carty believes his squad is capable of accomplishing great things this season.

Hillsborough’s road to the NJSIAA South Jersey, Group 5 semifinal last season was predicated on a great rushing attack led by running back Sean Levonaitis and stellar play on the defensive side of the ball.

Levonaitis has been the driving force of the Hillsborough offense the last two seasons. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in both his sophomore and junior seasons and has accumulated 24 rushing touchdowns in the two-year span.

As well as being a key piece of the team’s secondary on defense at the free safety position, totaling 45 tackles last fall, Levonaitis is looking to end his high school career at Hillsborough with a good senior campaign.

“I just want everyone to play to their fullest potential,” Levonaitis said. “We’re hoping we can put all parts together in both the run and pass to make our offense tougher to stop.”

Back after a terrific sophomore year at wide receiver on offense for the Raiders is Thomas Amankwaa.

The 6-foot receiver hauled in 30 catches for 704 yards and seven touchdowns, giving the Raiders another playmaker in their offense.

Amankwaa was a key contributor on defense in the secondary, racking up 43 tackles last fall. Hillsborough’s entire secondary unit is back from last season with senior Troy Dallas Kennedy and junior Tyler Michinard returning to the fray.

Senior Luke Popadiuk and junior Salvatore Volpe are both back to solidify the middle of the Hillsborough defense at the linebacker position, while the defensive line for the Raiders will be anchored by returning starter Jacob Straz.

Hillsborough allowed only 13.3 points a game last fall and feels they can be even better this year.

“We had a great defense last year and I’m hoping we can do better this season.” Popadiuk said. “Our secondary is amazing. It’s everyone’s job to make sure the defense performs well every game.”

Hillsborough has seven returning starters on offense, starting up front in the trenches with junior Marc Gulla and seniors Aidan Lugo and Ryan and Jordan Nussbam anchoring the squad’s offensive line. 

Junior William Dixon is a returning starter that is expected to be another playmaker in the Hillsborough offense at the tight end position and help block the edge in the running game.

Having 14 seniors on the team and mostly all upperclassmen in starting roles was a big factor in the team handling a condensed preseason due to COVID-19 really well, Carty said.

“The fact that we have strong leadership and we have guys that can work together on our own kept us from being too far behind with a limited amount of practices,” Carty said. “The veteran play and leadership has really paid off for us.” 

Hillsborough has a new quarterback under center in junior Jay Mazuera, who takes over for 2020 graduate Tom Ramsey.

The left-handed quarterback has seen time on the field in the secondary and as the team’s punter, but is ready and fully capable of being man at the controls in Carty’s pro/spread style offense.

“Something I take pride in is my leadership skills and making sure everybody knows where they’re going at all times,” Mazuera said. “I’m always looking over the playbook, watching film, and making sure everyone knows the game plan.”

Carty said he has been very impressed with how his quarterback has looked so far this season and thought Mazuera played outstanding in the team’s season opening 26-6 victory over Montgomery High School on Oct. 2.

Mazuera completed 11 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown through the air, and ran for a 3-yard score.

The junior quarterback’s touchdown throw came on a 20-yard pass up the left sideline to Dixon.

The two also hooked up for a 63-yard completion that set up a Hillsborough touchdown in the contest.

Levonaitis rushed for a team-high 70 yards and had a 2-yard touchdown run. The star running back and Volpe both racked up a team-high eight tackles on defense.

Junior Anthony Santa Barbara also crossed the goal line for a rushing touchdown in the victory for the Raiders.

Carty said everything about last Friday night and leading up to it was exciting and that he’s happy his players are making the most of their opportunity to play football.

“Everything about Friday was awesome,” Carty said. “The fact that we got the chance to get on the field and the guys came through was exciting to see. It was an awesome feeling to see the seniors get the chance to play and all of them play so well. It’s very exciting.”

Hillsborough will host Watchung Hills on Monday night at 6 p.m.