Manalapan gridders will lean on winning tradition to bounce back in 2021

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Manalapan High School running back EJ Marquez runs off tackle during practice on Sept. 10 in Manalapan. Marquez had a fumble recovery for a touchdown in Manalapan's season opening victory over Saint John Vianney.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School quarterback Mike Heckel completes a pass down the field during practice on Sept. 10 in Manalapan. Heckel threw a touchdown pass in Manalapan's season opening victory over Saint John Vianney.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School tight end Aidan Wilmot catches a pass during practice on Sept. 10 in Manalapan. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School running back EJ Marquez runs off tackle during practice on Sept. 10 in Manalapan. Marquez had a fumble recovery for a touchdown in Manalapan's season opening victory over Saint John Vianney.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School quarterback Mike Heckel completes a pass down the field during practice on Sept. 10 in Manalapan. Heckel threw a touchdown pass in Manalapan's season opening victory over Saint John Vianney.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School tight end Aidan Wilmot catches a pass during practice on Sept. 10 in Manalapan. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

MANALAPAN – A winning tradition and a family-type atmosphere have fueled the Manalapan High School football program over the years.

“We preach family,” Coach Dominick LePore said. “It’s a brotherhood. We have alumni and parents who still come to the games. We have created that tradition and pride here in our program.”

Manalapan’s winning tradition is what LePore and the 2021 Braves are looking to continue in the coach’s second season at the helm.

The 2020 campaign was an off-year for the Braves, who went 2-4 during a season that was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The result marked the first time Manalapan finished with a record below .500 in 18 years.

At one point during the 2020 season the program was shut down for two weeks due to an outbreak of the virus.

But in looking past all the obstacles his players faced, LePore said he believed the most important takeaway from 2020 was how the the Braves faced adversity and ended the season strong with wins over Marlboro and Freehold Township.

The coach believes his 2021 squad can build off the strong finish from 2020. The effort will start with an offense that will be led by quarterback Mike Heckel, senior running back E.J. Marquez and an offensive line that has four returning starters.

Heckel split time with Mike DeMayo at quarterback in 2020. Heckel passed for 367 yards and four touchdowns in five games.

Heckel’s experience at the varsity level a year ago helped him come into 2021 with more confidence and a belief that the team is better offensively.

“I’m 100% more confident,” he said. “All the guys have my back. They are all on the same page with me. We are so much better than we were last year.”

The Braves opened the 2021 season on Sept. 3 with a 14-6 victory over Saint John Vianney High School of Holmdel.

Heckel led Manalapan on an 80-yard drive to begin the third quarter and completed the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Michael Bimonte to give the Braves an eight-point lead.

Heckel finished the game with 129 yards passing and said, “That (last) touchdown really helped us seal the game. We drove the ball 80 yards and punched it in. It felt great.”

Manalapan’s only other score of the contest came when Marquez returned a fumble 46 yards for a touchdown. Mario Chierchia forced the fumble when he stripped the ball from the Lancers’ quarterback.

Joseph Melo had an interception in the end zone as the Manalapan defense forced three turnovers.

“We showed up when our backs were against the wall,” LePore said about his defense. “That’s when we made plays. We had the fumble return for a touchdown to begin the game. We got a big interception down by the goal line and we had a couple of big goal line stands.”

Marquez rushed for 52 yards against the Lancers. In 2020, he rushed for 172 yards and three touchdowns.

“I’m trying to do the best I can and help the team win,” Marquez said. “I’m a hard runner. I just keep my feet moving to try to establish the run game.”

Seniors Paul Wojciechowski and Tyler Walker join Bimonte in the senior-led receiving corps. Junior Alex Dille is expected to contribute to the running attack and the passing attack.

“He’s a playmaker,” LePore said of Dille.

On the offensive line, Chierchia and Corey Holowach return to anchor the right and left tackle spots.

Juniors Julian Santo (center) and Jack Boyle (right guard) return with varsity experience. Senior Andrew Roginski will slide into the starting left guard spot.

Chierchia, Santo and junior Artem Renikov-Jouk anchor the defensive front in a 3-4 alignment.

Marquez, Bimonte, and seniors Jordan Gravesande and Jonathan Gelb are experienced linebackers.

The secondary features returning starters Walker and junior Thomas Clark, and newcomers Anthony Conti and Matt Pirozzi.

Pirozzi led the Braves with 13 tackles against Saint John Vianney.

LePore said the Braves are fortunate to have a solid punter and placekicker in junior Michael Calton.

Calton went two-for-two on his extra point attempts against the Lancers and did a tremendous job punting, according to the coach.

Manalapan improved to 2-0 on Sept. 17 with a 31-20 victory over Holmdel High School.

Heckel threw three touchdown passes to lead the Braves’ offense. On special teams, Dille had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and Calton kicked a 33-yard field goal.

“We are a group of brothers,” Bimonte said about this year’s team. “When we come out on the field, we all love each other. We come out to practice with that same mindset every day and it translates on the field.”

Manalapan will play Middletown South High School on Sept. 24.