The Manalapan High School Braves will open the 2022 football season with a short road trip to play the Freehold Township High School Patriots on Aug. 26.
Coach Dominick Lepore said his players are prepared to kick off a new campaign.
“We are ready to go,” Lepore said. “We have been preparing for this since June. We have just been repping it out in practice and using these (last few) weeks to get ready for Freehold Township.”
In 2021, which was Lepore’s second season at the helm in Manalapan, the Braves went 6-2 in the regular season and earned the No. 2 seed and a home game in the South Jersey Group V state sectional playoffs.
The Braves’ hopes of winning a state title were dashed when Edison High School’s Selbin Sabino kicked a field goal in overtime to lift the Eagles to a 23-20 victory.
Lepore said that loss is not weighing on the minds of the Braves heading into 2022. He said his players have learned from the mistakes they made against Edison and have put the loss behind them as they focus on the upcoming season.
Manalapan returns several key players, starting with seniors Alex Dille and Thomas Clark-Glasco.
Dille broke onto the scene last season. As a receiver, Dille caught 13 passes for 189 yards and one touchdown. He also returned punts and kickoffs. In a game against Holmdel High School, Dille returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.
Manalapan QB Nick Heckel rolls to his right & fires an 11 yard TD pass to WR Alex Dille vs Shawnee. Dille has been very impressive during the quad scrimmage. CC: @central_jersey @FansManalapan @DominickLepore1 @MHSBravesSports #NJFootball 🏈 pic.twitter.com/TYndKiopYQ
— Steven Bassin (@SBassin_Sports) August 17, 2022
As a free safety on defense, Dille recorded 38 tackles and two interceptions. He returned one of the interceptions for a touchdown.
Dille is hoping to replicate his breakout season and to do even more as the Braves set their sights on a return trip to the state playoffs. That includes taking a leadership role and continuing to preach the importance of family that has been a staple of the program over the years.
“Last year’s seniors really connected with the younger guys and we (seniors) are trying to do the same to help us win games,” Dille said.
Clark-Glasco is expected to be the team’s featured tailback in 2022. Seniors Brendan Catalano and Joe Santana are also in the mix for playing time at running back.
Manalapan RB Thomas Clark plows through & just gets the ball across the line for a TD during first team period vs Hillsborough. CC: @central_jersey @DominickLepore1 @FansManalapan @MHSBravesSports #NJFootball 🏈 pic.twitter.com/KTfNmp4Qo4
— Steven Bassin (@SBassin_Sports) August 17, 2022
Manalapan’s running backs will operate behind a veteran offensive line that will be led by seniors Julian Santo (center), Jack Boyle (guard) and Artem Renikov-Jouk (guard). Juniors Matt Makfinsky and Evan Radosevich will be the tackles.
Senior Darius Colleton and sophomore Jackson Pfister will join Dille at wide receiver, with senior Preston Birnie projected to start at tight end.
On defense, Manalapan will continue to play a 3-4 base defense, which the team has run since 2010.
Santo and Renikov-Jouk will anchor the defensive line.
At linebacker, Catalano, junior Joseph Melo, junior Aidan Wilmot and senior Joseph Kaminski are players Lepore is expecting to make key contributions.
Sophomore Jason Rodriguez, who has transferred to Manalapan from Saint John Vianney High School, Holmdel, is expected to see time at linebacker after sitting out a mandatory 30 days as a transfer student.
Dille, Colleton, Clark and junior Anthony Macchio make up what is expected to be a strong secondary.
“We feel pretty good about our team. We feel good about the guys we have in the interior of our offensive and defensive lines and our skill guys. We are excited about it,” Lepore said.
The kicking game is expected to be area of strength for the Braves with veteran kicker/punter Michael Calton returning for his senior season.
The biggest question mark heading into the 2022 season is who will step up to earn the starting nod at quarterback. The leading candidates are seniors Nick Heckel and Matthew Grzejka, according to Lepore.
Both quarterbacks sat behind Nick Heckel’s brother, Mike Heckel, in 2021. Mike Heckel threw for 956 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago and has since joined the football team at Pace University in New York.
Lepore said both of his senior quarterbacks have a good knowledge of the offense and that the goal during training camp has been to get each of them more experience under center.
Leading up to the season opener against Freehold Township, Manalapan scheduled a quad scrimmage with Hillsborough, Montgomery and Shawnee, and another quad scrimmage with Central Regional, Sayreville and Colts Neck.
After watching his players participate in the quad scrimmage on Aug. 17 in Montgomery, Somerset County, Lepore said he was very proud of his players’ “effort and physicality.”
“We pride ourselves on that. It’s something we know is always going to be there. Now we just have to get ourselves into game shape and be ready to go for Freehold Township on Aug. 26,” Lepore said.