Rebels look to build on last year’s success

Howell won school-record 8 wins, state playoff game

BY TIM MORRIS Staff Writer

Staff Writer

Above, Howell head football coach Cory Davies works with his offensive players during a recent practice in Howell. Below, linebackers Alex Killian and Nick Riccio push each other around.  Above, Howell head football coach Cory Davies works with his offensive players during a recent practice in Howell. Below, linebackers Alex Killian and Nick Riccio push each other around. What a difference a year can make.A year ago, although the team’s track record didn’t justify it, Howell High School head coach Cory Davies was confident that his senior-laden Rebels had what it took to be a winner and even to entertain state playoff hopes.

Not many people may have bought it, but the Rebels delivered. The team won a school-record eight games (8-3), won the school’s first-ever state playoff game (32-31 over Sayreville) advancing to the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals for the first time.

This fall, even though the Rebels return just three starters on each side of the ball, that bar has been set much higher at Howell.

“There’s a tremendous amount of expectation and high hopes,” said Davies. “The kids gained a lot of confidence last year.

“The guys we have have won at different levels,” he added. “They’ve been successful.”

PHOTOS BY MIGUEL JUAREZ staff PHOTOS BY MIGUEL JUAREZ staff Howell will be counting on that as it looks to equal or surpass 2005.

Howell discovered a quarterback and a new offense in 2005, and that sparked the team’s rejuvenation. The quarterback, Sean O’Reilly, is back and so too is the shotgun offense that had defenses caught between a rock and a hard place – blitz O’Reilly and run the chance of one of his quick receivers beating you deep, or stay back in a zone and try to limit the yards-after catch. With 30 touchdowns on the season, Howell thrived no matter what defense it encountered.

O’Reilly was one of the most prolific passers in the Shore in 2005, connecting on 152 of his 267 attempts, good for 1,633 yards and seven scores. He spread the wealth around with eight different receivers hauling in his aerials.

When he wasn’t shredding defenses with his arm, he was the team’s leading rusher, picking up 421 yards and six touchdowns, giving him 2,054 total yards for the season.

That may be just the beginning for the senior signal caller, according to his coach.

“He’s better than he was a year ago,” said Davies. “He’s one of the most coachable kids I’ve ever had. No one works harder.

“Our offense is not the easiest to run, and Sean did a great job picking up and understanding it last year,” he added. “He knows every position out there on the field.”

Fullback Eric Feehan is one of the three returning starters to the offense, and Davies is looking to have him lug the ball more than the 59 times (245 yards) he did last year. Of course, he was on the receiving end of 30 passes (332 yards).

“We’re going to try and be more balanced this year,” said Davies. “We’re looking to have Eric run the ball a little more.”

Mike Fiorillo and Dave Hayes are the backups at running back.

Feehan will be the only familiar face that O’Reilly will be throwing to this year. Kyle Bukowiec, Ryan McGuinness and Gus Borden, who accounted for 117 catches and seven TDs, have graduated, but the Rebels will still be able to move the ball in the air.

The quartet of Chance Carrick, Jason Amato, Brian Battaglia and Scott Dankel are all capable receivers, according to Davies, and are as balanced a group as he’s had. Hayes will double as a backup here as well.

The good news, because of the team’s offense, is that the Rebels don’t need any one receiver to step up and be a player who catches five or six passes a game. Everyone will get their touches.

As if they needed it, the Rebels have another weapon in Carrick, who has emerged as one of the Shore’s best placekicker/punters. Last year, he converted six of his 11 field goal attempts and was 25-for-30 in point-after attempts. He has 40-plus yard range.

As effective as he is kicking the ball, he may be even better as a punter. His angled kicks and hang time kept returns at a minimum and pinned teams deep in their own territory.

For everything to work, of course, the offensive line has to do its job. Alex Killian is the only returning starter; however, everyone else on the line did get a start during the 2005 campaign – center Nick Ricco, Joe Locascio, Mike Gallucci and Nick Libonati. Killian is the only senior among this group. The backups are Joe Sabatello and Martinelli.

“It’s a young line that is starting to come together,” said Davies. “They have to be adept at both pass blocking and run blocking.”

At 6-5, 350, Libonati is the 16-wheeler on what is a good-size line.

Defensively, Howell will again be a containing defense that looks to make teams pick up yards in small chunks.

Mike Bonfig (tackle), Chris Tash (outside linebacker) and Feehan (outside linebacker) are the Rebels’ trio of returning starters.

The 275-pound Bonfig is a load for offensive lineman, and not because of his size, but his quickness. He recorded nine tackles for a loss, most on the team in 2005. He is the one player on the defensive line who can make big plays.

Sabatello, Riccio, Gallucci, Locascio and Martinelli make up the rotation on the defensive line. Like the team’s offensive linemen, this group will need time to jell, but there is plenty of potential.

Feehan and Tash will line up outside of inside backers Fiorillo and Killian. Tash is a proven playmaker on the defensive side of the ball.

Amato is the free safety, with Battaglia and O’Reilly at the corners.

Outside of inexperience, the Rebel defense has the size, strength and speed to match up against anyone they play.

Howell has a big junior class, and Davies pointed out that he needs them to play with the urgency of seniors if the team is to approach last year’s 8-3 record. These juniors went undefeated as freshmen, and those who played last year were a part of the school’s winningest season. They have the track record for sure.

Howell moves to the Constitution Division of the Shore Conference this fall, where Colts Neck, Toms River South and Lacey are among the new teams on the schedule. The Rebels kick off the season tonight at home against Colts Neck, which has moved up to Group IV this year.