Long Branch football finally ready to play a few home games

Team opens home schedule Sept. 19 against Red Bank Catholic

BY DOUG McKENZIE Correspondent

It’s hard to imagine being a high school football player and never being able to enjoy the thrill of playing on your home field, in front of your own fans.

PHOTOS BY ERIC SUCAR Above and below: The Long Branch High School football squad goes through drills during a recent preseason practice. The Green Wave opens its 2008 season on Sept. 12 against Wall Township after reaching the Central Jersey Group III final a year ago. PHOTOS BY ERIC SUCAR Above and below: The Long Branch High School football squad goes through drills during a recent preseason practice. The Green Wave opens its 2008 season on Sept. 12 against Wall Township after reaching the Central Jersey Group III final a year ago. However, for the players on the Long Branch High School team who graduated as part of the class of 2008, that is exactly what they experienced.

It’s been five years (since 2003) since the Long Branch Green Wave team has enjoyed the home-field advantage, as their facilities were part of the school’s massive (and painstakingly slow) renovation project.

So you can understand why many of the Green Wave’s players can hardly wait for the regular season to start. Forget the fact that Long Branch features one of the more talented rosters in the Shore this year. The buzz surrounding this Long Branch team exists on a much higher level.

Veteran head coach Dan George has a group of very good football players, and with the prospect of christening their brand-new facilities with a championship season dominating their thoughts, this could be a very special season indeed for the Long Branch High School football community.

While the season starts on Sept. 12 with a showdown against a Wall Township team that features one of the top offensive players in the Shore in Blake Caponegro, many people in the LBHS community have circled Sept. 19 on their calendars. That night, in front of what promises to be a raucous capacity crowd, the Green Wave will host another of the Shore’s better teams, Red Bank Catholic, in yet another test that could determine just how the Wave stacks up with the conference’s elite teams.

In other words, it won’t take long to determine if George’s team is ready to play with the big boys all season, as it did last year, when it reached the Central Jersey Group III finals, falling to Moorestown, 20- 7.With some young players at some important

positions, the difficulty of the early schedule could come back to bite Long Branch in the end. However, if they can survive

on talent alone early on, while steadily improving with each passing week (as George’s teams always seem to do), this Green Wave team can be very dangerous down the stretch.

What has most people labeling Long Branch as potentially one of the Shore’s top teams is where they return experienced players. While Long Branch always seems to have the athletic, game-breaking players at the skill positions, it is the personnel on the line of scrimmage that usually determines the team’s success. For that reason, this year’s squad has reason to be optimistic.

With experienced players like seniors Ameer Washington, Sean Williams and Mark Caldwell anchoring the offensive line, Long Branch’s young skill-position players can attack each play with confidence.

That holds especially true for senior quarterback Randy Rodriguez. Rodriguez, who replaces Isaiah Hall, is not the running threat that Hall was, but he has a strong arm, and his ability to get the ball down the field and spread out the opposition will keep defenses honest.

Among the targets that should help Hall in that regard are senior Larry Morris, one of the top college recruits in the Shore, junior wideout Devon Clark and senior tight end Ben Kanach.

Sophomore Miles Shuler is also expected to be a weapon on offense this year, lining up as a slot receiver at times while also getting some looks at quarterback.

The backfield will also feature a new look, since the Shore’s leading rusher of a year ago, Travis Patterson, has also graduated. However, George has a stable of young, athletic players who are all competing for the starting spots.

The Long Branch defense should be very strong, led by the coach’s nephew, junior linebacker Billy George. George, a threeyear starter who is also a prized recruit, is one of the more intimidating defensive presences in the Shore, with an uncanny nose for the ball. Along with Washington (defensive line), Morris (cornerback) and Shuler (cornerback), George should help groom an otherwise young defensive unit that promises to get better as the season progresses.

Long Branch’s regular-season schedule won’t do it any favors, as the Wave will face the likes of Matawan, Freehold Borough, Ocean Township and Monmouth Regional, on top of their opening games with Wall and RBC.

All of the aforementioned teams are expected to be solid this fall, giving the Wave one of the toughest schedules in the conference.

However, should they earn another spot in the state playoffs, they should benefit from dropping down to CJ Group II, which will allow them to avoid the likes of Middletown South and Moorestown. While the CJ Group II section certainly presents some challenges of its own, on paper, Long Branch seems to be a program that should thrive in position.

For all of these reasons, there is an unquestionable sense of optimism surrounding this year’s Long Branch team. Should they play to their potential, this season has all the makings of another memorable ride for a group of players looking to set a standard of excellence in their new home.