Ocean Twp. football to face grueling slate of games

Spartans were 5-5 a season ago, face Manasquan in opener

BY DOUG McKENZIE Correspondent

When Don Klein took over as head coach of the Ocean Township football team last summer, he unquestionably faced an uphill battle.

PHOTOS BY ERIC SUCAR staff Above: Ocean Township High School wide receiver Brandon Robinsson (r) tries to elude a Neptune defender during a recent preseason scrimmage. Below: Jamaar Jefferson gets his face mask pulled by a Neptune defender. The Spartans start their season against Manasquan this weekend. PHOTOS BY ERIC SUCAR staff Above: Ocean Township High School wide receiver Brandon Robinsson (r) tries to elude a Neptune defender during a recent preseason scrimmage. Below: Jamaar Jefferson gets his face mask pulled by a Neptune defender. The Spartans start their season against Manasquan this weekend. Armed with a relatively young team, and a short time to get to know it, Klein entered his first season as the Spartan coach not really knowing what to expect.

“By the time I got the job and took over, most teams had about 75 percent of their roster set,” Klein said. “So we had a lot of catching up to do.”

The end result — a 5-5 season for a team that showed flashes of re-establishing itself as one of the Shore’s elite, when not hampered by inconsistency. This fall, Klein has an entirely different level of expectations, as he fields a team that returns virtually all of its starters on both sides of the ball, and a team that has grown familiar and comfortable with his coaching style.

In other words, very few people are expecting another .500 season from Ocean Township.

“It’s a totally different feeling coming into year two,” Klein said. “We’re much more organized, much better prepared to start the regular season.” While there is so much familiar about the Ocean team, there is a big difference from last year – the schedule. Ocean has moved from the Federal Division to the Liberty Division, where they’ll be battling the likes of Red Bank Catholic, Long Branch and Monmouth Regional, among others. This division appears to be among the Shore Conference’s toughest this fall, and Ocean will have very little room for error if it hopes to cap its divisional debut with a championship, especially when you consider its out-of-division schedule, which includes match-ups with Manasquan, Wall and Manalapan.

However, Klein is not about to label his team’s tough schedule a hurdle it can’t clear.

“We’re not going to have any off weeks, but I’m smart enough to know that even though these are all quality programs we’re going to face, it won’t sway our confidence from week to week,” the coach said. “We’ve got a lot of kids back with a lot of experience, and they’ve been in a lot of close games. They’ve won their share of close games, and lost their share.” On offense, the Spartans feature an experienced group that should be greatly improved from last season. The offensive line is experienced, and the backfield returns the likes of senior Ricky Tirado, Jamar Jefferson and Louis Pisano, all of whom are capable of breaking off the big play. Tirado in particular came on strong last season and should be the featured back this year. Junior R.H. D’Apolito will be looked upon to open the holes as the fullback.

Senior quarterback Rhett Cowley is back to lead the Wing-T offense, and will be looked upon to improve a passing attack that was anemic for most of last year. Ocean struggled with keeping teams honest defensively, with most stacking the box in anticipation of the run.

To Ocean’s credit, even without a solid passing game, they were able to score over 15 points per game last season — which is a number they expect to improve on this fall.

Among the weapons at Cowley’s disposal when the Spartans look to pass will be Brandon Robinson, who is an emerging playmaker, as well as senior wideouts Shaun Goodwin and Sean Hauschildt. Eric Becker is the starting tight end, and will be a big part of solidifying Ocean’s run game, along with offensive linemen Kurt Augustave and Scott Weldon, both senior guards, junior center Sean O’Grady, senior tackles Ricky Lyster and George Sofield, and senior Tom Price, who will rotate in.

The offensive line should be a strength of this team, as the Spartans look to establish a more balanced attack.

“I think we’re going to be very balanced offensively this year,” Klein said. “We got some vertical threats, so we should be able to pass the ball pretty effectively.”

Many of the same players will be pulling double-duty on defense. Lyster and Price are the starting defensive ends, with Augustave and Weldon seeing time there as well, while Sofield and sophomore Connor Hayes are the defensive tackles.

D’Apolito and Hauschildt are the linebackers, while Goodwin plays more of a hybrid outside linebacker/safety position. Jefferson and Tirado will anchor a secondary that should be able to match athleticism with some of the division’s top playmakers.

“I feel very strongly about our defense this year,” Klein said.

While the Spartans’ schedule is full of challenges this year, their initial matchup provides them with a chance to flex their muscles right out of the gate.

Ocean will face one of the Shore’s most storied programs on opening day when it battles Manasquan. While this is an outof division game, a win against the Warriors would make quite a statement that the Spartans are ready to reclaim their status as one of the Shore’s elite teams.

And with a head coach with a much better understanding of what kind of team he’ll field every week, Ocean Township has plenty of reasons to expect big things this fall.

“The concerns for us will be the usual ones- take care of the football, don’t be sloppy, limit mental mistakes and the big plays on defense, and most importantly, stay healthy,” he said. “All of the pieces are there for us to have a very successful season.

“This is the hardest working group of kids I’ve ever been around, and that’s as a player and a coach,” he added. “We’re just ready to rock and roll at this point. We just want to get going with the regular season.”

A year ago, Klein and his coaching staff could have used a few more weeks prior to the start of the regular season. This year, they couldn’t be more ready to get to week one.