By BRIAN CUNNIFF
When a high school football team has to replace nearly all of its starting offensive and defensive lines, that usually signals a rebuilding season is on the way.
That doesn’t appear to be the case for Middle Township.
The Panthers open the season Friday evening at home against Cumberland at 6 p.m. (live radio broadcast on 98.7 FM The Coast radio). They’ll do it with quite a few new faces along the offensive and defensive fronts.
But coach Frank Riggitano (19th season) likes the talent level, if not the experience, of the players along the lines. And with quite a few skill position players returning, Middle is optimistic it can produce a winning season and perhaps challenge for a Group II playoff berth.
“The biggest challenge is to get our linemen some confidence in what they’re doing,” Riggitano said. “They have the ability, but they haven’t played varsity football before. But they’ve gotten better each week.”
Senior Karl Giulian (RB/LB) is one of Middle’s top players. He led the Panthers in rushing yards (689) and touchdowns (11) on offense and was also the top tackler (69) on defense.
“He looks really good right now,” Riggitano said.
Other key returnees include seniors Matt Marino (RB/DB), Douglass Watkins (OL/DL) and R.J. Tozer (QB/DB) and juniors Charlie McNeal (RB/DB) and Luke Salvo (TE/DL).
Tozer started a handful of games at quarterback last season. Marino led the team in receiving yards with 257.
Other returning players with at least some varsity experience include senior Allan Rendzak (OL/DL); juniors Matt Gariano (OL/LB), Brandon Rothsteel (OL/LB) and Jayden Matthews (OL/LB); and sophomores Brett Nabb (QB/DB), David Giulian (TE/LB), Matt Frame (OL/LB) and Jared Curran-Cattell (OL/DL).
The top newcomers include senior Miles Sapp (TE/LB) and junior Kenderson Cardaci (WR/QB/DB). Cardaci, a projected two-way starter, missed all of last season due to injury.
“We’ve got a half dozen or so really good football players,” Riggitano said. “I’m already inquiries about college on quite a few kids already and that doesn’t happen around here that much.
“Our athleticism is better. Now we’re trying to get the athleticism to mesh with the team concept.”
Other newcomers expected to push for varsity playing time include seniors Roberto Pettit-Ayala (OL/DL) and Donald Hatcher (WR/DB), junior Ethan Bossuyt (OL/LB) and sophomores Matt Racz (OL/DB), Jadan Farrow (RB/DL), Shane Kern (WR/DB) and Jesse Bartleson (OL/DL).
Middle has a chance to get off to a good start. The Panthers won a lopsided game over Cumberland in last season’s opener on the road. They’ll then face rebuilding Wildwood next week.
From there, there will be a handful of key games whose results will determine the fate of Middle’s season, contests against teams such as Buena, Mainland, Oakcrest and Pleasantville.
“If everything comes together we potentially could be a playoff team,” Riggitano said. “But in order for that to happen we’re definitely going to have to get the first one. Cumberland’s improved and they’re very large. We’ll have to be ready.”
Riggitano is assisted by Matt Wolf, John Richardson, Chris Branigan, Tom Griffin, Ryan Freyer and Ryan Smith.