MONTVILLE, NJ - The Montville football team is preparing for a season unlike any it has been through before.
Months ago, it was unclear whether there would even be a fall sports season, after the spring season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But with new safety rules in place, combined with an abbreviated six-game schedule with no state tournament, Montville is slated to open up its 2020 season on Friday, Oct. 2 at home against Morris Hills at 7 p.m.
It has been a long, six-month process that has been full of Zoom meetings and only two official weeks of practice to this point, but nonetheless, the players and coaches are excited to return to the field. Especially for players like senior running back/free safety Nick Amoroso, who lost his spring track and field season due to the pandemic.
"Losing the spring sports was a total bummer, especially for a lot of guys who are really serious with their sports," Amoroso said after Friday's scrimmage against Livingston. "So you know, going from not having a spring season at all to fall being up in the air was just insult to injury. So guys were just really excited that we would have a chance to play because we honestly weren’t sure that we were going to have a chance, and it was just great to be out here tonight.”
The scene at Friday night's scrimmage against Livingston was a preview for what can be expected during the regular season. All fans had to have a ticket to enter to keep the attendance under the state-mandated 500-person outdoor gathering limit, and were required to wear masks and practice social distancing in the bleachers. There appeared to be overwhelming compliance on both sides.
Coaches were required to wear masks and players were asked to wear masks while on the sideline. Players on the sideline were also told to spread out from each other.
But between the white lines, the sport still remains the same. And while there is uncertainty about how this season will go- especially with news of multiple schools across the state having to shut their athletic programs down for two weeks due to positive COVID tests- Montville has its sights set on another strong season after back-to-back state tournament appearances.
“I love these guys and I appreciate the work that they put in," said head coach Rick DeBonta. "It’s a different sport where you gotta be prepared, and they prepared coming into the season. To be out here with them on a Friday night, whether it’s preseason or next week the regular season, it feels like real life to me. These kids could focus on what they love to do and do things that they want to do out here. It was awesome to come out here. We tried to make it as game-like as possible because each and every week you never know what’s gonna happen, right? We have the music, we did all the things that we normally do for any game even though it’s our first time scrimmaging.”
The biggest question for the Mustangs going into this season was the quarterback position, and how it planned to replace one of its best players in program history in Mike Burke, who is now at Sacred Heart University after three years as the team's signal-caller.
If Friday's scrimmage was any indication, Montville will be in good hands at quarterback once again, with senior Blaine Franc set to take the reins of the offense. Franc, who has been the team's kicker and punter in past seasons and even saw some time at receiver last year, showed off his athleticism with some long runs and accurate passes, displaying a strong grasp of the Mustangs' spread, no-huddle attack.
“I thought Blaine had a great night," DeBonta said. "He’s running the ball, throwing the ball well. He’s a true leader out there. I’m very proud of him, and he’s working his butt off, and he’s really doing some great things, so we’re looking forward to it. That’s always going to be the question (replacing Burke). That’s what teams are going to look at. Once they see the way (Franc) played tonight, their minds may start to change. Now they got another one on their hands, another quarterback that’s going to be doing it right.”
Franc has appeared to emerge from a four-person battle for the starting role this year. He has been in touch with Burke, and has leaned on him for advice on taking on this new role.
“Me and Mike have been talking, he’s been training me up and coaching me up," Franc said. "So that’s been pretty cool. All the other quarterbacks are having a battle, I love them to death though.”
The offense will also be spearheaded by a senior-heavy offensive line, to go along with some solid weapons at the skill positions such as running backs in Amoroso and Mylo Lee, as well as receiver Frank Riccardi.
"Not having Mike (Burke), and Colin (Regan), and Reese (Martinelli) and all those guys back, we weren’t sure how things would go," Amoroso said. "But you know, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well we all work together and how fast we actually got things moving.”
Montville's defense was without question a big strength of the team last year, as it surrendered just 10.5 points per game, including a three-game shutout streak to open the year in 2019. It will count on four-year starter Zach Stolz-Illge at linebacker, as well as linebacker Mike Marucci and free safety Nick Amoroso to lead the way on defense.
It will look to continue its aggressive style of defense of swarming to the football on every play, and that will be important with the caliber of opponents the Mustangs will face this year.
This shortened season will see Montville take on the likes of perennially strong programs such as Morris Hills, reigning sectional champion Parsippany Hills, as well as West Essex- the team that ended Montville's season in the first round of the state tournament in 2019.
While the NJSIAA will not stage an official state championship this fall, Montville will look to take everything game-by-game and end the year with as many wins as possible.
“It’s a tougher schedule, and the thing that I love is that our coaching staff here is just top-notch," DeBonta said. "We coach every kid, every down, every play, and we do the best that we can to get the most out of these guys. I think every day the staff gets that out of them. It’s a large staff loaded with volunteers and guys who want to be around the program. I think we’re going to get the most out of these guys. It’s a good bunch of guys. They’ve been waiting their turn, and I think they’re ready to go."
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