BASKING RIDGE, NJ -- A few minutes after his team's second-round playoff loss to an elite level Piscataway team last November, Ridge football coach Bill Tracy considered the prospect posed to him of having so many talented players returning for the Red Devils in the 2019 season.
"Yes, but this team had a really special chemistry," Tracy said wistfully of a squad that had concluded its 2018 season with an 8-2 record. "That's a hard thing to replicate from season to season. You just don't know yet what kind of chemistry next year's team will have."
But, just short of 10 months later, Tracy is actually championing the chemistry and camraderie he sees in his 2019 team, which opens its season Friday night in Flemington at 7 p.m. against Hunterdon Central.
"We are very optimistic," Tracy said during the 2019 pre-season, "We have a bunch of strong players back, and our newcomers look to be solid. We have a very nice team chemistry, and have very good team speed. The guys are intense, and smart."
The Red Devils have an impressive corps of players returning from last year's eight-win team, although graduated quarterback Wes Hudkins, who put together a remarkable and almost mistake-free season last year at both QB and cornerback on defense, is someone whose spirited leadership would seem to be tough to replace.
However, senior Brendan Bell, a revelation at wideout last season (32 receptions, 26 yards per catch), appears to have all the qualities needed to make a successful transition to quarterback in this year's Wing-T offense. Not only will Bell play quarterback, but he'll also play rover on defense and handle the punting on special teams.
Senior Christian Sweeney also is capable of making a huge impact on both sides of the ball, both as a workhorse fullback and as a hard-hitting linebacker. Sweeney is the latest in a long line of punishing runners whom Tracy has employed at fullback to make the Wing-T go. Senior halfbacks Jake Hoffman and Jack Perry help keep defenses honest with their sprints off tackle and to the outside on misdirection plays. Senior Cam Lloyd and junior Nolan Murphy will line up at the two offensive end spots. Lloyd and Perry are also vital to Ridge's return game.
And while Ridge has potential game-breakers in the kick return game, the Red Devils also will have a special teams advantage over many opponents in the kicking game, as junior Jake Beckman returns as the placekicker after a strong sophomore season at the position.
On defense, Hoffman and Murphy line up at end, Lloyd at corner, Perry at safety and senior Collin Young at tackle. On offense, Young will start at one of the guard spots.
According to Tracy, "Sweeney, Bell and Lloyd have a great deal of interest from the 1AA (schools)" in the college recruitment process.
Some players who were waiting their turn during last year's playoff run now will have their chance to step forward for Ridge. They include Michael Duncan, a senior offensive tackle; junior Mark Minsch, a junior center; junior Colin Scherzer, a left guard; Andrew Taddeo, a junior two-way tackle; Dan Soulas, a senior linebacker; Chris Serluco, a senior cornerback; Luke Roberts, a junior defensive back; Jack Prentiss and Christian Marchitto, juniors who will rotate in and out at nose guard; and junior DT Anthony Marchitto.
"(Our) chemistry, leadership, conditioning, quickness (and) intensity all seem to be strengths," Tracy said.
But the schedule is a potential minefield. Not only does Ridge open at Hunterdon Central--always a dangerous opponent--but three of the first four games are on the road, with trips to Phillipsburg and Hillsborough not likely to be easy.
"(It's) a very tough schedule," Tracy said. "We must have an A+ week of preparation every week to have any chance."
RIDGE 2019 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Friday, 9/13, (A) Hunterdon Central
Friday, 9/20, (H) Bridgewater-Raritan
Friday, 9/27, (A) Phillipsburg
Friday, 10/4, (A) Hillsborough
Friday, 10/11, (H) Franklin
Friday, 10/18, (H) Elizabeth
Friday, 10/25, (H) Watchung Hills
Friday, 11/1, (A) Linden