BRIDGEWATER, NJ — Turning the page after heartbreak in the state championship two consecutive years, the Bridgewater-Raritan High School varsity football team has many reasons to believe 2017 can be the third straight year playing at MetLife Stadium — and this time, returning home with a title.  

The Panthers, who have built themselves into one of the elite football programs in New Jersey, have begun camp and are working tirelessly, fueled by the two crushing defeats against Westfield in the finals to make this upcoming football season one to remember.

One of the strongest defenses in the state will be leading the way for the powerhouse Bridgewater-Raritan team this season.

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Returning seven of its 11 starters from last year’s sectional final team, the Panthers will rely heavily on their defense to hold off the robust offenses they’ll be playing. Bridgewater-Raritan put up otherworldly numbers on D for most games in the 2016 season – three shutouts and allowing opponents to just a tick over 10 points per game. Things can definitely remain that way for the seasoned defense, as the Panthers will have the majority of that unit back, including Justin Bryant and Chike Nwankwo, a linebacker duo who combined for 254 total tackles a year ago.

“Our front seven (on defense) should be what carries us through the season," said head coach Scott Bray, entering his 11th season as head of the Bridgewater-Raritan football team. “To be able to have a defense you can lean upon, it’s great. As they say, defenses win championships.”

Nwankwo, a senior on the heralded D-line, led the team in tackles (130) last season, and will look to step into a leadership role for the predominately-experienced defense. The Panthers also are rich in defensive ends, as Allen Choy, who recorded six sacks a year ago, Nick Celli and Lawrence Nice, both of whom sacked four, are all returning as well.

“I am going to lead the defense, do what we did last year, and see if we can be better again this year,” Nwankwo said. 

While things look about as good as they can for a veteran defense with plenty of answers, there are many questions and vacancies for an young and fresh offense.

While returning seven defensive starters, Bridgewater-Raritan will only see four offensive starters return. Losing 2016 starters from an elite O-line, receivers and its quarterback, reloading will be the theme for the Panthers. 

“We lost a good chunk of our offense," Bray said. "However, we feel we have a good nucleus of players that are coming along and are going to fill that void. We understand that there’s going to be some growing pains in it, especially getting ready for our conference schedule, but we do feel we have a group of kids that are working hard to come together as a group.”

One of those growing pains will be replacing quarterback Nick Attanasio, whose versatility a year ago was vital to the offense’s success. Attanasio graduated and will Division 1 lacrosse at Rutgers, and now Bridgewater has a vacancy at the QB position.

One of the biggest storylines for the Panthers in camp this summer has been the quarterback battle to fill Attanasio’s shoes. 

“Losing Nick is a big thing, because Nick added a versatile role to our offense,” Bray said. “However, we feel that the two kids competing right now both are viable options to replace Nick.” 

Bray added that junior Greg Verano has the advantage in the competition, due to the fact that he has previous varsity experience as a defensive back and receiver on last year’s team. Verano is also an accomplished pitcher for the B-R baseball team.

Quarterback is just one of the many holes the inexperienced offense will have to fill. However, one of those holes is certainly not running back.

David Usewick, who rushed for 829 yards a year ago, returns to the team as arguably the biggest offensive asset, and a rushing threat who will give opponents nightmares.  

Bray described the importance of having Usewick return.

“It’s great to bring back leading rusher (David Usewick)," Bray said. "He had a great year for us a year ago, and bringing him back gives you experience in the backfield, which hopefully allows a better running game behind a young line, because his experience will help build that line’s confidence, with him getting those extra yards.”

Usewick, like fellow 2018 classmate Nwankwo on the defensive side, will step into more of a leadership role for the young offense, and he’s looking forward to the opportunity to not only perform, but also lead. 

“Yeah, definitely (looking forward to being a leader of the offense)," Usewick said. "I’m looking forward to moving the chains as a running back, do my job, finishing drives and scoring touchdowns. I know my other teammates will also be able to step up on offense. I’m hoping for over 1,000 yards — that’s been my goal, it’s what I’m shooting for.”

While developmental time will be vital for the offense and even parts of the defense, such as the secondary, to gel together and adapt to the rigors of the varsity level, the schedule won’t allow them any favors. Playing one of the toughest, week in week out, slates in New Jersey, there are no “gimmes” for Bridgewater-Raritan.

Some of the largest schools in the state, such as behemoths Hunterdon Central and Elizabeth, in addition to historical powerhouses such as Phillipsburg and Linden, are the norm as opponents for the Panthers. 

According to Bray, this is why, for a team playing this kind of elite competition, the preseason is vital for success.

“Our thing in the preseason is just getting the kids ready for that [schedule]," he said. "Everybody likes to look at scrimmages and stuff like that. We hope our scrimmages prepare us for our season, and really just focusing on us getting better.”

Throughout the month of August, Bridgewater will continue to prepare for Friday Night Lights. All of their games this season, home and away, start at 7 p.m. and all but one will be on a Friday, beginning with opening night on Sept. 8 at Hunterdon Central.  

Until then, the Panthers will continue to grind in practice and make sure that, as far as state championships go, the third time is the charm.