BRIDGEWATER, NJ – The silver lining to Bridgewater-Raritan’s injury plagued football season last fall was that the Panthers’ younger players were given the opportunity to step up and contribute much ahead of their ETA.

And now, with last season in the rearview mirror, the Panthers’s 2018 struggles may end up paying dividends as the team embarks on the 2019 campaign with much more experience and seasoning than would have originally been expected.

All signs point to Bridgewater-Raritan improving significantly on its uncharacteristic 2-7 record from last year, and the veteran Panthers – who return 14 starters – figure to once again be in the North 2, Group 5 playoff mix.

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“The good thing last year – yes, we lost some kids to injury – but it gave some of these kids a chance to step up who we’ll be counting on this year,” said Bridgewater-Raritan head coach Scott Bray, who is entering his 12th year at the helm. “Hopefully it was a learning experience and they can build on it.”

Bray stressed that he never compares one team to another – even when his Panthers appeared in three straight state championship games from 2015 to 2017 – and this year’s squad is no different.

“Our goal to the kids is understanding that we’ve established a culture here, and it’s about understanding that and just working toward it,” Bray said. “Yeah, last year didn’t go our way. We had some tough loses, played some close games and it just didn’t break our way. This year, it’s about staying focused and taking it one game at a time, one day at a time.”

The Panthers open up the season Sept. 6, playing host to Colonia at 7 p.m. Senior captains this fall will be Alex Fromberg (QB/DB), Johnny Confalone (OL), Nick Vizzoni (WR/DB) and Brett MacMath (RB, LB).

Fromberg, who threw for 1,244 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior last season, is the incumbent at quarterback and will be the leader of a new-look offense this fall. The senior no longer has his top two leading receivers from last year – Kyle Nickel (636 rec. yards) and Colton Roseland (322), who both graduated – nor will he be able to hand the ball off to bruising running back Anthony Goffe, who also graduated.

Instead, the Panthers’ no huddle, multiple pro offensive will revolve around returning skill players such as Vizzoni, MacMath, Peter Usewick (RB/DB), Mike Maciolek (TE/DE), Bryce Myers (TE/LB), Miftar Hasanaj (WR/LB) and Michael Pastor (WR/DE/PK). Newcomers that figure to contribute offensively include Tyler Tangolics (WR), Zach Atanasov (WR/DB), Brady Kurdyla (WR/QB/DB), Dylan Corsi (WR/DB), Jake Horowitz (TE/LB), Evan Goldberg (RB/DB), Sal Cicale (FB/LB) and Mekhi Rainey (RB/DB).

Fromberg can also run well, having amassed 211 yards on the ground on 92 carries with five touchdowns a year ago. MacMath led the team in rushing yards with 431 on five TDs, while Usewick racked up 209 rushing yards.

“We’re definitely improving everyday,” Fromberg said. “A lot of new kids learning what to do and less drama, more teamwork. We keep coming together as the weeks go on. “

“This year, I feel we can do both – run and pass – more consistently, because we’re more of a team,” he added. “We have a lot of skill players and a good line that I think will come together.”

That line is certainly one of the biggest wild cards for Bridgewater-Raritan heading into the season, as is usually the case. However, with the leadership of Confalone, the Panthers are confident that they can build a strong offensive line. Keshev Appanna (OL/DL), Jared Karabinos (OL/DL) and Mickey Wasko (OL/DL) are all returners who will hold down the trenches as starters on both sides. Newcomers Michael Winchock (OL/LB) and Michael Filonovich (OL/DL) will also contribute up front.

“We have to find some answers, especially up on our offensive line, but I think we’re starting to find that,” said Bray. “For us, it’s always whether we can find those five or six kids that gel up front. That is what we’re in right now, and I think we have a good composite of kids we’re looking at right now that are gonna do the job."

Scoring points was rarely an issue for the Panthers last autumn, but allowing them was a different story. In nine games, Bridgewater-Raritan gave up an average of 33.8 points, including six games with five or more defensive touchdowns allowed.

But with MacMath as linebacker and a host of returners anchoring the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers are poised to tighten things up on defense, where they will operate in a 4-2-5 formation. Other players who will return as starters defensively are Ryan McKinney and Gerard Redden.

“There’s a big improvement from last year,” MacMath said. “Guys are really trying to follow the scheme, and do what the coaches want them to do. Pretty much do the responsibilities and trust each other.”

“We’re trying to stop every team,” he added. “We’ve got a lot to improve from last year, but I’m really trying to lead the team and get everybody on the same page to trust each other, fly around the field and just have some fun. Senior year, you’ve gotta go out with a bang.”

On special teams, Michael Pastor will handle place kicking duties, while Miguel Rizzari will punt and Sammy El Hididi will be the long snapper.

It is worth noting that this year’s senior class is essentially the final shadow of the great Bridgewater-Raritan teams that appeared in three consecutive state finals, as a number of them were sophomores playing varsity in the 2017 championship game. Lessons of leadership and winning from that team seem to have stuck with this class, which look to implore that into a winning culture in 2019.

“They really took on a huge leadership role [that year],” said MacMath. “That’s what me, Alex, Johnny and Nick are trying to take on this year and just lead these young kids, and even the seniors, too. Lead everyone on the team to have the same mindset of winning it all together.”