MILLBURN, NJ – After a 1-9 finish a season ago, things got even worse for the Millburn Millers football team and their head coach Carmen Guarino when the final days of the 2010-11 academic year rolled around. It’s tough for a team to weather a season like the Millers fought through last year, but when their best player, all-conference split end Timmy Swanson, graduated along with several of his other fellow starters, it was hard for Millburn fans to see how the 2011 season could be any better. However, Guarino’s upbeat attitude and never-say-die mentality is infectious among his players and this year, though they have struggled in the win/loss column, the Millers have fought tooth and nail every game against some extremely talented competition thus far. Add to their brutal schedule that four of the Millers’ first five games were on the road and you have the possibility for a young team to struggle out of the gate and that’s exactly what Millburn did.

Until Friday night, that is.

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The Millers finally got to return home to the friendly confines of Dr. Keith A. Neigel Field to host their first game since way back on September 9th and Millburn did not disappoint their fans as they played solid defense and ran the ball with authority en route to a 26-6 victory over Super Essex Conference, Liberty Division rival Newark East Side High School. It was the Millers’ first victory of the 2011 season and their first in their past 10 contests dating back to last season when Millburn beat Barringer, 29-8 on October 15th of last year.

Just over a year later, the Millers may have found their stride.

One look at Millburn’s early season schedule and it wasn’t hard to see the challenges and uphill battles that Guarino’s young team would face to open the campaign. The Millers were forced to go on the road for tough contests against Livingston (6-0), West Essex (7-0) and Bloomfield (4-2), but in each game, the Millers continued to fight until the very last whistle. In fact, against a heavily-favored Livingston squad, the Millers nearly walked away with a huge upset. Tied at 14-14, Livingston needed a late fourth quarter touchdown run to escape with the victory.

Against East Side, it was evident that Millburn was happy to be home. The Millers held the Red Raiders in check for nearly the entire game with a punishing defense led by Nick Palma (14 tackles), Nick Grinshpun (15 tackles, fumble recovery), Andrew Simon (five tackles, one sack), Evan Steinfeld (nine tackles), and Dean Delonge (four tackles, one interception). The Millers were not content to allow barely anything resembling a drive by the Red Raiders for nearly the entire game and that defense and its ability to stifle East Side’s attack while creating turnovers was a big help to the offense.

Before the season, Guarino took one look at his offense and saw what would be a work in progress. Traditionally, Guarino ran the Wing-T offense with the quarterback under center. Heading into 2011, the head coach adjusted his offensive philosophy on the fly to a more Wildcat-based offensive base in order to get the ball into the hands of his running back-by-committee, that committee being made up of quarterback Luke DeCastro and running backs Andrew Schoen, Gabe Greenberg, Jake Grzeszczack and Steven Montuoro. All five played a part against the Red Raiders and all five contributed significantly running the ball.

After a scoreless first quarter, DeCastro opened the scoring in the second with a 13-yard touchdown run. Gabe Greenberg knocked home the extra point and Millburn held a 7-0 lead. After the Millers’ defense repeatedly stifled the Red Raiders during their possessions, junior running back Alex Schoen broke loose for the first of two touchdown runs on the evening, this one from 38 yards out. The Millers couldn’t convert the PAT and led at halftime, 13-0.

Schoen struck again in the third quarter, this time from 32 yards away as he used his tremendous speed to bolt through the line of scrimmage and jaunt all the way to paydirt. All told, Schoen carried the ball eight times for 120 yards and was the biggest part of the Millburn rushing attack, but even the speedy Schoen had some big-time help in the form of Grzeszczack and Montouro.

Grzeszczack put the game away with a 28-yard scamper in the fourth quarter and that was all the offense Millburn would need on the way to their first win of the season. Grzeszcack toted the pigskin 12 times for 54 yards and a score while Montouro rattled off 10 carries for 60 yards though he was kept out of the endzone. DeCastro also helped his teammates offensively through the air and added 7-for-11 passing for 50 yards to keep the chains moving throughout.

After the game, as the Millers celebrated their win, a look of relief swept over Guarino and the players who had been varsity starters a year before. While the joy and euphoria of victory washed over them, the Millers surely thought about the fact that it had been over a calendar year since their last win. As Millburn finishes out the year, the schedule looks somewhat favorable aside from the annual Thanksgiving Day rivalry against Madison High School.

Their next win will be an improvement over last season for Guarino and his Millers, but more than likely, the locker room will be focused on finishing the 2011 season on the upswing with a few more victories, not just one.