MONTVILLE, NJ - The 2018 season for the Montville football team was just the type of breakout season that can propel a program to new heights.

After over a decade of constant struggles, the Mustangs burst onto the scene last year to an 8-3 record behind an explosive offense led by quarterback Mike Burke. It managed to qualify for the state playoffs for the first time in 12 years, and that concluded with a sectional semifinal loss to Summit on the road.

While the team lost some important pieces to graduation, there is still a very strong nucleus intact going into the 2019 season, and it has high hopes of being able to replicate, or even surpass the accomplishments from a year ago, as it prepares for Friday's home opener against Mendham at 7 p.m.

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“Coming off of last year, this team kept rolling into camp," senior wide receiver and outside linebacker Reese Martinelli said. "We had a phenomenal camp, the scrimmages are going well, and it’s time to get into the season. We have a big senior class with 21 guys. These guys next to me have good leadership here and we’re just going to keep rolling into the season.”

A big reason for the optimism around the team is the return of its star dual-threat quarterback in Mike Burke. Going into his senior year, he has two years of starting experience under his belt, and opened eyes around the state in 2018 with his abilities to make plays with both his feet and his arm.

Having one of the top quarterbacks in the area back on the field will certainly help, as will an offensive line that returns four starters from a year ago, which is spearheaded by senior tackle Steven Olsson. The primary question mark going into this season was how the offense would come together after the graduation of two important playmaking receivers in Deen Ninche and Nick Billiand.

But one of its top playmakers in running back/wide receiver Colin Regan is back, while Martinelli, senior Andrew Gorski, and junior Nick Amoroso all figure to step in and perform at a high level.

“I have the same confidence in this year’s receivers as I did in last year’s," Burke said. "Everyone has stepped up and proved themselves. I’m not afraid to let it fly to any of them and I trust them with any one of my throws to go make a play.”

"I think our line has come together, our line is a pretty solid group of guys and I really like the way they’ve been playing together, and Mike (Burke) is guiding the ship," coach Rick DeBonta- who is entering his fourth season- said. "Our big question was are we going to have those receivers, are we going to replace (Nick) Billand and Deen (Ninche), and a few of the guys are stepping up. I think Reese has had a good camp, I think Amoroso is really doing well. Gorski has really had a great summer and has really impressed me. Regan is back and he was a big guy for us last year. Those receivers are coming along, and it’s just about the timing right now and making sure we’re all on the same page.”

On defense is where the team saw perhaps its biggest change going into the year. Matthew Cherici takes over as the team's defensive coordinator this year, and he has already put his stamp on the defense by implementing an aggressive mentality.

“We have a new defensive coordinator and he’s a younger guy," DeBonta said. "He’s done a great job with the guys, I think they respond to his coaching and I think we’re running around and flying to the ball. That was our big push; can we get 11 men to the football on each play? That was the push and I think they’ve responded well to it."

The defense will be anchored by a strong trio of experienced linebackers which includes Zach Stolz-Illge, Alex Garcia, and Michael Conrad. Other key players include tackle Steven Olsson, linebacker Reese Martinelli, Colin Regan at cornerback, and Mike Burke at safety.

“We know teams are coming for us," Garcia said. "We know that we have to do whatever we have to do to defend our season that we had last year. We’re really hungry and we just really want to get into the season and start rolling.”

Montville competes in the always-difficult Patriot Blue division of the Super Football Conference, which includes the likes of perennial powers in Sparta and Morris Hills, to go along with a consistently strong program in Jefferson as well as up-and-coming teams in Mendham and Vernon.

While a state sectional title and a regional championship at MetLife Stadium remains the ultimate goal, the team is focusing on some smaller goals to begin with. The team's first goal is to win the Patriot Blue division title after falling just short of a three-way tie for the title last year in a 42-41 Week 8 loss to Sparta.

"I always try to stress to these guys the importance of winning the division," DeBonta said. "I don’t know how much people push that anymore because of the change in divisions each year, but for me, let’s win a divisional title. Let’s start with that, and that will roll you into the playoffs. That means you’re winning all the way along. So it starts with winning the division title, and then go to the playoffs and go from there. Obviously, we see ourselves in a situation where we’re in the sectional finals and we’re possibly going to MetLife for the overall championship.”

And Montville's 21-player senior class will look to close out their careers with yet another strong season.

“We’ve all been playing together since we were in eighth grade and we’ve always had winning seasons," Regan said. "So we know what it takes to win, we know what it feels like to win and we just want to keep that going.”

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