RANDOLPH, NJ- A whirlwind of coaching chaos appeared to cast a dark cloud over the Randolph football program during the spring of 2017.
But a swift move helped stabilize the ship for this season when longtime freshman coach Mike Lyons was appointed head coach. Rumblings among players, parents, and alumni rained high praise on Lyons for his work ethic, dedication, and the values he has preached for the past 30 years.
“The Randolph football program has always been about working to teach our young men the message of teamwork and dedication to a group goal,” said Lyons. “High character and academic achievement are stressed on a daily basis.”
The chaos began when coach Tarig Holman appeared to be leaving the program in April, but stayed after players and parents petitioned on his behalf. But in Mid July, Holman flew the coop in a move that took many by surprise, just weeks before pre season practice began the Rams appeared to be a rudderless ship.
But don’t tell that to the players who are strapping on the helmets for the upcoming season.
“We got every senior together as a group after this happened, and we talked about how we have to be the coaches now, said senior lineman Chandler Boykens. “We have to be the coach-players and lead the team by example, showing the underclassmen the kind of work ethic they need to have.”
Boykins, who the Rams will need to be a leader on both sides of the ball, felt that the team was prepared to move forward. “We plan to carry on playing with intensity, heart, and playing every down like it is our last.”
Boykins and his offensive line mates will need to bring that intensity come game time, to help ease the pressure on a team that will have no varsity experience at virtually every offensive skill position.
On the line, Ryan Knox will move into the center spot, flanked by Nick Petruzzella at left guard and Alex Heilman at right guard. Ryan Cimbal and Boykins will bookend the line as tackles. While three of the five are new starters this season, all logged significant minutes last year.
The big guys up front appear to be taking the coaching change in stride.
“We have all been around Coach Lyons since freshman year, and he loves us like we are his sons,” said Heilman. “After coach Holman left, we all feel that coach Lyons kept us together as a team, and has us focusing on being ‘eleven as one’.”
Senior Justin Suarez returns behind center, giving the offense experience and leadership at the QB position. However, he will be surrounded by new starters at every other skill position.
“It’s actually fun working with all new starters, I am the guy everyone is asking questions of so I have to be a leader out there,” said Suarez. “This year I have to step it up because the kids around me are looking up to me.”
Last season, after the Rams star running back Carlo Zarro went down with an injury in week 3, it was running back by committee for the rest of the season with four now graduated seniors splitting the carries.
This year appears to be the same, as Joe Buttafuco, Ryan McDermott, Nick Rampone, Dom Scali, Matt Kuntz, and Derek Rooney are all battling for carries in the backfield, while Nick Wolmart, Andre Burke, and Jacob Flowers are the leading candidates to be Suarez’s main targets through the air.
Among the group of skill players, only Walmart ( 1 catch ) and McDermott ( 2 carries ) registered Varsity statistics last year, so while all bring new talent to the table, experience will be in short supply. However, a bit of a return to their roots should help overcome that.
“We all played in this offense when we were younger as freshman,” said Buttafucco. “When coach Lyons took over, he told us he was bringing back a lot of things from our old offense. You just need football players who are tough, make their blocks, and as a back get to the hole.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the boys in the trenches will again need to anchor the ship, as the defensive line returns the most varsity experience by far.
Boykins, Petruzzello, Cimbol, Knox, and Heilman are all returners from last season who either started or played big minutes and will do so again this season.
The linebacker core lost all three starters to graduation, including Chris Flynn and Sean Makovec, two of the top tacklers and defensive leaders last year. To help compensate, the Rams will move Tony Fodali, starter at strong safety last year, up to linebacker. Joining Fodali will be Nick Wolmart, while Andre Burke and Brandon Rice also are working into the mix.
“I played safety last year, and I know the corner position too, so I am bringing these guys under my wing and teaching them all I can,” said Fodali. “Sometimes I draw up plays with the white board and we talk about where they should go. I am trying to do the little things to help us come together.”
The defensive backfield will see four new starters. Nick Rampone will man one corner as the only returning player on the back line with some varsity experience. Ryan McDermott, Jacob Flowers, Justin Moreno, Mike Kuntz and Buttafucco are candidates to join Rampone as starters at safety or corner.
The Special teams’ units will also see all new skill players at every spot. Jacob Flowers so far is handling Kicking and punting duties, but senior Matt Byrne is also competing for that position. Matt Kuntz will return punts, and Kickoff return men include George Houston and Dominic Scali.
“The boys are working very hard and we have a very positive outlook for the upcoming season,” said Lyons. “Our strength is in our team chemistry as we are seeing the boys work well as a unit.”
A special practice session included a Yoga class taught by Jackie Levitan from B-Yoga in Randolph. (Photos at the top of the story)
The Rams open the 2017 season with three of their first four games at home. The season opener is home on Friday September 1 against Livingston, followed by a visit from Sparta for an early homecoming game on Friday September 8. After an away game at Morristown, Randolph returns home September 23 for a game against Morris Knolls. From there on out the Rams will be on the road, with the exception of the senior night game home against Roxbury on October 27.