SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD — The first objective of Austin Holman’s rebuild at Scotch Plains-Fanwood was simple. The rookie head coach wanted the best available athletes in the school to be playing football.
Now, Holman feels, he’s got the school’s best athletes on his side. On-field numbers and excitement around the program are up, and the Raiders are showing the signs of a serious football team. Starting on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. against Holy Cross (Delran), it’s showtime, as the Raiders begin a season of optimism on their home field, believing they have the best athletes that will put them in the greatest possible position to succeed.
“We have the best athletes in SPF on our team,” Holman told TAPintoSPF. “That’s exactly what we wanted and exactly what we needed. With that, our job as coaches is to put them in the best possible position to go out and make plays.”
Holman and his staff have indeed been hard at work on putting their players in the best place to go out and make plays, which starts on defense. Through the “dark days” of the Raiders four-season winless streak, offense has rarely been the problem. Defense, on the other hand, has been dismal. Last season, the team allowed an average of 40.8 points-per-game, and that includes a shutout of Kearny in a consolation game victory.
With the new implementation of a 4-2-5 formation, however, Holman believes things will change. The 4-2-5 allows flexibility and options, and the Raiders have a solid group of athletes on the defensive side of the ball to make plays.
First and foremost, the Raiders will have five bodies in the backfield, which is a more conservative approach, but should help limit some of the major breakaway plays they’ve allowed in the past. Outside backers will be Christian Piesch and Justin Clark, while Jake Hahn and Marshall Young will play the cornerback positions, and speedy Shawn Martin will be the free safety. Kyle Robinson and Matt Power will also see time in that secondary, where the major advantage is speed.
In the middle of the defense are linebackers, Jack Manville and Isaiah Nathaniel. In a 4-2-5, there is no strong side linebacker. Up front, Mike Banic and Bryant Cadet will play tackle, while Kenny Yeager and Liam Mahr will hold down the defensive end positions. Nick Johns and Alex Werkheiser will also see time on the line, while Werkheiser will addtionally play some linebacker.
“The 4-2-5 gives us the ability to put players in a position where they can be successful,” said Holman. “It’s a “chameleon” defense because we can do many different things out of it.”
That defense will really be the key to whether Scotch Plains-Fanwood turns thing around, because as the past has shown, the Raiders’ offense has always kept them in games, and this year looks to be no different.
“On offense we have a lot of really good skill players and our goal is to spread the ball around like ‘basketball on grass’,” Holman explained. “Multiple players will get multiple touches so defenses can’t key on one person.”
Fittingly, Holman’s “basketball on grass” style revolves around a good deal of basketball players. The starting quarterback will be Hayden Widder, who is a talent in the Raiders’ basketball program and also a varsity baseball player. Halfbacks Justin Clark (also a slot receiver) and Charlie Levine play on the varsity basketball team as well, as do Piesch, a wide receiver, and Mahr, a lineman.
In a football sense, that offense figures to be potent. Widder, a junior with great poise and athleticism, will lead the offense under center after taking a year off last season. Hahn, a senior with experience and leadership, will also see time at QB. They’ll both have a solid core of receivers to target, with Piesch and Camden Ricci at wideout and Clark often in the slot. Levine will also see a number of passes, and so will Nathaniel, who will be at tight end.
Explosive junior Shawn Martin, arguably the best athlete on the roster, will get the majority of carries at tailback. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Martin ends up leading the team in all-purpose touchdowns this year. Levine and Clark, both shorter but built well, will also run the ball a bit.
Of course, the key to a successful offense is the men up front. Though the Raiders have struggled heavily at this position in the past, they have some very big and strong players on the line this fall. Holman considers the staples to be Yeager at left tackle and Manville at center. Banic and Werkheiser will play guard, and Johns will be at right tackle. Mahr will also rotate in the mix at guard or tackle.
On special teams, Piesch will be the placekicker and Widder will handle punting, with Young serving as long snapper. Martin and Levine are the primary kick returners.
With many of those starters new to football or returning after not playing for a period of time, Scotch Plains-Fanwood will definitely be one of the most inexperienced teams in its Mid State-38 Raritan Division. Given the challenging competition of divisional opponents in Immaculata, Cranford, North Hunterdon, and Montgomery, that can certainly be considered the Raiders weakness — but also their strength.
"A weakness is our lack of experience with several newcomers to the game, playing in varsity football," Holman said. "But the fact that there is such enthusiasm in the school and so many new kids coming out for the team is also a positive for this team and the future of the program."
The Raiders had a productive preseason, producing good showings in two quad scrimmages at South Plainfield and Johnson, and won their game scrimmage against Newark Central in Newark. But the preseason is over, and now all eyes are on the Raiders Saturday, as they go for their first regular season victory since November 2014.
The task won't be easy against a Holy Cross (Delran) team with a rich legacy, albeit also in a rebuild, but the Raiders are positive and confident in the work they've put in this summer.
“The kids have done everything we have asked of them and that’s all we can ask for,” Holman said. “We have been focusing on the little things and working hard at all three phases of the game. I feel confident in the coaching and teaching that my assistants have provided which will have us prepared to get our first win.”
“We are going to take it one game and one week at a time, but we do have a plan to be more successful than in years past,” the coach added. “It starts with this Saturday.”
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