SOMERVILLE — Repeating the success of a 32-3 record over the last three seasons won’t be an easy task. But if there were ever a program to do it, Somerville certainly appears to have the pieces that will sustain a championship football culture this fall.
While the Pioneers have graduated a large number of the playmakers that were integral in their three-year run of dominance, there is a new wave of athletes ready to make their mark. Second year head coach Dallas Whitaker’s Pioneers embark on the 2019 campaign Friday night with a mixture of youth and experience, but a tremendous group of athletes nonetheless.
If those pieces can come together, Somerville will once again be in great position to compete for a South, Group 3 state championship.
“I feel like we’re coming around,” Whitaker told TAPinto Somerville. “Obviously, it’s tough to lose the talent we had the last three years. But we feel like we have a bunch of really talented players that are going to come up and be the next wave; very similar to the group that just graduated.”
While the key loses of such dynamic Division I-level playmakers like Jalahn Dabney (Albany) and Robbie Fiorentino (Kansas), and great program guys such as Joe Ciempola, Duke McDuffie, and Da’Shaun Smith will hurt, Somerville still retains a solid core from its 11-1 sectional finalist 2018 squad. Entering the season, the crown jewels of the Pioneers certainly appear to be seniors Ethan Hilliman and Kyree Hinton, who will start both ways.
Both Hinton and Hilliman are Division I-caliber talents, and it showed last year. Hilliman, now 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, averaged 41 1/2 yards-per-catch on five touchdown receptions as a wide receiver, and came up with 16 tackles defensively. Hinton, at 6-foot, 175, also hauled in five receiving touchdowns while averaging 27.2 yards-per-catch in addition to 66 rushing yards, while also compiling 11 tackles in the Pioneers’ defensive secondary.
Hinton and Hilliman only got better and stronger after a great offseason, and will be vital to the Pioneers’ success this fall.
“Both of those guys have had an elite offseason,” Whitaker said. “They’ve really embraced taking over the role of being two of the best players on the team and maximizing their work ethic. In order for us to be successful, we’re going to need big things from them, and I think that’s something they’re fully prepared to do for us.”
Hinton and Hilliman will be the veteran skill players on an offense that will look a little different than last year. No longer do the Pioneers have Dabney’s incredible dual-threat talents, but do have a good set of players to make up for it. The team received an enormous boost in the offseason when explosive back Cookie Desiderio transferred in from Bernards, where he rushed for 1,465 yards as a sophomore last year, and figures to make up for much of the 1,623 rushing yards lost by Dabney’s graduation.
In terms of replacing Dabney’s 1,821 passing yards, senior Justin Brenner will take over under center and has all the tools to make an immediate impact. Brenner excels extremely well in the short- to mid-range passing game from the pocket, according to Whitaker, and will have plenty of targets to chose from. Of course, Hilliman and Hinton figure to be his top receiver targets, but Brenner will also have good options in Otto Kornas, Thomas Cantilon, and brothers Eric and Jaimen Bryant.
“Obviously, with what we do, the quarterback will be critical, and he’s very prepared and capable to take over the mantle of the quarterback position at Somerville, which has been really exceptional the last three seasons,” Whitaker said. “I think he’ll be able to take care of that tradition. He’s more of a pocket passer. We’re not going to be looking to run him as much. He’s very cerebral, and is highly accurate in the short-to-intermediate passing game. We will be adapting the offense to the team’s strength and his strength as well. We have the opportunity to be very good with him at quarterback.”
Protecting Brenner and setting up a successful run and passing game will the line, which Whitaker notes will definitely see Jeff Pan, Victor Corvera, Noah Garcia, A.J. Pena in starting spots. There is fluidity for spots on that line, though, where the standard is simple: the best five men will play.
The Pioneers’ other line — on the defensive side — projects to be incredibly strong. Led by Pena, Hilliman, and Noah Irwin, the Pioneers’ D-Line is what Whitaker considers the best he’s seen since he’s been at Somerville.
Behind them will be a solid linebacker group that will feature any three-man combination of Will McIntyre, Deondre Gibson, Tristian Garcia, Drew Curielo, Sean Aira-Spiess, MacNair, and Desiderio. On the secondary will be some of the Pioneers’ best all-around athletes, including Hinton, Kornas, both Bryants, and Cantilon.
Somerville will operate in a 4-3 defense, looking to maintain or even improve upon the mere 15.6 points it allowed on average per game in 2018.
“Defensively, we’re looking really good,” said Whitaker. “We have a really talented defensive line; it’s as good as it’s been since I’ve been at Somerville… We have some really good players on defense, and we’re really excited with the level we think we can play our defense at this year.”
Somerville will be competing in the Mid-State 38 Mountain Division, with divisional opponents being Gov. Livingston, Rahway, North Plainfield, Summit, Voorhees, and Watchung Hills. The Pioneers will open and close the season with a non-conference opponent -- Hamilton in the opener and crosstown rival Immaculata in the regular season finale.
A very competitive pre-season scrimmage schedule against powerhouses Irvington, Delbarton, and St. Joseph (Metuchen) should have the Pioneers well-prepared for the regular season slate.
"We went out and scrimmaged some really good teams, and that’s what we try to do every preseason to get prepared for our tougher games," Whitaker said. "I feel like we put ourselves in a position to be very successful this year."