SOUTH PLAINFIELD -- The South Plainfield High School varsity football team defied expectations a year ago.

The Tigers went 8-4 and made it to the Central Jersey, Group 3 championship game where they fell, 27-22, to Rumson-Fair Haven at Rutgers’ High Point Solutions Stadium.

If South Plainfield wants to make some noise again in 2017, they’ll have to replace 21 seniors, including numerous starters including tight end/defensive lineman Jean Sapini, middle linebacker Dillon Harris, and wide receiver/special teams returner Deshai Smith.

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But most importantly, they’ll have to find a sense of leadership, camaraderie, and a want-to-win attitude. The talent is there.

“I know we have the talent, but have to get these guys motivated. They do that, and the sky’s the limit for them,” Tigers head coach Garry Cassio told TAPinto South Plainfield. “But if they want to play as individuals and go through the motions, then you know, we’re in for a long year.

“Those 21 seniors were great kids and I’m not even talking football players. They played for each other. They were hungry. We went into the year as underdogs. These young kids that we have now, they have to start believing and play as a team. The talent is there, but they have to find a little bit of heart and some fire.”

Last year, rising junior Charles Lovett split time with Ryan Marston at quarterback. With Marston’s (728 passing yards as a senior) high school years complete, Lovett is the full-time signal caller. Lovett began the year as the starter last year, but injured his ankle a few games into the season. He came back and saw time both at wide receiver quarterback on offense.

Lovett finished with 925 all-purpose yards, and improved in the offseason and during preseason camp this summer.

“There’s no better kid than Charlie” Cassio said. “I mean, off the field he’s one the nicest kids you’ll ever meet. He’s a smart kid and well-rounded. He’s a team leader but he’s not a rah-rah type of kid. He’s more lead by example and doing things the right way. He’s always hustling and respectful.

“Last year, (did well) as a starter before he went down with a high ankle sprain against St.Joes (Metuchen). Marston stepped in at quarterback, but with the kind of kid Charlie, when he came back, we moved him to receiver and linebacker and excelled. He’s only getting better. He’s stronger, bigger, faster, and is throwing the ball better. We’re going to rely on him a lot more this year.”

At running back, junior bruiser Zach DelVecchio returns after totaling 1,172 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground a year ago. South Plainfield has to replace fullback Ben Lundy, but they return pieces of the offensive line including guard Luke Niemeyer. Brandon Heddon will be the main tight end. Hamilton Uzoma and Julian Medina, who Cassio called “a bull” are battling for the fullback spot.

“We’re going to run it until they stop it,” Cassio said with a chuckle. “We got DelVecchio in the backfield. He’s in better shape this year. He’s more mature and has more muscle and he’s faster. He’s becoming a team leader. Half of our offensive line is back. We just have to figure out a couple more spots.”

Pass catching wise, Dondre Tate slides into Smith’s role. The junior will have to get out of his own way though. Teams will stack the box to take away DelVecchio and Lovett when he gets out and runs. It’ll be up to Tate to be a threat through the air.

“Tate is very gifted and athletic,” Cassio said. “We need him to step up on offense. He’s pretty dynamic when he wants to be. He’s had an OK preseason. We got to light a fire under him a little bit, but when he’s on, he’s on. He’s a good wide receiver who will take Deshai’s spot. He’s a great lock-down corner as well.”

When Lovett was out last year, Tate took his spot at cornerback and thrived. Tate finished with 57 tackles.

At linebacker, DelVecchio returns after making 56 stops a year ago. As mentioned, Lovett will stay at the position after racking up 60 tackles in 2016 himself.

Despite the talent in the back seven, Cassio said he believes the strength of the defense is the defensive line.

“I think our d-line,” Cassio responded when asked what area on defense he’s most confident in. “You know, we’re missing Jean Sapini who demanded double teams a year ago all the time. But we got our two defensive ends back in Parth Patel and Luke Nieymeyer. We got three or four guys rotating in at nose guard and 3-technique -- Dishon Hessing, Heddon, freshman Austin Scott, and Marquise Bradley. We got some players.”

The nine defensive starters the Tigers graduated accounted for 518 tackles, 17 sacks and seven interceptions last season. In wins, South Plainfield only gave up one or two touchdowns, but in their losses, they allowed over 30 points per game.

They’ll look to improve on those numbers and be more consistent starting Sept. 8 against Perth Amboy.

Cassio, who is in his sixth season as the head coach, owns a 28-24 record. He is already the third-winningest head coach in school history.

The players that were on the roster a year ago as well as the staff all learned and gained experienced from going to the CJG3 title game last season. And while the ultimate goal is of course to win their first ever sectional championship, Cassio isn’t thinking about that.

He just wants to be 1-0 each week and see improvement from his squad every day.

“Be 1-0 on Sept. 8,” Cassio said. “That’s it, period. Our goal is to get better every day. I don’t look ahead. Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be peaking.”