SUMMIT, NJ - The Summit football team enters this fall looking to build off of a stellar 11-win campaign in 2011, where they reached the North II Group 2 State Sectional finals, and won a conference championship.
For most programs in the state, an 11-1 season is fantastic. But when that one loss comes in the state championship game in a 40 point loss, it can leave a nasty taste, a feeling of emptiness, and some unfinished business.
Because they've been moved to the N2G3 section, the boys won't get a chance to finish that business with the Madison team which handed Summit its only loss in '11, but they will get another chance at a state championship, returning a large group of starters from a year ago.
"Last year was a good season but then it came to an end that we didn't want and we're going to have that in the back of our mind this year," said senior Mike Badgley.
Key returnees include senior fullback AJ Iarussi and senior running backs Kyre Negron, Badgley, who combined for 44 touchdowns last fall. Iarussi rushed for 1,042 yards as well as scoring 23 tds. Summit also has senior quarterback Tyler Carbone back after missing his junior year with an injury. Some of Carbone's potential receivers are Daniel Kennedy, Ioni Bueno, Will Shamim, Mike Knight and Austin Fern.
"They're definitely going to do a great job," Carbone said of his receiving corps. "I can tell every time I throw the ball, I know they're going to be there, run crisp routes and do a good job, so I'm definitely expecting big years out of them."
The Hilltoppers suffered most of their senior losses on the offensive line, losing Andrew Perry, Stefano Stadlinger, Kyle Codey, Bill Hadley and Will Webber. That line paved the way for a Summit's backs to rack up 3,229 yards on the ground last fall, for nearly 270 yards per game and a new Summit record.
"They're senior players who are hard to replace, but now it's an opportunity for these players to step up and maybe one of those four guys this year," said head coach John Liberato.
Stepping up and filling the voids left at the line will be guards Andrew Oristanio, Patrick Delp and Brian Hillias, as well as tackles Eric Lyman, Rob Walsh and Will Delaney.
"We're really a high powered offense, hopefully we're going to score a lot this year," Oristanio said. "It's just a real fast-paced offense, I think it's going to be an equal mix between pass and run. We're just looking to blow people off of the ball."
Perhaps the team's biggest strength entering the fall is on the defensive side of the ball, where they have eight returning starters. Nick Liberato and Oristanio will be at the ends, Connor O'Malley and DJ Stewart will be at the defensive tackles. At linebacker, the boys are pretty deep, returning three of four starters and other contributors off of the bench. Iarussi, Robert Chase, Joe Lasaracino and Austin Carbone combined for 227 tackles. Summit also has two returning starters in the secondary, getting back Negron at corner and Badgley at safety.
"Going against the defense every day in practice, I can tell we're going to be a tough defense," Carbone said. "We've got guys flying all around the ball from our defensive line to the secondary, to the linebackers, everybody is doing their part, and it's definitely going to be a tough defense."
Along with being in a new section, the Hilltoppers have also moved up to the Mid-State 38 Raritan Division, after winning the Mountain Division last fall. But that was the only change for Summit this season. Upon opening training camp this summer, there were 10 United States Marines waiting for them in the weight room, looking to push them to another level.
"One of the things we did this year was have a partnership with Marines, they were here for seven hours on the first day," Liberato said. "A lot of the values that we're teaching, were just taught by a different voice, the Marines. I told the kids that we were going to get their attention on the first day of practice."
Neither the players nor the Marines got into specifics about what exactly went on at the special training session, but did say that it was very intense. The training was not just physical however, there were many valuable lessons, according to Staff Sergeant Michael Diaz, of the Marine Corps.
"This team already had a lot of leadership traits and values that we utilize in the Marine Corps on an everyday basis," Diaz said. "We brought in a lot of our personal experiences and how we utilize those same traits that they use such as endurance and enthusiasm, which altogether bring a better leader."
There were some physical workouts for the players, and Diaz said the boys put out a good effort, but many were left sore for nearly a week. He said he is expecting big things from the Hilltopper boys this fall.
"I think they're going to be pretty unstoppable," Diaz said. "We've worked with other teams before, this is definitely the most well put together team."
Summit faces a fairly difficult schedule, featuring six teams which finished above .500 last fall, including Defending sectional champs, Cranford, and Delaware Valley, coming off of a nine win season. The Hilltoppers get their season started on Saturday, home at Tatlock Field, against Somerville.
"We have a lot of optimism going into the season, everyone has worked really hard in the offseason," O'Malley said. "Everyone needs to play their best all of the time and as long as we're doing that, we should win games."