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2013 Roxbury Gaels Preseason Preview

By Patrick Eskay

When I spoke with Roxbury High School head football coach Cosmo Lorusso at approximately the same time last year, his optimistic vibe was undisguised. One year ago, the former high school player and now veteran coach made it evident that anything short of a state championship would be a disappointment.

After eleven wins and—yes—that coveted North I Group IV state title, Lorusso’s commitment to his goal proved to be worth every second on the practice field leading simulated repetitions and on the sidelines calling plays. Under Lorusso, the fall of 2012 was a spectacular time for Roxbury football, and the Gaels have the trophy from their sixth state championship—their second in four years—to show for it.

When I talked to Lorusso recently, however, I could not help but notice that while maintaining his optimism he did not demonstrate that “championship or bust” attitude from last summer. He was quick to note the lack of varsity playing time in a majority of returning players.

“We don’t have the same amount of experience that we did last season, but talking talent and ability, the skill is definitely there in our players,” Lorusso said.

Among the 17 seniors that Roxbury graduated, potentially the most valuable player was fullback, linebacker, and punter Donald Panciello who was named to the All-New Jersey Second Team, rushing for just under 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns on offense, while racking up 106 tackles, six sacks, two interceptions, and four fumble recoveries on defense. Panciello was honored as Gaels Most Valuable Player for the 2012 season, and was the Daily Record (North Jersey) Player of the Year. He will continue his football career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will play linebacker for the Quakers.
Roxbury also lost two other key players to Division I football programs. Quarterback, safety, and captain Kyle Young (872 total yards; eight touchdowns; 49 tackles; one sack; one interception) and lineman and long-snapper Kyle Adams (49 tackles; four sacks; one fumble recovery) both graduated and will attend prestigious colleges, including the College of the Holy Cross and Harvard University respectively.

Other key departures from their 2012 roster include:
• WR/CB Joe Garofalo (31 rushes; 482 rushing yards; 12 receptions; 75 receiving yards; five total touchdowns; 70 tackles; two interceptions; one kick return touchdown)
• RB/LB and captain Chris Colucci (275 rushing yards; three touchdowns; 65 tackles; one sack; one interception)
• OL/DL and captain John Magi (50 tackles; four sacks; three fumble recoveries; two blocked kicks)
• WR/CB Matt Sivertsen (three receptions, 22 receiving yards; 44 tackles; two interceptions)
• TE/DE Ramon Baez (Nico) Malone (39 tackles; one sack)
• WR/S Blake Isakson (45 tackles; one interception)

Graduating all but three opening day starters from last season, the Gaels have a difficult task if they hope to compete for another state title. The good news? Lorusso and his players are up to the challenge.

“I believe that if our players can come together, that we have the talent, and our guys know that,” Lorusso said. “Our motto for the year is ‘Different Team, Same Dream.’ We have a very different team but ultimately the same goal and that is another title.”

Offense
2012 Gaels– 25.9 Points Scored per Game; 296.2 Rushing Yards per Game; 26.1 Passing Yards per Game

Quarterback
Strengths: Potential; Skill-Set
Biggest question: How will a first year varsity quarterback be able to command a Roxbury offense that is likely to be very different than in past seasons?

Last season, the Gaels were a dominating force on the offensive side of the ball, using their power running game to grind away at opposing defenses. Perhaps their most noticeable weakness was their inability to throw the ball consistently without costing themselves a possession through an interception on third downs and long.
For the upcoming 2013 season, however, Lorusso is looking to utilize the passing talents of his young quarterbacks.

“We’re looking to throw the ball a lot more this year,” Lorusso said. “With the team we have, we believe that an offense that can pass the ball can keep defenses guessing, and help us not be one-dimensional.”

“There’s a competition for our starting quarterback position and right now Peter Bartek is winning, but Grant Dixon has shown potential as well.”

On Tuesday, August 27, in a four-team situational scrimmage, the Gaels turned some heads by utilizing their passing game right from the start. Bartek, who is a junior, used his arm to help drive the Gaels down the field in his first major home appearance as a varsity starter.

Bartek’s scrimmage time was highlighted with an array of short to medium passes that put his receivers in the open field for big plays. Taking a large majority of Roxbury’s snaps throughout the offseason, Bartek will likely start when the Gaels travel to Vernon High School to open up their season against the Vikings on Thursday, September 12.
Dixon, a sophomore who is also competing with Bartek for the quarterback position, completed a 50+ yard pass during the Gaels scrimmage to senior wide receiver Alex Watson.
While both quarterbacks at times showed signs of inexperience at the fast paced varsity level, both demonstrated great potential at the position.

“We want to be a balanced offense with a less experienced team,” Lorusso said. “We are going to do what it takes to win, and if that means throwing the ball more then we will.”

With Kyle Young graduating over the summer, Roxbury no longer has its Morris County track championship speed under center, but the Gaels are no strangers to letting their quarterbacks scramble for yardage when they are either intentionally or unintentionally flushed from the pocket. While Bartek appeared to be very mobile in his recent scrimmage start, Dixon completed most of his passes while in the pocket, and mobility may be a major factor in the final decision on the week-one starter.

Runningback
Strengths: Some experience; Skill-set; Versatility; Depth
Biggest Question: Can the Gaels’ running game stay dominate after the graduation of Donald Panciello who accounted for more than half of his team’s total yards in 2012?

Even if Roxbury’s offense turns to throwing the ball regularly, they are going to continue to operate in their standard Wing-T offense, which typically revolves around an effective ground-game.

In 2012, whenever the Gaels would find obstacles in their offense, they would constantly find ways to run past them.

Or around them.

Or through them.

However it is phrased, the Roxbury Gaels are going to do what they can to keep their identity as a run-based offense, with their backbone being a ground-and-pound running game. But with four of their five leading rushers now attending college, it is going to be difficult for Roxbury to replace those seniors who accounted for over 87 percent of their total rushing yards in 2012.

The Gaels are hoping that senior fullback and linebacker Peter Sutton can help fill Panciello’s role as a consistent big-play threat out of the backfield. A regular varsity player since his sophomore year, Peter Sutton rushed for 248 yards on 28 carries in eight games in 2012, and can be what Lorusso calls “explosive” when running to his potential.

Senior Shawn Leydon rushed for 61 yards and a touchdown in seven appearances last year and will likely carry the ball in 2013. A smaller and more elusive player than Sutton, Leydon could become a key offensive player.

Leydon’s scrimmage was capped off with a 40+ yard run after he broke off of his right tackle in the backfield.

Wide Receiver and Tight End
Strengths: Run blocking; Skill-set; Big play ability
Biggest Question: How will Roxbury’s first year varsity receivers impact Lorusso’s “new offense?”

Last season, Gaels wide receivers were typically used as perimeter blockers, but that may change with Lorusso’s new offensive scheme. In 2012, when the Gaels threw the ball, their running backs were often on the receiving end. In 2013, the Gaels hope for more versatility from their receivers and possibly their tight ends.

Senior Alex Watson was impressive in his scrimmage start, catching a pass on a slant route for a 50+ yard gain before being tackled along the sidelines. While using his elusiveness to turn a medium gain into a huge gain, Watson also showed tenacious blocking on the edge for his running backs.

Joe Maugeri is the only returning Roxbury player to have caught a pass from the wide receiver position last season. Maugeri, a senior, caught only two passes for 13 yards in 2012, but possesses a good combination of speed and six-foot-two-inch height.

In 2012, Roxbury did not complete any passes to their tight ends, but in the past, and under Lorusso, the Gaels have not been opposed to using them for that purpose.

Offensive Line
Strengths: Size; Coaching; Discipline
Biggest Question: Will Roxbury’s inexperienced offensive line be able to execute their blocks as effectively as they did last season?

On any given week, the Gaels offense will depend on how they dominate at the line of scrimmage. During recent film sessions, broken down offensive blocking and protection assignments irritated not just Lorusso but Roxbury’s entire coaching staff more than anything else discussed.

“It’s the fundamentals guys! We have to execute our protections,” Lorusso preached to his team on Monday, August 26, beginning an extended film viewing session. “Our linesmen have to block, our running backs have to block when they have to, and our receivers have to block when they have to for an offense to come together; that’s how it goes.”

While size is no issue for the Gaels, they will stress fundamentals and discipline in blocking schemes.

“We have to work out the kinks, but that’s with any team,” Lorusso said. “It’s simple things that we have to get through–lowering the pads, developing our plays faster, knowing our formations. Those types of things.”

Senior Brian Kuhn is the most experienced returning linesman for the Gaels, appearing in six games in 2012. In addition, senior Will Losier received praise from his coaching staff for his play as a center in the Gaels initial scrimmage in the middle of August.
Despite being what Lorusso hopes is a significant part of the running game, Peter Sutton’s play as a pass blocker in the backfield drew positive comments from his coaches.

Defense
2012 Gaels- 10.1 Points Allowed per Game; 21 Quarterback Sacks; Nine Interceptions; Two Shutout Victories

Roxbury allowed only 121 total points in 2012, with 42 coming in their only loss of the season against the Delbarton Green Wave. The Gaels allowed only seven points in week six to the Randolph Rams who averaged 26 points per game, and in the final game of the season, the Gaels gave up only six points to Pascack Valley who averaged over 35 points per game.

Winning two games in shutout fashion and keeping opposing offenses in check were tasks the Gaels executed with flying colors through their entire 2012 season.

For the dark blue and gold, however, returning only three defensive players that started at least five games last season, defense might not be as smooth of a ride as it was last year.

But then again, the Gaels have stood their ground throughout the Coach Lorusso era (2002-present). Allowing only 14.6 points per game over their previous eight seasons, the Gaels stand within the top four teams in their current division over that span.

Defensive Line
Strengths: Some experience; Discipline
Biggest Question: Will the Gaels be able to bust through the trenches for key tackles like they did in 2012?

With the college departures of three starting defensive players, the Gaels are going to have to replace the combined 148 tackles, nine sacks, and four fumble recoveries that their big-men accounted for.

Kuhn was the only returning Gael to have seen significant varsity playing time on the defensive line, recording 12 tackles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in six games in 2012.

Lorusso has been experimenting with his linesmen throughout the offseason, especially by moving senior Sean Cosgrove from linebacker to the defensive end position. Starting sporadically throughout the first half of Roxbury’s 2012 season, Cosgrove finished the season with 34 total tackles in eight appearances, including starts in all three of the Gaels’ playoff games.

While not intending to make possibly the biggest defensive play of the Gaels 2012 season, Cosgrove was credited with a forced fumble that capped off a goal line stand after a Pascack Valley running back fumbled the ball off his helmet, inches from the goal line.

Seniors Jimmy Kelsey and Will Losier each recorded one tackle last season and have both seen time on the defensive line throughout the offseason.

“[Our defense was] in an interesting position because you can do so much on defense,” Lorusso said. “Our players not just on the line but throughout our entire defense have great potential…like I said, it’s putting everything together.”

Linebacker
Strengths: Some experience; Skill-set; Pass rush; Run stop
Biggest Question: Will the Gaels’ experienced linebackers be able to lead the way for their other defensive players?

Perhaps one of the Gaels’ biggest strengths for their upcoming season is their linebacking crew. Typically their big playmakers in recent seasons, Roxbury’s linebackers accounted for approximately 45 percent of their total tackles and more than half of their total quarterback sacks in 2012.

The Gaels have two quality candidates fronting their secondary including Sutton and senior Dillon Artigliere, who combined for 10 tackles per game and a total of 108 tackles last season.

Artigliere, a wrestling state champ, was second on the team with 71 tackles and tied for second with four sacks in 2012, trailing only Panciello in both categories. In addition, Artigliere is the only player on Roxbury’s 2013 roster to have started all 12 games in 2012.

Meanwhile, Sutton appeared in eight games as a linebacker last year, and Lorusso says that his experience will be huge.

“We’re hoping Dillon Artigliere will be great for us; Peter [Sutton] has great talent. It’s going to be the experience that we do have from last season that will hopefully put us on the right track,” Lorusso said.

Roxbury’s players are encouraged to communicate on defense, and the experience between Sutton and Artigliere will likely add to the effectiveness of their coverage and blitz assignments in a blitz-happy defensive scheme.

With Cosgrove moving to the defensive end position, multiple remaining linebacker spots are still up for grabs, and for a team that relies on their linebacking crew to be big playmakers, the position battle can very well come down to the wire.

Defensive Back
Strengths: Skill-set; Big play capability
Biggest Question: Will the Gaels’ secondary be able to prevent opposing offenses from making big plays?

While linebackers are a strong point in the Gaels’ defense, defensive backs were at times uncoordinated in the scrimmage, most notably when they gave up a 60 yard touchdown to a wide open receiver.

In 2012, Roxbury’s most notable weakness was their pass coverage, but even those early struggles became strengths towards the end of the season, especially in their state championship clinching win against Pascack Valley.

Lacking experience in their final line of defense, speedy seniors in likely defensive backs such as Leydon and Watson will have stand their ground in the secondary, especially when in man-to-man coverage behind a heavy blitz.

Senior Joe Maugeri was the only Gael to record more than 10 tackles in 2012, but even he averaged just over one tackle per game.

Watson and Leydon recorded six and seven tackles, respectively, in seven appearances last season.

Tackling was no issue for defensive backs in the scrimmage, but with the speed of players at the high school level, it is essential that Roxbury’s cornerbacks and safeties can both keep opposing big-play threats in front of them while pursuing the ball and making tackles on running plays.

“Changing things up involve commitment from everybody, and I think we have that for sure,” Lorusso said. “I can’t say it enough. It’s a new team, a new season, and we are going to do our best to win. Our success is going to be determined by how well our new players replace last year’s players.”

Roxbury’s returning players have experience on special teams, and Lorusso feels that the fundamentals those players learned as role players will show up in their 2012 performance.

Starters such as Peter Sutton, Shawn Leydon, Sean Cosgrove, Alex Watson, Brian Kuhn made their varsity debuts on special teams over the last two seasons.

“The experience we do have from last season is going to be one of the big things that drive our season,” Lorusso said. “We always want to win…Our goal is always going to be winning a state championship, but we have a different team, and we’re not expecting them to win in the same way we did last year. If that means changing things up, throwing the ball more and stuff like that, then we will.”

“We’ll do what we have to do to win games,” Lorusso added, being careful not to reveal too much information.

2013 Roxbury Gaels

Strengths:
Coaching–Head coach Cosmo Lorusso has established himself as perennial threat on the sidelines, winning state championships in 2009 and 2012. Entering yet another season with the Gaels, Lorusso’s ability to adjust his team to new playing styles will be critical to their final outcome.

Running backs–With Peter Sutton showing great talent over the last two seasons, the Gaels are hoping he can develop into a backfield star. The injection of other key rushers will likely make Roxbury’s running game one of their biggest strongpoints, especially if their offensive line can dominate off the snap.

Linebackers–Sutton and Artigliere have a significant amount of varsity playing experience between them, and if the two can play like they did in 2012, they can be shutdown threats in the middle of the field.

Depth–Numerous position battles over the summer have given Roxbury’s coaching staff a chance to observe the strengths and weaknesses of all their players, which will be helpful if they lose a player to injury or ejection.

Drive–Coming off a championship season, the Gaels want more than anything to prove doubters wrong by repeating a North I Group IV title run. An optimistic Lorusso says that his team has the talent to do just that if everything comes together.

Uncertainties:
Inexperience–The only returning Gael to have played in all 12 games in 2012 is linebacker Dillon Artigliere, so the biggest challenge for Roxbury will be replacing last year’s senior-dominated lineup. Excluding Artigliere, Roxbury’s returning players combine for only 12 percent of last year’s total yards and less than 15 percent of last year’s total tackles.

Offensive line–Losing all but one of last season’s offensive line starters, the Gaels are going to need to block consistently and effectively for their offense to work to its fullest potential.

Pass defense–The Gaels allowed multiple medium and deep passes in their recent scrimmage, often as a result of coverage breakdowns. With their entire defensive back squad consisting of first-year varsity starters, the Gaels are going to have to learn to lock up opposing receivers to be successful.

Position to watch: Quarterback
The Gaels are looking to pass the ball much more than in 2012, so it is going to be up to either junior Peter Bartek or sophomore Grant Dixon to lead the attack. The quarterback battle is heading to the final stretch, and Lorusso has demonstrated on numerous occasions that Bartek will most likely be their starter.

Bartek was solid in his most recent scrimmage start but as a first-year varsity player he has a boatload of weight on his shoulders to lead the Roxbury offense down the field. With the Gaels looking to be a balanced offense that can turn to their quarterback(s) to make plays in the air, the overall performance of their passing game will be a crucial element of their success.

My prediction:
I do not believe that the Gaels are going dominate like they did in 2012, but as a Roxbury student, I predict quality football throughout the season and possibly a championship run down the stretch. I know the coaches; I know the players; I’ve played with both. They definitely have the talent to win football games.

The Gaels have to take their season one game at a time, beginning with Vernon and Morristown, two teams they can beat. I am not expecting Roxbury to defeat Delbarton on October 11, but I believe that the Gaels will hang tough with strong teams such as Randolph and West Morris Central.

I have faith in my Roxbury Gaels and boldly predict they will finish the regular season 6-3, losing to Delbarton, Parsippany Hills and one other team. With a schedule that can either make or break the outcome of their season, the Gaels can very well clinch a playoff spot with a 5-4 or even a 7-2 record if they can come together and play to their fullest potential.
Lorusso is not a huge fan of season predictions or year-to-year comparisons, because anything can happen on any given week. Maybe the Gaels will upset Delby at home like they did to their nationally ranked boys soccer team, winning the Morris County Championship last fall. Maybe the Gaels will struggle against a smaller school such as Vernon or Chatham, teams they ran through last year. Then again, that is why the games are played—to prove critics like me right or wrong.

George Muha has been covering high school sports since 2006. He feels high school scholar-athletes are the most important part of the community and highlighting their achievements on the field, in the classroom and within the community is his personal mission.

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