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Hanover Park’s offense includes two D1 receivers. Dover has one of the most dynamic runningback’s in the county. Hopatcong is pound-for-pound the most powerful offense in Morris-Sussex. Madison is its regular score-38-points-a-game self. But there is one reason none of these teams will go undefeated this season: one 6-3, 225-pound reason. His name is Greg Cooper, he plays middle linebacker for Lenape Valley, and he literally puts nails in a bowl, pours milk on top and eats them for breakfast.
Cooper is pound-for-pound the biggest headache for opposing coaches in the Freedom Division. It’s not that he’s big. He’s huge. It’s not that he’s fast. He’s a lighting bolt. It’s not that he’s blessed with God-given ability yet trains like an over-achiever and everyone knows it. “I know about Cooper,” Hopatcong coach Jerry Venturino told me. “He had twenty solo tackles on us last year.”
Don’t get me wrong, Cooper isn’t be the only Lenape Valley component that should make Freedom opponents–or North 1 Group 2 opponents, for that matter–shiver. Because this Patriots team is far from a one-trick pony. In fact, defense might not even be their strength.
Lenape Valley features a backfield of five or six studs that would be featured backs on almost any team in their division. Michael Josephs (who transferred from Pope John), Stevie Leyden and Mike Katz are all thoroughbreds. However, what Cooper is to the defense, Brandon Reis is to the offense.
Reis is another guy who is blessed with size, speed, natural ability and a drive that you just don’t see very often. The 5-11, 185-pound senior will take everyone by surprise who takes him lightly. “He’s going to have a good year.” Head coach Don Smolyn told me this summer. “He’s a good athlete, he’s strong and he’s been working.”
But wait, there’s more to the ’15 Lenape Valley Patriots. Order now and we’ll throw in two world-class senior offensive linemen named Rich Fritzky and Ralph Hall. With them, even YOU could rush for a 1,000 yards. Kidding aside, Fritzky and Hall are two returning students of the game with the size and technique that any coach would drool over.
And, the Lenape Valley report doesn’t end here. This team also has a quarterback controversy. Not the kind of quarterback controversy where two rookies are fighting for a spot. It’s more like a Joe Montana – Steve Young quarterback controversy where you can trade either QB for two first-round draft picks. Both senior John Cagnoli and junior Jay Pruden are varsity ready and the team is letting it work itself out. “We have 100% faith in both of those guys.” Cooper told me. “I have no doubt that either one of them can do a phenomenal job.”
Throw on top of this their Hall of Fame coach Don Smolyn and this looks like it can be their year. But frankly, this is what every year looks like for the Patriots. Smolyn didn’t enter the 300-win club by accident last season.
So let me give you the real skinny on these guys and the outlook for the season. First off, yes Cooper is a freak. He plays like a cheetah and has a football IQ of a NFL linebacker (yes, I am being overly complimentary of him because I am deathly afraid of him). But there is a cohesiveness about this team that you see once in awhile with teams that go on to do special things. You can tell they are all close friends and they are all on each other to get better. I’ve seen teams with that element alone win championships even when they didn’t have a star.
As for the regular season, it’s going to be a battle. This could be one of the toughest divisions in the state because they really don’t get a break. There are going to be a lot of one touchdown games. I don’t know if being perfect is a reasonable goal. But I would say that their regular season schedule will likely be a lot harder than their state section.
Right now it appears the starts are aligning nicely for the Pats. They are on a very nice trajectory and have momentum going in the right direction. They will be forced to veer off course a few times, especially with their regular season schedule. But so long as they can make adjustments and stay focused on the ultimate prize, I do think this could be their year. And when I say their year, I mean the kind of year that ends at MetLife Stadium.
Lenape Valley Patriots
2014 Record: (8-3-0)
Head Coach: Don Smolyn
Assistant Coaches: John Groome, Wade Pickett, Bill Moore, Robbie Klinck, Scott DuBiel, Matt Seniuk and Scott Nordland.
League: Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference
Section: North 1, Group 2
High Point: Winning five games by seven or less points, showing a lot of fortitude.
Low Point: Losing to Westwood 48-6 in the semi finals of the state tournament.
Season Breakdown & Prediction
Games to Watch: Madison and Lenape Valley have somehow become rivals since the creation of the NJAC Conference. It’s always a barnburner and this year will be no different. However, Week 7 against Dover in the “Thunderdome” (aka Dover’s Hamilton Field) is going to be the game to watch. That game will likely have playoff implications for both teams and Lenape desperately wants to avenge last year’s 19-14 loss.
Position to Watch: Definitely runningback. They have a platoon of guys that Smolyn will be dishing out one after the other. Plus it looks like Reis is poised for a monster season.
Young Guns to Watch: Junior RB Stevie Leyden is a very athletic, impact type of player that will be a big part of this team’s production this season.
In a Nutshell: This team brings firepower on both sides of the ball. Teams won’t get a break between the Patriots’ barrage style running game and fierce defense. There’s no trickery here. At the opening kickoff Smolyn will turn on the firehose and won’t turn it off until the final whistle.
Tidbit: Junior Michael Josephs is transferring from Pope John back to his home town Pats. His teammates are excited to have him back because he grew up playing youth football with this group. He was also a big contributor to a very good Pope John team as a sophomore. His athleticism is a welcomed addition to this team.
Dream Season: Winning States.
Nightmare Season: Not winning States.
Playoff Appearances: 31
Finals Appearances: 12
State Titles: 7
Playoff Record: 27-24 (.529)