by Andrew Garda
Expectations are always sky-high for the Montclair High School football team, but after a perfect season and a North 1, Group 5 championship, the bar has been raised quite a bit higher than usual.
That really doesn’t change anything for head coach John Fiore and his staff, who have held the same mantra for the last nine years.
“Hard work, teach kids football, so they know how to react in situations, and when we have the talent, utilize it,” Fiore said during the Mounties’ 2018 media day.
“Listen, the expectations at Montclair, every year are to win a state championship,” he continued.
The Montclair High School football team knows it will have a massive target on its back this fall, one year removed from one of the most dominant and record-breaking seasons in the history of the program.
A state championship is always the expectation at Montclair, and the Mounties will begin their journey towards a second straight title tonight, Aug. 30, with the season opener at West Orange. But these Mounties will have a different look from the undefeated squad that marched off the MetLife Stadium turf last December.
Yet it’s the internal hurdles that the Mounties need to overcome first and foremost.
Two all-time Mountie greats are gone; quarterback Tarrin Earle is now vying for snaps at Bucknell University, while running back Danny Webb has headed off to West Point. They won’t be easy to replace, but seniors Charles Murphy Jr., Josh Crawford and Willie Matthews are not daunted by the task.
“Tarrin was on a whole other level,” said Murphy, the first-year starting varsity quarterback. “I learned a lot just watching him.”
While Murphy was a wide receiver last season, and that’s what most of the college recruiting has centered on so far, quarterback isn’t a new position. In fact, last season was the first he played wide receiver full time. Before that he had always been under center.
“It’s hard to replace the leadership of a Tarrin Earle but Charles Murphy is a Division 1 athlete, he’s got a Division 1 arm, and we know he can run,” said head coach John Fiore, who enters his ninth season here with a 77-17 record and four state titles.
And while there are few athletes who can lead the way Earle could, Murphy has worked hard to become a leader for his team in his own style.
“We get together, watch film, talk about what a receiver has to do when, go over the chalkboard,” Murphy said. “I try to encourage them and make sure they don’t get too frustrated.”
In the backfield, Matthews and Crawford will provide a one-two punch, with Crawford gashing for big runs while Matthews runs through — and over — any defender unlucky enough to find themselves in his way.
While Murphy has worked to build chemistry with his receivers, most of whom were not varsity starters last year thanks to injury (Kyshawn King) or playing behind seniors last year (Walter King), Matthews and Crawford have worked all summer to keep the rest of the team in line. While all the upperclassmen are doing their part in helping the younger players along, Matthews and Crawford are the easiest to see — and hear — on the field.
Watch a practice for any length of time when they are on the field and you will surely see them pulling, pushing or cajoling another player — loudly — into stepping up their efforts, and sometimes doing all three.
“Different people need different approaches,” said Matthews. “It’s something you get a feel for the more you do it.”
Crawford said that the reason he and Matthews get after the other players so hard is because there is such a fine line between success and failure, winning and losing.
“We have so much talent,” Crawford said after a recent scrimmage. “It’s just a the little stuff. Like Coach Fiore, [defensive coordinator Jamie] Bittner, the whole coaching staff say every day. Little things are going to kill you. They determine a game and it shows in every scrimmage and everything we do.”
They won’t have to do it alone, as other seniors like defensive end Gary Robinson are emerging. A year ago, Robinson was quiet and unassuming. He played hard and worked every day, but seemed to be content to leave the leading to others.
Robinson is still quiet, but carries himself with more of an edge, with more confidence and a willingness to step up and lead.
“I’ve changed my diet, I’ve changed my workout regimen, I’ve definitely increased the intensity, and make sure I lead by example for everybody,” Robinson said. “When you lead by example and when you’re first in everything, that gets the respect from your teammates, respect from coaches and you get respect for yourself as well. It gives you more confidence, which is important in anything in life. And once you’ve got confidence and swag, nobody can touch you.”
Robinson is part of one of the strongest points on the team, the offensive line. The Mounties have four of last year’s five starters back on the line, including junior center Sebastian Fortune, senior guard Bo Bigelow and senior tackles Robinson and Nasir Thompson-Wyatt. Several hopefuls looking to compete for the fifth spot, though junior Patrick Barr and senior Matt Battle have been seeing heavy reps.
“Last year we definitely had a young offensive line,” Bigelow said. “I think that if there’s anything that makes us confident, we know our plays, we’ve been through this before and we’ve got guys who have started more than 12 games.”
Bigelow’s 2017 was shortened by injury, but he’s healthy and ready to go, with a lot to prove.
“Especially for the seniors and the ones who didn’t get a chance to play last year in the championship game, we’re definitely looking for another one,” Bigelow said. “Because we think the one which matters most is the one you end on.”
“The strength of our team coming in is, it’s safe to say, the offensive line,” Fiore said. “It’s 100 percent critical. If you have time to throw and they’re opening holes, this is Montclair, I’ve got four guys who can run through holes, I’ve got wide receivers who can go up and get the ball. In the years we didn’t [win state titles], we’ve had some great skilled teams and I can guarantee you that the difference was one or two spots on our offensive line where we were deficient.”
The line will help ease the transition for offensive coordinator Pat Leonardis, who is building an offense based around the passing and running skills of Murphy, along with a solid corps of receivers including the King brothers, Steven Rose, Tarik Giles, Wade Korbel and Jeikson Boyle.
Defensively, the Mounties should be strong up front led by have some depth on the line, with many of the offensive linemen going both ways and joined by athletic defensive end/tight end Shawn Collins, Kevin Zaccareo, Alejandro Dagnino and Sebastian Garda, all of whom could see heavy rotational play.
At linebacker, MHS will lean on Matthews, one of the state’s most ferocious linebackers who made 183 tackles last year, along with Kyshawn King, Amarae Witter and Terrell Santana.
The secondary is also going to have to do some adjusting, as it lost several players to graduation and transfer. But starters Steven Rose, Walter King and Tariq Jiles will lead the rotation with Crawford as the rover, sliding between linebacker and safety as needed.
At all defensive positions, the Mounties will be rotating players early and often. That’s even though the team isn’t as deep as it has been in the past. More players will have to play both ways, and Montclair will have to stay injury-free in order to achieve its goals.
There are also new quirks to the Mounties’ schedule, and new goals on the horizon. On Sept. 14, MHS will take a trip out to Massillon, Ohio, to play Washington High School, one of the most successful high school football programs in the nation. The Thanksgiving game against Bloomfield is no more, as the teams will meet in mid-October instead.
And there is also a new playoff format, which will see sectional champions crowned by Thanksgiving weekend, with sectional finals played at the home field of the higher seed. The North 1 and North 2 sectional champions will then meet the following weekend in the inaugural “super sectional” bowl game at MetLife Stadium.