BY ANDREW GARDA
For the tenth year in a row, Montclair High School’s football team held its preseason media day for New Jersey reporters on Saturday, Aug. 1.
That was the only thing that could be considered usual, though doing it in person, compared to remote as the team was forced to last season due to COVID-19, was a welcome change.
However, with head coach John Fiore taking a leave of absence this season, in addition to the introduction to a new set of seniors and top players, it was the first time the media were officially introduced to interim head coach Pete Ramiccio.
“Listen, coach Fiore is larger than life, and we love him for it,” Ramiccio said. “And it’s definitely different. There’s just a different buzz around the room, different buzz on the field. You know, Coach is always, constantly moving, constantly talking, moving from here to there. And how could you not miss that? You know, it’s such a big presence for us. And I know, I know he’s plugged in. I know he’s got us in his heart. He’s doing what he needs to do.”
While not having Fiore around the team is odd, Ramiccio said they’ve adjusted and are moving forward. The opening game against rival East Orange, being held as part of the Rumble on the Raritan at Rutgers University, is a mere 18 days away.
The game against the Jaguars launches the Mounties into one of the toughest schedules the team has seen in some time, especially on the road.
“Unfortunately the Super Essex Football Conference schedule did not swing our way this year,” Ramiccio said. “Those road games, even our crossovers. We picked up, you know, Ridgewood and St. Joe’s. Talk about a very difficult road slate.”
While the East Orange game is technically on the road, Ramiccio said they aren’t thinking of it that way.
“East Orange, we are not marketing as a road game,” he said. “I know it’s their home game and what have you, but we’ve really been selling that opportunity, the chance to play on a college field, the chance to get eyes on kids. And that’s really how we’re selling it.”
Beyond that, Ramiccio and the team are focusing on each week as its own thing and not looking ahead. That doesn’t mean the team doesn’t know what lies down the road, though.
“We’re going week to week, you know, one step at a time,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to you that the difficulty of the schedule is not lost on us or our players.”
That means the team has to get used to some other changes, beyond Fiore, specifically the up-tempo offense new offensive coordinator Patrick Leonardis is bringing back to the team.
Leonardis was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator during MHS’ 2017 undefeated run and state championship and has come back to help out in Fiore’s absence.
“The word of the day is tempo. That’s really it,” Ramiccio said. “I’ll tell you exactly what I told the quarterbacks today. It’s almost like a hard reset offensively. While the scheme points may be the same, how we put them in, how we approach them, how we get our plays in from the sideline, all those little things were not a ramp-up with coach Leo coming back.”
For senior quarterback Solomon Brennan and the other quarterbacks, it’s a challenge, but not a completely new one.
“Well, it’s been very fast-paced, you know, but it’s nothing that I haven’t seen,” Brennan said. “I’ve been on the varsity team since I was a sophomore. So I’m kinda used to that, you know, fast-paced, up-tempo offense.”
Brennan said the most important thing is just getting used to what Leonardis does and how he operates.
“With Leo it’s been like a new adjustment,” he said. “I’m still trying to learn who he is as a person, as a coach.”
The success of an up-tempo offense often comes down to the effectiveness of the offensive line. This year MHS has a veteran starting line, with senior Eli Pinilis the anchor at center and three-year starter Ethan Daddabbo bringing a ton of experience to the line.
For them, keeping the ball moving and the defense off-balance is the key.
“Getting to the ball as fast as possible and making sure we’re focusing on Solly [Brennan] or Drew [Pfiefer],” Daddabbo said. “Just focusing up and making sure we’re there so everything else can get in place and [we can] get our signs right. If we’re there and ready to go, everything else will fall into place.”
In the backfield, expect to see a lot of Jordan Williams, the leading returning rusher from last year. Originally, Jordan Diggs was expected to carry the load in 2020, but was sidelined with an injury. That left Williams to split the load with quarterback Michael Robinson. With both Diggs and Robinson gone, the team will look to Williams to build on last year’s 97 carries, 598 yards and four touchdowns.
Williams is also a key piece of the defense as a linebacker, which means not only will he have to make sure he is in top shape, but the team will have to monitor his energy levels and make sure he isn’t overworked.
To that end, Ramiccio said junior Samaj Adams will also get a fair amount of carries, as well as other players on the depth chart.
“We do have a few bruisers that can get in there a little bit,” the coach said, mentioning Max Haley-Coley as an option.
Defensively, Ramiccio is leaving the bulk of the work to his former co-defensive coordinator, Jamie Bittner. MHS usually has a solid defense, but Ramiccio admits the last few seasons haven’t been their best and hopes the team can get back on track.
One thing MHS has that is a bit unique is a tremendous kicker.
Junior Gage Hammond will be a three-year starter and has improved every season. Ramiccio said knowing he has someone who is very accurate kicking field goals is a big benefit.
“I think offensively, it actually helps us not just to know that we have a guy that can put points on the board, but also it allows us to take a few more chances inside that red zone,” he explained. “We’re not bound to ‘Oh man, we’re on a 10 yard line. We really got to squeeze and be safe with the football.’ We can do some things. We can boot our quarterbacks and we can put the ball in the air a little bit more because we know that if it doesn’t work we’ll throw it away. [Because] we have a guy who I feel very comfortable with from a certain point in and I can run him out there and get points on the board for us.”
Hammond said, “I try to do whatever I can to help the team, whether it’s one point, three [points] or just a touchback [on a kickoff], something like that. Anything that will help the team move forward.”
Hammond also handles kickoffs and punts, and to some that’s as critical as an extra point.
“For punters, I think the best punters are the ones you don’t hear about because they do their job correctly,” Hammond said. “If you don’t hear about me and punting, it’s probably a good thing.”
Ramiccio said, “He’s been putting in a tremendous amount of work in the off-season, you know, done a couple of showcases, done some camps. He’s out here with his ball bag every day, putting in big work. We have very high expectations [for him].”
Which is true for everyone on Ramiccio’s Mounties, for whom expectations will always be high.