BY ANDREW GARDA
The Montclair High School football team had its first preseason scrimmage on Thursday, Aug. 26, against Sayreville High School, and while they won on a last-minute pass from sophomore quarterback Drew Pfeifer by a score of 24-21, the outcome of the yearly matchup didn’t really matter.
What did matter, according to head coach Pete Ramiccio, was how the team played in what was its first scrimmage.
“We lost two skirmishes on the front end,” he said after the game, referring to a pair of scrimmages that were canceled previously. “So, considering this was our first one, I actually thought, for the most part, we played pretty well. There was definitely a lot to hang our hat on. Certainly, some things we need to work on. I would like to see us tackle a little better, you know, a few decisions here and there offensively, but overall, I thought we played pretty well.”
During last year’s COVID-19 hampered season, MHS finished 4-4 (1-2 SFC Liberty White), but the team faces a normal season now, and a tough schedule.
Still, the Mounties are looking to improve on 2020, and with the opener against East Orange coming, they will now turn their attention to solidifying what worked and fixing what didn’t.
One thing that definitely seemed to work well was senior quarterback Solomon Brennan.
For a little while, Brennan and Pfeifer battled for a chance to lead the Mounties offense from under center. Ramiccio said losing two scrimmages made it a little tougher to decide because the coaches didn’t have a chance to see what each quarterback could do against unfamiliar opposition, but ultimately Brennan just took to offensive coordinator Patrick Leonardis’ offense a little more quickly.
When it comes to that offense, “quick” continues to be the key phrase, as the Mounties look to run an up-tempo, high-pressure offense that keeps opposing defenses on their heels. A player needs experience for that, which Brennan has more of. Brennan also has a little more touch and finesse on his passes than Pfeifer, which is not a surprise given that he is a senior, while Pfeifer is a sophomore.
The best is yet to come for Pfeifer, but now will be Brennan’s time to shine.
He’s got some weapons to help him out as well, and if last Thursday was any indication, he’ll be using all of them.
Junior Semaj Adams was one of the targets for Brennan on a touchdown as he got some space on the cornerback and caught a long pass in stride, heading into the end zone as he did so. He ended up with four catches for 65 yards and that touchdown, and seems to have strong chemistry with Brennan, just missing on catching another long pass down the far sideline for what would have been a big gain.
Another outlet Brennan will likely use all season long is senior Maverick Selementi, who caught three balls for 24 yards, including a pass where he showed off great hands, digging the ball off the turf and nearly getting a first down. Selementi is a former quarterback who is a very smart player. He showed that by drawing a holding penalty on a route down the Mountie sideline that gave MHS a first down to extend a drive.
“Maverick is a great example of a program kid,” Ramiccio said. “You know, he’s a kid who from day one, as a freshman, did everything right. Did everything we asked him to do, worked his way up the ladder, you know, never complained, showed up every day. And it shows because he knows exactly what he needs to do [on] every play. He runs great routes, he’s got good hands. He’s going to be a great safety net for Solly.”
There are also weapons in the backfield, with senior Jordan Williams and sophomore Justin Bernal both handling the ball well. Williams showed some nice vision and power as he ran the ball nine times for 27 yards, while Bernal was pure power, hammering the Sayreville defensive front on 10 carries for 51 yards.
“I thought [Bernal] played really well today,” Ramiccio said. “I thought he ran hard today, worked downhill pretty well.”
Add in Brennan’s mobility — he has the ability to extend a busted play for a gain — and the Mountie backfield looks like it has the potential to be as dangerous as ever.
Part of that comes down to the offensive line, though, and seniors like center Eli Pinilis and Ethan Daddabbo will be critical to its success.
The other part is that tempo.
“The tempo has definitely picked up the last few weeks,” Ramiccio said. “You’ve got to remember, we weren’t able to start doing this until the first week of August. So we’re really, what, 3½ weeks in? When normally we would have June, July to kind of get that right. But I think we’re coming along nicely.”
A successful offensive line is going to be a big key for Montclair’s effectiveness on offense this year.
ANDREW GARDA/STAFFWhile the team continues to get the kinks out on offense, it will be up to the defense to hold down fast and athletic offenses such as the one East Orange will bring to bear on Friday, Sept. 3.
Originally the game was supposed to take place at Rutgers University’s stadium in Piscataway for “Rumble in the Raritan” but Hurricane Ida had other ideas.
Due to damage caused by the drastic weather, Rutgers had to move their opening game against Temple University from Thursday, Sept. 2 to Saturday, Sept. 4. With a noon kickoff on Saturday, the high school games had to be moved.
So Montclair will face the Jaguars at Robeson Stadium in East Orange Friday instead, though kickoff remains at 7:30pm.
Williams and Bernal both showed an ability to penetrate the Sayreville offensive line, and both Daddabbo and Elijah Halley had success up front as well.
The question for Ramiccio is what solutions he and the coaching staff can find for the secondary, which is still an unsettled unit. The coach said he is still waiting for a few players to step up, but overall, they have played well and did so again in the scrimmage.
One thing that will absolutely help the team on both defense and offense is the kicking of sophomore Gage Hammond, who had an exceptional day, including hitting a key 45-yard field goal.
For perspective, Montclair’s only had one field goal longer than that field goal. That was Will Kline’s 52-yarder in the 2013 playoffs against Union City. Beyond that, the next-closest distance by a Montclair kicker was a 40-yarder by someone who played in 1916.
Ramiccio said Hammond’s contribution was huge.
“I can’t tell you how good that feels to have a weapon like that,” he said. “You know, we were looking at four-down territory, [but] on third down, we got pushed back, we lost six yards. But we were like, all right, we’re still in range. And then we get three big points. That swung the game for us. It was 14-7. At that point heads were down a little bit, and all of a sudden we get that three, and next thing you know, it lifts everybody up. We make a stop in the next series. Then we come down before the half and put one in the end zone, it changes the whole complexion [of the game].”
Additionally, every kickoff Hammond sent towards Sayreville ended up in a touchback, denying the other team a chance to run the ball back and potentially break off a touchdown return.
With a dangerously athletic East Orange team looming just ahead, pinning them back and negating any speed their kickoff returners have could be the difference in the outcome of the game.