MKA head football coach Anthony Rea said the team is aiming both to win its conference, the MIFL, and to get a berth in the NJSIAA playoffs.
ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

BY ANDREW GARDA
garda@montclairlocal.news

While the Montclair Kimberley Academy Cougars football team lost to Hawthorne in the NJSIAA postseason last year, head coach Anthony Rea feels their 4-3 record was worth noting.

“We won three games in 2019,” he said as he watched his players run offensive drills. “Our best player was probably Jack O’Connell, [and] he graduated. We graduated 10 seniors. So, I’m not sure people really thought, OK, the team’s going to come back and be pretty good.”

They were good, however, ripping off four straight wins in the middle of a pandemic-altered season, and in a regular-season they would have qualified for the playoffs. 

There were no playoffs in 2020, and the Hawthorne game was part of an option for some teams that wished to play one more game.

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“We had the four wins, and that’s been a big theme for me,” Rea said. “It’s hard because we didn’t play a playoff and stuff like that, so people are kind of like, well, it was a different year. [But] those guys still persevered for three years and then had a winning season there for it.”

MKA once again will play in the Metropolitan Independent Football League, which is split into three divisions with teams from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. The Cougars’ division consists of Pingry, Morristown-Beard and Newark Academy. MKA last year beat Pingry and Newark Academy but dropped two games to Morristown-Beard.

This year, in addition to those games, MKA gets to travel to New York to play Long Island Lutheran and to Connecticut to face a very tough Greenwich Country Day team. 

They kick things off at home, though, against Immaculate Conception High School, reigniting a crosstown rivalry that was shelved last year when ICHS decided to not play football due to the pandemic.

“I’m going to play it week by week, but I like the group we have,” Rea said. “We have some guys returning who are really good. I mean, when you’ve got a quarterback and a running back, it’s like, go from there.”

Rea is aiming for playoff berths in both the MIFL and NJSIAA postseasons, and if the Cougars are going to make that happen, they will need players like senior quarterback Jake Pryor.

MKA senior quarterback Jake Pryor keeps his eyes downfield as he scrambles toward the line against Pingry in 2020. Head coach Anthony Rea said Pryor’s mobility and field awareness are big advantages for the Cougars’ offense.
ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

Pryor threw for 1,303 yards and 11 touchdowns with just three interceptions, completing 62 percent of his passes. The numbers are not the most impressive thing about his ability, though. Pryor has a keen sense of where he is on the field, and the ability to scramble when he needs to flee the pocket and move toward the line of scrimmage while also keeping his eyes downfield. 

He knows exactly where the line of scrimmage is and has a knack for delivering the ball at the last possible moment before crossing it. This keeps the defense frozen, as it has to decide whether he is running or throwing and gives Pryor an advantage, as he can wait for a receiver to break free or scramble for extra yards.

It makes Pryor frustrating to defend for teams and enraging for coaches, such as Pingry’s head coach, who spent part of last year’s loss complaining Pryor was across the line on throws.

“I’d be mad, too, man, because some of the throws he makes are just not what high school kids do, you know, stuff that is just unbelievable,” Rea said. “He’s got intangibles that high school quarterbacks don’t have. And he’s kind of kicked off camp in the same way.”

Another key piece to the Cougars’ success is running back/linebacker Nick Lembo. The MKA junior led the team with 97 carries for 462 yards, ending the season with a 4.7 yards per carry average. 

He also had the second-highest tackle total on the defensive side of the ball for the Cougars with 61, adding a pair of sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries to the tally.

“[He’s] a terror on defense,” Rea said. “He’s going to be somebody who’s a returning all-conference player, and we expect the same from him [this year]. I mean, anytime your building blocks are those two, that’s a good thing.”

Having the veteran presence of Pryor and Lembo will be key as the Cougars roll out a brand new offensive line. 

“We’re confident we’re going to be pretty good. We’ve got some young guys on the line and we have a senior out for the first time, too,” Rea said. “Those are really good things for us.”

Last season the Cougars had an offensive line that averaged 200 or more pounds, while this year the line is a little over 160 pounds on average.

“We’re not the biggest line I’ve ever seen,” Rea said. “That’s part of the reason why we play who we play.”

MKA football captains Brodie Snyder, left, and Jake Pryor show off the Montclair Kimberley Academy football team’s new uniform.
COURTESY ANTHONY REA

A smaller line can mean a line that moves more nimbly and quickly, which can allow for more movement. 

“That’s our job as coaches, to figure out how our attack is going to differ a little bit from last year’s attack,” Rea said. “So, you know, it may be a little bit quicker getting our linemen into space and going from there.”

Another reason the Cougars play who they play is sheer numbers. Right now the team roster sits at 23, with the potential to hop up to the 25-28 range. That thinner roster means players going two ways, and also less depth. 

With that, the Cougars will at least start the season in a three-man front, but likely change as the season progresses. Rea points out that they have often ended up in a four-man front, and occasionally even a five-front. It all depends on how the talent shakes out, whom they play, what that team’s strengths are, and how their own roster stands in terms of injuries.

While the Cougars may not have a big roster, there is a lot of talent. Junior Jordan Fishback did well, playing receiver last season, and made contributions on defense, while fellow junior Austin Davis had a sack, an interception and 22 tackles. Senior Brodie Snyder had 177 yards and a touchdown as a receiver while Mahmoud Hassaneen started on defense the second half of his junior year.

As the season approaches, Rea is trying to keep the team focused on the same goals. 

“We always keep the goals the same because it’s nice and simple,” he said. “Win our first game, win our conference, and try to get into the state tournament and see if we can make some noise.”