By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Last season, Mainland senior Ja’briel Mace rushed for more than 1,200 yards and scored 24 touchdowns, breaking a single-season touchdown mark that had stood since George Landis in 1966. He finished his four-year career in the Kelly green-and-white with 3,867 yards and a school-record 56 touchdowns.
Losing a player like him to graduation would devastate most high school football teams.
So how can Mainland possibly be even better this year?
Well, there are a lot of reasons it could be. The Mustangs have a second-year starter at quarterback in sophomore Johnny Franchini — who head coach Chuck Smith raves about — as well as a host of starters returning on both offense and defense.
“We feel good,” Smith said earlier this week. “We have a lot of guys coming back, a lot of guys got some valuable time last season. But we know it’s just one game at a time and we know people are going to be gunning for us this year. We have our goals set to get back to where we were last year and hopefully a little further. But we have to take it one at a time and all the emphasis this week is on Washington Township (Friday, Battle at the Beach at Ocean City, 10 a.m.)”
TALENT POOL: This may be one of the most talented Mainland teams in recent memory, as the Stangs — who finished 10-2 last year, won a sectional title and finished one win shy of playing for a state championship — have playmakers all over the field. Aside from Franchini, Cohen Cook is kind of a do-it-all option on offense. He can play quarterback, running back, slot receiver, wide receiver, tight end — you name it, Cook can do it on a football field. Mainland also has Jamie Tyson on the outside as one of the more impressive receivers in South Jersey.
As for replacing Mace, that won’t be easy but there won’t be a huge dropoff. Senior Stephen Ordille has been getting carries since his freshman year, and Rocco DeBiaso is only about 175 pounds but runs more like a 200-pounder.
Defensively, Mainland has some guys who are going to get after it this year, most notably linebacker J.J. Sinclair and defensive end Hunter Watson, son of former NFL player and Cedar Creek head coach Tim Watson. Watson is now a senior who is 6-foot-4 and pushing 220 pounds.
“He has really developed in the time I’ve known him. I watched him play for the Linwood Panthers and he was just this little skinny twig out there, taller than everybody else,” Smith said. “(What he is now is) a tribute to him and his dedication to become the best possible football player that he can be. He lived in the weight room in the offseason and it shows in his body. Just his development of his body the past couple of years — he put on about 25 pounds of muscle this offseason. He’s a very quiet young man but his work ethic is second to none and it shows out there on the football field. It’s going to be exciting to watch him have a great senior year.”
DEVELOPMENT CONTINUES: Last season, Franchini wasn’t asked to do a whole lot early in the year, as most of his time was spent handing the ball off to Mace and Ordille. He was pressed into service a little earlier than expected after incoming senior Marlon Leslie transferred back to Pleasantville for his senior year just days before the season opener.
That put the freshman under center, and while it took him a while to get comfortable, coach Smith said he’s had the respect of his teammates from the start of his career. Now, as a sophomore and having gone 10-2 as a rookie starter, Franchini will have much more confidence this fall.
Smith said he feels that with Franchini’s experience and knowledge of the playbook the Stangs will be able to do more things and get a little more creative on offense.
“Yeah, it opens up (the playbook) a little bit more. The thing with Franchini is, this time last year he was a freshman, but by the time the season was over, he was like the kid at the end of his sophomore year. That’s how much he matured and developed in one season, over 12 games,” Smith said. “Entering this season he’s really like having a two-year starting quarterback in there. He’s still learning and developing, but he has the tools and is getting the full understanding of our playbook now to the point that we joke around in practice, sometimes I’ll call the wrong play and he corrects it for me. That’s how much he understands the offense now. He’s just got a tremendous upside and he’s a quality kid. I’ve been around very few kids in my career coaching that command the presence and the respect of his teammates as much as Johnny Franchini.”
TEAM BONDING: This team is close, closer perhaps than any team Smith has had during his tenure at his alma mater. It showed last year as Mainland made a playoff run that nearly ended with a berth in the state championship. The Stangs fell to Millville in the state semis, but still won a sectional title, the program’s first since that magical 2008 season.
“We don’t really have any true superstars, but that’s what makes this such a fun team to coach. It’s not about any one person and that’s how they play the game. They all really have a great camaraderie out on the field, and off the field,” Smith said. “The other day we had our game scrimmage against Holy Spirit and the entire team was at Charlie’s having wings afterward. It’s that kind of thing that just makes it special, because we all know these years go by so fast. Even last year, when we lost (to Millville) it showed me how much they came around as a team and loved being around each other because they didn’t want to leave the locker room. The next day, on a Monday, they call came back to the locker room to just hang out. It’s a really special team and a great group of guys, and that’s a tribute to their families and the community that we live in.”
Does Smith worry about taking a step back after such a successful season in 2022? Absolutely, but he said he feels like this team understands the challenge that’s ahead of it this season.
“The pitfalls are hard because high school football, especially with public schools, can be kind of a roller coaster at times. You hope for those two-year highs, but sometimes they’re followed by two-year lows. We want to maintain the consistency and we’ve had the same scheme on offense and defense now for a couple of seasons. That helps a lot because we’re so much further ahead at this point right now than we were at this point last year on both sides of the ball,” he said. “When you take care of stuff on the field and keep building your program, the kids in the community want to be part of it. And we see that, it’s evident with all the kids that came to our practices this summer. I always tell the kids ‘you don’t realize how big of a star you are in our community. You just think you’re a player on the high school football team but these little kids really look up to. They want to be the next No. 4 or No. 13.’ It’s really special. When you see those little kids come to our practices and our games, that’s a part of this (Mainland football) community. We draw from three towns, but it’s really a small area.”
August 25 vs. Washington Township (10 a.m. at Ocean City, Battle at the Beach)
Sept. 1 vs. Ocean City, 6 p.m.
Sept. 8 vs. Oakcrest, 6 p.m.
Sept. 15 at Atlantic City, time TBD
Sept. 22 at Hammonton, 7 p.m.
Sept. 29 vs. Bridgeton, 6 p.m.
Oct. 6 at Absegami, 6 p.m.
Oct. 13 vs. Clearview, 6 p.m.
Oct. 20 at Egg Harbor Township, 6 p.m.