By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
At 7 p.m. on Nov. 5, 2021, the Washington Township High School football team began its quest for a regional championship as the No. 1 seed in the South Jersey Group 5 playoffs. By 10 p.m. that same evening, the Minutemen’s offseason began, as No. 8 Lenape stunned Township, 24-21, in overtime to advance to the sectional semifinals.
That was it. All over. Washington Township seemingly had everything it needed to make a deep playoff run — one of the best running backs in South Jersey in senior Jo’Nathan Silver, a stout, experienced defense, the determination to wipe away years of two-win seasons with program-defining playoff success. But the Minutemen learned a valuable lesson that night — no matter how good you think you are, there’s always somebody out there ready to take what you want if you make mistakes.
“We’re just trying to take another step forward. I think everybody across the country, every high school football program, is trying to get better each day. For us, we started this whole process in 2018 and the goal is to keep getting better each day, each week, and we’ve done that. It was a disappointing finish last year and that left a sour taste in our mouths, but I think that has fueled us during the offseason,” said Minutemen coach Mike Schatzman. “We’ve had one of the better offseasons in our recent history. Guys were committed, they worked extremely hard. We’re excited about where we’re at right now. I think our best football is going to be played in October and November, and hopefully we’re playing into December. That’s the goal going forward and that’s the culture that has been established over the last couple of years.
“A couple of years ago I think we were happy to get in,” he continued. “In 2018 we snuck into the playoffs, we were a No. 8 seed and we played undefeated Williamstown. So, we got a taste of the playoffs, then in 2019 it was the same deal — we headed up to Hillsborough and we had a lot of young guys, we played well for three quarters in that game. In 2020 we had the covid season and we thought (that year) we were going to take a big step.”
Schatzman said his returning players are trying to take what happened last year and have it as a constant reminder as they head into the 2022 season. Yes, they went 6-3 last year, the best record so far during Schatzman’s tenure, but there is much left to do.
“It was disappointing knowing that we lost as a No. 1 seed, but looking back in hindsight, Lenape was a team over the last four or five years that has been at the top of South Jersey Group 5. They were in those big games, regardless of what their regular-season record was — they played probably the toughest schedule in South Jersey last year. It wasn’t a typical No. 1 vs. No. 8 game,” he explained. “We knew we were going to be in for a fight, and we did some things we hadn’t done throughout the course of the season. We turned the ball over, we didn’t play well on special teams, and they took advantage of it. It’s a bitter taste, for sure, and that’s still on our guys’ minds. We know we have to continue to get better. At the time, the playoff loss wasn’t a great thing, but hopefully it leads to good things. I think it proved to our guys that we’re not where we want to be yet.”
“Camp has been going well. We’ve been playing with a lot of intensity, we’re trying to get better every day and get back to what we lost last year,” said senior Jason DiBlasio, sort of a hybrid defensive lineman/linebacker. “We want it all now. We lost in the first round last year as the No. 1 seed, and that hurt, so now we’re just coming back to get what’s ours.
NEXT MAN UP: Yes, Township graduated some outstanding players, including Silver, who is starting his college career at the University of Delaware. But the cupboard is hardly bare when it comes to playmakers, as junior Logan Perez looks to make a big leap in the offense.
Coach Schatzman said he’s put on some solid weight and got great experience last year filling in when Silver was hurt, and he’s also athletic enough to play running back, slot receiver and wide receiver. Coupe him with returning quarterback Jared Dzierzgowski as well as all-South Jersey lineman John Stone, and Washington Township should again have a formidable offensive unit.
Dzierzgowski rushed for more than 600 yards and passed for another 500-plus, and accounted for 14 touchdowns. Perez had a couple hundred yards of total offense but those numbers likely will shoot up as he becomes a featured back. And the line features three returning starters, including Stone, a Rutgers commit and perhaps the best offensive lineman in South Jersey right now.
“That hurt, 100 percent,” Stone said of last year’s state playoff loss to Lenape. “Our guys came into the weight room from Day One after that; we’re trying to bring back that atmosphere we had last year with high intensity. We have to up our game even more. We lost our big back from last year (Silver), but we have big, strong offensive line and a good D-line this year, so the lines are going to be what really propel us this year. We want that No. 1 seed in the playoffs again. The intensity just keeps getting raised, level by level.”
RESTRUCTURING THE DEFENSE: It won’t be a complete revamping of the Minutemen defense, but there will be some new faces. Look for a guy like DiBlasio to have a big year as an edge rusher, and Schatzman has some linebackers he’s really high on.
“We have lost a lot on defense — we lost our two middle linebackers from last year in Vinny LaRosa and Stevie Seibert — but we have two senior guys who we’re really comfortable with, Logan Brown and Mike Tomasetti, and we also have junior Giuliano Scavetta, who played a lot of special teams for us as a sophomore,” Schatzman said. “We have some unknowns on defense right now. We’ll have a rotation of guys on the defensive line. Jason DiBlasio is a three-year starter and he’s a guy we can put on the end and do some different things with. And we have John Williams and Michael Lotsey back as corners, and Logan Perez plays some defense. So, it’s not a huge revamp on that side of the ball. We have some depth that we like that we didn’t necessarily have last year, so hopefully we can keep guys healthy.”
Added DiBlasio, “our big thing is stopping the run. We did a good job of that last year, and this year we’re really working on the pass game (defense). It looks 100 percent better than last year, we got a lot smarter and a lot faster.”
UNDERRATED POSITION GROUP: “It’s probably running back,” Schatzman said. “With Silver and Nah’mere Graves last year, that was obviously a talked about position for us. Logan isn’t really in the category right now of being mentioned with guys like (Bam) Boria from Cherokee or Angelo Rodriguez of Highland, but I think he can have that type of impact. We also have two other running backs we like in Tomasetti and Scavetta, who also play linebacker. That’s probably our most underrated spot.”
SCHEDULE HIGHLIGHTS: Township starts off with a huge game against perennial Group 5 playoff contender Toms River North as part of the Battle At The Beach showcase at Ocean City’s Carey Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 27 at 1:30 p.m. The Minutemen also have a couple of tough road games early on, at Kingsway and at Holy Spirit, and no doubt their final two home games — vs. Shawnee on Oct. 14 and vs. Clearview the following week — will draw some big crowds.
THE OUTLOOK: Washingtown Township definitely has the talent to contend again for the No. 1 seed in South Jersey Group 5, and don’t be surprised to see Perez have a really big year as a running back. This offensive line should be really fun to watch, and if Schatzman’s boys can limit turnovers they should be able to churn up yardage and put points on the board. Definitely a team to watch come mid-October.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays