St. Augustine Prep football fans may have been getting a little squirrely after last season's 5-5 record. A .500 season is rare for the Hermits, but it was a little bit of a tough situation as new head coach Pete Lancetta — a legendary figure from Hammonton High fame — was hired just before the preseason to replace Mark Reardon, who now is an assistant at Holy Spirit. Lancetta had about a month to get his team ready for the season, and the Hermits had early losses to Malvern Prep, Millville and rival Holy Spirit. They also lost to St. Joseph and then Bergen Catholic in the first round of the state playoffs.
But a coach doesn't pile up 220 career wins by not knowing what he's doing.
With an entire offseason now under his belt in Buena Vista, Lancetta said he is much more comfortable with the St. Augustine program and expects much bigger things this fall, although Prep has one of the toughest schedules in South Jersey. As a member of the West Jersey Football League's American Division, the Hermits will have to contend with Cherokee, Williamstown, Shawnee, Lenape and Rancocas Valley.
Non-divisional opponents include Pennsylvania powerhouse State College in tonight's season opener at 6 p.m., along with the likes of St. Joseph, Holy Spirit and Ocean City, all playoff teams from a year ago. Prep's in-state opponents combined for a 68-21 record a year ago.
"My opinion is that we all have varsity experience and we've all been close friends since freshman year, so we definitely have each other's backs both on and off the field, and that plays a major part in our chemistry," said Sincere Rhea, a senior wide receiver who also is one of the state's best hurdlers during the track season. "Our schedule is jam-packed with a bunch of competitors, week in and week out, and we're going to have to bust our tails every single game. Every game isn't going to be a walk in the park and will come down to crunch time, and I believe me and the guys can come together and win games."
"I think it's just be as a team, have more of a bond and do whatever it takes to get the team to win the game, and get that old-school vibe like we had our freshman and sophomore year. I just feel like if we're not playing the best in South Jersey, how can we go up to North Jersey and play with those guys (in the playoffs)? So, having this schedule should prepare us for the playoffs," added Jaylen DeCoteau. "I know I'm not really supposed to say this, but I want to go undefeated. If we don't go undefeated, that's going to be a disappointment because I feel like with the group of guys we have, we can compete and win all the games (on our schedule)."
Coach Lancetta knows he has talent, the biggest question mark is how quickly the offensive line can come together in front of quarterback Chris Allen, and avoiding any major injuries since the Hermits don't have a lot of depth.
"It's fun, I've gotten to spend a year with them now and that's been a big difference. That was tough last year for all the kids, myself and the staff, but we tried to make the best of it. But it certainly feels more comfortable this year, and that's just because of the fact that we've been together. They know what to expect from me now and I know how they are. I am a little bit (more laid back) compared to 1989. It's different times, you mellow, I guess," Lancetta said. "We're inexperienced on the offensive line, but I love those guys. They remind me of the Hammonton lines we had over the years. Jake is a big dude, but other than Jake we're not real big, but they are strong, worked hard in the weight room, move well, and they are all back except for our center.
"We don't have much depth, but we knew that coming in," he added. "We made a conscious effort to have a freshman program this year. They went with more (JV) teams in the past. Going forward, we have to build our depth. There could be some freshmen or sophomores having to play who might not yet be ready, just because we have no depth."
St. Augustine's biggest strength will be its defense, particularly at linebacker and in the secondary with guys such as Rhea, DeCoteau, Joe Bonczek and Shane Quast. Prep also has senior Joey Kolonich, younger brother of former outstanding middle linebacker Dean Kolonich. And having a big guy with a mean streak like Isaiah Raikes (6-1, 285) up front at defensive tackle certainly helps.
"We have a lot of great seniors coming in, a lot of leadership, and I think that's going to carry over both on and off the football field this year. I'm really excited. Me and Joe B. have been talking about it a lot, we're excited to get out there and see what we can do," Quast said. "Of course we want to go undefeated, but we have to take it one game a time. You can't look ahead, we have to start with State College right away."
"On our defensive line, we have Isaiah Raikes anchoring that and he's somebody you have to contend with," Lancetta added. "He's going to be tough to block. He's strong, quick and wide, and goes to all those pass rushing camps all over the country. He worked hard during the offseason."
The Hermits will get tested right out of the gate. Their first three games are against State College, Lenape and St. Joseph, the preseason No. 1 in South Jersey.
"In our minds, we're going to start with State College, then move on to Lenape and just keep working until playoffs come," Rhea said. "The main focus for this school and this team is, obviously, going to states and winning."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays