MSG Varsity will visit the top teams in the Garden State during preseason camps and provide all the latest news leading up to opening kick-off. In today’s edition of Camp Confidential, we take a look at Cedar Grove.
LAST SEASON: 10-2 and won the Super Essex Conference-Independence Division championship and the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 title with 34-21 victory over Newark Weequahic at Met-Life Stadium. The Independence Division has been disbanded for the 2012 season, moving Cedar Grove up to the Colonial Division.
HEAD COACH: Ed Sadloch (34th season overall, 22nd at Cedar Grove)
TOP RETURNING PLAYERS: FB/LB Ben Schumacher, OL/DL Rob Wipfler, RB/OLB Charlie Dorman, QB Joe Slattery, WR/S Paul Rufo, OL/DL Zach Lynch, OL/LB Halit Ersen, OL/DL Vincent Cordasco, TE/DE Mike Tanti, WR/OLB David Njuko, RB/LB Mike Bocchino, RB/LB Andrew Nealy, WR/DB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB/DB Corey Weinstein.
BOTTOM LINE: The Panthers enter this season with eight starters on either side of the ball, including junior QB Joe Slattery and four of the linemen who helped steer Cedar Grove to its second sectional title in three years and third in five, Zach Lynch, Rob Wipfler, Halit Ersen and Vincent Cordasco.
This group last season appeared to be one year away from being championship caliber, but grew surprisingly cohesive following back-to-back October losses to Orange and Caldwell. The senior class was not large, but its overall improvement from the previous season was substantial and its leadership proved invaluable. That melded with the tremendous skill level of the lower grades to form a successful union.
That means expectations for the Panthers to repeat will be enormous, though that is hardly earth-shattering news for this Essex County program. Cedar Grove has suffered only one losing season since 1992 (4-6 in 2010) and has averaged nine wins and claimed five sectional crowns over the last 15 years. Winning is a legacy each season's new crop is eager to uphold.
"I don't think the kids feel any extra pressure about that, but there is definitely pressure on the coaching staff," Sadloch said. "We thought (last season) maybe this year would be the year. So now we're on everybody's checklist. We can't sneak up on anybody. Everybody knows we won state championship. We have to be ready and come to play every game."
Cedar Grove passed a crash course is preparedness by opening the 2011 season with a thrilling come-from-behind victory over archrival Verona, 33-29, on a blocked field goal return by Vincent Cordasco as time expired. Quarterback Joe Slattery and WR/S Paul Rufo, both sophomores, were remarkably poised, clutch players under those tense circumstances.
Each had played as a freshman, but here they proved to the older guys that they were now ready to turn a page and win as sophomores. The Panthers put forth another clutch effort in the state semifinals by rallying with two fourth-quarter TDs to beat New Providence, 20-14.
This team has many components in place to enjoy another outstanding season, just as long as it can stay clear of injuries. There is a shortage of depth here. Even just one or two prolonged injuries could undermine the group's objective.
FROSH NOT EXLUDED
Sadloch has made it clear to the program's newcomers that no one is too young to secure varsity playing time. Slattery and Rufo both broke into the lineup as frosh, as did other stars did in recent years.
"We’re trying to find kids who can step up," he said. "We don’t like to play freshmen, but if a freshman kid can get in on special team situations, we can find out what they're made of. That builds up depth and also builds excitement.
"But our philosophy has always been if you're a younger guy who's playing some but not starting, you're going down to play with the freshman and sophomores when they play. That gives them a chance to get reps at their own positions."
The Panthers graduated two of their top three ground gainers--Joe Balestrieri and Joe McShane--and hard-nosed linemen Colby Nighland and Nick Seeley. But perhaps the most painful graduation loss was that of Nate Philipson, who not only sparkled as a two-way end, but performed all the kicking duties for Cedar Grove--and did so extremely well.
There is now heavy competition in camp to determine the kicking spots. Sadloch said that Slattety, Rufo and Zach Wiesel all can punt, though he would rather not use Slattery in that capacity. Kickoff and placekicking duties may go to David Njuko, though junior transfer Wyatt Gray (Montclair Kimberley) could possibly assume some responsibilities when he becomes eligible 30 days into the season.
The Panthers lose Immaculate Conception, Newark Academy and Orange from their 2011 schedule and pick up Ferris (as non-conference opponent), Newark East Side and Shabazz in their place. Shabazz is expected to be very strong this year and East Side--though it struggles to win against comparably sized teams--is a Group 3 school with some impressive athletes. This overall is a harder schedule than what Cedar Grove faced last year, but it will prepare it well for the playoffs.
Sept. 7 vs. Ferris
Sept. 15 at Caldwell
Sept. 22 at Montclair Kimberley
Sept. 28 vs. Newark East Side
Oct. 6 at Glen Ridge
Oct. 12 vs. Shabazz
Oct. 19 vs. Verona
Oct. 27 at Newark Central
Nov. 3 at Weequahic
Mike Kinney covers football for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS