MKA Football: Cougars hope for uptick after close losses last year
by Andrew Garda
Looking at the win-loss record of the Montclair Kimberley Academy football team last season, you’d be forgiven if you thought the Cougars had suffered through a really rough season.
However, while a 3-7 (1-2) season was certainly not what head coach Anthony Rea and his staff was aiming for, Rea feels the record isn’t indicative of what his team was.
“I know a lot of people would probably say ‘Only three wins is kind of a tough year,’” Rea said during a recent preseason practice. “But to be honest, we had three other games come down to, probably, the final possession. So, if you look at it that way, if you’re able to flip a couple of those, you’re in OK shape.”
Games like those are the difference between a good year and a bad one, and this season Rea wants his team to flip those games . He feels the Cougars have the experience to do just that.
“We’re in a position to be lucky enough that right now, we have 11 seniors and nine juniors,” he said. “So that's a nice upperclassmen mix. Twenty of the 31 kids that we have right now are upperclassmen, so I think we’re in a position to make some noise. I know kids are ready to get back to that winning way.”
With the departure of dynamic playmaker Trey Wilson, Rea is looking to junior Clay Morris for an injection of energy.
“I mean it’s hard to replace a kid that good, it’s going to take a committee,” he said. “But [Morris] is going to play in kind of the same spot, kind of a slot position. And we’ll find somewhere for him to play on defense because he was one of our leading tacklers last year, even though he’s one of our smallest players.”
Two other players Rea is counting on are senior captains Luciano Calandra and Jack O’Connell.
O’Connell will fill in as a receiver on offense and a defensive back on defense. While he is a solid defender, Rea said that the Cougars will really depend on him in his role as a very good possession receiver.
Meanwhile, Calandra is expected to rack up plays at defensive end, while also continuing to play right tackle, like he has for the last two years.
“So, we’re looking forward to those guys continuing to step up,” Rea said.
Another big piece of the puzzle will be the offensive line, which returns several players.
The foundation of the line will be three players who found themselves on the field quite a bit last season. Juniors Dominick Greendale, and Caleb Hofman, as well as senior Michael Christian, all bring some experience to the position.
Rea feels the line can easily be a strength of the team.
“I think this year, about one through about seven, we could be as strong as anybody,” he explains. “We also have Michele Cestone, who I don’t think I’d mentioned. So, along with the aforementioned Christian, Calandra, Greendale and Hofman, that’s five juniors and seniors plus possibly the two freshmen who can help us right away.”
Those two freshmen — Nick Lambeau and Will Hofman [sibling to Caleb Hofman] — haven’t carved out their roles yet, but Rea feels the line could end up their home.
And they’re just the tip of the youth spear for MKA. Some are younger players, such as Lambeau, while others are just new to the program, such as junior Noah Walk who has otherwise spent his time at MKA on the basketball court, not the football field.
“JP Vizzone and Dylan Andrews are new to the team too and [including Walk] that’s three new juniors who I think can help as well,” Rea said.
One position that is seeing new players and old clash is the battle for the quarterback spot. Rea said that while there are several players interested, it’s come down to sophomore Jake Pryor and senior Naren Rajani.
Rea said that Pryor, a left-handed prospect who also played goaltender for the boys lacrosse team, did a nice job on the junior varsity team last year. Rajani showed out well in a JV game as well, according to Rea, who said there are several roles the senior could fit into on offense.
“I would say those are the two guys who have a leg up,” said Rea as he watched Pryor deliver a pass downfield. “So, we’re going to play it out. We’re doing two scrimmages this year, so hopefully we’ll be able to get some work against the opposition and see who can make the plays we need.”
Whoever steps into that and many other roles, they have their work cut out for them to start the season.
First, the Cougars head across town to face Immaculate Conception High School at Codey Field. The game is the opener for both teams and takes place on Saturday, Sept. 7. This will mark the third meeting in the rivalry, renewed with a 32-28 MKA win in 2017 before ICHS snatched a win in a low-scoring 12-7 game last season.
“We’re real excited,” Rea said. “The teams are competitive, [ICHS has] a lot of talent coming back, Coach Finnegan is back for them too, so that’s exciting for me to kind of work against him because he’s done so much.”
After that, is a tough yearly matchup against Glen Ridge, this at home for MKA.
“It’s a tough opening two weeks for us, but you know what? I think we’re going to be ready. That’s our goal.”