Montclair High School football preview: New coach, old goal, get to championship game
The Montclair High School football team has a new head coach along with a new system. How the squad adapts to both could tell the tale of the 2022 season.
Jermain Johnson moved over from Belleville High School to Montclair with the hope of getting to a championship game at MetLife Stadium. Johnson takes over for Pete Ramiccio, who is now coaching at Governor Livingston High School.
"Obviously the number one goal is always to get to the Meadowlands for the big championship," Johnson said. "But the goal is to win each week, day by day, and just get better every week."
Last season Montclair lost a heartbreaker at Passaic Tech, 20-14, in three overtimes in the first round of the North 1 Group 5 state playoffs, which many Mounties who are returning this season remember very well, and it stings.
"I'm still pretty upset by it," Montclair senior wide receiver/linebacker Isaiah Holm said. "It's still on my mind, and I can still see the scoreboard."
Johnson knows what some of the keys will be to getting back to the playoffs and going further in the postseason.
"We have to stay healthy. If our kids can understand the system that we're running offensively and defensively, I think we can do great things," he said.
Before the state playoffs, the coach and his team will need to navigate the North Jersey Super Football Conference (NJSFC) Freedom White Division, after moving over from the Freedom Red.
In terms of that division race, Johnson believes there are several teams that Montclair will have to beat, with number one on the list being Irvington, which the Mounties face on Oct. 8 on the road.
"All the teams in our division are extremely tough and will be competitive," the coach said. "But obviously the main team I think will be Irvington. They are the returning state champs [Group 4], and coach Smoke [Ashley Pierre] is doing one hell of a job over there."
Coming back from the Montclair team that was 5-5 last year are eight players who saw starting time, junior quarterback Drew Pfeifer, senior wide receiver/running back/defensive back Semaj Adams, senior running back/linebacker Justin Bernal, junior wide receiver/safety David Thorn-Rogers, senior kicker/punter Gage Hammond, senior offensive lineman/defensive lineman Richard Fortune, senior offensive lineman/defensive lineman Tylor Mcauley and Holm, who was named to the All NJSFC Freedom Red second team last season.
Pfeifer, along with Adams, Thorn-Rogers and Holm, will lead the Mounties’ air attack. It was a three-headed quarterbacking squad last year, with Pfeifer sharing the slot with Solomon Brennan and Jayden Lee.
This season it is Pfeifer who will be under center from the start of the opening game against West Orange on Friday, Sept. 2.
"He is easy to coach and very coachable," Johnson said about Pfeifer, who threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Thorn-Rogers in the loss to Passaic Tech last season. "He is willing to learn no matter what is thrown at him. With the offense we are inserting he will strive to be a great student-athlete of the game."
Behind Pfeifer will be Bernal and Adams at running back. "Both will share time in the backfield," Johnson said. "Both of them bring different styles of running the ball. But we have two running backs that will run the program."
Also expected to see carries this season are junior Jasin Latham and sophomore Ja-khi Chance.
The skill players will be banking on an offensive line led by Fortune and Mcauley at left tackle and right guard, respectively. The rest of the offensive line will include senior center Chris Monderoy, junior guard Wesley Mathis, junior tackle Samir Cortez-Clark, junior tackle Tyler Porter and senior tight end Jahaad Williams.
On defense, Johnson will take advantage of his athletes by running multiple defenses.
Williams and Mcauley will go both ways and also play at defensive end. The defensive line will also include senior defensive tackle Nelson Claremont and senior defensive end Kyle Wilson. Two sophomores, Moustapha Green and Martin Quiros, will also get time on the defensive line.
The linebacking corps is an experienced bunch led by Bernal, Holm and Adams, who will be joined by senior James Valvano. "With these guys we will be able to cover and be truly physical,"
Like other positions on the field, the defensive backfield could run with any combination of Thorn-Rogers, Chance, junior Shawn Kirkley, junior Asani Brown and senior Kevin Overbey. "These kids can run, cover and be physical, when need be," the coach said.
One of the advantages that Montclair will have this season is in special teams, with senior kicker/punter Gage Hammond, who is going to play football at Wesleyan College. Hammond was an All NJSFC Freedom Red Division first-team kicker last season.
"I think he is the best-kept secret in the league," Johnson said of his kicker, who hit a 47-yard field goal in a scrimmage. "Gage Hammond has a powerful leg and foot. He's a major weapon that we will be using. He's a young man with his head on straight."
To start the season, Montclair is looking to break a four-game losing streak to rival West Orange, which they will play on Friday, Sept. 2, at Montclair State University at 8 p.m.
The last time the Mounties defeated the Mountaineers was in 2017, with a 48-7 victory in a season when Montclair went 12-0.
Johnson knows that his team will have to come to play against West Orange, which is considered the favorite in Montclair's old division, the Freedom Red.
"West Orange has speed and plays together as a strong senior group," the coach said, particularly pointing to Mountaineers’ wide receivers Jarvis Jones and Saboor Karriem, who used to play for Montclair.
"These guys have power and can hit the middle of the field and on the outside with their two big receivers at any time."
Montclair Football Schedule
(Dates and times subject to change)
Sept. 2 West Orange (at Montclair St.), 8 p.m.
Sept. 10 at Nutley, 1 p.m.
Sept. 17 Union City, 1 p.m.
Sept. 22 at Livingston, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 1 East Orange, 2 p.m.
Oct. 8 at Irvington, 1 p.m.
Oct. 14 at Ridgewood, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 Columbia, 1 p.m.