Pinelands Fall Sports Preview

Pinelands Football Returns ‘Home’

Volleyball, Soccer, Cross-Country Teams Ready Season
By Rick Mellerup and David Biggy | Sep 06, 2019

Little Egg Harbor — The Pinelands Regional football team’s official homecoming game is scheduled for Oct. 11. But its opening night game against Asbury Park at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, will be the team’s true homecoming.

The Wildcats will be playing on a brand new field that evening in front of what should be a huge and passionate crowd, considering the football complex was closed last year due to renovation and forced the team to play away games or on an open field at nearby Freedom Fields County Park.

Returning to their own field – plus a new locker room, thanks to the high school building rehabilitation – has already helped the football program. According to head coach Matt Fuller only “about 30 kids” opted to play last year. This year, the team has 47 players listed on its roster.

The field isn’t the only new thing for Pinelands football this year. The Shore Conference juggled its divisions this season, so Pinelands will no longer play in the Patriot Division but rather the National Division, alongside Asbury Park, Keansburg, Keyport, Manchester and Point Pleasant Beach. Considering four of the teams are from Group I schools – the schools with the smallest student populations in New Jersey – the Group II Wildcats could have an advantage.

The problem is that Pinelands is starting out with an almost entirely new team on offense, with only two returning players who played significant minutes in 2018. So, Fuller will keep his offensive game plan simple.

Speaking of significant, Pinelands also lost running back Evan Burton to graduation. He had gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground for three straight seasons. Keep an eye on sophomore Nunes Bukula, a six-foot, 190-pounder, who may have the best shot at replacing Burton’s rushing yardage.

Four players were fighting it out for the quarterback spot this summer: seniors Joey Vitiello, Emanuel Cifuentes and Andrew Bartlett; and junior Connor Harris. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will have a core of tight ends to throw to: senior Ed Wilkinson and juniors Shayne Michot and Andrew Jenkins. Junior Jack Lawrie will probably be the first option at wide receiver.

Pinelands does have several players who contributed last year on defense, including linebackers Michot, Jenkins, Bartlett, Wilkinson and Harris, as well as his brother, Aaron, who will also serve as the team’s fullback. With some experience in the linebacking unit, Fuller will be counting on his defense to keep the team in contention while the offense develops.

But who knows? The adrenaline factor of playing on a new field in front of a friendly crowd could kick in as well, and the Wildcats may pull off a few surprises this fall.

Girls Volleyball

Remains Viable Force

A year ago, some fans of the Pinelands girls volleyball team were skeptical about whether it could repeat its 2017 success. After all, the team had lost the Shore Conference’s Player of the Year and an All-Shore First Team setter to graduation.

Well, Pinelands not only repeated as Shore Conference champions but became a state power in 2018. But sure enough, some folks are sure the Wildcats will have an off-year this fall because they lost seven players to graduation, including yet another conference Player of the Year.

Head Coach Kathy Bennett isn’t among the naysayers. She says this year’s squad is “a talented team that looks to contend for the Shore Conference title, and again go far into the state tournament.”

Bennett is basing her faith on the returning nucleus of four seniors: middle blocker and outside hitter Emma Capriglione, an All-Shore First Team pick last year; MB/OH Sharon Benson; libero Brittney Houseworth; and defensive specialist Adrianna Dancisin.

The coach’s biggest concern during the offseason was the setter position.

“But the combination of junior Allison Grotts and freshman Emila Savich have performed very well in the preseason scrimmages, and will certainly fill that spot nicely,” said Bennett. “In addition, Pinelands has a strong front row with very good blocking potential and strong hitters.”

Boys Soccer Developing

New Team Core

For the past few years, the Pinelands boys soccer team had been on the rise, and the core of that squad helped deliver not just several winning seasons but two of the best in the program’s history.

However, the cycle of graduating prominent athletes may have hit the Wildcats pretty hard for this fall. Not only did Pinelands graduate a top-notch fullback but also several fantastic midfielders and forwards – individuals who combined for a huge chunk of the scoring output the past two seasons.

Still, the Wildcats were a deep crew last season, and while they may not be in the same shape as last year’s 17-5-1 squad, head coach Nino Scotto di Carlo isn’t too concerned about what’s in store for this season.

“We graduated some great players,” he said. “However, we still have some very talented guys who are certainly up for a challenge. While there may be some growing pains this season, I expect that we will continue to build on our recent success.”

Of course, the main question is: Where will the scoring come from? The answer may come in the form of senior midfielder Tony Aguilar, who last fall tallied five goals and eight assists; and from junior midfielder Johnny Hart, who ended last season with eight goals and seven assists, along with senior forwards Creed Nass and Anthony Falduto. Additionally, senior midfielders Logan Johnson and Jack Doyle, as well as junior midfielder Nate Szwed and sophomore midfielders Adam Grelak and James Cahill, likely will be needed at times to help generate offense.

As for the defense, the Wildcats should be fairly solid, particularly with junior goalkeeper Gavin Harris set up in front of the net. In front of him will be senior defenders Matt Albanese, Tyler Pizza and Alexander Dimm, along with junior defenders Carter Mathis and Carter Courtney.

Boys and Girls

Cross-Country

With a strong core of runners back from last year’s 4-3 squads, the Pinelands boys and girls cross-country teams are in good shape heading into the new season.

“Both Coach (Dan) Mulligan and I are extremely proud of how hard this group of athletes has conditioned this summer,” said girls coach Holly Egan. “We’re looking forward to a successful season.”

Success very well could be in the forecast for the Wildcats, especially within the Shore Conference Class B South division. Both the girls and boys teams have enough in their tanks to contend for division titles, but everything starts with their veterans: senior Jolie Zaccaria and junior Mart Villanueva.

For Egan’s girls, Zaccaria is the key. She’s a fourth-year runner and coming off a solid spring track season. During last year’s Ocean County Cross-Country Championships, Zaccaria placed 33rd and followed that effort with a 15th-place finish at the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II meet.

Meanwhile, Villanueva was one of the frontrunners for the boys, taking 30th in the county championship meet and 26th in South Jersey Group II, before also having an outstanding spring track campaign.

Of course, both teams will need the crews behind Zaccaria and Villanueva to push forward and score high for the Wildcats to have a shot at division crowns.

The boys will rely on seniors Justin Bowen, Nolan Rollison and Tino Daleo; juniors Jacob Santillanes, Colin Cadena, Adam McCloskey and Jack Roth; and sophomores Brian Delbury and Matt Kline to push the pace. The newcomers to the lineup are freshmen Ashish Gainder, Mark Siino, Ryan Janney and Jacob Fowler.

The girls will need returning senior Yhasmine Johns, junior Morgan Ross and sophomores Nadya Sturies and Jessica Cheney to lead the way, while freshmen Erin Janisz, Amy Dillinger, Tina Covello, Abby Wegman and Skye Newsome work their way into more prominent roles throughout the fall.

Rick Mellerup

and David Biggy

 

Pinelands boys soccer player Johnny Hart and the Wildcats will be looking to overcome the graduation losses following last fall's 17-5-1 campaign. (Photo by: David Biggy)
Pinelands girls cross-country senior Jolie Zaccaria will lead the way for the Wildcats this fall. (Photo by: David Biggy)
Pinelands boys cross-country junior Mart Villanueva should be among the better runners in the Shore Conference Class B South division this fall. (Photo by: David Biggy)
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