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Bouncing Back: Lions Football Preview

On the heels of a two-win season that followed a pair of state playoff appearances, Middletown North looks to get back to the postseason this fall.

After registering the football program’s first consecutive state playoff appearances since 1984-85, dropped back in the pack with a 2-8 record last season.

Now the hope is that a new offense and a solid array of skilled players can help the Lions prove that last season was more of a hiccup than the start of a trend in the opposite direction.

“There is a lot of uncertainty because of the new system and the new players, but the mentality here is still great,’’ said sixth-year head coach Joe Trezza. “The kids are going in thinking they can be successful.’’

“Last year, the whole team realized we didn’t get it done,’’ said Joe Racioppi, a senior running back/defensive back. “This whole offseason we’ve been busting our butts to get back to where we were and go farther.’’

After running a Wing-T scheme with some option plays last season to fit his personnel, Trezza has switched to a shotgun, spread offense that will feature four wide receivers and a one-back set.

It’s a large departure from the Lions’ traditional offense during Trezza’s tenure, as they have usually been more of a downhill, power-running team. A team that used to throw the ball five or 10 times in a game might now be putting it in the air 20 or more times a game.

The hope is that it will jumpstart a unit that only produced 9.4 points per game last season.

“We’re not a big team, and we figured out we’re more athletic than we’ve been in the past,’’ Trezza said. “Knowing the fact that we can’t really push people around up front, if we can spread people out, it might open up more seams and give a back like Joey (Racioppi) more seams to run.’’

Junior newcomer Cody Thompson will man the offense in his first year as the starting quarterback, and Racioppi is a returning starter who gives opposing defenses a running back that they must gameplan against. He was injured late in the season last year and the offense stagnated for long stretches without him. Senior T.J. Curran also should see some carries out of the backfield.

“I think they’re going to be keying on (Racioppi) more than myself because he is a returning starter,’’ Thompson said.

Thompson is a dual threat, as he also is dangerous running with the ball. He honed his passing and chemistry with his receivers when the Lions participated in the 7-on-7 tournament at Monmouth University this summer for the first time in Trezza’s tenure.

“I’m kind of used to (the new offense) because when I was in Pop Warner I played in the shotgun and had four receivers like that,’’ Thompson said.

“When you have a quarterback who can throw and run and who wants the ball, you have to give him options,’’ Trezza said. “If we had him under center handing the ball off, we’re only using half his potential.’’

Thompson’s targets at wide receiver are led by returning starter Jesse Fredericks, a senior, along with promising 6-foot-2 junior Rob Spinelli, who started on defense as a sophomore. The slot receivers will be Curran and junior Nick Welsh, and senior James Kavanaugh is another target at tight end.

“I think Rob Spinelli is going to have a huge year for us,’’ Trezza said. “He’s a 6-2 receiver who will play in the X-receiver spot, and he’s very athletic.’’

While the Lions don’t have a ton of size upfront, they do bring back experience with three returning starters.

Senior center Vinnie Morris is a returning starter, and senior Matt Dickey has moved to left tackle after playing at right guard last season. Senior Kevin Conover is a returning starter at left guard. The newcomers are junior Anthony Migliaccio at right guard and the tandem of juniors Tom Klemm and Pat Anderson at right tackle.

Freshman Nick Banta will be the placekicker and the punter.

Defensively, the Lions, who gave up an average of 26 points per game last year, will have a host of young newcomers in their 4-4 base defense.

The defensive ends will be seniors Mike Nonnenmacher and Jim Benbow, the latter of whom saw time last season. Junior Mike Galluccio is a returning starter at defensive tackle, and the tandem of sophomore Brandon Distalo and junior James Burr are competing at the other defensive tackle spot. Seniors Sam Coppola and John Vigorito also should see time in the defensive line rotation.

Junior Dom Pedone is a returning starter who will anchor a linebacking corps that also includes Spinelli, junior Kyle Gebhardt and senior Derek Brown, the last of whom played in the secondary last season.

“We came into the offseason with a mindset of working hard,’’ Pedone said. “We have a small team, but we have speed and skill.’’

The secondary looks to be a strength, as Racioppi is a returning starter at cornerback, Welsh is a returning starter at safety, and Curran will be at the other cornerback spot after starting four games there last season.

“The defense has to step up,’’ Racioppi said. “We can’t be giving up 30-something points every game and expect our offense to do the same thing.’’

Depth is a particular concern, as the overall participation numbers are down from previous years, according to Trezza.

“We’ve got to stay healthy, or we’re in trouble,’’ Trezza said.

The mission is clear – make some noise in Class A North for a program that has not won a division title since 1983 and get back to the postseason.

“Playoffs are definitely a goal for us,’’ Thompson said. “We just want to put last year behind us and get back to where we belong.’’

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