KEANSBURG – After winning just five games, including three consecutive 1-9 seasons the past four years, the Titans of Keansburg are off to their best start since 2012 when they began the season 4-1 before going winless the rest of the way and finishing at 4-5-1.
Following last Saturday’s 19-0 win over Sussex Tech, Keansburg’s record now stands at 4-2 six games into the season. Included in their four victories is a 14-13 win over Pinelands which represents their first win versus a Shore Conference opponent since the 2012 season when they beat Mater Dei, 27-18, on the opening game of the season.
“To come back and win that game was big for us,” Keansburg head coach John Bird said of their win on the road at Pinelands. “We were getting frustrated being in the Shore with all our wins the last five years or so being against Middlesex teams and crossovers. We needed to show we could win games in the Shore, so that was a big one.
“Then we followed that up with a win against Point Beach, which was a division win and to us was an even bigger win because we see our division as being very, very strong.”
Bird is in third year as the top man at Keansburg after coming to the school as an assistant in 2013. He played football at Raritan High under Hall of Fame coach Bob Generelli and was an assistant under Andy Carlstrom at Holmdel (2006-08) and at Saint John Vianney (2011-12).
In his first season at Keansburg the Titans were 1-9. Then last season they improved to 2-8 and even made the state playoffs and appear to heading in the right direction.
“We kind of knew at the end of last year we were moving forward even though our record didn’t show it,” Bird said. “In our Shore Regional playoff game we lost but were competitive. But we knew we were returning a lot of guys who had a lot of skills and we could take the next step as long as guys bought in – and they did. If we can continue to win games in our division that’s when we can really start to make progress.”
Their 51-43 shootout win over Pt. Pleasant Beach on Oct. 5 of this season marked their first win over the Garnett Gulls since 2009 when they handed the Gulls a 34-13 loss during a 5-5 season.
Against Pt. Beach, Keansburg senior quarterback Danny Vital set a single-game school record for passing yards by going 15-of-20 for 388 yards and four touchdown passes of 20, 46, 69 and 47 yards. Vital also had an 11-yard touchdown run with 4:32 remaining in the game that put the Titans up for good.
Vital, in his third year as a starter, is having a breakout season and one of the main reasons behind Keansburg’s resurgence. He’s 43-of-72 for 762 yards passing with nine touchdowns.
“Danny has started since his sophomore year and has been more of a runner for us,” Bird said. “What actually happened was that in the Shore Regional game (this year) he hurt his ankle and wasn’t as effective as a runner as he’d been and we wound up having to throw the ball more and we found out he was very good at it. We had hoped coming into the year that he would become more of a dual-threat quarterback but he was kind of forced into that kind of situation. But he’s just done really well and it’s become a large part of our offense, more so than we thought it would be.”
Senior wide receiver Jashawn Martin was the leading receiver in the game with a career-high seven catches for 186 yards and two touchdown receptions of 46 and 69 yards while also running for a 9-yard touchdown.
Martin has developed into a reliable option for Vital and he’s been on the receiving end of 16 of Vital’s passes for 283 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s just a tremendous athlete,” Bird said of Martin. “Jashawn can turn a bubble pass into 50 yards because of his athleticism.”
Senior wideout Darius Moore caught two passes for 79 yards and a touchdown while senior wide receiver Justin Alesi added a 20-yard touchdown reception. Junior running back Liam Riecks had touchdown runs of seven and 14 yards and finished with 71 yards.
Riecks has rushed for 302 yards and three touchdowns on 59 attempts while Moore has picked up 52 yards on the ground on 12 carries with one touchdown on the ground and has five receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown.
“Numbers-wise he’s not having as good a year as he did last year,” Bird said of his primary running back. “But he’s a hard runner and since we’ve made the adjustment to Danny throwing more, Liam’s the one who keeps the chains moving.”
Junior defensive back Hunter MacDonald had two interceptions giving him three for the year and junior defensive back Patrick Edwards clinched the win with an interception with under two minutes left in the game.
In their win against Sussex Tech, Vital threw for 163 yards and three touchdowns including two 10-yard scoring tosses to Martin and a 45-yard TD bomb to senior Joe Osterbye. For the year Osterbye has nine receptions for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
“Joe’s technically our fullback but he’ll also be our slot receiver,” said Bird. “He’s a very sure-handed receiver that we know will make the catch for us. Paul Eckleberry is on the other side and he’s come on recently. He’s a 6-foot-6, 200 pound basketball player, who we got to come out for his senior year, so he’s a gigantic target.”
The defense – led by Osterbye at middle linebacker – allowed just 130 yards of total offense for the program’s first shutout since 2009 when they beat Burlington City, 20-0. Osterbye leads the team with 52 tackles which ranks him as one of the top 20 tacklers in the Shore Conference.
“He’s played on defense since he’s been a freshman,” Bird said of Osterbye’s play on defense. “This is his fourth year playing middle linebacker and he goes through his reads and progressions better or as well as anyone I’ve coached at this point. He understands the game and doesn’t miss tackles.
“And Miguel Crespo is another kid that’s started for three years for us at outside linebacker and does a great job pressuring offenses. Then there’s Hunter MacDonald at free safety. He’s a first-year varsity kid that’s only a junior, who just love football and plays his butt off every day and it’s paid off. He’s one of our top tacklers and is second in the Shore in interceptions.”
Bird also mentioned Martin and junior Justin Alessi at the corners. They play excellent man-to-man coverage allowing the Titans to get extra guys down in the box to stop the run.
Two-way lineman Ronnie Rotondella was singled out by Bird for his play on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Rotondella is the only returning lineman on both sides of the ball for the Titans so he’s been leaned on heavily. Ijustice Tucker – a 6-foot-2, 245 pound two-way lineman – was also praised by Bird for his play in the trenches. But Bird did say the unit as a whole has meshed better than they ever could’ve expected and that a lot of their success can be attributed to them just getting on board as quickly as they did.
The win against Sussex gave them three wins in a row for the first time since 2008 when they won their final three games of the season to finish 3-7.
“That’s helped our confidence,” Bird said of his team winning streak. “It’s also the way in which we’ve won that’s igniting confidence in our guys.”
The Titans will face one of their biggest tests of the season this Saturday when they host undefeated South River (6-0) – ranked fifth in the Greater Middlesex Conference.
“We’re approaching this game like we approach every game,” Bird said. “We know they’re a good team, obviously their record speaks for itself, but we’re also very familiar with them so we’re hoping our familiarity with them helps. It’s about executing, if we execute then we’ll be fine.”
Following their Saturday game the Titans have two remaining games left with division rivals Keyport and Asbury Park.
“Right now the goal is to get into the playoffs more than anything else,” Bird said. “We try to break it down into steps. The next step for us is to qualify for the playoffs again and get a win.”
UPDATE: The Titans had their three-game winning streak snapped, losing to still undefeated South River, 26-20. Keansburg’s comeback fell short in overtime after Osterbye’s Hail Mary reception with no time on the clock tied the score in regulation, but with a chance to win the game in regulation with a successful extra-point kick, a bad snap sent the game into overtime. South River scored on its first overtime possession but a juggling catch by Martin on fourth down on the Titans overtime possession was ruled incomplete and Keansburg was left with a heartbreaking loss.