Rumson-Fair Haven, Rumson, high school football
(Photo courtesy of Hudl)

Rumson-Fair Haven's Tried and True Defense Still The Gold Standard

RUMSON – Since 2010, when the Rumson-Fair Haven Bulldogs won their first ever state sectional title, Rumson's defense remains the gold standard of what a Shore Conference defense should look like.

Throughout those 12 seasons, the Bulldogs defense have never been ranked lower than tenth in the Shore Conference in points allowed and have six top five finishes.

In 2011 the Bulldogs had the No.1 ranked defense in the Shore in points allowed when they surrendered an average of just 6.9 points per game in 12 games. They ranked second in 2016 allowing 9.75 points per game and they were third in the Shore in 2015 and 2020 giving up 7.4 and 10.6 points per game respectively.

That resume speaks for itself and the Bulldogs continue to back it up.

In the six sectional championship games that they won the defense have allowed a combined 77 points for an average of 12.8 points per game, including two shutouts.

“We take pride in the entire program,” said Rumson-Fair Haven head coach Jerry Schulte. “Though there are expectations as far as our defense is concerned to live up to the standards that have been set here throughout the years.”

In 2018, the Bulldogs got into a rare shootout in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III final against an undefeated Somerville team that averaged close to 450 yards of total offense and led the state in average points scored with 53.7 points per game.

Rumson won that game 42-35, but if you take that game out of the equation, the Bulldogs defense have allowed an average of only 7.0 points per game in five state finals.

Nothing like saving your best for last.

In 2005, Bulldog head coach, Shane Fallon, brought in defensive aficionado Jerry Schulte to run the Bulldogs defense and that moment theoretically changed the course of Rumson-Fair Haven football.

(Photo courtesy of Hudl)

Schulte came on board at Rumson in 2005. At that time he was already a long-time Shore Conference fixture having coached at the Shore in various positions for 25-plus years with head coaching stints at Mater Dei and Wall.

What Schulte brought along with him, besides a wealth of knowledge, was his own version of the 4-3 defense that in various forms is still Rumson’s basic defensive alignment.

“I picked up most of the 4-3 concept from Al Tirpak when I was at Wall,” said Schulte. “We used the 4-3 at Wall and I liked it, I thought it was a very effective defense. When I talked to Shane Fallon, who was the head coach at the time at Rumson, he asked if I would install the 4-3 defense at Rumson. He liked it, but didn’t know much about it and I said, ‘sure’ and it was an easy transition when I came to Rumson.”

Tirpak was known for his defensive prowess and was a long-time defensive coordinator at Middletown North under Vic Kubu, who learned the 4-3 from George Welch at Virginia. Tirpak eventually made his way to Wall to coach his son while Schulte was coaching there.

Schulte has won six sectional titles since arriving at Rumson-Fair Haven, four as the defensive coordinator and two as head coach.

“We’re still using a version of 4-3 today,” said Schulte. “We’ve gone a little more to the 4-2-5 because of the type of offenses we’re seeing. We’re seeing a lot of spread offenses and RPO’s so we’re still in a base 4-3 but depending on who we’re playing we may be in a 4-2-5 a little bit more – it’s kind of a hybrid defense with some blitz packages depending on who we’re playing.”

Jeremy Schulte, Jerry’s son, took over the defensive coordinator position in 2018 in what has been a seamless transition.

“He’s a pretty darn good at what he does, that’s for sure,” Schulte said of his son.

The Bulldogs are blessed with a very successful feeder program in the Rumson American Youth League (AYL) that funnels its already football savvy kids into the high school program.

“We have a good relationship with the AYL and conduct clinics with their coaches,” Schulte said. “They run the basics of our program and do a real good job of it. The kids wear our jerseys and greet the players as they take the field on Friday night.”

By the time these future Bulldogs enter high school as freshman they’re already well-versed in the tradition they’ll be asked to uphold and the pride they will feel when they step on the field for the first time as a Bulldogs defensive player.

“Yes, they’re aware of it,” said Schulte on whether or not incoming kids are mindful of the high standards of play they’ll be expected to meet.

As a youth playing AYL football, Rumson’s current standout linebacker John Lista idolized the Bulldog players and had early aspirations of being a star at Rumson.

“That was a dream of all of ours over many years,” said Lista . “I tried to mimic star players like Mike Ruane and Thomas Martello’s mentality and the way they played with that tough tenacity and standard of Rumson football. Those guys weren’t afraid to hit and made the right plays at the right time.”

While playing youth football in Rumson, Ruane said he was conscious of how good a team Rumson was, “I remember watching and seeing that they always had a stout defense and they were fun to watch when the were winning state championships and things like that.”

The Bulldogs average over 100 players a year on its roster and those numbers keep growing.

“We get a lot of kids first of all and that allows our guys to go only one way so they don’t have to worry about another position,”  said Schulte. “We just get special kids, I don’t know any other way to say it.”

Anyone will tell you that a good coach, and Schulte is one of the best, is only as good as his players, and Schulte has had some good ones. It would be nearly impossible to list them all but here are a few that have etched their name in stone at Rumson.

In 2010, linebacker Michael Huttner helped the Bulldogs win their first ever state championship. Huttner was a three-year starter and a two-time first-team All-Shore selection, after being named a second-team choice as a sophomore. He was also a high school All-American in lacrosse and went on to play at Cornell University – one of the best collegiate lacrosse programs in NCAA  history. He was inducted into the Rumson-Fair Haven Athletic Hall of Fame class of 2020.

Linebacker Travis Clark was a team captain and two-time first-team All-Shore selection. He held the school record with 302 career tackles and went on to play at Villanova. He was a three-year starter and one of the main cogs on defense on the Bulldogs 2010 state championship team.

A three-start recruit coming out of high school, defensive end Donald Bedell helped the Bulldogs to an 11-1 record as a senior in 2013 and a NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II championship, picking up three sacks in the game. He was a first team All-Shore selection as a junior after finishing with 15 sacks and 50 tackles. As a senior, he totaled 90 tackles, 13 sacks, an additional nine TFL, 14 quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and four forced fumbles. He garnered first-team All-Shore honors following his monster season as well being a third-team All-State pick. Heavily recruited, he went on to play at Rutgers before transferring to the University of Montana.

A team captain his senior year in 2013, safety/linebacker Thomas Martello, was a first-team All-Shore selection and first-team All-State Group II pick his senior year after recording 127 and 8.5 sacks. He was instrumental in Rumson defeating previously undefeated Weequahic in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II championship game. In that game, head coach Bryan Batchler labeled him a “Warrior” after playing the game with a broken foot but still leading the team with 13 tackles. Went to play at Princeton University.

Linebacker Tucker Briggs was a standout on the 2014 Bulldog defense that finished fifth in the Shore in points allowed with 163 points in 12 game for a 13.6 average. As a senior he recorded 102 tackles and was a third-team All-Shore selection. As a junior he posted 70 tackles and was an All-Division selection.

Safety Mike Murdock was named the MVP of the 2015 sectional championship game as a senior. A two-time first-team All-Shore selection and an All-State All-Group II pick as a senior, Murdock helped the Bulldogs to three state sectional championships as a three-year starter. He finished with 127 tackles (4th in the Shore) and 8.5 sacks his final season at Rumson when he garnered MSG Varsity All-Metro Honorable Mention honors.

Any conversation of Rumson defensive football greats has to start with linebacker Mike Ruane. A two-time team captain and four-year starter at linebacker, Ruane is considered one of the hardest hitters in Shore Conference history. He shattered the record for Rumson career tackles and was the 2016 Shore Conference Defensive Player of the Year after posting 120 tackles, 12 TFL, and 3.5 sacks. As a junior in 2015 Ruane recorded a whopping 153 tackles along with six sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a touchdown. He was a 2016 USA Today Preseason All-American selection and first-team All-State pick as a senior. Ruane went on to have a successful career at the University of Massachusetts where he was second on the team in tackles in both 2019 and 2020 before transferring to Villanova University.

“We always took defense really seriously and were aware of the expectations,” said Ruane. “Our thing was to not let anyone score on us and not let them get past our own 40-yard line. Defense was a very serious entity that we had and we were always coached up pretty well and we executed the majority of the time.”

Schulte had high praise for Ruane.

“Mike was as good as it gets as a high school linebacker,” he said. “He was a great kid to coach and the players looked up to him.”

Following in the footsteps of Ruane, Keegan Woods was a three-year starter, two-time first-team All-Shore selection and the 2018 Shore Conference Defensive Player of the Year. As a junior he broke Ruane’s school record with 155 tackles, along with four sacks, an interception, forced fumble and fumble return. As a senior he led the state in tackles with 178, breaking his own record. He added five sacks, 14 TFL, two interceptions and two forced fumble. One of those forced fumbles was the turning point of the 2018 sectional championship, his final game for the Bulldogs. After a post-graduate year at Hun he moved on to Merrimack College where he was the second leading tackler as a true freshman in Merrimack’s three-game 2021 spring season. He’s a starting linebacker on this year’s team and was influential in Merrimack’s upset Holy Cross earlier this season.

“Keegan brought things to the game that you can’t coach,” said Schulte. “He had this innate ability to find the ball. We teach reads and keys and things but Keegan had this gut feeling of where the ball was going. I really can’t explain it other than he just had that special it that rarely do linebackers have and he had it.”

Linebacker Christian Lanzalotto was another tackling machine for the Bulldogs. As a senior he was a second-team All-Shore selections and first-team All-Division after recording 123 tackles, one sack, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. And you can’t forget another standout on that 2018 team, defensive end Henry Sullivan. The 6-foot-3, 245 pounder captained the team as a senior recording 96 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble and a safety. He gained first-team All-Shore and first-team All-Division in 2018 and went on to play at Colgate University.

A three-year starter, Gordon Forsyth made the move from defensive end to linebacker his senior season in 2019 and had a monster campaign. He was named first-team All-Shore and third-team All-State after recording 144 tackles, seven TFL, a sack, interception and a forced fumble. As a junior he helped the Bulldogs win a sectional championship when he recorded 78 tackles. He’s currently continuing his football career at Dickinson College where he’s starting on the defensive line.

Defensive tackle Von Factor was a standout along Rumson defensive line that was part of a unit that allowed just 10.6 points per game – third in the Shore. Factor was a second-team All-Shore selection as a junior and a first-team pick as a senior in 2020 when had 71 tackles and was second of the team with six sacks. In two postseason wins over Colts Neck and Freehold he recorded 22 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries to help the Bulldogs win their postseason pod. Following his dominating 2020 season he was also named third-team All-State.

One of the top safeties in Bulldogs history, Ryan Ruane (Mike’s younger brother), was the Shore Conference co-Defensive Player of the Year his senior year in 2020 as well as garnering third-team All-State accolades. A two-time first-team All-Shore selection, Ruane finished his senior season recording 54 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery in eight games. In his breakout junior campaign he had 95 tackles, four interceptions, six pass breakups, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two sacks, while returning two interceptions for touchdowns. Ruane’s junior season goes down as one of the top performances in the history of Rumson football. A three-year starter, Ruane was named captain of the 2020 team. Over his high school career at Rumson he recorded 215 tackles, 10 interceptions, 16 pass breakups, five forced fumble, two sacks and three fumble recoveries. Ruane is currently at Holy Cross University and is working himself into the starting lineup and playing on special teams as a true freshman.

“When Mike (Ruane) was playing at Rumson I was still in middle school and I really looked up to those guys,” said Ruane. “I really liked the way Travis Clark and Tucker Briggs and Thomas Martello played the game and watched how they went about playing defense. With my brother Mike playing there I realized there were a lot of expectations to live up to but I never let that get to me - I just played my game.”

The Bulldogs went into this season with just three returning starters on defense but they are three really, really good ones. And those who know Rumson football know the Bulldogs don’t rebuild, they reload, and this year is no different.

Matter of fact, going into Saturday’s game at Colts Neck, which just dropped out of the top 10, the Bulldogs defense has allowed only 13 points in four games for an average of 3.25 points per game playing in arguable the toughest division in the Shore Conference. They had back-to-back shutouts, including Wall – ranked No.1 at the time – and No.3 powerful Donovan Catholic.

Rumson-Fair Haven (4-0) is currently ranked No.1 in the Shore and sixth in the state.

Lista, senior linebacker Ryan McKay and defensive end Aiden Moriarty have been starting together for three years now and the culmination of their hard work is paying big dividends again this season as the trio continue to create chaos as they carry on Rumson’s tradition of defensive excellence.

“We have been playing on the same teams our entire life,” said Lista of his relationship with McKay and Moriarty. “I don’t think there’s been one season when we haven’t been on the same team. So, obviously the bond between the three of us, specifically, is extremely valuable and has a huge impact on our team. We know what each other is thinking and what our goals are going into certain games and in certain situations.”

As a sophomore, Lista was an all-division pick when he recorded 85 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles and two interceptions in his breakout season. Then last season after making 75 tackles in eight games for an average of 9.3 tackles per game along with four sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble returns he was honored with a first-team All-Shore selection. Lista has been Lista again this season wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. In four games he leads the team with 45 tackles (19 solo), two sacks, two TFL, and a pick six. The 6-foot-1.5, 215 pound Lista will play ball for the University of Pennsylvania next fall.

“We’ve had a lot of good linebackers here at Rumson and he’s certainly one of the best,” said Schulte when asked about his current stud linebacker. “He’s just very physical, very fast and smart. He’s got a great future ahead of him.”

Moriarty had breakout sophomore season which saw him grab third-team All-Shore honors when he recorded 70 tackles and a team-best 13.5 sacks (fourth in the Shore). He backed that up with a phenomenal junior season in 2020 when he was a second-team All-Shore selection after a 60 tackle, team-high seven sack, one interception season. So far this year, the 6-foot-2, 225 pounder has 38 tackles, three sacks, four TFL and a forced fumble. Moriarty has a very high ceiling and will take his talents to Washington and Lee next season and they’re getting a good one.

McKay is the unsung hero of the three and is highly underrated. His eye-popping 4.84 GBA translates well into his football skills and he’s the field general for the Bulldog defense barking out signals. As a sophomore he posted 69 tackles, a sack and a fumble return and last season as a junior he added 57 tackles and a sack. McKay’s game is full of intangibles that his teammates thrive off of. He’s being heavily recruited by a number of FCS programs with the Ivy League heavily in the mix.

“Ryan McKay is a pretty darn good linebacker in his own right,” said Schulte. “He makes all the calls for us – he’s like the quarterback on the defense. He’s a really smart player. We’ve got a lot of smart guys, that’s why we can do some of the things we do because they are that smart.”

Lista knows McKay is tremendously underrated and deserves more accolades for the job he does game in and game out.

“I can’t stress that enough,” said Lista. “Without Ryan our defense doesn’t work and function the way it does. He’s so brilliant in the way he see’s stuff on the field. He’ll call me before a game and tell me every single play the team runs and basically breaks down their entire offense. It is unreal the stuff that he does and tells me and he his play gets underrated. He’s just as good a player as he is a student and it unbelievable to have him playing next to me.”

Junior defensive end Marshall Halfacre is someone to keep an eye on. The 6-foot-3, 230 pounder is in the midst of a breakout year and is a big part of the Bulldogs defense this season having made 19 tackles (7 solo) and two sacks.

Defensive lineman Cooper Bunnell (19 tackles) is a rising sophomore and someone to watch. The 6-foot-0, 220 pounder is still growing into his frame and has show flashes of being a big-time player as has 5-foot-11, 230 pound junior defensive lineman Julian Devlin (9 tackles, sack).

Seniors Robert Thompson (19 tackles (6 solo), TFL), Owen Sullivan (9 tackles) and Kevin Hughes (8 tackles, FR) have been a consistent contributors in the Bulldogs defensive line rotation.

The biggest concern for the Bulldogs defense entering the season was their inexperienced secondary but they’ve quickly jelled into a very cohesive unit.

“That was a huge concern for us going into the season,” said Schulte. “They’re young. Some of them had a little bit of experience but certainly not what they needed. They’re doing a great job, I’m very pleased, they’ve come a long way.”

Senior safety Alex Cady (24 tackles), senior cornerback Brian Doherty (19 Tackles, TFL, 2 INT), senior cornerback Owen Sullivan (9 tackles), junior safety Ryan Kalman (22 tackles, FR), junior safety/linebacker Beau Kemler (13 tackles, FF, INT) and junior John Connors all took the challenge head-on and prevailed under trying conditions.

The Bulldogs will travel to Colts Neck Saturday and must avoid looking past the Cougars and to next Friday night's game agaisnt No.2 Red Bank Catholic.

"We're just taking it game by game, we don't look past any team," said Lista. "Red Bank Catholic is going to be a pretty big deal, it's a huge rivalry, but Colts Neck is a good team with a big offensive line. We're just ready to go in there on Saturday, do our job and get a W."

A year ago, Rumson knocked Colts Neck out of the ranks of  the underfeated after the Cougars had won six in a row to start the season in a Pod semifinal game. So, Colts Neck (3-1) just might have a little chip on its shoulders.

"When we play teams, we like to play the best of them, so once again, we're going to be prepared for whatever they bring," added Lista.


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