TOMS RIVER EAST OFF TO ITS BEST START IN TEN YEARS
By Mike Ready
TOMS RIVER EAST – The Raiders are 2-0 to start the season for the first time since 2009 when they finished 10-1 and are on track to post their first winning record in 10 years.
Since 2010, when they finished with a 5-5 record, the Raiders have had eight consecutive losing seasons, compiling a combined record of 14-63, including last year’s 3-6 record.
Prior to 2010, from 2006 through 2009 under head coach Charlie Diskin, Toms River East won 33 games in four seasons, including 10-1 campaigns in 2006 and 2009 when they recorded first-round wins in the state playoffs.
Diskin handed over the reins of the floundering program to current head coach Kyle Sandberg in 2016 and Sandberg has made slow but steady progress in the hopes of restoring the pride and tradition to the once proud Raiders program.
“It’s something I’ve talked to these kids about for the past couple of years of getting to this point we are at now,” Sandberg. “I’ve always believed we could win here, and they’ve worked extremely hard in the offseason to try and make it happen. "When I got the job I knew what we had here and it was just going to take time and now it’s starting to show.”
Toms River East brought back nine starters on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball this season with most of the returning starters with Sandberg since they were freshmen and are now seniors.
“My seniors have been with me for four years now,” said Sandberg. “We had our lumps early on and went through the ringer. It was ground zero here a couple of years ago. To have these kids stick with it and to believe in us and to just grow as we were growing as a staff is a true team effort. The culture is so different now; it’s what we’ve wanted and they believe in it. They’re excited and it’s showing. It’s nice, we’re 2-0, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Last season they beat archrival Toms River South for the first time since 2011 and finished the season going 2-2 in their final four games, giving way to optimism heading into this season.
They’ve already beaten Toms River South, 13-8, in their second game of the season after getting by Howell, 21-19, in an opening-night nail-biter.
The Raiders are led by senior All-Shore running back/linebacker Frank Giannetti, who led the team with 61 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery a year ago, plus rushing for 700 yards with eight touchdowns for an average of 6.9 yards per carry.
Against Toms River South he carried the ball 17 times for 90 yards rushing, including touchdown runs of 35 and two yards. On defense he recorded seven tackles with one tackle for loss. Giannetti recorded his first sack of the season against Howell and rushed for a 1-yard touchdown.
“Frank’s the heart of this team,” Sandberg said. “He’s old school, tough as nails and gives you everything he’s got on every single snap. He’s a dream to coach and have on the team. Frankie’s a throwback player that loves football, loves contact and loves hitting.
“He’s a big part of the growth of our program, but to be honest, a lot of our seniors are.” Sandberg added. “They’ve stuck with it, they really have. When they were freshmen Toms River East had only won a couple of games in four years. Then when I took over in my first year we didn’t win a game at all. They could’ve quit, but they stuck with it and believed in what we were trying to accomplish and what we were trying to bring back.”
In recognition of their perseverance, Sandberg named seven senior captains this season – Giannetti, quarterback Mike Goodall, running back/cornerback Alex Smith, wide receiver Riley Englehard, linebacker Anthony Kontogiannis, defensive back Tommy Grande and linebacker/offensive lineman Frank Lord.
“They’re all leaders,” said Sandberg. “Even the seniors that aren’t captains are leaders.”
The Raiders like to run the ball and Goodall is a run-first quarterback that can hurt you with the pass if you sleep on him. On opening night he went off for 187 yards rushing, including scoring runs of 57 and 75 yards. Then against TRS he carried the ball 13 times picking up 48 yards on the ground and also had 39 yards through the air along with an interception from his safety spot on defense.
“I put a lot of weight on Mike but he’s my guy,” said Sandberg. “He’s done more than I’ve asked and is a tremendous leader and teammate. He’s gotten stronger and faster and is the ultimate competitor. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Smith has made his presence felt so far this season on both offense and defense. Against the Indians, he averaged over 10 yards per carry rushing for 41 yards on four attempts and picked up a sack in the win over Howell.
“Alex is incredible,” said Sandberg. “He just figures out ways to get it done making plays on both sides of the ball.”
Yusuf Ahmed, a junior running back/safety, led the team with eight tackles and a tackle for loss in the TRS game and added 18 yards rushing on five attempts.
Junior linebacker Christian Peins recorded two sacks against Howell and Grande broke up a pass in the end zone with six seconds to play on an attempted two-point conversion that would’ve tied the game and sent it into overtime.
With the annual division realignment implemented to ensure a more competitive balance within the divisions, the Raiders should be right in the mix for the Freedom Division title.
Gone are Red Bank Catholic, Long Branch, Red Bank Regional and Ocean, which are all currently top 10 teams or on the bubble. Those teams were replaced by Colts Neck, Jackson Liberty, Lakewood, Neptune and Matawan. The Raiders and Indians are the only holdovers from a year ago. The Freedom Division championship is definitely up for grabs this season and you can expect the Raiders to be in it until the end.
“Even in A South we had tough schedules; we always played tough teams,” said Sandberg. “Then last year, our five losses were against great teams that included two state champions. It was a brutal schedule. The kids I have now went through those tough games so they know what they have to do if they want to be like those teams. This year they’re using that experience to their advantage. I’m pleased with our two wins and a division title might be in the cards, but we’re not even thinking about that now. We just have to worry about Jackson Liberty this Friday.”
UPDATE: Toms River East moved to 3-0 and 2-0 in the Freedom Division with a 28-0 shutout of Jackson Liberty Friday night.