By TIM KELLY
The start of the high school football season brings with it high hopes and high expectations.
For the players, coaches and fans of the Ocean City Red Raiders, that is certainly the case leading into the 2019 campaign.
The Raiders, coming off a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating and almost always exciting 4-6 season, kick things off Friday 6 p.m. at Lower Cape May.
“Game week has finally arrived,” head coach Kevin Smith said in his weekly email to friends of the program. “Please come out and support us as we begin our march to the playoffs.”
The final pre-season practice took place yesterday, followed by a team dinner in the cafeteria. Smith also scheduled a three-hour practice for Saturday morning, presumably to go over the opening game’s successes and challenges.
Those details took a back seat on Thursday as Raider Nation focused on the first “for real” action to follow a busy summer of weight training, scrimmages, camps and pre-season team activities.
Ocean City looked very good in its final two scrimmages — both shutout wins — including a dominating 19-0 whitewash of a strong Cinnaminson team that went 8-3 last year, including a win in the Group II playoffs.
Carey Stadium, the Raiders’ century-old home field, hosted Philadelphia Eagles defensive end and local resident Vinny Curry’s youth camp earlier in the summer.
O.C.’s coaches and many of the players volunteered to help out at the event. There were also several NFL-sanctioned football events, including a “7-on-7” tournament, pitting the Raiders against some of South Jersey’s top programs.
With all of that in the rearview mirror, it was time to focus on the Caper Tigers.
“They are going to be ready for us,” Smith said in an email, “and we are going to be ready for them.”
Lower Cape May is coming off a 6-4 season during which the Tigers were explosive at times, scoring a total of 89 points in two games. The offense revolves around junior quarterback Connor Eckel who had a strong sophomore season, running for nearly 900 years and passing for over 700.
He has an experienced four-man rotation in the backfield and a top returning receiver in Nico Castellano.
The team figures to contend in the West Jersey Football League’s United Division, and some observers call them the favorites.
“We won six games last year and I don’t see any reason why we can’t improve on that and win seven or eight,” head coach Brian Hindle said in a published report.
Ocean City also has a highly-touted junior quarterback. However, Joe Repetti will be seeing his first varsity action as the starter. That doesn’t seem to matter to his coach or teammates.
“I really like him,” Smith said at the 7-on-7 tournament. “He does a lot of things well and he has looked sharp in the pre-season.”
Once again, Smith is expected to unleash a dynamic spread offense, a threat to move the ball and score at any time. It’s well-suited for Repetti’s precise timing throws underneath and his ability to chuck it deep.
Last season the offense was plagued by almost a complete lack of a reliable running game. Establishing one this year is vital to success.
Smith has repeatedly cited “finishing drives” as one of the top needs for improvement. A great way to do so is with an old-school ground game, something the Raiders will need to secure a playoff berth for the third straight year and to make noise in the postseason.
No matter how the offense develops, defense might be the top calling card when Ocean City makes its identity known. The Raiders return eight of 11 starters on the defensive side of the ball, including a linebacker group headed by juniors Brad Jamison, a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, senior Tommy Oves and Jake Inserra, one of the co-captains.
Junior defensive end Mike Rhodes provides bigtime size (6-foot-5, 228 pounds) and is expected to be a force on the pass rush. Another junior, Will Drain, a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder who made some big plays last year, joins Rhodes in a quarterback’s nightmare.
Chris Armstrong, another co-captain, leads by example as a record-holder in the weight program, and with his vocal exhortations to his teammates. The 6-foot, 252-pound senior two-way lineman, described himself at a team event as, “Just a kid who wants to play football. I’ll do anything they ask of me to help us win. I want to enjoy every minute of my senior year. Winning is a lot more fun (than the alternative).”
Repetti’s proven targets include junior Jake Schneider, whom a coach deemed “uncoverable” at one of the scrimmages, and co-captain Brian Beckman, who is known to make plays as a defensive back as well.
On special teams, one of O.C. observers’ unanswered questions was who will be doing the bulk of the kicking? A logjam at the position currently exists, including seniors Henry Suoto and Micah Waid vying for kicks with soph Brendan McGonigle.
Of the Raiders six losses last year, half were by a margin of a touchdown or less, the most devastating of which was a walk-off loss at home on a last-second field goal by arch foe Mainland.
That game, the annual “War at the Shore” on Nov. 1, has been circled on the Raiders calendar from the moment the schedule was released.
Aside from a playoff berth and a championship, Ocean City would like nothing more than to return the favor to the ’Stangs when the Raiders head over Ninth Street to Linwood.
Following the Lower Cape May game, Ocean City’s home opener will be the following Friday, Sept. 13, 6 p.m. at Carey Stadium against Egg Harbor Township. Then come three straight road games at Bridgeton, Absegami and St. Augustine Prep, a brutal stretch that should either set the tone for a run at the division crown and playoffs or a role as spoiler.
All things considered, Ocean City figures to have a strong year. It boasts experience and depth at most positions, motivation from last year’s near-misses and they are coming off a 3-2 division mark.
We’re not in the predictions business, but if you’ve read this far you deserve one: It says here the Raiders make the playoffs once again. Winning the West Jersey Independence Division will be a taller order.
The outcome against Absegami, middle game in the aforementioned three-game stretch of road contests, will go a long way in determining who wins it. The Braves already are 2-0 with impressive non-league victories over Burlington County traditional powers Shawnee and Pemberton by a combined score of 35-7.
Ocean City has shown in the past it backs down to no opponent. We’re still going to go conservative here and perhaps give the home squad some bulletin board material: We think the Raiders hang in the division race most of the season and wind up taking second place to the Braves.