LAST SEASON: 4-6 (Defeated Watchung Hills in state consolation round game)
HEAD COACH: Bill Tracy, 8th season, 37-27; 93-84 overall)
TOP RETURNING PLAYERS: Duncan Roberts, Sr., QB/S; Kermit Hoffman, Sr., HB/DB; Ben Rengulbai, Sr., FB/DE; Dan Skea, Jr., HB/DE; Brett Albee, Sr., OT/DT; Matt Rusiniak, Sr., E/LB; Luke Olmstead, Sr., FB/LB; Nolan Hughes, So., HB/QB/K/DB
NEW CONTRIBUTORS: Kevin Beneventine, Sr., OT/DT; Frank Bonanni, Sr., Jack Childs, Sr., OL/LB; OG; Luke Ganny, Jr., OT/DG; Chris Lynn, Sr., OG/DT; Ryan Madden, Sr., E/DE; Aidan Murphy, Jr., QB/DB; James Napolitano, Sr., DG; Mark O'Brien, Jr., OC/DG; Jake Staples, Sr., E/DB
OUTLOOK: The Red Devils come off a 4-6 season, but enter 2015 with a high degree of optimism that seems to extend beyond the garden variety cheeriness of an 0-0 team.
First of all, let's point out that Ridge won three of its final games of 2014, and that one of those two regular-season losses came against Linden, the eventual champion in North Jersey, Section 2, Group 5.
Secondly, the Red Devils were engaged in two winnable games during that difficult, 2-4 start that would have changed the structure of the season entirely; they fell to Scotch Plains-Fanwood, 51-48, in a thrilling shootout that was won on a run as time expired, and lost to Westfield, 21-14 , in overtime.
And, thirdly, Ridge begins this season with its returning starter at quarterback, senior Duncan Roberts, and that always represents a beacon of hope when it comes to the hard-to-master Wing-T and Shot Gun offense run by head coach Bill Tracy.
This harkens back in some sense to the days of QB Conor Hughes, whose Ridge club was 3-7 as a sophomore in 2011, 7-3 as a junior in '12 and 12-0 and NJ, Section 2, Group 5 champion as a senior in 2013. Sure, Hughes (now playing at Elon University) was surrounded that year by a richly talented group of fellow seniors (like Ryan Bell, Liam Derkasch, Matt Soulas, Nick Franzese and Connor Stieglitz), but Roberts is also not without experienced, dangerous classmates.
Seniors Kermit Hoffman, Ben Rengulbai and Luke Olmstead and junior Dan Skea all were part of a running attack that usually did a nice job of complementing the Red Devils' nicely balanced aerial game. Roberts (6-2 , 180) passed for 1,548 yards and eight touchdowns, while throwing only three interceptions in 206 attempts.
That accuracy and good judgment bode well for the team now that Roberts has had a full year to develop an even higher grade of skills and soak up more of the tactical intelligence that made Hughes such a hard man to beat in his senior year.
Yes, Roberts has worked awfully hard all off -and-preseason, but so has the rest of this team, according to Tracy. They felt good about finishing stronger in the second half of 2014, but still have that 4-6 record resonating poorly.
"The guys have a great attitude and work ethic," Tracy said. "They have taken everything we have asked and done it 100 percent and without hesitation. They have a relentless way about them."
Seniors Brett Albee, a returning two-way tackle, Kevin Beneventine, Chris Lynn, Frank Bonnani and Jack Childs and juniors Mark O'Brien and Luke Ganny will be the guys spearheading the push up front for Roberts and his game-ready group of running backs. His receiving corps will include junior Matt Rusiniak, seniors Jake Staples and Ryan Madden, as well as those veterans out of the backfield. Hoffman caught 31 passes for 465 yards and four TDs in 2014, Skea had 16 catches for 239 yards and a score and Rengulbai had eight for 130 yards and one TD.
Tracy has loved the spirit and sense of competition that has engulfed pretty much every practice. It’s been so strong, in fact, that even sophomore kicker Nolan Hughes (22 of 25 PAT as a freshman) is being challenged by junior Noah Graves. Hughes, the younger brother of Conor, also plays QB as well as halfback and DB.
Six starters return to the Ridge defense, including DE Rengulbai (56 tackles last year), linebackers Olmstead (54) and Rusiniak (45) and DB Hoffman (39). With their experience, the Red Devils should definitely be in a better position to make more late-game stops and win some of those down-to-the-wire contests they could not quite control a year ago.
"They have a look of confidence and a relentless attitude," Tracy said. "Good things will happen for a group like this."
Albee, Beneventine, Lynn, O'Brien, Ganny and James Napoliatano help comprise a deep defensive interior, with the quick-footed Rengulbai and Skea and Ryan Madden at the ends. Childs will assist Olmstead and Rusiniak at linebacker, and Roberts, Hoffman, Hughes, Staples and Aidan Murphy will occupy the defensive backfield.
Sept. 11 at North Hunterdon 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 at Immaculata 7 p.m.
Sept. 26 at South River 7 p.m.
Oct. 2 at Montgomery 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 vs. Westfield 7 p.m.
Oct. 16 vs. Plainfield 7 p.m.
Oct. 23 vs. Linden 7 p.m.
Oct. 30 vs. Union 7 p.m.
Nov. 6 at Bridgewater-Raritan 6 p.m.