After middling at or just above the .500 mark in recent seasons, the East Rockaway Rocks made huge strides last spring by winning four of five games to place them in the upper half of Conference IV. But can the fifth-seeded Rocks continue that upward trend after losing several key players from a powerful rush offense that buoyed them to that success?
Head coach Russ Pajer certainly thinks so.
East Rockaway rushed for at least 200 yards in each game last season, including two 300-plus yard efforts in the first two contests. The graduating trio of quarterback Julian Palma and running backs Franklin Infante and Robert Welch combined for over 1,100 yards on the ground and 18 touchdowns, but Pajer said the tutelage they provided to the next crop of starters is invaluable.
“Every year you lose some good kids,” he said. “We still have weapons. I think our starting lineup is solid offensively and defensively. We’ll be fine.“
That lineup also earned the respect of the officials in charge of the rankings.
“We feel we could be in the top four,” Pajer exclaimed. “We’ve been very competitive over the last couple of years. We put our kids in situations to be competitive. We’ll be ready.”
Junior Tyler Hyland takes over at quarterback and plays a similar style as Palma. And because the JV runs the same style of offense as the varsity to make the transition easier, Hyland has had plenty of time to learn the system since starting as a seventh grader.
“He’s been running this offense for four years,” Pajer said. “We throw a little bit here and there and he can make those throws, but he’s working on reads. He wants to learn. I think he’ll be a good leader on our offense.”
East Rockaway will take a running back by committee approach by employing several players at that position. Joe Bruzzo, who scored both of his touchdowns against the Friends Academy on March 27, will get plenty of carries as a wingback and 6-foot-3 Aiden Green and Jack Mistretta will handle fullback duties.
The athletic Green filled in admirably for Mistretta, who tore his ACL in last year’s season opener, by rushing for over 200 yards while proving to be an effective blocker for his running back counterparts.
“Aiden can do a lot of different things,” Pajer said. “He’s athletic and we can move him around. He can go to the wing, he can go to fullback [and] he can go to tight end if we need him there. He’ll definitely be a main part of our offense.”
When Green is in the backfield, senior Tyler Gutierrez and junior Chase Vertucci will figure prominently in the team’s two tight end set.
The Rocks will continue to have an experienced offensive line with guards Matthew Lacey and Eddie Caddle flanking fellow senior center Michael Kilgus. Junior Chris Becker will man one of the tackle spots and play also on the defensive line alongside Lacey, Kilgus and ends Vertucci and junior Chris Mott.
Green and Mistretta will see plenty of action at linebacker, with the former manning the middle, and Pajer also plans to give senior Joseph Lazazzaro some reps there as the season progresses.
Junior John Giannotti, Bruzzo, senior Tyler Poland and Gutierrez will be patrolling the defensive backfield. Poland and Gutierrez both bring athleticism to the group, while Giannotti has a more physical style to his game. Bruzzo has a year of experience at safety and Pajer is hoping he can continue to grow at the position during a full eight-game season.