TOMS RIVER – From 2014 through 2016, Donovan Catholic won three games, including two winless seasons in 2014 and 2016.


In 2017, Donovan Catholic hired Dan Curcione as head coach less than two months after he led Wall to their first state sectional championship in 14 years in his third year at the school.


Curcione brought along his offensive coordinator, Chip LaBarca, Jr., who previously was the head coach at Toms River North from 2006 through 2012, including a perfect 12-0 season and South Jersey Group IV championship in 2007.


In hiring Curcione, Donovan Catholic was banking on a similar transformation as the one he engineered at Wall. Donovan Catholic is aiming high and the hope is to eventually be mentioned in the same breath as perennial Shore Conference parochial powers Red Bank Catholic, Mater Dei Prep and Saint John Vianney.


That day may be coming sooner than later.


Curcione took over a Wall program which had won just five games in two years and three years later the Crimson Knights went 10-2 and were crowned state champions.


Now in his third year at Donovan Catholic, the Griffins are on similar path of development.


In 2016, Curcione’s inaugural season, the Griffins went 4-6 before improving to 7-3 a year ago – their most wins since 1993. They finished second in the National Division and qualified for the state playoffs before giving Mater Dei, which went toe-to-toe with Red Bank Catholic in the Non-Public Group III final, all they could handle in a 35-21 loss in the first round.


With most of that team returning for the 2019 season, including its rising senior quarterback, Ryan Clark, the future is now for the Griffins.


Clark, who already has a verbal commitment from UMass on the table, was a 2018 third-team All-Shore selection after throwing for 1,013 yards and nine touchdowns and rushing for 653 yards and 14 touchdowns.


“We’re just out here every single practice just trying to get better and continue the bond that we’re continually growing,” said Clark. “We’re really getting ready for the season in Week Zero and that’s all we’re focused on now. We’re trying to make a new path for this school and I feel like we’re really accomplishing that.”


The senior quarterback will be executing behind one of the better offensive lines in the Shore this season led by two All-Division selections.


Junior Cam McNair (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) is a road-grader that has offers from Rutgers, Pitt and West Virginia. He’ll be at left tackle with 6-foot-4, 305-pound All-Division tackle Tom Buxton on the opposite side at right tackle.


Senior Elio Siragusa (5-foot-11, 265 pounds) is at center and handles the long snapper responsibilities while sophomore Dom Brogna (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) is back at left guard with sophomore Taz McNair (6-foot-3, 265 pounds) leading the competition for the starting right guard spot.  


“We’ve got some big boys on the line,” said Clark. “They’re a phenomenal bunch of guys that really get after it in the trenches and do the dirty work that nobody sees.”


The Griffins return their top two running backs from a season ago to run behind that massive line. All-Division back junior Jahdir Lofton (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) rushed for 489 yards on just 48 carries for a whopping 10.2 yards per carry average and three touchdowns. He’s fast and powerful and can beat you in a number of ways.


Senior Nasir Calhoun (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) also returns giving the Griffins two big-time backs to complement Clark’s multi-dimensional game. Calhoun had just 19 carries last season but picked up 257 yards for a stellar 13.5 yards per carry average.


The Griffins’ top receiver from a year ago, Yassin Moore, transferred to Monmouth Regional but Clark still has his number two wideout, Andre Laney (5-foot-11, 180 pounds), back. Laney caught 10 passes for 190 yards (19 yards/catch) and he’s a legitimate deep threat to take it all the way on any given play.


Sophomore Jaden Anthony also returns after getting his feet wet last year catching four passes for 42 yards, and junior James Bivens will add depth and experience after catching 10 passes for 107 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Elijah Taylor (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) is big target and another option for Clark in the passing game.


Sophomore Levi Wilkins (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and junior Ethan Capone (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) are rising tight ends that split time there as starters a year ago. Both showed a huge upside on blocking assignments and catching the ball. Wilkins grabbed seven passes for 115 yards while Capone had five receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown.


Defensively, the Griffins return almost their entire defensive unit – including five All-Division players –

that allowed just 13.5 points per game.


Up front, the line is anchored by All-Division defensive end Chris Aldrich (6-foot-4, 200 pounds), who is a dynamic playmaker with the perfect pass-rusher frame who recorded four sacks a year ago with 12 TFL and 64 tackles. You can expect those numbers to climb as he’s bigger, stronger and faster than ever.


“The defense is really coming together,” said Aldrich. “Coach has been working us really hard, we’ve been pushing each other and we’re getting better.”


Brogna returns at defensive end opposite Aldrich after a break-out freshman campaign that saw him record 26 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks giving the Griffins a duo of formidable bookends on the defensive line.


McNair will see double duty again this season from the nose tackle position on the line where he’s an immovable force who exhibits surprising agility for man his size.  


Capone, Taz McNair, Nico Ippolito and Siragusa will be in the defensive line rotation.


The Griffins return all four starting linebackers, including three All-Shore selections, and it could’ve easily been four. They just may be the best foursome of linebackers in the Shore Conference and one of the best units in the state. They bring power, speed, versatility, relentless sideline-to-sideline motors, superior coverage strengths and they just get after it.


On the outside is senior Xavier Ellis, who led the team in sacks (5) and TFL (15) while recording 63 tackles. Opposite him on the outside is Loftland who had a solid sophomore season at linebacker when he posted 49 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.


Calhoun and sophomore Connor Farrell will backup on the outside.


Juniors Quamire Green and Dominick Nocero are both returning starters on the inside who were two of the top sophomore linebackers in the Shore.


Green was second on the team with 91 tackles while Nocero led the team with 97 tackles. Green had two TFL, a sack, three fumble recoveries and an interception, while Nocero added two TFL, a sack and fumble recovery. Senior Tony Iacullo will backup Green and Nocero.


In the secondary, the Griffins bring back two starting safeties and a crew of cornerbacks with starting experience.


Senior Jared Helstowski and junior John Schlendorf return as starters at safety and will be counted on to take on more of a leadership role. Helstowski led the secondary with 38 tackles, two TFL and an interception, while Schlendorf added 24 tackles and an interception. Senior Keon Torres will see time at safety in a backup role.


Juniors Evyn Menta, Bivins and sophomore Myson Esdaile are battling for cornerback spots with Laney and Anthony seeing time in the secondary as well.


“We’re just focused on winning our first game,” said Aldrich. “It would be huge though (to win a championship) because no one expects it and that’s pretty much our goal to win every week and if we can do that we’ll be alright.”


The Griffins open at home versus Linden on Friday, Sept. 6.