TINTON FALLS – When first-year head coach Larry Nikola took over the struggling Monmouth Regional football program last February he knew it would be a challenge and he would have his work cut out for him.
But Nikola, who is no stranger to the rebuilding process, saw no reason why he couldn’t turn the Falcons program into consistent winners competing for division titles and qualifying for the state playoffs year-after-year.
“Listen, we’ve got some good athletes here,” Nikola said. “I know when I first got here people would say Monmouth always has good skill players but they haven’t had good linemen; I would tend to disagree with that. Now, I don’t know was it was like in the past, but we’ve certainly found them this year; we have very good offensive and defensive lines that are really responding.
“We want to build a program like a Middletown South, RBC or Manalapan. You can name them all – a Pt. Pleasant Boro - they all have winning programs,” Nikola continued.” That’s something we would aspire to have.”
Four games into the season, Nikola has Monmouth Regional heading in the right direction.
After soundly defeating Metuchen, 37-7, last Saturday, the Falcons improved to 3-0 for their first 3-0 start to a season since 2010 when they finished with an underwhelming 4-6 record.
Monmouth Regional is looking for their first winning season since 2006 when they finished with an 8-3 record and advanced to the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III semifinals before losing to one of those winning programs Nikola was referring to – Middletown South.
The Falcons got their fourth straight win Friday to move to 4-0 and it was a big one, beating Matawan, 14-13, for its first-ever win over the Huskies in program history and their best start since 2006.
Nikola is very familiar with Monmouth Regional football. Matter of fact, he was a candidate for the head coach job a few years back.
“I applied for the head coaching job when coach Merola (former Monmouth head coach and current Brick Memorial assistant coach Rob Merola) resigned after the 2004 season,” said Nikola, who was freshman coach under Merola. “I thought I would get the head job after coach Merola left but I didn’t get it.”
Now, 13 years later after a head coaching stint at now-defunct Cardinal McCarrick and assistant coaching positions at Colts Neck and Marlboro, the Monmouth Regional job is finally his. He replaces Rich Moscata, who resigned last winter after four seasons of his second tenure at Monmouth.
Being around this current Falcons team you can sense there is a different vibe just by the way the players go about their business.
“We had to get discipline,” Nikola said about one of the changes he brought to the team. “It was almost as if they (the players) ran the team when I got here. They liked to tell you what to do and it can’t be that way and it won’t be that way. They still test your bounds but we’re going to outlast them – they won’t outlast us.”
Senior Ian Fitzgerald, who is the starting point guard on the basketball team, leads the team in scoring with six touchdowns. Fitzgerald will line up at quarterback, wide receiver or running back at any given time depending on the set formation, and has excelled wherever he lines up.
In Monmouth’s 28-17 win versus Ocean to open the season, Fitzgerald rushed for 106 yards on 14 attempts and he heaved a 63-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Devon Johnson. And with the Falcons holding a slim 21-17 lead with 2:39 left in the game his 47-yard touchdown run sealed the game.
A week later, his 44-yard touchdown run helped the Falcons defeat Holmdel, 14-3, and last week versus Metuchen he got the Falcons off to a fast start with touchdown runs of 24 yards on their first play from scrimmage and four yards on their second possession to give them a quick 14-0 advantage.
Fitzgerald caught Nikola’s eye while excelling on the hardwood floor during basketball season and convinced him to join the football team.
“He’s a strong kid; he’s smart and has picked up the principles and concepts quickly,” Nikola said. “He can be a Division I player because of his speed (legitimate 4.3, 4.4 speed) if he stays focused and concentrates.”
Junior Dayshawn Porter rotates with Fitzgerald at quarterback but also lines up at running back and wide receiver, as well as being a standout in the secondary and on special teams.
Against Ocean he completed a 35-yard touchdown toss to Johnson and a week later found Johnson again – this time for a 35-yard TD. In last Saturday’s win against Metuchen he did a little of everything. He set up Fitzgerald’s first touchdown run with a 39-yard punt return to the 24-yard line before picking off a pass and returning it 15 yards to the Metuchen 20 setting up Fitzgerald’s second touchdown run two plays later.
He also broke a 35-yard touchdown run down the right sidelines to push the Falcons lead over Metuchen to 28-0 with 10:37 still left in the second quarter. It was at that point that Nikola began emptying his bench against the obviously overmatched Bulldogs.
Porter has stepped into a leadership role this season as a junior and credits the coaching staff for the team’s turnaround.
“Discipline,” said Porter without hesitation when asked what’s behind their 4-0 start. “There’s a new attitude here. Offseason we were working out at 5:30 in the morning and this summer from 6:00 till 8:00 – a lot of discipline. We haven’t been 3-0 since I’ve been here and we’re out to shock the Shore.”
Aside from his two receiving touchdowns, Johnson handles the kicking duties and is a perfect 13-for-13 on extra point attempts and is a standout cornerback on defense.
Junior Eli Rife, who starts at both safety and wide receiver, had a 24-yard touchdown run against Metuchen on a reverse while senior FB/MLB Anthony Guarino scored on a 7-yard burst versus Ocean and senior quarterback Colin Miller found junior Andrew Faccone all alone in the end zone to push the lead against Metuchen to 35-0.
Friday night Fitzgerald scored on a two-yard run with 8:34 to left to play and Johnson booted the decisive extra point to give the Falcons the lead for good. Matawan’s 31-yard field goal attempt with 17.9 seconds left in the game fell well short preserving the 14-13 win for Monmouth.
Porter connected with Johnson on a 93-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7-7 in the first quarter. On Monmouth’s game-winning drive Fitzgerald set up his own touchdown with a 39-yard run to the 20-yard line. Fitzgerald finished with 129 yards rushing on 15 attempts and a touchdown.
“It’s nice being 4-0 but our schedule really started tonight,” Nikola said. “I have a saying and it’s ‘win the 12th game.’ If you’re in the 12th game then obviously you’re in the state championships and it doesn’t matter what your record is. You win it, you’re the state champion. We still have Rumson and Saint John Vianney on our schedule and probably won’t play a tougher team than those two in the playoffs, so if we were lucky enough make the playoffs hopefully we can win that 12th game.”
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