RUMSON – With 3:13 left in last year’s NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III final against Somerville, the Bulldogs took a two-point lead and it appeared their dream of winning a Shore Conference record-tying fifth-straight sectional title in a row would become a reality – especially with a program that lives and dies with its defense.

Well, sometimes things just don’t work out the way they’re supposed to.

Somerville drove 66 yards in eight plays to score the game-winning touchdown with 53 seconds remaining, ruining the Bulldogs chance at making history.

“It was tough, just a last-second situation,” said senior defensive tackle Henry Sullivan. “But we’re coming back this year. Our goal every year is to be 1-0 in December – that’s all we look forward to. The past is the past.”

Eight defensive starters from that game return this year from a group that finished fifth in the Shore in scoring defense at 13.8 points per game, and you can be sure that last Somerville drive is still fresh in the minds of every single one of them and that’s a good thing. A little extra motivation never hurt anyone.

“The motivation is definitely there for the defense,” said senior linebacker Chris Lanzalotto. “In giving up that game-winning drive in the last minute in the state championship we feel like it was on us, the returning starters. There’s a lot of motivation to improve.”

The Bulldogs bring back their entire defensive front four led by the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Sullivan who will be anchoring the line after being named second-team All-Shore a year ago when he posted 95 tackles and seven sacks.

Sullivan has all the physical tools. He can beat you with his speed as an edge rusher, use his brute strength to get into the backfield as a bull rusher or clog the lanes in the running to make the stop.

Senior Joe Afflito (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) is back at tackle next to Sullivan after registering 58 tackles and four sacks a year ago. Isaac Vernon (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) returns at defensive end where he posted 22 tackles and three sacks last season and junior Gordon Forsyth (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) will line up opposite Vernon at the other end spot. Forsyth had a breakout sophomore campaign racking up 78 tackles and two sacks and should elevate his game even more in his junior year.  

Newcomers Kenny Rainey and Von Factor are options in the defensive line rotation as well.  

The Bulldogs return two of the top linebackers in the Shore Conference in seniors Keegan Woods and Chris Lanzalotto. Together they combined for a whopping 250 tackles with Woods easily leading the Shore Conference with 155 tackles along with four sacks. Woods was a first-team All-Group III selection as well as first-team All-Shore. Lanzalotto racked up 95 tackles on the way to being named third-team All-Group III and All-Division.

Junior Liam Horan has looked solid in camp and will help with the linebacker depth.

The secondary was hit hard by graduation, but Rumson does have 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior cornerback Drew Frankle returning following a breakout sophomore campaign when he recorded 38 tackles with one interception.

Senior Michael Lizotte will switch to strong safety after a stint at linebacker last season where he had a solid season with 28 tackles, one sack and pick-six for a touchdown. With his speed, athleticism and toughness, it should be a smooth transition and you can expect him to excel there. 

Frankle and Lizotte will be asked to help navigate the way for sophomore Ryan Ruane and seniors Ryan Dupree and Brooks Brennan until the secondary takes on its own identity.

Offensively, it appears that junior Colin Coles, who backed up starter Dan Harby last season, has won the starting quarterback job after gaining the confidence of his coach with solid summer camp.

He’ll have three starting offensive lineman back to help him adjust as a starter, including All-Division tackle Ryan McCann. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound senior left tackle will anchor the line with the help of returning senior guards Evan Davis (5-11, 240 pounds) and Ethan Ardalino (6-2, 220 pounds).

Heading into the season it appears senior Tim Kelly will get the start at center and 6-foot-5, 250-pound Spencer Short will take over the right tackle job.

Senior fullback  Alex Maldjian – a three-year starter – steps in as the marquee back this season after having a secondary role to first-team All-Shore running back Peter Lucas a year ago while still rushing for 605 yards on 73 attempts.  

Maldjian is a power-back that runs through tacklers but once in the open field he can take it to the house from anywhere on the field as his 10 touchdowns last season suggest. He also caught seven passes out of the backfield for 161 yards and two touchdowns and should be more of a threat there after working on his speed this offseason.

“That was a tough loss last year and I definitely haven’t forgotten about it, it’s always on our minds,” Maldjian said of their loss to Somerville. “It’s definitely motivating me for my senior year. In talking with guys who left last year, you don’t want to go out on a loss.”

Senior Tommy Solano, junior Pete Crowley and sophomore John Volker are all in the running back mix, but Bulldogs head coach Jerry Schulte is excited about all three.

Third-team All-Shore tight end Ian O’Connor returns and will be asked to take on an even bigger role this season with the lack of experience coming in at wide receiver. O’Connor uses his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame as a standout receiver (34-484-4) and productive blocker which accounts for the interest he’s getting from both FBC and FCS schools.

Senior basketball standout Jackson McCarthy decided to give football a shot this fall and has flashed big-time potential at the wide receiver spot during summer camp. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds with soft hands, he’ll be another big target for Coles to go to.

Senior Andrew Lawless looks to have the starting slot receiver job sewn up while senior Matt Caldwell is penciled in as the No. 2 receiver with juniors Patrick Jamin and Owen McLaughlin and senior Skylar Smith in the mix as well.

The Bulldogs will host division rival Saint John Vianney on opening night, Sept. 7. The Lancers will have already opened the season a week earlier in a non-divisional game against Red Bank Catholic.

“We have a lot of seniors on this team,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want to go out the way we felt last year. Our goal is to win another championship.” 

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