By: Greg Mattura – Record Sports
Saddle Brook expects to take another step forward toward a winning season despite graduating so many experienced players.
The Falcons return just seven starters from a 4-5 team, yet veteran coach Leo Ciappina hopes to challenge for a .500 record in the NJIC and a possible North Group 1 playoff bid.
“This year, I think we’ll come in a little bit stronger, even though we’re graduating so many players,” Ciappina said. “With the talent we have coming in, we should be better than last year.”
Saddle Brook won its last two games last year – as many as it won in 2017 – and returns three offensive starters to a team that averaged 19 points per game: senior Christian Lapid, the lone returning lineman, senior running back Jason Muoio and junior receiver John Hacker.
Stepping into bigger roles will be senior slotback Dante Guzman, junior center Nick Kahwaty and promising sophomore slotback Nick Ciolino. There is a competition for quarterback between junior Derek Muoio and senior Max Cue.
“Our good core guys are coming back with a very good, positive outlook, and it’s very exciting to see that kind of work ethic so early on, from these kids, in the summertime,” Ciappina said. “And I guess that’s what’s pretty much driving my optimism for this year.”
The Falcons allowed 23 points per game last season and return four starters on defense. Hacker is on the line, Lapid is at linebacker and Guzman and Ciolino are in the secondary.
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Junior Alex Sucuzhanay will join Hacker on the line, and junior Brian Stanzione steps in at linebacker. Cue and junior David Moreno will also play linebacker, and Derek Muoio will be in the secondary.
Ciappina also is optimistic because last year’s team was a couple of plays away from reversing back-to-back losses in September, to Butler and Cresskill. The Falcons lost in double-overtime to Butler, 27-26, and lost to Cresskill, 15-12.
“I think we have a lot of potential. We have a lot of talent,” Ciappina said. “It’s just a lot of inexperienced guys playing at different positions right now. I expect to win some games. I’m not sure how far we’ll go, but I think we have a promising team that’s been working pretty hard so far.”
Saddle Brook has never won a sectional title. But the Falcons had three outstanding seasons to start this decade, with a combined record of 27-5.
The program is 53-36 this decade, and 54-55 in 12 seasons under Ciappina.
Staying healthy is critical, because the Falcons have had to deal with low numbers the past several years and their roster is about 27 players.
“We have a good core of guys who can play,” Ciappina said, “but if we get injured, and we’ve got to bounce too many guys in different positions to keep the best players on the field, that gets us thin very quickly.”
Saddle Brook can finish right around .500, give or take a win, if newcomers develop quickly, and a playoff bid is not out of the question.
“If things go well and we win the games that we need to,” Ciappina said, “I think playoffs aren’t far off from our goal this year.”