GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP – Absegami High School football coach Dennis Scuderi Jr. had been saying for years that the playing field for South Jersey football needed to be leveled, allowing medium-sized public schools to play each other more and avoid bashing heads with parochial “regional all-star” teams and huge public schools.

Somebody was listening. Last year, the Braves moved into the West Jersey Football League Independence Division and drew favorable crossover matchups against like-sized schools such as Triton and Eastern.

It was a good move for Absegami. After back-to-back 3-7 seasons, the Braves turned it around last year, going 7-3 and losing to powerhouse Timber Creek in the first round of the South Jersey Group IV playoffs.

“The bottom line is, the move to the West Jersey helped everybody, because at least you’re playing the majority of your schedule against teams that are like you,” Scuderi said. “If I go to Triton and lose on a Friday night, I deserve to lose, but at least we’re all on the same playing field with the same deck of cards. When you’re a low (Group IV) playing fives and two or three parochials, you’re going into a season and wondering, ‘Where can we find wins?’”

Though Absegami lost several top players to graduation, the Braves have more reason for optimism this season with the return of three-year starting quarterback Andrew Marcucci, who threw for 1,056 yards last season.

“We’re excited about Andrew,” Scuderi said. “Whenever you have a kid returning at quarterback who played for three years, that gives you a leg up in some situations. He’s seen almost everything at this point. He’s capable of doing great things.”

Marcucci also has a top target back in fellow senior Josh Coursey, whom Scuderi called one of the best receivers in South Jersey, along with big wideout Jonte Jones. The offensive line is inexperienced but will be helped by the return of Luke Westcoat, who didn’t play football last year. The backfield is big, featuring 6-foot, 205-pound Jaden Johnson and 6-3, 230 Rashaun Brumfield, a transfer from Egg Harbor Township.

Absegami has seven starters back on defense, including linebackers Johnson, Ryan Morris and Josiah Carrel, and linemen Sean Koschorreck, Dante Cooper and Brian Searight. The secondary will include Coursey, Marcucci and Trevor Brenner, whom Scuderi called much improved, and Stephen Wilkins, who didn’t play much last year because of an injury.

The Braves also have a big weapon in senior kicker Zack Sterr, who sparked the Thanksgiving Day win over Oakcrest with a fake punt and consistently puts the ball in the end zone on kickoffs.

“We’re not completely void of talent,” Scuderi said, “but we don’t have a lot of depth. We’ve got to find some continuity because all five (offensive) linemen are new. How quickly they develop is going to be the story on how we go.”

“Our expectations are the same as last year, make it to the playoffs, take it one game at a time and get better as we go along,” Coursey said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, build upon it and get better. We’re trying to change the whole program. We always want to do better.”

Absegami’s enrollment has been declining for several years, a victim not only of population loss in Galloway but the arrival of another school in the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District, Cedar Creek in Egg Harbor City. The Pirates have built a championship football program in just six years, drawing top players from both Galloway and Mays Landing and reaching back to back South Jersey Group II title games.

Absegami will face its intra-district rival in Week One, Sept. 9 in Egg Harbor City.

“Cedar Creek is a game we have to win,” Scuderi said. “At some point you have to start getting kids back. You have to go beat them, that’s the bottom line. If you want kids to not go to the new shiny penny, you have to win that game. We have to get more competitive against the better teams.”

Coach: Dennis Scuderi Jr. (44-46, 9 seasons)

League/group: West Jersey Football League Independence Division/state Group IV

Last season’s record: 7-3

Playoff appearances: 9

Championships: 1

Playoff record: 6-8

Key game: Call it a “key stretch.” After their first three games against Cedar Creek, Lower Cape May and St. Joseph, the Braves face Eastern, Ocean City and Triton, all winnable games. Scuderi said the team should have at least four wins under its belt at that point if it hopes to make the playoffs again.

Key players: Andrew Marcucci, Sr., QB, 5-10, 175; Josh Coursey, Sr., WR/CB, 6-3, 164; Zach Sterr, Sr., K, 6-2, 235; Josiah Carrel, Sr., LB, 6-0, 160; Sean Koschorreck, Sr., DL, 5-10, 250; Jonte Jones, Sr., WR/DE, 6-3, 194; Stephen Wilkins, Jr., CB/WR, 5-9, 150; Ryan Morris, Sr., LB/FB, 5-10; OL/DL, 6-1, 260; Rashaun Brumfield, Sr., RB, 6-3, 230.

2017 prediction: Rebuilding – The Braves have an experienced quarterback in senior Andrew Marcucci and talent on both sides of the ball but they are inexperienced on the offensive line and lack depth.

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