Revitalized Donovan Catholic football team is 5-0 for first time since 1992

The Donovan Catholic football team practices Oct. 9 in the Good Sports USA complex in Wall. Jennifer Mauro photo

FROM THE MONITOR

By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor

It was Nov. 3, 2018, and the Donovan Catholic football team found itself still with a chance to win at halftime of its NJSIAA Non-Public Group III playoff opener against heavily favored Mater Dei. Two weeks earlier, the Seraphs had taken a 48-12 win over the Toms River school.

As they walked to the locker room, a player turned to coach Dan Curcione and remarked, “They’re not as good as we thought they were.” To which Curcione responded, “That’s not true, they’re really good. But you didn’t realize how good you could be. You’re playing a really good team, and you have an opportunity to win today.”

The Griffins eventually dropped a 35-21 decision to the three-time state finalists, but the seeds of confidence were firmly planted.

Donovan Catholic hasn’t lost since.

“You don’t want to take too many positives from losing,” Curcione said. “But I do think that the whole attitude of the program became, ‘We’re not in it just to get to the playoffs; we’re in it to win.’ We didn’t feel good about losing that game. That was not a feel-good story, but it was a realization of ‘we’re able to compete at a high level if we really work hard.’”

The Griffins won their final two games to finish 7-3 and enjoy their first winning season since 2012. That momentum has steamrolled into this fall as Donovan Catholic is 5-0 for the first time since 1992. If they defeat Manasquan Oct. 11, the Griffins will gain at least a share of the Shore Conference Liberty Division crown – their first division title in seven years.

Thus, Curcione feels his team won’t look past the Warriors and ahead to huge games with once-beaten Lacey and defending state champion Red Bank Catholic.

“We win this, we clinch at least a piece of the division title and raise a banner for the first time since 2012,” Curcione said. “To me, it’s a big deal. My motivation for the team this week is, you get a banner and it’s immortality in the sports program. That banner stays up there forever. You bring your kids back to take a look at it, you say, ‘Hey I was on that team.’ If you overlook a week like this then I don’t know why you’re doing it.”

It would be the next step in the process as Curcione looks to raise another team from the ashes. In 2013, the Brick Memorial graduate took over a struggling Wall Township program and in 2016 guided the Crimson Knights to a Central Jersey Group III championship.

He then took over a Griffins program that had gone 0-10 in two of the last three seasons. After all, Curcione teaches eighth grade in Toms River, his wife attended Catholic school in grade school and his son is now in Catholic school.

“My wife was behind the move for those purposes,” said the coach, who was an altar boy growing up. “And I thought there was a lot of potential in it.”

Curcione not only demands hard work but, as a faithful Catholic, a respect for the Lord.

“We pray every day,” he said. “We pray after every practice; we pray before every game; we pray after every game. We do it publicly on the field. It’s important to us that we hold those beliefs and that Christ is involved in what we do. We’re proud of our faith.”

They are equally proud of their renaissance. In Curcione’s first year, Donovan Catholic went 4-6 and won more games than the previous three seasons combined. It was the start of a building process that Griffin supporters hope will culminate in something special this fall. So far, DC has outscored opponents 201-14 and has four shutouts.

“I think that it’s just been a matter of putting the experience together,” Curcione said. “We have a lot of kids that have played now. We have two junior linebackers (Quamire Green, Dominick Nocero) who have over 30 starts for us. That goes a long way. Just the familiarity with the coaching staff and the system is big. That makes things run smoother and makes you practice better. But I think we have some pretty talented kids, too. It’s not like we don’t have good players.”

They sure do, starting with seniors Ryan Clark and Nasir Calhoun. Clark is a multi-threat quarterback who has thrown for 545 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for over 486 yards and 12 touchdowns. Calhoun has rushed for nearly 411 yards and six touchdowns, and both have a future as college players.

“They bought into the program,” Curcione said. “Ryan does a lot. He’s the focal point of the offense, he’s improved his passing immensely. It’s his third year running the offense. He runs like a tailback and runs you over like a fullback. We ask him to do a lot. Same as Nasir, he’s a really good football player.”

Donovan Catholic is deep in running backs as Jahdir Loftland and Damion Johnson are both effective, while receiver Andre Laney and tight end Ethan Capone are dangerous pass catchers. They are aided by an offensive line that Curcione calls “the strength of the team,” featuring junior left tackle Cameron McNair and his brother Caron McNair, a sophomore left guard; senior center Elio Siragusa (nephew of former NFL player/broadcaster Tony Siragusa), sophomore right guard Dominick Brogna and senior right tackle Tom Bruxton. Cam McNair already has offers from West Virginia, Pitt and Rutgers. Levi Wilkins is the other tight end in the double-tight alignment.

The offense is run by Chip LaBarca, who came from Wall with Curcione. LaBarca once led Toms River North to a state title as a head coach.

“We work really well together,” Curcione said. “I trust in what he does. The two of us have something in common – the goal at end of the day is win the game. We don’t care if offense wins it or defense wins it, we win it together.”

Curcione runs the defense, which has been dominating. Brogna, Cam McNair and Chris Aldridge start on the line with Capone and Nico Ippolito rotating in. Wilkins and Loftland are at outside linebacker, while the aforementioned Green and Nocero lead the team in tackles with 48 and 40, respectively. The secondary features safeties John Schlendorf and Jared Helstowski and corners Laney and James Bivins.

It is a group that has given Curcione exactly what he was looking for through the first half of the campaign.

“I thought we had a chance to be a pretty good team,” he said. “I was hoping we’d be pretty competitive. I don’t know how good, we never put a number on anything. I don’t ever say, ‘We’re gonna win this many games.’ We have our goals within our team set, but we don’t make predictions; we base everything on working hard and earning what you get.”

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