The sun breathed fire on Thursday, from about 1 to 3:30 PM. Not even 96-degree temperatures and humidity that made the air feel tropical could stop the Monmouth University football team from practicing though.
“The weather tested us and the guys handled it well,” said Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan, the Hawks’ 24th-year mentor and their lone leader in program history. “We did not have to make any real adjustments in the heat. We took hydration breaks, mandatory breaks. Player safety is our utmost concern. About 60 guys trained with our strength and conditioning coach during the off season and we’re seeing dividends.”
The Hawks’ roster contains 17 former Shore Conference high school players.
They are sophomore defensive back Tymere Berry (Toms River South), senior defensive lineman Dimitrius Smith (Jackson Memorial), sophomore defensive back Christian Wagar (Red Bank Catholic), senior quarterback Bob Davies (Jackson Liberty), sophomore wide receiver Matt Castronuova (Jackson Memorial), junior defensive back Mike Basile (Brick Memorial), freshman kicker Matt Mosquera (Middletown South), junior wide receiver Vinny Grasso (Monsignor Donovan), sophomore running back Larry Redaelli (Red Bank Catholic), junior offensive lineman Peter Righi (Rumson-Fair Haven Regional), freshman offensive lineman Joe Rutowski (Middletown South), fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ryan Brodie (Long Branch), junior offensive lineman Ryan Wetzel (Colts Neck), freshman offensive lineman Gianni Mazzone (Freehold Township), senior defensive lineman Manny Maragoto (Freehold Township), freshman offensive lineman Adam Kakar (Toms River North) and junior linebacker Ryan Schoer (Red Bank Regional).
“It’s awesome to be here,” Basile said. “The Shore Conference has the best football. We are building the program. We are letting the local guys see that this is a great program.”
“When I first got here,” Smith said, “we were in the Northeast Conference. Now that we are in the Big South, there are more athletes around me.”
Basile was named a preseason second-team All-American by Stats LLC, one of several honors won by the former Mustangs’ standout in the Hawks’ uniform. Basile last year set the school single-season record from his safety position with 119. He earned his second straight first-team All-Big South Conference honor after leading the league and finishing fourth in the Football Championship Subdivision in solo tackles with 70 in 11 games. He notched double-digit tackles in nine games.
The former Big South Defensive Rookie of the Year was recently named preseason all-conference at the league’s Media Day. In two seasons, Basile has made 197 tackles and picked off six passes.
“Accolades don’t matter,” the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder said during 2016 Monmouth University Football Media Day on campus Thursday. “It’s awesome to get that stuff, but realistically it does not determine our year. Preseason this and preseason that don’t mean anything. I will play my game and help the team win.”
Basile said he will become a team leader this season.
“As a freshman and sophomore, I was not able to take on a leadership role,” he said. “I have grown and matured as a player. I really believe I can help everyone and bring my experience down to the younger guys.”
One player Basile plans to nurture is Berry, who was eighth on the team in tackles with 31. He appeared in nine games and started two.
“I try to bring my knowledge to the younger guys in the film room,” Basile said. “I tell them, ‘If you have a question, ask me.’ I help them so that they know what to do. On the field, it is different. On the field, I trusted Joe Johnson (the former Monmouth and Manchester standout) when I was a freshman. I want to be like Joe Johnson for our younger guys. I want to put everyone in position to make a play.”
The owner of a 131-108 career record at Monmouth, Callahan hopes Basile becomes a team leader.
“He has played in 22 games for us,” Callahan said. “He has gained invaluable experience.”
Smith, a 6-foot-2 305-pounder, was fifth on the Hawks in tackles last year with 39. He recovered a team-high three fumbles. He is a brother of former Lakewood and St. Benedict’s Prep of Newark star J.R. Smith, a member of the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I saw more pictures of him in Cleveland holding the trophy,” Callahan joked. “He worked very hard when he wasn’t chasing the NBA championship around. He worked very hard throughout the offseason. He did very well in our conditioning tests. He has undertaken a very big senior leadership role. To win the championship, we have to have terrific senior leadership and he is an integral part of that.”
“Being in Cleveland was a good time,” Smith said, “But I had to get back here. It was fun. I was out there for a couple of weeks.”
GRID GOSSIP: Callahan on the state of the Hawks: “We are excited to get this season started. Today was our third practice of the season and our first in helmets and pads. We have picked up right where we left off after spring practice. At each position, we have a much greater understanding of what to do on both sides of the ball. We need to replace three of our five starters on the offensive line. It’s a matter of how our offensive line will come together. We return our quarterback, our tight end and our receivers and running backs. The supporting cast is there.
“On defense, we have two guys back who missed last season due to injury. We have a strong group in our secondary–a group that has picked up where it left off from spring practice. I am very optimistic and excited and ready to go.”
The Hawks were 6-5 overall, including 3-3 in the Big South Conference, last season. They return six of 11 starters on offense and seven of 11 starters on defense. Monmouth is in its third season in the Big South Conference. A total of 49 of Monmouth’s 99 players hail from New Jersey.
It’s the final season of home games for the Hawks at Henni Kantor Kessler and John H. Kessler Field. They will move into Monmouth Stadium next year. A bulldozer, a steamroller and a dump truck worked behind the bleachers of the current field while the players practiced.
“We will have only three home games this year due to the stadium construction,” Callahan said. “The footings and the underground structure will be installed very soon. As we continue to grow and move forward, it was obvious that a key component was missing. we will have a first class venue to play at and a first class venue for our students and fans to enjoy the game of football. Our other sports will enjoy its benefits as well.”
The plans call for concrete footings to be installed throughout the fall with the original structure being torn down after the conclusion of the home portion of the football schedule. Monmouth’s final home game is Oct. 29 against Kennesaw State.
The state-of-the-art facility is scheduled to open for the first home contest of the 2017 football season and will also serve as the home field for Monmouth’s men’s and women’s outdoor track and field and men’s and women’s lacrosse teams.
The $15 million project will increase seating to more than 4,000 seats, including more than 800 chairbacks enclosed in a brick facade. The footprint of the new structure will stretch from end zone to end zone and will include ticket booths, an exclusive Blue/White Club deck, a full service press box and concession/restroom areas.
To donate to the project, contact Monmouth senior associate athletics director Jon Roos at 732 263-5189.
Callahan said the Hawks are prepared for their challenging road schedule.
“Each time we go on the road it is not a vacation,” he said. “It is a business trip. We have grown up by playing on the road. We are not intimidated by road games. We are excited to go to these places and win football games.
“We are capable of beating everyone in the league.”
Three former Monmouth player are in National Football League camps. They are tight end Hakeem Valles (Arizona Cardinals), wide receiver Chris Hogan (New England Patriots) and ex-Manasquan star Neil Sterling (Jacksonville Jaguars).
MONMOUTH’S REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE: Sept. 3, at Lehigh, 12:30 p.m.; Sept. 10, at Delaware State, 5 p.m.; Sept. 17, at Kent State, 3:30 p.m.; Sept. 24, *Charleston Southern, 1 p.m.; Oct. 1, Fordham, 1 p.m.; Oct. 8, at Howard, 1 p.m.; Oct. 13, *at Presbyterian, 7 p.m.; Oct. 22, *at Liberty, 3:30 p.m.; Oct. 29, *Kennesaw State, 1 p.m.; Nov. 5, at Coastal Carolina, 2 p.m.; Nov. 19, *at Gardner-Webb, 1:30 p.m.
*Denotes Big South Conference game