BY GEORGE ALBANO
Monmouth University head football coach Kevin Callahan can still recall attending a Middletown South High School football game three years ago.
How could he forget? It turned out to be one of his more successful recruiting trips as he eventually landed three key members of that 2001 Central Jersey Group III state championship Eagles team that went 12-0: Quarterback Brendan Kennedy, wide receiver Michael McClelland and offensive lineman Tom Mauro.
Now here it is 2004, and all three players helped Monmouth beat Iona 40-14 on Saturday as the Hawks, the No. 4 team in the nation among Division I-AA mid-major schools, improved to 4-1 on the season.
The truth is, Callahan has been taking recruiting trips like the one he made to Middletown South during all 13 seasons he’s been the only head football coach at Monmouth. Recruiting throughout the state of New Jersey, and in particular in the Shore area, has been a priority for Callahan and his coaching staff.
In fact, of the 94 players on the Hawks’ football roster, 27 of them are from this local area.
“One of the things I did when I came on board in 1992 and started the football program at Monmouth is attract the high level of football players in New Jersey and in particular in the Shore area,” Callahan said. “I thought it was important to attract players in the local area, not only because they’re good football players and play a high level of football, but also because it added community interest and let people know that Monmouth University is starting a football program. And that’s something we’ve maintained all these years.
“We recruit outside of New Jersey, too,” he added. “We’ve had players on our team from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York. But we still draw players here in New Jersey. There are 352 high schools in the state playing football, and all are within an hour and a half of our campus. So, we have a great local talent pool right in our state and try to recruit here.”
Callahan has been successful in his approach, too. Of Monmouth’s 94 players, a total of 84 in all hail from the state of New Jersey. Keeping high school football players in the state is something Greg Schiano has also been trying to do since taking over as head football coach at Rutgers University. And while it’s starting to work there, he can only hope to someday be as successful as Callahan has been at Monmouth.
“I think it’s certainly a good philosophy,” Callahan said. “Coach Schiano at Rutgers knows if he can keep the top-level players in the state in school here, the Rutgers program will get better, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We want to keep local players in the area, and I think so far we’ve been successful doing it.”
Callahan and the Hawks have been so successful, in fact, that the football program at Monmouth is at a point where high school coaches and players are coming to them without even being recruited. The program basically sells itself.
“Once we started having success, prospects started coming to us,” Callahan said. “Once we got started and made everyone aware of what we had, people in the state and local areas started looking at Monmouth as a viable option to play football. It’s paid off, too. Not only are we getting good football players, but also a solid fan base.”
Callahan’s first season at Monmouth, 1993, he had all freshmen and the Hawks won only two games in their inaugural season. But they won seven games in each of the next three seasons.
Then in 1996, the Northeast Conference was formed, and Monmouth captured the league championship in ’96, ’98 and again last season, going 10-1 in the regular season before losing to MAAC champion Duquesne 12-10 in the ECAC championship game in Pittsburgh.
“Whether we recruit someone or they come to us, we want them to know we run a first-class operation,” Callahan said. “We want high school coaches to know when they send us one of their players, he’s going to have a great experience both academically and playing football, and really enjoy their four years here.”
And one of Callahan’s favorite recruiting areas is Monmouth County and leagues like the Shore Conference.
“I won’t say we concentrate solely there, but I do think that it’s important we try to get the top players not only from Monmouth County, but also from Ocean County, which is right next door. There are 42 high schools in that area, so it serves us well to recruit there and attract players in our own back yard.”
That’s what led Callahan to Middletown South three years ago, when he came away with the Eagles’ talented trio. McClelland, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior wide receiver, scored three touchdowns in Saturday’s win over Iona.
Meanwhile, Kennedy, a 6-3, 215-pound junior quarterback, came off the bench to complete 10-of-15 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns, one of them a 26-yard strike to McClelland, his favorite target when the two of them played at Middletown South.
Then there’s Mauro, who, at 6-2 and 260 pounds, anchors the Monmouth offensive line and protects Kennedy, just as he did back in their Middletown South days.
Callahan remembers watching all three play for the Eagles.
“Mike McClelland had an outstanding high school career and teamed up with Brendan Kennedy and Tom Mauro to win a state championship,” the coach said. “Mike came in his first year and got injured, so he was a medical red shirt [which means he has two more years of eligibility after this season]. He came back last year and started contributing, not only on offense, but he’s also very active on our special teams.”
On Saturday, McClelland blocked an Iona punt, then picked up the ball and ran it back for his second touchdown of the game.
“And that’s the second time he’s done that this season,” Callahan pointed out. “He did it in our season-opening win against St. Peter’s. So, he’s very active on our special teams, and his role in our offense increases week to week.
“We have an incredible receiver in Miles Austin (from Garfield), but as he starts to get more and more attention from opposing defenses, our other receivers have to step up, and Mike has stepped up and made big plays when the opportunities presented themselves.”
Kennedy, another all-state player at MSHS, took a different path to Monmouth than McClelland did.
“He’s a guy who was heavily recruited out of high school,” Callahan noted.
“He originally committed to us, but then he made a decision to attend Rutgers as a walk-on. After his freshman year, however, he decided that Monmouth was probably better suited for him.”
Kennedy, who as a senior in high school became the first player in the Shore Conference since 1993 to rush for over 1,000 yards and throw for over 1,000 yards, has been battling Brian Boland, another area player from Brick Memorial, for playing time at quarterback.
The 6-1, 210-pound Boland started Saturday’s game and was 8-for-20 for 169 yards, including a 15-yard TD pass to McClelland in the first quarter.
“It’s really a case of where Boland starts most of the time, but Kennedy knows he’s going to play every single game,” Callahan said. “It’s not so much they’re one and two, but 1A and 1B. They’ve both done some very good things for us.”
But the Middletown South trio and Boland aren’t the only area players contributing for the Hawks, who were ranked No. 1 in the nation in one poll after the third week of the season.
Erik Yngstrom, a sophomore safety from Freehold High School, recorded three quarterback sacks in Saturday’s win, and also stripped the ball away from Iona QB Michael Biehl in the end zone. The ball went out of the back of the end zone for a safety to give Monmouth a 23-0 lead with 13:33 left in the half.
Then there was Jay Ricciardi, a senior linebacker from St. John Vianney, Holmdel, who came up with a big interception in the end zone early in the game with the score still 0-0 after Iona had marched to the Monmouth 6 yard-line.
Another key defensive player the first five weeks has been junior Nick Castellano from Jackson Memorial, who was the New Jersey High School Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. Also from Jackson, Joe Migliore, a senior running back who played at Jackson High School, had a team-high 47 yards on 12 carries against Iona and leads the Hawks in rushing.
Other area players on the roster are: freshmen kickers Mike Pizzulli from Red Bank Regional; freshman linebacker Johnny Williams from Long Branch; and tight end Brian Frech, a freshman from Shore Regional.
“It’s really a good mix of local players,” Callahan said. “They’re all doing a great job.”
And Callahan isn’t about to stop recruiting in this area. Not by a long shot.
“I try to go there every opportunity I get,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I was at the Raritan-Red Bank Catholic game just this past weekend. It was a great game, too, a tremendous game. I try to see as many games in that area as I can.”
His roster proves it.