It’s been a season of learning for the North Brunswick Township High School football team under first-year coach Don Zsak.
Despite a 2-7 record, the Raiders are making progress and look to upset powerful South Brunswick High School in the annual Thanksgiving game between the two teams.
Zsak came to North Brunswick after a 25-year career in law enforcement, during which he served as an assistant at Arthur L. Johnson Regional High School, Scotch Plains- Fanwood High School, Cranford High School, Roselle Park High School and Morristown High School.
Right from the start Zsak said his team would come straight at its opponents and play a more physical game, especially on defense.
“I’m a defense guy, and I want other teams to know we’re coming to compete,” Zsak said.
The Raiders opened the season by falling to Old Bridge High School, 27-6, and Sayreville War Memorial High School, 22-6. Both teams went on to qualify for their respective state sectionals.
Old Bridge jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, but the game was fairly even after that. Sayreville also got out front early, as North Brunswick hurt itself with turnovers. “I’m glad we played them early in the season,” Old Bridge coach Anthony Lanzafama said of North Brunswick. “They have talent, and they just got better and better.”
A safety proved the difference in a 16-14 loss to East Brunswick High School in the next game, which saw Max Emmanuel return a punt for a touchdown. In the fourth game, Zsak’s defense held Monroe Township High School to nine points, but the Raiders were shut out.
“That was a tough way to start the season,” Zsak said. “It would have been easy for our guys to get discouraged. They kept working. Our practices were good. They wanted to win.”
North Brunswick got that first win in a 40-21 decision over Edison High School — another team that qualified for the playoffs. Eddie Carpenter led the way, running for 175 yards and two touchdowns, and Quamere Nance also scored a pair of touchdowns in the win. Carpenter injured his knee during the game and missed the remainder of the season.
After a loss against Piscataway Township High School, 42-18, North Brunswick defeated J.P. Stevens High School, 34-20, as Zach Rowell ran for 191 yards and a touchdown, while Nance and Tyler Brant scored two touchdowns each.
Meanwhile, Zsak’s team was battling injuries. Emmanuel, Rowell and two-way lineman Esberth Pereyra were all injured. After a 36-16 loss to Middletown High School North that was close until the fourth quarter, the Raiders fell to Franklin High School, 22-18, Nov. 12.
That was a particularly tough loss, as North Brunswick out-gained Franklin, 249-42 yards, on the ground. A costly roughing-the-passer call and the Raiders’ inability to make PATs or conversions proved the difference.
“That was a very tough loss; it was a game we should have won,” Zsak said. “Overall, we played pretty well, and I can say that for the season. We really weren’t blown out of any games, and our defense had a good year. Also, a lot of our younger guys got to play, and they’re buying into our system.”
Among the key returnees are several juniors: tight end Bryce Priester, lineman Jeremy Tan, running back Francis Omowole and linebacker Nate Rowell. Sophomore quarterback Dylan Seal also returns, along with lineman Tyler Hernandez, wide receiver Isaiah Hill and safety Jeremy Cole.
On Thanksgiving, the Raiders will finish the year against a team that played Manalapan High School in the semifinals of the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group V tournament Nov. 20 — a game the Vikings entered on an eight-game winning streak.
“We’re going to come straight at them,” Zsak said.