Nick Puma is looking forward to having normal Football Fridays in Hackettstown.
“Hackettstown is a great football town,” said the Tigers receiver / senior defensive back. âThe best part of football in Hackettstown is on Fridays, walking the halls wearing our shirts (black and orange) and having kids come and talk to you about the game that night. People who played 20 years ago come to see you play, alumni too, and we have a great student section. Much of Hackettstown is on the football field; we have a rich tradition. It’s a great feeling to have raced on this ground for Hackettstown.
Chot Morrison Field can certainly switch on a Friday night – but few Tigers know what it feels like.
Hackettstown has four seniors and only one of them – running back and defender Evan Hatten – was a full-time starter in 2020.
There’s inexperience, and there’s what the Tigers face this fall when they open at Parsippany on Thursday night.
âThere are just four of us getting closer,â said Puma, who, along with running back Matt Balser and lineman Dan Howlin, rounds out the senior class. âWe had more players in our class, but we’re the only ones left. We have to be there for the sub-classes, so that they can learn how much fun football is. And we need to provide leadership and reinforce what coaches are talking about. “
Hackettstown head coach CJ Robinson, Dean of Hunterdon / Warren football coaches in his ninth season at the helm, said the seniors he had are doing very well.
âThese four guys bring a lot of quality to the pitch every day,â he said. âThey set the pace for the underclassmen. It took a while to get used to having so few old people, but this year it is not about the number of old people, but about their quality. It is true that some of our juniors took a little playing time, but we are a little inexperienced. We have guys playing new positions. However, the lessons inexperienced players should learn don’t change too much from year to year, and the Tiger Brain Trust knows that.
âI think what you really need to do is focus on running our games and making sure everything is perfect,â Puma said. “We don’t play as many offensive plays (Tigers offer the triple option), if we work as a unit our offense can be almost unstoppable.”
A new quarterback, junior Jackson Burke, takes over, but, again, the principles don’t change much.
âThe first thing we talk about is ball safety,â said Robinson. âThe second thing is to stay in front of the chains, we can’t fall behind with penalties or mistakes. At our best on offense, we control the game, not necessarily by playing fast, but by controlling the ball and the tempo. Our offense gives responsibility to the quarterback who makes the right decisions, and we believe Jackson is giving the team the best chance for the most success.
Hackettstown’s defense, a 3-5 set, is led by Hatten, Balser and Puma in the secondary and has a very green squad up front.
âWe have to play fast and physically, and if we do, we’ll be tough to beat,â Puma said.
Robinson tries to put them in place to be successful.
âA lot of what we’ve done is pre-snap, making sure we’re in the right alignment by knowing our assignments,â he said. âOur defense is all about lineup and assignments. Then we need a great football chase – that’s the most important thing we have to do once the ball is broken.
It’s a pretty formidable task for a young team, but with leaders like Puma, a 6-foot, 165-pound Allamuchy Township resident, Hackettstown will be in good hands.
âNick has a great work ethic and he’s been very positive throughout the camp,â said Robinson.
Puma is convinced to be a Tiger.
âI left Hackettstown to go to Pope John (XXIII) for a year, then moved from there to come back to Hackettstown. It was the best decision of my life, âsaid Puma. âOur number one goal this year is to beat Warren Hills. “
Spoken like a real tiger.
Why Hackettstown fans should be excited
Few teams were as ravaged by COVID-19 issues last fall as the Tigers, who saw games canceled, changed and postponed, with their epic Route 57 rivalry with Warren Hills cut and then added. While Robinson knows COVID is still with us, hopefully 2021 will see better results on the pandemic front. âWe were thankful for the season we had,â said Robinson. âI think in terms of COVID we have gone back to our normal procedures. My thoughts are to be smart about the way we do things and to follow the protocols as best as possible. We try to have as normal practices as possible and to give the children the best possible experience. “
Participation is excellent. The Tigers have an exceptional class of 18 freshmen and their total number of 50 is more than many regional top schools. Depth can be a real boost for a less experienced team.
Hackettstown returns his best rusher, junior Andrew Carida, who has averaged 7.1 yards per carry on 67 trips (479 total yards, just under 100 per game) and knows how to find the end zone (five touchdowns ). If he continues to improve, Carida could be a 1,000-yard runner and the kind of horse that leads his team to victory. Hatten (15 carries, 131 yards in junior) adds another threat in the backfield. âAndrew is a pretty dynamic player,â said Robinson. “He can even help us in the crack.”
Robinson enjoys what he sees about the work ethic, dedication and solidarity of his team. âThe strength of this year’s squad is their ability to work and play for each other,â he said. âThey come together and start to solidify into a cohesive unit. “
Why Hackettstown fans should be concerned
If the old coaches adage that winning with the seniors is really true, the Tigers are in trouble as they only have four, and only one (Hatten) a returning starter. It’s really green.
Fighting for a division title in the SFC National Red could prove to be a daunting task as traditional powers Lenape Valley and Newton are in the squad, although it is interesting to note that the legendary Dom Smolyn, the Gandalf of the Wing-T brotherhood of North Jersey, is no longer with Lenape after 45 seasons. You could call Newton’s coach Matt Parzero the Wing-T Aragorn. although â¦
The Tigers have a brand new quarterback, and while Burke’s early reviews are excellent, the nature of their triple-option offense makes his intricacies and tricks difficult to master immediately. There can be a learning curve. The same goes for a very young line on both sides of the ball.
Last year, in just five games, admittedly, Hackettstown averaged nearly 35 points per game, which includes just seven points for Sussex Tech. Defense absolutely needs to improve to see the Tigers record their first winning season since 2017, including cutting back on big plays and doing a better job at the point of attack.
Quote: Coach CJ Robinson
âWe will count on our elders to set an example for others. Since we only have 4 seniors, it will also be important that the juniors who have university experience strengthen each other and also share leadership roles. “
Quote: Senior WR / DB Nick Puma
(on new Hackettstown quarterback, junior Jackson Burke)
âThis is his first year at university. He is very physical and he knows the game. He knows how to rally the group and he is a great leader. Jackson is a very tough quarterback. He’s ready to take some hits. He fears nothing.
Sr. RB / DB Evan Hatten, Jr. OL / DL Liam Burke, Jr. RB / DB Andrew Carida, Jr. OL / DL Dylan Ciborski, Jr. LB Anthony Edwards, Jr. LB Jaiden Liferiedge
Sr. RB / DB Matt Balser, Sr. OL / LB Dan Howlin, Sr. WR / DB Nick Puma, Jr. QB / DB Jackson Burke, Jr. WR / LB Josh Lim
Best new arrivals
Jr. OL / LB Bernie Arnor, Jr. WR / LB Wyatt Beam, Jr. WR / DB Christian Bujno, Jr. QB / DB Alex Feeney, Jr. OL / DL Peyton Fezenko, Jr. OL / DL Angelo Siconolfi, So. RB / DB Joey Freeman, so. OL / DL Gio Galacio
The basics of Hackettstown
League: Super Football Conference National Red Division
Section: North Group 2
Coach: CJ Robinson (Grade 9, 29-43)
2020 review: 1-4
Their house: Chot Morrison Field
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Brad Wilson can be reached at [email protected].