CLARK, NJ — Last season was a step in the right direction for the Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders.
It was a much-needed step.
For the first time in five years, the Crusaders finished better than .500 and reached the state playoffs.
Although the season ended early in the playoffs with a first-round loss at Pleasantville High School out of South, Group 2, the seed was planted.
“We started to get confidence back,” head coach Anthony DelConte said. “It was great to get back to the playoffs, but we’re not just looking to get in.
“We’re always looking to make a run. That’s what it’s always been about with Johnson football and what we’re accustomed to.”
Arthur L. Johnson started 4-0, including two shutouts, and allowed only two six-point touchdowns in its first four games a year ago. In their six wins, the Crusaders yielded a total of only 21 points and shut out three of those opponents. A record of 6-2 at the cutoff provided enough power points to qualify for a playoff berth.
“It was nice to get a taste,” DelConte said. “We’ve now set the foundation to get there. We now need to amp it up to get further.”
Arthur L. Johnson was hit hard by graduation on defense, but still has a lot of talent returning.
“Our off season was huge,” DelConte said. “We put together a complete off season and all of our athletes bought into it. It was a true off season.
“The football season isn’t just the fall anymore. It’s football season all year around.”
Representing the Crusaders
• Emilio Menicucci, No. 5, senior, FB-LB
• Mark Hansen, No. 14, senior, WR-DL
• Robert Gallagher, No. 7, junior, QB
• Brandon Brown, No. 33, senior, NG
Robert Gallagher, now a junior, returns at quarterback to run the triple-option offense that is designed to fool defenses as far as who will be carrying the ball on any given call.
“For a sophomore last year, it was not easy for him to be in the varsity lineup for the first time,” DelConte said. “However, he took control of the game and really stepped up as a sophomore leader.
“This year, we expect him to pick up where he left off. You can see that he is more comfortable and more poised.”
The lead running backs are senior Emilio Menicucci and junior Ryan George.
“They are two really good backs, hands down,” DelConte said. “They are both tough and physical runners and both have speed. They’re a dynamic duo in the backfield.
“They’re both grinders who work very hard in practice. We say that, if you want to be a 1,000-yard rusher, you have to rush for 10,000 yards in practice and they’ve been doing that.”
Back on the offensive line to provide necessary blocking include seniors Vittorio DeMartinis, Sean Joy, Aaron Tapia, Sean Kessock and Christopher Sullivan.
“We expect our offensive line to be the reason we’re going to win or lose football games,” DelConte said. “All have had good off-seasons.
“We think they’re responding to the responsibility that this team will land on their shoulders. The cliché goes that ‘you’re only as good as your offensive line goes.’
“Playing on the line, it’s a selfless position. You have to do all of the grunt work and take care of business for the other guys, the running backs and the quarterbacks, who get all the glory.”
A two-way player looking to make his presence felt again, senior Mark Hansen stepped up his play when Jason Greenbush was hurt last year. He gained valuable time at tight end and defensive end and figures to also get the call at H-back this season.
“Mark is now one of our leaders,” DelConte said. “He had a tremendous off season. The kid just wants to win and is a true competitor. He works his tail off.”
Part of Hansen’s ability to compete and wanting to win so badly comes from also excelling in winter and spring track.
On defense, senior Brandon Brown returns on the line. He played nose guard last season.
“Brandon will play one of our stack positions,” DelConte said.
Menicucci returns at the linebacker position, while juniors Ryan Volmut and Joshua Maltez are back in the secondary. Volmut was at free safety last year and Maltez was at cornerback.
“Volmut is our leader in the secondary,” DelConte said. “He makes sure everyone is lined up the right way and he’s much more comfortable back there after playing last season.”
George takes over the kicking and punting duties vacated by 2023 graduate Brett Makowsky, who is now kicking at the next level at Ithaca College.
“We’re really proud of Brett,” DelConte said. “We’re proud of all the accolades and recognition he received.”
Makowsky starred in June’s annual Phil Simms North-South All-Star Game at Kean University. He kicked a field goal and an extra point to help lead the North to a victory that tied the series.
“Brett is a young man who became a master of his craft,” DelConte said. “He worked very hard day in and day out, including the entire off-season.
“His work ethic is what you want to instill in your players. He really blossomed as a kicker and now he is getting an opportunity to continue.
“Brett also made sure that he took care of his work in the classroom.”
Arthur L. Johnson finished third in the Big Central Conference’s Patriot Silver Division last year behind the teams it lost to, winner Hillside High School and second place New Providence High School. The goal this year is to finish ahead of them and Abraham Clark High School and Metuchen High School as well.
“I have a good feeling about our team,” DelConte said. “The kids are all willing to do whatever it takes to build off of last year. I don’t think they realize the potential they have yet. Last year’s seniors set an example.”
2023 Arthur L. Johnson Crusaders
• Thursday, Aug. 31, at 4 p.m., at Governor Livingston High School
• Friday, Sept. 8, at 7 p.m., Bound Brook High School
• Thursday, Sept. 14, at 3 p.m., at Metuchen High School
• Friday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m., Abraham Clark High School
• Friday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m., New Providence High School
• Saturday, Oct. 7, at 1 p.m., at Hillside High School
• Saturday, Oct. 14, at 1 p.m., at Spotswood High School
• Friday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m., South River High School
Photo Courtesy of Athletic Director Gus Kalikas