Red Bank Catholic’s Najih Rahman, receiver, sits in the Brown University football office, where he has committed to play next year. Courtesy photo/Najih Rahman Twitter page
Red Bank Catholic’s Najih Rahman, receiver, sits in the Brown University football office, where he has committed to play next year. Courtesy photo/Najih Rahman Twitter page

Beach goers and boardwalk prowlers will not be the only ones flocking to Ocean City this weekend. Also invading the south Jersey shore town will be Red Bank Catholic and Holmdel’s St. John Vianney football teams and their legion of family and fans.

The two teams will culminate a day of four games Aug. 27 when they meet at 7:30 p.m. in the 2nd Annual Battle at the Beach event at Ocean City High School. It is one of eight Week Zero contests that will be played from Friday through Sunday in OC’s Carey Stadium, as 16 teams will open their season.

It is familiar territory for RBC, which began last year with a 34-0 victory in the BATB. The win propelled the Caseys to an 11-1 record and the NJSIAA Non-Public Group B state championship.

“I think it’s something our kids look forward to,” said RBC coach Mike Lange, who heard reports that over 3,800 tickets have been sold for Saturday’s game. “We played during the day last year, now we’re actually in the Saturday night game.”

In reflecting on last year’s game, Lange felt it definitely helped set a tone for Red Bank Catholic’s memorable campaign.

“The whole atmosphere kind of kicks off the season the right way,” Lange said. “We’re playing a rival.Our parents … rent a building down there where the kids can go a couple hours before the game. It’s kind of like our makeshift locker room.

“[Having] all kinds of great teams there during the weekend is really cool,” he continued. “I think it sets a tone and just kind of builds the excitement for the rest of the season.”

The game marks a battle of Shore Conference foes, as SJV of Holmdel is in the Independence Division and RBC is in the American. The Caseys were originally slated to play Archbishop Wood, but the Pennsylvania school pulled out in June, giving the Lancers an opportunity.

SJV is coming off a 3-7 season and ended the 2021 campaign with four straight losses. Jeff Papcun has taken over for Michael Alberque, the school’s athletic director, after several previous stints at SJV and other schools.

Papcun, who played at Raritan High School and Montclair State University, began as a volunteer-assistant at Raritan in 2010. From there he was at SJV in 2011-12, 2016-17 and 2020 to the current season. In between he was an assistant at Keansburg, Red Bank Catholic and Colts Neck. He was the Lancers defensive coordinator last year.  

“I’ve been around the block a lot,” Papcun said with a laugh. “I’m just grateful to get my first head coaching job.”

His first test will be against a defending state champion that lost some standout players but still returns a strong nucleus of talent. Papcun’s philosophy is to not worry about the name on the other jerseys.  

“We’re still looking at them as we look at every other team,” he said. “We’re gonna play every snap like it’s the first snap. We’re gonna keep pounding the rock and keep punching back.”

Like Lange, Papcun welcomes the opportunity to play in the high-profile event.

“There’s no better way to kick it off than against a rival like Red Bank Catholic on a big stage like this,” he said. “It’s Week Zero, a lot of teams aren’t playing so you’ll probably have a lot of kids come down too. We’re ready for that atmosphere.”

The Lancers will have a new offense as Papcun has installed a Wing-T system that will look to establish a pounding running game.

SJV has the experience in the trenches to make it work. All five offensive linemen are returning starters or have experience, including tackles Matt DeFelice and Andrew Chemo, guards Tim O’Dowd and Ryan Buchanan and center Zach Scully. They average 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, and will also play defense.

“We kept telling them in the off season it starts up front with them,” Papcun said, “and winning or losing games depends on how well they’re doing.”

Middle linebacker/fullback Christian Buchanan will also be a player RBC must contend with. Luca Minardo and Eli Portales are other fullbacks, while a stable of wingbacks include Kyle Verriest (formerly a receiver), Joey Marcello, Nick Galamb, Pierson Barc and Jaden Griffith. Seniors Mike Foley and Aaron Van Trease are the quarterbacks.  

Foley is a returning starter at linebacker, as are Verriest at cornerback and Jacak Farah at safety.

“They’ve got some veteran guys,” Lange said. “It’s always a challenge when teams get the right guys the ball. They’re gonna be big up front and they’ve got two pretty good linebackers.”

Another challenge is that with a new coach comes a new look, and the Caseys are unsure of exactly what to expect.

“I think they’re gonna match us in size up front and it will be up to us to kind of move them around a little bit,” Lange said.

RBC could have the ability to do that as it returns some big, physical linemen. Junior Lorenzo Portella and 300-pound Tyler Burnham are three-year starters, and Burnham has had numerous Division I offers.

The main cog is senior running back/safety Sabino Portella (Lorenzo’s brother), who is headed for the University of North Carolina as a wrestler but has been a major contributor to the football team the past few years. Lange calls Portella “our glue.”

Torin Harmon will spell Portella at running back and safety, while a stellar trio of receivers features Najih Rahman, Emmanuel Ross and Robert Stolfa. Ross, who is only a junior, has received 15 college offers so far.

With Alex Brown graduated, RBC is looking for someone to get those receivers the ball.

“Obviously we gotta fill some holes at quarterback,” Lange said. “I think we have a kid who will do a nice job for us in Frankie Williams, and he’s got a good supporting cast to help him out too.”

Williams is a 6-foot-1 sophomore who quarterbacked the Caseys undefeated freshman team in 2021.

Defensively, Lorenzo Portella and Aidan Donohue are returning starters at tackle, as are Davin Brewton and Michael Palmieri at linebacker and Sabino Portella and Harmon at safety.

“We’ll be looking at Portella to run the ball,” Papcun said. “And we also see Brewton at the middle linebacker position as someone we know we’ll have to stop as well. Defensively they’re real aggressive to the ball … Once they punch, we punch.”

And when the final whistle blows, may the best team be left standing.