This is the season the Mainland Regional High School football team has waited for.
The Mustangs return nine starters on offense and 11 on defense from last season’s team, which finished 4-6. Mainland should contend for the West Jersey Football League United Division and South Jersey Group IV titles.
“We’re very optimistic about this season,” Mainland coach Chuck Smith said. ‘We’re very excited for this season to tell you the truth. We played a lot of young kids (the past few seasons) before they really should have been on the field. We really penciled in this year as that year we can flip the script so to say.”
Mainland features one of South Jersey’s top players in senior running back/defensive back Ja’Briel Mace, who has started since he was a freshman and has committed to Villanova University.
Mace carried 131 times for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
“He’s worked hard this offseason,” Smith said. “He’s the leader of the team. We’re looking for him to be a true two-way player this season.”
Marlon Leslie, a 6-2, 210-pound senior, returns at quarterback. Leslie rushed for 731 yards and eight TDs last season.
“He’s a good running quarterback,” Smith said. “He’s like a fullback playing quarterback. He has speed, but he’s a strong runner. The amount of tackles he broke at the first level last year was really mind boggling. He made plays that really weren’t there.”
Freshman John Franchini will also see time at quarterback.
“He has tremendous upside,” Smith said. “He’s very coachable, has a very live arm and is smart. Very quarterback savvy, you tell him how to do something the next time he’s doing it.”
Mainland will also benefit from the return of several talented players, who missed most of last season with injuries most notably Cohen Cook (WR/LB), Nick Wagner (WR/LB) and Hunter Watson (TE/LB). Cook is one of the Cape-Atlantic League’s top athletes. He led the Mustangs to the CAL boys basketball title last winter.
“He’s mister everything for us,” Smith said. “He’s our punter, our kicker. He’s the best athlete on the team by far. He has great hands, great vision. He looks like he’s out there toying with people sometimes. He hasn’t seen the top end yet of what he’s capable of doing.”
Defensive end Paul Lombardo and middle linebacker JJ Sinclair lead the Mainland defense.
“JJ is a three-year starter, and he really got better as the season went on last year,” Smith said. “He truly understands the position.”
One of Mainland’s biggest additions is on the coaching staff. Former West Deptford head coach Clyde Folsom is now a Mustangs assistant overseeing the offensive line and inside linebackers. Folsom, a Mainland graduate who now lives in Northfield, coached at Bishop Eustace and West Deptford and retired after the 2017 season with 261 career wins and 10 South Jersey titles.
“He’s been a tremendous resource for us obviously,” Smith said. “He’s a really good teacher on the football field. He’s a grinder. He’s teaching our coaching staff along the way also. I don’t want to say we’re in awe of having him on staff, but you can bounce stuff off of him and he can give you an answer with all the experience he’s had.”
Mainland opens the season Aug. 26 against Egg Harbor Township at the Battle of the Beach in Ocean City. The Mustangs then play at rival Ocean City on Sept. 1.
“We really think we can make a serious run in the playoffs,” Smith said. “Win our division is our goal. Our goal is to get to the championship game for South Jersey. That’s our mindset. I think it’s a matter of getting off to a great start. If we get off to a good start, like anything you start to believe in it and that train gets going.”