WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP — Mike Schatzman, the head football coach at Washington Township, is in his fourth season and he’s been building the Minutemen into a state playoff contender. This is a big year for himself and the program, and in the first quarter of the season opener against Egg Harbor Township on Thursday night the 2021 season looked to be getting off to a great start. The Minutemen forced a fumble on the Eagles’ second play from scrimmage and a few plays later star senior running back Jo’Nathan Silver scored from 6 yards out to give Township a quick 7-0 lead.

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A couple plays into the next possession, however, Silver went down with an apparent knee injury and didn’t return. A few years ago, an injury to a star player like Silver might have sent the Minutemen into a tailspin. But not having No. 1 out there allowed other guys to step up and shine. Most notably sophomore quarterback Jared Dzierzgowski, who completed 5-of-8 passes for 53 yards and a touchdown in his varsity debut — but more importantly ran the ball 13 times for 110 yards and three scores, leading Washington Township to a convincing 46-14 win over EHT.

Dzierzgowski scored a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter as the Minutemen (1-0) raced out to a 19-0 lead and never looked back.

“Our thing today was ground-and-pound and try to run it down their throat. That’s pretty much what we practice every day, just focusing on the run game,” said Danny Guetens, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound senior offensive lineman. “Jo is obviously a huge part of our offense but people had to step up today, and the young guys really stepped up for us. There’s not much else I can say, the young guys did a great job today.”
“I was really nervous. It’s really nerve wracking but all the seniors had my back and told me just to play my game. I feel like they had my back the whole way and that helped me out a lot. Last year I got hurt and couldn’t really finish my freshman year, so this was my first varsity experience,” Dzierzgowski said. “It was exciting. That fumble recovery really boosted us and helped us score that first touchdown. That really turned the tables. I was hoping I didn’t fumble (on my first snap). I was saying to myself, ‘please let this be a good snap.'”

Silver going down early created an opportunity for a host of other running backs to get some carries — and, man, did they ever get some carries. The Minutemen ran the ball 54 times and racked up 382 yards and seven touchdowns. Nah’mere Graves led the way with 112 yards and a pair of scores while Logan Perez added 48 yards on 13 carries and Michael Tomasetti had 57 yards on 10 carries. Giuliano Scavetta added 19 yards and a touchdown and Tracy Marshall had 17 yards. In all, Township had eight ball carriers.

“The positive thing was we had the ability to run the ball, whether it was Dzierzgowski at quarterback, Perez, Silver, Graves, Tomasetti — we had the ability to use different guys and spread the ball around and that’s something we haven’t done a lot in the past,” Schatzman said. “We knew going into the year that was going to be out strength. We’re strong up front and Jared adds and different dynamic as a quarterback with the ability to run. It was a good start. We’ll have some things we’ll have to tighten up as we get into the meat of our schedule, but we’re 1-0 and that’s where we want to be, regardless of how it looks.”

THE TURNING POINT: Boy, a lot happened in that first quarter. The big blow came on the second play from scrimmage, when Thomasetti burst through the line for a sack and forced fumble that Guetens pounced on, setting Township up at the EHT 20. That led to Silver’s touchdown, but on the very next series Silver went down with a knee injury.

“He’s a big-time player but it was just ‘next man up.’ We had to fight through everything and get the win without him, and hopefully he’ll be back (next week),” Dzierzgowski said of Silver, one of the top running backs in the West Jersey Football League. “In practice, we all work together so I felt like everything was normal and it felt great. Everything was working. Our offensive line is something else. John Stone (6-3, 270-pound senior) is amazing and everybody was just getting great pushes up front.”

“We have a kid like Nah’mere Graves who can come in for Silver and it’s kind of a 1-2 punch. He broke off a couple of big runs and I think the guys kind of settled in,” Schatzman said. “You don’t replace a guy like Jo, but when you have guys who can fill in and do things — there are plenty of guys who can make plays. We’d love to have Jo’Nathan every second out here, but it was nice to see the guys rally around Jared and the other backs.”

Egg Harbor Township (0-2) couldn’t get anything going offensively early on and that led to great field position for Washington Township throughout the first half. The drive when Silver got hurt started at Township’s own 43-yard line, and Dzierzgowski capped that with the first of his three rushing touchdowns to make it 13-0. The Minutemen’s next drive started around midfield and ended with a 1-yard scoring plunge from Dzierzgowski, pushing the lead to 19-0.
In the second quarter, EHT pulled to within 19-7 on a touchdown pass from Christian Rando (7-for-20, 118 yards, 2 TDs) to Marco Algarin, but that was all the Eagles could muster until a 63-yard scoring strike from Rando to Xavier Bullock early in the fourth quarter.

A STAR IN THE MAKING? With Silver going down, Dzierzgowski really had the chance to shine, and he didn’t let that opportunity get away. He was outstanding in the running game and the Minutemen even started going to a Wing-T look to take advantage of his athleticism.

“First varsity start, he was a running back last year. He just came in and ran the ball all over the place. It was a great thing to watch. It was fun blocking for him,” Guetens said.

“It’s great. It’s a lot of pressure but I feel like all my coaches have really been helping me and my teammates have been phenomenal with helping me get that pressure off my chest and helping me just play my game,” the sophomore said. “This was everything I expected. The way we prepare and practice, I knew we were ready and we were going to come out and dominate.”

What makes it even more impressive is Dzierzgowski isn’t even really a quarterback, and he didn’t have an offseason to prepare. He came in as a freshman running back, and a knee injury last fall kept him on the shelf until June. Schatzman said he had plans to start working him in as a quarterback last fall but had to wait until this summer because of the injury.

“He didn’t play quarterback last year as a freshman but he’s very athletic. He’s very dynamic and a very good athlete, he’s a baseball player and comes from a family of good athletes. His uncle was a very good athlete, his dad was a good athlete, so he has the genetics and the mental makeup. We knew he could handle it and that’s the direction we wanted to go as a program, having as many athletes on the field as possible,” Schatzman said. “He’s going to get better as he goes. He’ll get more comfortable, and you could even see it from the first quarter to the fourth quarter, he was definitely more comfortable. It’s tough to be a sophomore quarterback at a Group 5 school, but he’s very intelligent and athletic. He has that quiet leadership about him that guys tend to rally around. He’s going to be very successful here for the next three years.”

Don’t expect Dzierzgowsk to turn into a drop-back passer, though. Schatzman believes he’ll eventually be pretty effective in the passing game, but he’s no doubt a run-first quarterback. Expect him to throw the ball maybe 5-to-10 times per game, depending on how the Minutemen are doing on the scoreboard.

“He has the ability to throw the ball. Tonight — kind of unfairly to him — we didn’t really have the opportunity to throw it (because of the early lead),” Schatzman said. “He’s going to make mistakes in the passing game, but he’s so dynamic and has the ability to get the ball out quickly, and he’s accurate. So we’ll use him in the screen game stuff, the short, quick game, rolling out with (RPO). We’re going to kind of cater the offense to him as much as possible. Is he going to sit back there and throw it 40 times a game? No. But he’s going to get there as a quarterback.”

BACK TO NORMAL (Sort of): This year, the season opener looked a lot like it did in any other year — except the Covid-shortened 2020 season, where every week was a gamble on whether or not any teams would be playing or have their programs shut down for weeks because of the pandemic. At Tom Brown Field on Thursday night there were marching bands, stands full of fans and student cheering sections — things we’ve come to love and expect as a fall ritual.

“Honestly, one of the great things for us was having everyone watching. Having all the fans coming out — there was a lot of hype coming out here. People are expecting big things from us, and obviously there are always people who will talk down about you, but that’s why we come out here. We come out here to prove ourselves right and all the doubters wrong,” Guetens said. “Last year was rough, I’m going to be honest. I became close with a lot of the guys from last year’s senior class and I know it was rough for them. So having the opportunity to come out here every day to practice without have a really big worry of being sent home for two weeks, that’s a great feeling.”

WHAT THE LOSS MEANS FOR EHT: As the saying goes, it gets late early in high school football. If the Eagles have aspirations of playing postseason football, they have to get things on track as soon as possible. A matchup against upstart Oakcrest (2-0) on Sept. 10 could make or break the Eagles’ season. Going 0-3 to start will make it very difficult for EHT to make the state playoffs.

WHAT THE WIN MEANS FOR WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP: This was a big win for the Minutemen, and not just because it was only the second season-opening win since 2011. They proved they can be a diverse offense and move the ball even without Silver, and when he returns they will be that much more dynamic. The offensive line has some monsters on it and they proved they can push people around. Dzierzgowski also got his feet wet and getting a big early lead certainly took the pressure off. Now he can settle into his role a little bit and feel more comfortable as a varsity starting quarterback.

“There’s not a whole lot of difference (from last year), it’s just another year of building in the weight room and with the chemistry. This is the first group we started with as freshmen when I got hired, so they don’t know anything different. They know what to expect and they have high expectations for themselves,” Schatzman said. “They were undefeated as freshmen, undefeated as junior varsity and a lot of them have played since sophomore year. So it’s kind of just building upon what the group last year built. We have a little more speed and a little different dynamic with Jared at quarterback, but last year was a good group, too. With a full season, they would have been a playoff team and this year’s group is definitely heading in that direction.”

Added Guetens, “the sky is the limit for this team. We’re not going to stop, we’re not going to slow down, I can promise you that. We’re going to keep on working harder.”

WHAT’S NEXT: EHT travels to Oakcrest on Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. Washington Township hosts Rancocas Valley on Sept. 10 at 7 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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