Coach Frank Riggitano saw 55 players on the practice field for the Middle Township High School football team this preseason.
That number shows that Riggitano has achieved his first goal in his second stint as the Panthers coach - renewing enthusiasm for the program.
Middle finished 6-4 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
"We've never had that many people," Riggitano said of the roster size. "The community is excited. The kids are excited. We're pushing in the right direction. I don't know how far we can go with it, but I think we'll be as competitive as were last year."
Riggitano coached Middle from 1989-2000 and then became a school administrator. He returned as coach last season.
The Panthers are young with only eight seniors on the roster, but they are talented. They should again contend for the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference title and a South Jersey Group II playoff spot.
A pair of juniors - Yamir McNeal and Jim Versage - will lead the team.
McNeal, a running back, could carry the ball between 20 and 25 times per game. Versage will play tight end and linebacker. Erik Arenberg sparks the secondary.
Junior Joe Durso returns at quarterback. He is much more experienced this season, and Riggitano expects the Panthers to throw more often than they did last year.
"He's developed to the point where he's recognizing where the ball has to go," Riggitano said of Durso. "We have more spread looks. That's out of character for me. I'm a Wing-T person."
Middle should also get contributions from freshman Zahir Bland, a running back with plenty of potential. Bland lives in Woodbine. Students in that borough used to attend Millville but now go to Middle Township.
The increased roster gives Middle something it has rarely had in the past - depth. Riggitano expects just five players to start on both offense and defense.
The Panthers face a tough schedule to start the season. They play St. Augustine Prep in the season opener Friday and then host Absegami on Sept. 20. Middle's first three games are home this season.
"If we can hang in this year and be competitive, we have a lot of pieces back," Riggitano said. "That could lead to things that haven't happened in this area for a long time. But before we get to that point, we have the challenges of this season and want to get better."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Coach: Frank Riggitano (55-58)
League/Group: Cape-Atlantic League National Conference/South Jersey Group II
Last season's record: 6-4
Playoff appearances: 3
Playoff record: 0-3
2013 prediction: Spoiler – The Panthers will play mostly juniors and sophomores but are talented and should build on last season's winning record.
Key players: Yamire McNeal, Jr., RB/DB, 5-8, 180; James Pearson, Sr., OL/DL, 6-1, 275; Jim Versage, Jr., TE/LB, 6-0, 210; Donovan Howard, So., OL/DL, 6-2, 205; Brandon Tauscher, Sr., LB, 6-0, 170; Olandieu Florisma, Sr., OL/DL, 6-4, 260; Joe Durso, Jr., QB, 5-9, 150; Nick Rhinesmith, Sr., OL/DL, 6-0, 245; Erik Arenberg, Sr., WR/QB,DB, 6-0, 165; Stanley Van Note, Sr., OL/DL, 6-6, 265; Angelo Velasquez, Sr., TE/LB, 5-10, 220; James Smith, Jr., RB/LB, 5-8, 170; Nick Garcia, So., OL/DL, 6-1, 220; Trayvon Blake, So., RB/DB, 5-8, 150; Avence Florisma, Jr., TE/LB, 6-3, 185; Colin Cooper, Jr., SE/LB, 6-0, 170.
Top newcomers: Alex Terenik, Sr., RB/DB, 6-0, 180; Justin Lent, Jr., LB/OL, 5-11, 195; Luis Rodriguez, Sr., OL/DL, 5-11, 285; Mark Richards, So., Ol/LB, 5-10, 175; Zahir Bland, Fr., RB/DB, 5-7, 145; Tim Toney, So., QB/WR/DB, 5-9, 150; Jacon Shelton, Jr., OL/DL 6-3, 290; Elvin Davilla, Jr., C/LB, 5-8, 160; Dan Fala, So., K, 5-9, 150; Jauwan Blackman, Jr., RB/DB, 5-8, 150; Jarett Langrell, So., G/LB, 5-9, 165; John Warren, So., RB/DB, 5-0, 145; Joe Torres, So., OL/DL, 6-0, 220