So much is different with Manchester Regional football.
The Haledon school has a new coach in Burim Ala, a 2004 graduate who takes over for his former coach, Rande Roca, who guided the team for 20 of the past 22 years.
The Falcons will kick off 2022 on the fully-refurbished Giacin Field, which has been upgraded with FieldTurf and lights.
And all of this is spurring new interest in the team.
“We have 15 seniors, and 10 of them are new this year,” Ala said. “We have some returning with some experience, some coming in without much experience, but we have a lot of athletes this year.”
More importantly for a program that has just one winning season since Ala graduated, there is hope building.
“Obviously, the [new] field plays a large part in getting kids out,” the coach said. “We have a lot more kids on the team at this point than we have in the last couple of years… and within the team, we have a lot of positive attitude going on.”
Even the schedule is fresh. Manchester played in the Colonial Division since the NJIC’s 2010 inception, but this year moves into the Liberty.
“I find it exciting when we’re playing newer teams,” said Ala, who must gameplan for unfamiliar opponents such as New Milford and Secaucus. “When I played in high school, in the B-PSL, you played the same schedule over and over, and you knew the teams. Now, from a coach’s perspective, you get to see what other coaches are doing. You get to break down film. It makes it all new again.”
Manchester has been to the state tournament just three times, but Ala was involved in two of those runs.
He was a senior fullback/linebacker for the 2003 squad that went 8-3 and ended a seven-year playoff drought. Then, he was the defensive coordinator on the 2017 team that scored the Falcons’ first postseason victory.
Their last division title came in 1996 – along with the best record in school history (9-1) – under Mike Columbo, who remains the only coach to post a winning career mark at Manchester (24-22).
The Falcons have been an established Wing-T team for the better part of two decades, and while Ala aims to “incorporate some aspects” of the strategy, big changes are ahead for the offense.
“We’re going to be taking into account the type of athletes that we have and trying to build off of their greatest attributes,” he said. “For the most part, speed is the No. 1 attribute that we have on the team. So, we’re trying to put the kids in position to be to be successful in that sense.”
Two players who made contributions as freshmen will be leaders now as seniors. Running back/linebacker Ne’Khiycie Jackson returns as a captain after a season away, and Subhi Kanaan is playing for the first time in three years.
“Our kids are buying in right now,” Ala said. “They’re working really hard throughout the entire summer, and right now, things are looking really good for us.”
Expectations at Manchester often start out low, and that easily could be the case given a 10-24 record since the 2017 playoff season. Ala, though, aims to keep the focus off wins and losses.
“We’re definitely a lot better now than I thought we were going to be at the end of last season,” he said. “A lot more kids showed up… so in that sense, it’s looking good.”
The Falcons’ long-term goal is to get back above .500 and into postseason contention, “hopefully setting the foundation for upcoming seasons,” Ala said.
Along the way, Manchester hopes to open some eyes.
“I think we’re going be surprisingly competitive,” Ala added. “It’s not going to be a typical ‘roll over Manchester’ type of year, where [opponents] come in, get healthy and walk out. I think people are going to have a tough time with us.”
Aug. 26: vs. Lodi
Sept. 1: at New Milford
Sept. 9: vs. Waldwick/Midland Park
Sept. 16: vs. Glen Rock
Sept. 23: vs. Secaucus
Sept. 30: at Lyndhurst
Oct. 7: TBD
Oct. 14: TBD
Oct. 21: TBD
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Manchester Regional NJ football building hope for the future