By JOSH LASHLEY

WEST MILFORD ‑ The West Milford High School football program is working hard, rather make that very hard, to improve upon last year’s 1-8 overall record. The Highlanders open the regular season with a home game versus Passaic Valley on Thursday, Sept. 7.

Key returning student athletes include AJ Bakunas (senior, linebacker/offensive line), Tristan Bakalian (senior, running back/defensive back), Anthony Derin (senior, linebacker/offensive line), Dean Montesano (senior), Ryan Coyle (junior, wide receiver/ outside linebacker), Zack Milko (junior, quarterback), Adam Rust (junior, wide receiver/defensive back), and Noah Walker (junior, offensive line/defensive line).

Promising varsity newcomers include Dylan Purdy (senior, offensive line/defensive line), Tre Wright (senior, wide receiver/defensive back), Andrew Finke (senior), Dan DiMinno (junior, tight end/outside linebacker), Noah Walker (junior, offensive line/defensive line), Sean Kuhn (junior), Mike Toro (junior, wide receiver/defensive back), Ray Gorny (junior, offensive line/defensive line), Brandon Sanchez (junior, running back/outside linebacker), Patrick LeBart (junior), Greg Marroquin (junior), Kevin Schaeffer (sophomore), Joseph Heisler (sophomore) and Brandon Cerone (sophomore).

“We have high expectations for all of our seniors in regards to playing leadership roles,’’ said West Milford head coach Don Dougherty. “Players like Tristan Bakalian, AJ Bakunas, Dylan Purdy, Anthony Derin and Dean Montesano are our core senior leaders. Juniors Zack Milko, Noah Walker and Ryan Coyle have also shown leadership qualities through out camp. All of these players are great in regards to leading by example, hardworking throughout practice and set the expectations for our other players.

“Our biggest goal is to bring back a family atmosphere this season. When you have a group of players that practice to achieve team goals rather than individual goal you will have a successful season. We had a great offseason and camp thus far in bringing this group of players together as one team.’’

The Highlanders compete in the North Jersey Super Football Conference along with Jefferson, Montville, Sparta, Vernon, High Point and Morris Hills.

“We are right in the middle of the pack in our competitive division,’’ Dougherty said. “Teams to beat in our division are Morris Hills, who is coming off a state championship last season, Sparta and Jefferson.’’

The Highlanders are scheduled to host High Point on Friday, Sept. 15.

“Youth Program Night will be week two September 15 versus High Point,’’ Dougherty said. “This is where our Youth Program will be recognized and on display at our home game. All youth football players and cheerleaders will be admitted free into the game. The eighth-grade football team will be welcomed on the sideline during the game as well as the eighth grade cheerleaders.’’