When Toms River North star quarterback Carmen Sclafani transferred to Brick this past summer, it was the type of move that could have either driven a talented team to new heights or blown it apart.

It’s clear to see how it all turned out, as top-seeded Brick (8-3) will play third-seeded Colts Neck (10-1) at 4 p.m. on Saturday at The College of New Jersey in its first state final appearance since winning its last state title in 1994. However, it was the welcoming attitude of the current Brick group and the selflessness of junior Joe Phillips that helped make sure Sclafani’s transition was a smooth one and not a potential disaster of failed team chemistry.

(Photo by Bill Normile)

“Brick and Toms River are a lot different, but it wasn’t hard because the kids were so welcoming and they were excited,’’ Sclafani said. “They heard after I made the decision, and I met them, tossed the ball around, and hung out with them a little bit. They were so outgoing, exactly what you would want if you were going to another school.’’

“We were excited for the season with or without Carmen, but getting Carmen gave us a bigger boost in confidence,’’ said junior running back/linebacker Ray Fattaruso. “He really fell right into place. I talked to him a couple weeks before, introduced him to everybody, and he had a lot of chemistry with us right away.”

Sclafani was the rare sophomore quarterback in Shore Conference history to rush for more than 1,000 yards and throw for more than 1,000 yards in leading the Mariners to a playoff berth last year. He wasn’t the only former Mariner moving over to Brick. His uncle, Chip LaBarca Jr., did not return as head coach of Toms River North after it was made clear by the Board of Education that administrators cannot be head coaches in the Toms River district. LaBarca was then brought aboard Rob Dahl’s staff at Brick as the offensive coordinator.

“There’s a lot going on in my family that affected the decision (to move to Brick),’’ Sclafani said. “I know what people were saying. Everyone says I went with my uncle, but it really is not that. There are just some things happening in my family that were a big part of it.”

Sclafani joined a junior-laden Green Dragons squad coming off a 3-7 season in which much of the starting lineup was comprised of sophomores. Phillips had been the starting quarterback as a sophomore, but switched to wide receiver to make way for Sclafani. Phillips is second on the team with 18 catches despite starting two games at quarterback because of an injury to Sclafani and missing two state playoff games because of a concussion.

“I don’t think Joe’s ever really liked playing quarterback, and after hearing Carm was coming, he was a little upset, but Joe’s a team player,’’ Fattaruso said. “He knew that him going to receiver and Carmen going to quarterback was best for team. Joe is happy where he is now and has been a big part of our team.”

“He was my main target and one of our biggest assets on defense, so we have really missed him in the lineup,’’ Sclafani said.

The Green Dragons were going to employ the run-heavy Wing-T and use a smashmouth approach before Sclafani and LaBarca came aboard. LaBarca installed the shotgun spread that Sclafani ran at Toms River North to take advantage of Sclafani’s ability as a dual threat.

“You take the smashmouth football they were going to run and you bring the finesse of LaBarca’s spread offense, and you have the best of both worlds,’’ Sclafani said.

As the team worked diligently to install a whole new offense in the preseason, Sclafani got an immediate sense of the football tradition at one of the Shore’s most historic programs. Not only that, but his debut would be in the highly-anticipated rivalry game to open the season against cross-town rival Brick Memorial.

“I was in school for a week and now I’m out on the field looking at everyone in the stands thinking, ‘I can’t mess up,’’’ Sclafani said. “Their alumni base is huge, and they’re all at the game, so you don’t want to disappoint them.”

Brick picked up a 21-14 comeback win for its first victory over the Mustangs in five years when Fattaruso recovered a fumble in the end zone with 32.7 seconds left and Sclafani added a two-point conversion run. He also ran for a 4-yard touchdown and threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to senior Mike Muratore in his debut to get off on the right foot in his new school.

“That was the only time I felt pressure because I felt like, ‘I’ve got to win or else people are not going to like me,’’ Sclafani said. “(Toms River) North-South is nothing like Brick-Brick Memorial, having experienced them both. There’s so much more riding on you at Brick. There’s a lot more people you don’t want to disappoint because of how storied this program is.”

There were some growing pains as the Green Dragons lost 28-7 a week later to Middletown South, but the offense started to come together the following week in a 47-21 win over a Toms River South team that went on to win eight games. Brick put up 409 yards of offense, including 297 on the ground, with Sclafani and Fattaruso both going over 100 yards.

“The South game we really exploded on offense, and I think at Brick if you beat South, that’s as good as beating Memorial because that rivalry goes way back,’’ Sclafani said. “The offense really stepped up in that big game and the guys started to put their trust in the offense like, ‘OK, now we see it works.’’’

With Fattaruso next to Sclafani out of the zone read set and weapons like Phillips and Muratore, Brick’s rushing attack was relentless. As a sophomore, Sclafani was the primary runner for the Mariners, but now he had a legitimate game-breaking threat in the backfield with him in Fattaruso, which forced defenses to respect the fakes and not be able to focus on stopping one player.

“This year we take the burden off each other,’’ Sclafani said. “It’s not like he’s always getting the ball because I can pull it, and vice versa. Plus, we also have Mike Muratore.”

“Now teams have to fear both of us, but without our offensive line we wouldn’t have the holes and the yards we have this year,’’ Fattaruso said. “It’s a big responsibility for defenses to stop us and Mike Muratore and everybody else we have back there.”

The Toms River South victory started a three-game winning streak that came to a halt in a 42-35 loss to a sub-.500 Toms River East team, which was followed by a costly 28-21 victory over Sclafani and LaBarca’s former team, Toms River North. Sclafani was injured on a tackle by one of his good friends, Mariners safety Jake Forlenza.

“It was a really weird injury,’’ Sclafani said. “I was getting tackled, my legs were getting wrapped up, and while I was twisting, I got a helmet to the back of my right shoulder and my collarbone subluxed from my sternum. It was essentially like sprained ligaments in the collarbone area.”

Phillips did a great job filling in for Sclafani in Brick's next game, leading the Green Dragons to a 25-24 win over Lacey with a touchdown pass in the final seconds. However, Phillips suffered a concussion from a hit in a showdown with Jackson Memorial with the Class A South title on the line, and Brick lost 9-7 as Sclafani watched from the sidelines.

“That was horrible,’’ Sclafani said. “That was the worst feeling I’ve had in my life. From freshman year, I never imagined having to sit out. You never even think of it. To be honest with you though, Jackson Memorial was the best game we played all year. We played so well, and we were facing a lot of adversity, but guys rose to the occasion.”

Sclafani made his return in the first round of the state playoffs against eighth-seeded West Windsor North. The plan was to just have him throw the ball in order to avoid taking any hits in his right shoulder area on running plays, but that fell by the wayside when Brick was trailing at halftime.

“We were running Ray (Fattaruso) left and Ray right, and we had to change it up so we could hit them from all directions,’’ Sclafani said. “It was the mental part for me. I was stressing out, but once I took that first hit and was fine, it was a huge weight lifted off my back.’’

With West Windsor at least having to worry about Sclafani running, Fattaruso led a 35-26 comeback victory with 192 yards rushing and three touchdowns to put the Green Dragons into the semifinals. They then sealed their first trip to a state final since before their seniors were born with a 45-24 victory over Burlington Township. Brick’s arsenal was on full display, as Fattaruso ran for 203 yards and a touchdown and Sclafani ran for 197 yards and four touchdowns in the win.

Sclafani has 1,098 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns for the season while also throwing for 605 yards and five touchdowns despite missing time. Fattaruso, who is also a stellar linebacker, has 1,036 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns to make Brick the first Shore Conference team to have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers since Shore Regional did it on its way to winning a state title in 2010. Brick, which is averaging 221 yards rushing per game, has averaged 28 points per game with Sclafani in the lineup, one year after averaging 13 points per game.

A football-mad town is now hoping to bring home the program’s seventh state title since the inception of the state playoffs in 1974.

“I’ve never been a part of something like this,’’ Sclafani said. “I wish I had grown up as a part of this. These kids, it’s all they know. I think my family’s involved in football, but everyone here is involved in football. The school spirit is awesome.”

Sclafani can remember being a fifth-grader when the Toms River North team coached by LaBarca in 2007 went undefeated to bring home a state championship. One of the players from that team, offensive lineman Jon Power, is now an assistant at Brick.

“Those guys from that team are like heroes to me,’’ he said. “I want what they have. I want that ring, and these are the kids I want to get it with.”

“Looking back at all the state championships we’ve won and we’ve been to, being part of Brick history would be an amazing feeling,’’ Fattaruso said. “My sister’s husband, T.J. Ventorino, was part of that 1994 team. He’s always at our house telling us how great it was and to make this opportunity worth something because you don’t know if you’re going to be in this situation again.”

A quarterback who wasn’t even at the school last year can now be part of a group that cements itself in Brick lore at the program started and made famous by the legendary Warren Wolf. After growing up as a Mariner, Sclafani could go down in history as a Green Dragon for life with his teammates.

“It just so happens that we clicked and formed something special,’’ Sclafani said. “There is no team that deserves it more than these guys. When I came here, I was like, ‘I have to step it up.’ All these kids know is hard work, from the beach runs to waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning all summer. I’m glad to be a part of it because it’s only made me a better person and a better player.”