As Colts Neck entered this season having to replace the most prolific single-season passer in school history, head coach Greg LaCava honestly had no idea who would be the Cougars’ new quarterback.

“I think that early on we were curious about who our starting quarterback would even be,’’ LaCava said.

(Photo by Bill Normile)

The competition was between senior John Miller and junior Christian Sanchez to replace Mike Campbell, who threw for a school-record 2,176 yards and 24 touchdowns in his only season as the starter last year. With 1,000-yard rusher Anthony Gargiulo back for his senior year, LaCava didn’t need a quarterback to put up huge numbers like Campbell. He needed one who would play efficiently and be dynamic enough to make teams pay for loading the box and sending everyone at Gargiulo.

Miller suffered an injury in the preseason, and Sanchez seized the opportunity to step to the forefront. He has since turned a question mark into an exclamation point, producing a combined 1,596 yards this season between rushing and passing . He now has a chance to say he is the first Colts Neck quarterback to ever win a state championship when the third-seeded Cougars (10-1) take on top-seeded Brick (8-3) on Saturday at 4 p.m. at The College of New Jersey in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final.

“I truly believe that it was an opportunity to show Coach (LaCava) what I can do and perform at the level he wants for his quarterback,’’ Sanchez said. “It was my time to rise to the occasion. Ever since last year, I’ve spent countless hours with a personal trainer getting ready for this.”

Sanchez, who has thrown for 921 yards and eight touchdowns while running for 675 yards and six scores, has provided a solid complement to Gargiulo, who has 1,617 yards rushing and a school-record 27 touchdowns. With a physical offensive line led by FCS prospect Ryan Wetzel, the Cougars enter the championship averaging 283 yards rushing per game. This is the first state final appearance for Colts Neck, whose program began in 2000.

“Sanchez took over in our last game scrimmage, and he did a great job,’’ LaCava said. “We knew Christian was a good athlete, and when he got his opportunity, he exceeded our expectations. I don’t think we ever got into a situation where we felt we were concerned about him managing the game. Offensively, we’re going to find what we can do and what works for us, which you have seen in games where (Sanchez) is rushing for 150 yards and Anthony is around 100 because we are exploiting the defense depending on what they are giving us.”

While Campbell was a classic dropback passer, Sanchez’s running ability has allowed Colts Neck to add the wrinkle of some zone read and other option looks between Sanchez and Gargiulo to make the defense hesitate or take a false step in the wrong direction. Sanchez has had two games of 140 or more yards rushing. He also is averaging 15 yards per completion, so he has shown the ability to throw it over opponents’ heads if they cheat toward the line of scrimmage. He has spread the ball around to receivers like Craig Russo, Dan Calabro, Nick Volpe and fullback Mike Ververka.

“As much as we rely on Anthony, (LaCava) reminds me that there will be plenty of times where I will have to step up and play,’’ Sanchez said. “Teams we have played like to stack the box, and Coach stresses in practice, ‘Now it’s your time to make an impact in the game and do something to help the team.’ Anthony draws a lot of attention, so we’ve been putting more in the gameplan where I’m putting it in the air or moving it with my feet when we need it.”

Sanchez learned firsthand what it’s like when a team takes away Gargiulo and forces Sanchez to beat them when Colts Neck suffered its only loss, 48-18, to undefeated Manalapan on Oct. 25. Gargiulo was held to 87 yards on 14 carries in the loss, with a chunk of it coming after the game was out of reach. The Braves’ defense harassed Sanchez into 3-for-16 passing and only eight yards on the ground.

“It was a wake-up call,’’ Sanchez said. “That was our first true test during the season and there were times in the game where we just didn’t perform how we were supposed to. There are very few teams that have the talent they have, so seeing that helped me a lot. I knew what to expect from a high-caliber team, so it got me ready to face another good football team.’’

“We didn’t play anyone with that type of speed until Manalapan, which forced him into mistakes he didn’t make up to that point,’’ LaCava said. “It was a great learning opportunity, and he took it and played a good game against Middletown South. The thing with Christian is that he’s very calm, he’s very coachable and our players feed off that.”

Sanchez showed his resilience a week after the loss to Manalapan when he threw for 134 yards and a touchdown and also ran for 64 yards in a 27-21 overtime win over fellow Central Jersey Group IV qualifier Middletown South.

While Gargiulo has been the primary force in the playoffs with 435 yards and six touchdowns combined in two games, Sanchez is going to have to play well to help the Cougars make history. Colts Neck faces a talented Brick team that has an explosive rushing attack of its own along with its own dual threat quarterback, junior Carmen Sclafani.

“I know that if we execute, we have a very good chance of winning the football game,’’ Sanchez said.

A player who was an unknown only a few months ago is now practically a seasoned veteran, ready to make his 12th start.

“He’s done a great job and guys around him have supported him,’’ LaCava said. “We certainly had concern after losing one of the best quarterbacks in the Shore, but (Sanchez) worked hard in the off-season, and got bigger, faster and stronger. He’s never looked back since.”

“My first couple games, I always used to be full of nerves,’’ Sanchez said. “My stomach would be turning before every game, but now I know it will all go away once I get on the field. I can’t wait for Saturday.”