Central Jersey Group V Championship Preview
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP V CHAMPIONSHIP
Saturday at 10 a.m. at Rutgers University
(3) Manalapan (10-1) vs. (1) South Brunswick (11-0)
Manalapan's best win: 21-3 over Central Jersey Group IV finalist Middletown South.
South Brunswick's best wins: 36-24 over Middletown South and 14-7 over Piscataway (9-2).
Manalapan keys to the game:
1. Run the ball effectively.
This has been an issue for Manalapan in each of its three straight losses in the finals in the last three seasons. The Braves are effective on the ground all season but then can't get a push up front against a physical team in the state final. That has to change for them to finally get over the hump. Senior tailback Imamu Mayfield has to be around 100 yards or more rushing for them to have a shot to beat the undefeated Vikings. If this offensive line really wants to distinguish itself from all the great Braves' offensive lines of the past decade, this is the opportunity.
2. Tackle well in space.
South Brunswick has several elusive playmakers, mainly at quarterback and running back. They are going to try to get them to the perimeter to get one-on-one match-ups to break big plays, so it's imperative that Manalapan's linebackers and defensive backs tackle well so that six-yard gains don't turn into 60-yard plays.
3. Take a lead into the fourth quarter.
Manalapan has constantly had to play catch-up late in games in these last three state finals. The Braves need to strike first, build their confidence, and then chew up the clock with their running game while doing a better job in the time-of-possession department. In their loss to South Brunswick in the 2012 CJ Group V final, the Vikings hit big plays early then battered away with a power running game in the fourth quarter, draining the clock for the win. The Braves need to reverse that formula this year.
4. Take care of the ball.
Manalapan has one of the best field position weapons in the state in senior kicker/punter Mike Caggiano, so the key is to not give South Brunswick any short fields with turnovers. Make the Vikings drive the field and allow Caggiano to keep pinning them in their own end.
5. Set the edge on defense.
If Manalapan's defensive ends, including senior star Kyle Mullen, can set the edge defensively and force this team to run between the tackles and not get out into space in the running game, that would change the whole complexion of the game.
Have to stop: Dontae Strickland, Sr., RB/WR
Manalapan knows all about South Brunswick's Syracuse-bound star because he burned them in the state final as a sophomore two years ago. He is one of the most explosive threats in the state and can score from anywhere on the field, so even though field position is crucial, the Braves can't relax even if they have the Vikings buried deep in their own end. Manalapan has had trouble stopping opponents' big-time star in these past three finals. Last year it was Hunterdon Central running back/linebacker Jason Cabinda, now at Penn State, who took over the game. The year before it was Strickland and fullback Dahrae Ford who dominated the game. In 2011, it was current Rutgers defensive back Delon Stephenson who put on a show to help Sayreville beat the Braves.
Underrated player: Ben Sieczkowski, Sr., RB/DL
Sieczkowski is a disruptive force up front in Manalapan's 3-4 defense, and if he can create some negative plays and help get a stalemate against South Brunswick's running game, that could throw the Vikings out of their comfort zone. He also could be useful as a power running alternative to the speedy Mayfield on offense.
X-factor: Dan Anerella, Sr., QB.
In all three of Manalapan's losses in the finals, its quarterback has struggled, including Anerella going 5-for-18 for 28 yards and an interception in last year's 21-0 loss to Hunterdon Central. Anerella has to make throws off play-action and avoid any turnovers to give the Braves a chance. Now that he's been through the fire, he is in a perfect spot for redemption as well as immortality as the first state championship-winning quarterback in Manalapan history. He will have ample opportunity to make some plays downfield, and the entire game could hinge on whether he hits those throws or not.
Notes: Manalapan is 0-4 all-time in state finals...The Braves can tie the school record with 11 wins for the third straight season with a victory...South Brunswick is seeking its second state title in three seasons and its second at the expense of Manalapan...Braves senior Mike Caggiano is the state's all-time leader in points by a kicker...South Brunswick quarterback Amir Johnson missed a month with a foot injury but has returned to the lineup as a top playmaker...Manalapan is the first Shore team since Middletown South from 2001-06 to reach at least four straight state championship games.