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MANALAPAN — The season that had been shaping up to be the best in program history for Manalapan was on the verge of vanishing when junior quarterback Dan Anerella took the snap from the Brick Memorial 12-yard line with 13 seconds left in Friday night’s playoff game. He rolled left but into pressure, then changed course back to his right. Standing uncovered at the one-yard line was Saeed Blacknall, and Anerella’s eyes widened when he saw his star pass-catcher all alone.

Anerella put everything he had into the throw, and Blacknall made the catch before being driven out of bounds. Anerella looked at the clock. There was 1.1 seconds left, time for one more play that would decide the fates of Manalapan and Brick Memorial. The handoff went to senior Tyler Leonetti, and he found room behind senior tight end R.J. Krause for the game-tying touchdown as time expired. Junior kicker Mike Caggiano then came out next and nailed the extra point, and top-seeded Manalapan stormed the field, having survived a scare from eighth-seeded Brick Memorial in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V playoffs with a sensational 14-13 come-from-behind victory.

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Manalapan will host its nemesis, fifth-seeded Sayreville, in the semifinals. The Bombers edged Monroe 35-34 on Friday night.

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“I scrambled out of the pocket and saw Saeed standing with no one around him, and I knew I had to get everything I could on the throw,” Anerella recalled. “When I saw him my eyes lit up and I threw it as far as I could.

Manalapan junior quarterback Dan Anerella led two scoring drives in the final five minutes in the Braves' 14-13 come-from-behind win over Brick Memorial in the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V playoffs. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle).

“When Tyler scored I slid on the ground and looked up to the sky. It was the greatest feeling.”

The Braves (9-0) entered the game as the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group V, undefeated and ranked as the No. 2 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. Manalapan knew, however, that its first-round opponent wasn’t a typical No. 8 seed.

“Brick Memorial is known for the upset special,” said Manalapan head coach Eddie Gurrieri. “They get to the playoffs and they’re dangerous.”

So here Manalapan was, trailing 13-7 with 2:45 and the ball at its own 29-yard line. The Braves had trailed Brick Memorial since late in the first quarter, and had just cracked the scoreboard with an Imamu Mayfield touchdown run with 3:54 left in the game. With Brick Memorial doing an effective job bleeding clock with its running game, Manalapan attempted an onside kick, thinking it may not get the ball back otherwise. Brick Memorial recovered the kick with 3:52 to play, so it was up to Manalapan’s defense to give its offense one more chance.

After a short run on first down, a penalty and an incomplete pass brought up third-and-12 for the Mustangs (6-4) at midfield. The play was a toss to senior running back Mike Basile, who finished with a game-high 136 rushing yards. Braves senior middle linebacker Chris Noesges sniffed it out right away.

“If they need a big play, who’s it going to go to?” Noesges said. “They kind of tipped their hand in that they didn’t make checks all game unless it was a quarterback keeper or a toss. I noticed that, cheated that way and made the play.

“Once we got points on the board we knew the offense had momentum,” Noesges added. “We just had to get them the ball back.”

Manalapan’s game-winning drive started from its own 29-yard line with 2:45 left. Anerella hit Blacknall (10 catches for 68 yards) for 10 yards on the first play, then found the Rutgers-bound senior for 27 yards on third-and-11. That gain moved the ball across midfield and down to Brick Memorial’s 35-yard line.

Anerella then connected with senior wideout Chris Cruz for nine yards before Leonetti ran for eight yards and a first down at Brick Memorial’s 18-yard line with 1:45 left. The Braves eventually faced a third-and-3, but during the three plays that preceded it there were several issues with the clock being started, stopped and restarted again. The officials sorted it out, and after Aneralla scrambled for eight yards and a first down on third-and-3, 18 seconds remained.

The officials got together and switched the time to 22 seconds, which would prove crucial in the next few plays. On first down Leonetti scored, but a holding penalty negated the touchdown and pushed the ball back to the 12. That’s when Anerella made it happen with the throw to Blacknall, leaving just enough time on the clock for Leonetti to score and Caggiano to kick Manalapan into the semifinals.

“We have a whole bunch of heart on this team but no one’s got a chance to see it because we’ve been so dominant,” Anerella said. “Tonight we saw it.”

A pair of first-half turnovers submarined scoring chances for Manalapan,and Brick Memorial had done a great job against the Braves’ punishing rushing attack. Manalapan was finally able to get on the board late in the fourth quarter with an 11-play, 63-yard drive that cut Brick Memorial’s lead to 13-7. Anerella made clutch throws on that drive, too. After a sack he hit Anthony Barone for 19 yards on second-and-18 to set up Mayfield’s four-yard touchdown run with 3:54 left.

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Brick Memorial had taken a 6-0 lead in the first quarter on an 85-yard touchdown run by Basile, who lined up at dive back in the Mustangs’s triple-option offense and broke through the initial wave of defenders with 1:03 left in the first quarter. This came after Leonetti fumbled at Brick Memorial's 15-yard line and Mustangs junior Connor Owen recovered.

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Brick Memorial then stopped Manalapan on fourth-and-1 from near midfield to set up its second scoring drive. The Mustangs started from their own 37 and went 63 yards in 13 plays, chipping away at Manalapan with modest runs before drawing the Braves offsides on fourth-and-5 from the 36. Two plays later, Brick Memorial quarterback Rob Triano found Karl Kumm for 17 yards down to the Manalapan 13. On third down, Triano floated a ball for Kumm, and the 6-foot-4 junior leaped over the Manalapan defense to haul in a nine-yard score with 1:44 left in the half, giving the Mustangs a 13-0 lead at the break.

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Manalapan knew it was going to face adversity at some point during the playoffs, and it got all it could handle in the opening round. The goal is 12-0 for the Braves, and if everything didn’t click over the final four minutes, the road would have ended at home.

“It was draining seeing those minutes and seconds tick away,” Noesges said. “As a senior, I didn’t want that to be my last night on the field. For us there was no tomorrow, and we got that fight from the whole team.”

Box Score

 

NJSIAA playoffs

Central Jersey Group V

First round

 

1-Manalapan 14, 8-Brick Memorial 13

 

Brick Memorial Manalapan
First downs 11 16
Rushes-yards 39-200 36-110
Passing 3-7-0 15-25-1
Passing yards 34 125
Fumbles-lost 4-2 2-1
Penalties-yards 7-45 1-5

 

 

Brick Memorial (6-4) 6 7 0 0 – 13

Manalapan (9-0)       0 0 0 14 – 14

 

Scoring summary

BM – Mike Basile 85-yard run (kick failed)

BM – Rob Triano 9-yard pass to Karl Kumm (Matt Cuppari kick)

M – Imamu Mayfield 4-yard run (Mike Caggiano kick)

M – Tyler Leonetti 1-yard run (Mike Caggiano kick)

 

Individual statistics

Rushing – BM: Mike Basile 13-136, Rob Triano 16-30, Connor Owen 10-34; M: Tyler Leonetti 24-80, Imamu Mayfield 3-17, Charles Lombana 5-9, Saeed Blacknall 1-4, Nelson Rivera 1-1, Dan Anerella 3-(-1).

Passing – BM: Rob Triano 3-7-0 34; M: Dan Anerella 12-20-1 109, Charles Lombana 3-5-0 16.

Receiving – BM: Karl Kumm 2-26, Joe Hans 1-8; M: Saeed Blacknall 10-68, Anthony Barone 2-28, Chris Cruz 2-18, Nelson Rivera 1-11.

Interceptions – BM: Matt Cathey 1-25.