Finals Week in Shore Football and Thanksgiving Recap
It's finals week in Shore Conference football, as 10 teams across nine brackets will play for state titles on Saturday in a bid to beat the conference-record six state champions that the Shore has produced in each of the past two seasons.
The Shore will have one guaranteed champion when Asbury Park and Keyport face off for the Central Jersey Group I crown, while several other teams are strong favorites to bring home championships.
All of it will take place on Saturday across three sites - Rutgers, Kean University and Rowan University. You can check out the full schedule here.
Is this the best era of Shore Conference football ever? I think it's too hard to compare different eras. In the 1970s, 80s and most of the '90s, it was a major accomplishment just to make the playoffs because there were only four teams in each bracket. Now you can be 2-6 and make it into the field in some instances, so it's pretty watered down in most brackets.
There are a lot of sections where teams don't really have to beat anyone that good until the final, so in that respect, I think there were past eras that were much more competitive. Plus, there are more brackets after the introduction of Group V, so the bigger schools in particular are not running a serious gauntlet to win a title like in the past.
With that said, there are some teams in recent years that I would put up against anybody, including this year's unbeaten Toms River North squad. The Mariners have one of the best offenses I've seen. Of course, as with all the teams, they have to finish the job on Saturday before they can be in the conversation among the greats.
Two teams in particular enter the state finals with plenty of momentum after big Thanksgiving Day victories. Wall knocked off Manasquan, 21-3, in a match-up of SSN Top 10 teams and a meeting between two teams that will play for state titles on Saturday, while Middletown North ended a 16-year losing streak to Middletown South in its last tune-up before playing Sayreville in North II, Group IV with its first state title in 20 years on the line.
Wall dominated the second half in the win over the Warriors, as senior running back Sean Larkin rolled up 132 of his 177 yards rushing and all three touchdowns after the break behind a senior-laden offensive line playing in its last Thanksgiving game. On the other side, the defense, led by linebacker Tim McKernan (10 tackles), held Manasquan to 85 total yards to help the Crimson Knights beat the Warriors for the third straight time in the series.
Wall also denied Manasquan a shot at tying Middletown South for the Class B North title, as the Eagles fell to Middletown North to leave the door open but ended up with the division crown all to themselves.
The Crimson Knights will now look to cap a resurgent year after four straight losing seasons by winning their first state title since 2002 and their fourth overall when they take on defending champion Delsea at 11 a.m. at Rowan in South Jersey Group III.
Larkin and the running game have been on fire for the past three weeks, as he has erupted for a combined 621 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in playoff wins over Camden and Hamilton West as well as the Manasquan win. He now has 1,349 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns in 10 games after missing a game with an injury.
As for the Warriors, they are looking to shake it off and beat Bernards in Central Jersey Group II at 7 p..m at Kean on Saturday for a Shore Conference-record 12th overall state title and their first since 2008.
Middletown North is as sharp as they have been all season in all phases of the game heading into the showdown against Sayreville after a 24-6 takedown of Middletown South for its first win over the Eagles since 2000.
The Lions left no doubt, building a 21-0 lead on three touchdown passes by the best quarterback in school history, senior Donald Glenn, and then added a 28-yard field goal by sophomore Joey Cavanagh.
Their defense has only allowed six total points in back-to-back wins over Summit in the playoffs and then a Middletown South offense that averaged 28 points per game for the season.
With a senior-laden team led by Glenn, wideout/defensive back Brendan Kube, and wideout/defensive back Dwight Wilkerson, it's now or never for a Lions' team looking to put a stamp on their best season in two decades by becoming the first team to win at least 10 games since the 1983 Lions squad that finished a school-record 11-0 under legendary coach Vic Kubu.
Shore Regional will not get a chance to defend the Central Jersey Group I title it won the past two seasons, but the Blue Devils got a great consolation prize by taking down Central Jersey Group III finalist Rumson-Fair Haven, 14-7, in the third edition of their Devil-Dawg Thanksgiving rivalry.
Shore has now won all three Thanksgiving meetings against Rumson, which has lost 14 straight Thanksgiving games. The Bulldogs lost 11 in a row to Red Bank Catholic before dropping that rivalry for the new one with Shore, but the Blue Devils continue to have the upper hand.
A wild catch by Nick Rew while lying on his back in the end zone early in the fourth quarter with 10 minutes left in the game broke a 7-7 tie and sent Shore on to the victory.
Shore, which fell to Asbury Park in the CJ Group I semifinals a week earlier, has now won at least seven games for five straight seasons after ending on a high note.
“Of course we want to be playing for a state championship, but we took this game as our state championship,” senior quarterback Matt Pennell told SSN's Bob Badders. “We played our most complete game of the season.”
The reassuring news for Rumson is that after losses on Thanksgiving the past three years, the Bulldogs have come back to win a state championship game a week later. They are gunning to become just the third program in Shore Conference history to win four straight when they face South Plainfield at 7 p.m. at Rutgers in the Central Jersey Group III final on Saturday.
A Trio of Thrillers
Three teams ended with the type of exciting wins that can be a springboard to a strong offseason by providing a spark in beginning the long march toward the 2017 season.
Barnegat was in a 28-6 hole against Pinelands but came flying all the way back to pick up a 29-28 victory. The Bengals are now 9-2 all time against the Wildcats, including seven straight wins over Pinelands.
READ MORE: Listen to the audio from the Game of the Week between Wall and Manasquan
The Bengals began their comeback with a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Connor Lustenberger late in the first half. Lustenberger then kicked a 20-yard field goal and threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to make it 28-23 with 3:49 left in the third quarter. His two-yard touchdown with 6:30 left in the game completed the comeback in his final game. Barnegat has now finished .500 or better in 7 of its 11 seasons since the creation of the program in 2006.
Two of the Shore's oldest Thanksgiving rivalries came down to the final minute, starting with Neptune pulling out a 21-20 win over Asbury Park to retain the Friendship Trophy for the seventh straight season. Malik Ingram's two-yard touchdown run brought them within a point and then quarterback Chase Fairbanks ran in a two-point conversion for the winning points with 1:15 left in the game.
Asbury Park will now look to regroup and win its first state title since 2011 when it faces Keyport at 4 p.m. at Kean University in the Central Jersey Group I final on Saturday.
Lakewood's 28-24 win over Toms River South in the Shore's oldest Thanksgiving rivalry was even more of a heart-stopper. Piners quarterback Zyhier Jones scored on a one-yard touchdown run with only five seconds left in regulation for the win to cap a day in which he ran for three scores and threw a touchdown pass to twin brother Jyhier Jones.
It capped a 7-3 season for the Piners, who have now had four winning seasons in the last five years after a stretch in which they didn't have a single winning year from 2001-2011.
On a High Note
Two other teams that ended the season with a smile were Raritan and Long Branch.
The Rockets beat Holmdel 44-14 behind 160 yards rushing and two touchdowns by Vito Aleo and a pair of touchdowns by game MVP Matt Thompson, a senior, to cap a 6-4 season. Raritan is now 7-2 against Holmdel in their Battle of the Border rivalry.
Long Branch avoided its first one-win season since 1950 by dominating Red Bank in a 27-0 victory for something to build on. Senior running back Keith Cooper ended his career in style with three touchdowns to cap a strong year under the radar for the Green Wave.
Ready to Make History
Here are the teams playing in Saturday's finals, the last year they won a state title, and how many titles their program has since the inception of the playoff system in 1974.
Mater Dei Prep (None)
Middletown North (1996, 3)
Keyport (2002, 6)
Wall (2002, 3)
Manasquan (2008, 11)
Asbury Park (2011, 6)
Brick (2013, 7)
Manalapan (2014, 1)
Rumson-FH (2015, 4)
Toms River North (2015, 6)