Football State Finals Preview
After failing to crown any state champions for the first time since 1985 last season, the Shore Conference is back to flexing its muscles with at least two teams guaranteed to be the last ones standing in their respective brackets this year.
Seven Shore Conference teams will play for NJSIAA sectional championships on the weekend of Dec. 6-8 at various neutral sites. Two of the games will feature a pair of local teams going head-to-head for the ultimate prize, as Shore Regional will take on Point Beach in Central Jersey Group I, and Brick will face Colts Neck in the Central Jersey Group IV championship game.
The most state champions the Shore has ever had in one season is five, so there is a chance to duplicate that feat this season with finalists in four of the five Central Jersey brackets and Barnegat in the South Jersey Group III championship game.
While many of the teams still have Thanksgiving games to worry about, here’s a preview of what to expect when the Shore Conference squads play for it all this weekend.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP V
(1) Manalapan (11-0) vs. (7) Hunterdon Central (7-4)
7 p.m. at Rutgers on Dec. 8
Background: This is Manalapan’s third straight trip to a state final as the Braves seek their first state title in school history following losses to South Brunswick and Sayreville the last two seasons. This is all there is left to accomplish at the Shore Conference’s elite public school program, which has won four straight Class A North titles. Manalapan is 0-3 all time in state finals, so it’s looking to finally lock down the school’s first 12-0 season. The Braves beat Hunterdon Central 17-7 in last year’s Central Jersey Group V semifinals, so there is some familiarity between the teams.
Hunterdon Central has won five state championships in its history and is playing in its 10th state final, so this is no strange spot for the Red Devils. The last time they played a Shore Conference team in a state final, they beat Howell 42-24 to win Central Jersey Group IV in 2006.
What to watch for: While Manalapan once again leans heavily on its running game, the Braves have a lethal weapon in the passing game in Rutgers-bound senior wideout Saeed Blacknall, who will be playing his final high school game on his future college field. Blacknall has 48 catches for 668 yards and 15 touchdowns, which is two shy of tying the Shore Conference single-season record for touchdown catches. His presence makes Manalapan difficult to defend because teams that load up the box to stop the running game have to worry about Blacknall overpowering a cornerback in single coverage for a game-changing play. Junior quarterback Dan Anerella, who has been efficient and clutch under pressure in two playoff games, has thrown for 913 yards, and 668 of them and all 14 of his touchdown passes have gone to Blacknall.
The leader of Manalapan’s running game is senior tailback Tyler Leonetti, who has 938 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns despite missing two games because of an ankle injury. Back and healthy again, he is part of a deep and productive group of backs that also includes Imamu Mayfield, Jake McCourt and fullback Nelson Rivera. As always, the Braves have a tough and physical offensive line that includes tight end R.J. Krause, a receiving threat and devastating blocker.
Defensively, senior linebacker Chris Noesges is one of the Shore Conference’s top players with 112 tackles and 14 tackles for a loss. He had 14 tackles and two tackles for a loss in a 34-7 wipeout of three-time defending sectional champion Sayreville in the semifinals. He is part of a strong linebacking group that also includes Matt McCann, Will Meany and Mike D’Angelo. Krause is a force at noseguard with 7 sacks, and Joe Mendez, Nick Douglas and Kyle Mullen give the Braves an attacking front line. Seniors Chris Cruz and Anthony Barone and junior Dan Debner anchor the secondary.
Manalapan’s special teams have been outstanding all season, as junior punter/kicker Mike Caggiano is one of the best in the Shore and has field goal range out to 50 yards. Debner and junior John Cheung have returned a combined seven touchdowns between kickoff and punt returns this year. They could be the difference in a tightly-matched game, as Hunterdon Central’s defense has rounded into form with everyone healthy and won’t be easy to score on.
Hunterdon Central may be the seventh seed, but its record is deceiving at 7-4. The Red Devils suffered several injuries to key players early in the season that cost them some games, but have put it all together in the postseason, beating second-seeded Old Bridge 24-0 and then blasting defending champion South Brunswick 42-7 in the semifinals.
This is the most balanced offensive team that Manalapan has faced all season. Senior quarterback Michael Knight has thrown for 844 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing three games with a broken leg. Senior Jason Cabinda, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound battering ram of a running back who is headed to Penn State to play linebacker, has 1,086 yards and 15 touchdowns despite missing multiple games because of an emergency appendectomy. He put 212 yards and three touchdowns on South Brunswick in the semifinals.
For Manalapan it still comes down to its core principles – run the ball and stop the run. The Braves will make it a focus to stop Cabinda and then take it from there, while looking to keep Hunterdon Central’s offense on the sidelines by grinding the clock with Leonetti and the running game and throwing it over the defense’s head to Blacknall if they cheat toward the line of scrimmage.
The pick: Manalapan.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP IV
(3) Colts Neck (10-1) vs. (1) Brick (8-3)
4 p.m. at The College of New Jersey on Dec. 7
Background: This is the first trip to the state finals in the history of Colts Neck’s program, which started in 2000. The Cougars dispatched of Nottingham, which won last season’s Central Jersey Group III title, 28-19 in the semifinals.
This is Brick’s first sectional final since winning South Jersey Group III in 1994. One of the Shore Conference’s most storied programs, Brick is tied with Keyport, Matawan and Asbury Park for third all-time in Shore history with six sectional championships since the inception of the playoff system in 1974.
What to watch for: Brick has junior quarterback Carmen Sclafani healthy again so its offense is running at full tilt after Sclafani missed two regular-season games with a shoulder injury. The Toms River North transfer is one of two 1,000-yard rushers on the Green Dragons along with junior running back Ray Fattaruso, making Brick the first Shore Conference team with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers since Shore Regional did it in 2010 when it won a state title. That tandem has been hard to stop in the zone read attack, as they combined for 400 yards rushing and five touchdowns in a 45-24 win over Burlington Township in the semifinals. Senior Mike Muratore is another versatile weapon who is a threat in the running game and at receiver.
Defensively, Fattaruso and linebacker James Juliano lead an attacking unit that gets after the quarterback and specializes in creating turnovers and negative plays. The Green Dragons have been a bend-but-don’t-break unit that comes up with big plays at key times, like defensive back Ja’Quez Johnson sealing the win over Burlington Township with an interception return for a touchdown on his second of two picks in the game. On special teams, Brick’s kicker is 19-year-old senior Anthony Starego, who has made national headlines with his performance as a student with autism. He booted a field goal in the semifinals and has become a reliable contributor under pressure.
On the Colts Neck side, the franchise is senior tailback Anthony Gargiulo, who has a school single-season record 27 touchdowns and is the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher. In two playoff games, he has run for 435 yards and seven touchdowns behind an outstanding offensive line led by FCS prospect Ryan Wetzel. Gargiulo has run for 1,617 yards and also is a threat on screen passes as a receiver. Junior quarterback Christian Sanchez is a dual threat with 1,596 total yards whose main target is wideout Dan Calabro. Abdul Quddus gives the Cougars a good change-of-pace back with his speed, and Mike Ververka is a hard-nosed fullback.
Defensively, Gargiulo is also a standout as a linebacker/defensive end with more than 100 tackles. Senior Nick Volpe is another force with 12 sacks, so he will be keyed on stopping Sclafani. Ververka is also a solid linebacker, and Martin Hooper leads the big boys up front. On special teams, kicker Abby Letson, the daughter of defensive coordinator Tom Letson, has been a reliable presence who is 43-for-46 on extra points and also has kicked a 35-yard field goal.
It all comes down to which defense can stop the opponents’ potent running game, and which team makes the least mistakes.
The pick: Colts Neck
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP II
7:30 p.m. at Kean University on Dec. 7
(1) Rumson-Fair Haven (10-1) vs. (2) Weequahic (11-0)
Background: Rumson is playing in its fourth sectional final since 2007 and its third in the last four seasons, so the Bulldogs are no strangers to this spot. They won the school’s only state title in 2010. Last season, they were knocked out in the first round by Weequahic, so this is a chance for some payback.
Weequahic is playing in its fourth state final in program history and is looking to win its second state championship. Its first state title came at the expense of a Shore Conference team, as the Indians beat Raritan 6-0 to win the Central Jersey Group II title in 2006.
What to watch for: Rumson is back in the final, and the Bulldogs are out to finish the job behind star tailback Charlie Volker and a defense that has been tough all season.
Volker leads the Shore Conference with a school-record 2,014 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns. In the semifinals, he had the greatest game of his career, a 314-yard, 4-touchdown effort in which he set the single-game school record for rushing yards and ran for the game-winning 80-yard touchdown with six seconds left in the game against Rahway in a 28-21 win. Last week, he was held to a season-low 47 yards rushing by the rugged Red Bank Catholic defense, which should more than prepare him for what he will face in this game. Everything in the offense is based off him, as senior quarterback Chase Caruso has thrown for 584 yards, 8 touchdowns and only one interception this season in efficient shots downfield off play action. Senior wideout Sam Shaud is the primary target, and he also is a playmaker on defense.
Rumson’s defense let up 14 points in the semifinals, as one touchdown came off a blocked punt, and outside of a 45-0 loss to RBC has been stingy all season in not allowing more than two touchdowns in any game all season. Senior Thomas Martello has been the leader, as he has 114 tackles on the season and moved from linebacker to strong safety when starting safety Chris Hubler suffered a season-ending shoulder injury at the end of the regular season. Rutgers-bound senior defensive end Donald Bedell has 82 tackles and 9 sacks, and fellow defensive end Kevin Clayton has 9.5 sacks and 74 tackles, so Rumson’s front seven is up there with any team in the Shore. Shaud, Jackson Reid, and Sam Eisenstadt all have three interceptions in the secondary.
Weequahic is a swarming defensive team led by Rutgers recruit Sidney Gopre at linebacker, who has over 130 tackles and is one of the best defensive players in the state. The Indians shut out Lakewood, 34-0, in the semifinals. This will be a good test to see if Rumson can still run the ball effectively against a tough front seven with speed.
The Bulldogs’ defense will be keyed in on Alkadair Potts, an explosive running back who had three touchdowns against Lakewood and is averaging better than 15 yards per carry in running for over 1,000 yards this season. This game will come down to which team can contain the other team’s standout running back, and which elite defense will rise to the occasion.
The pick: Rumson-Fair Haven
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP I
(1) Shore (10-1) vs. (3) Point Beach (9-2)
10 a.m. at The College of New Jersey on Dec. 7
Background: Shore is coming off a 31-0 rout of Point Beach for the Class B Central title on Friday that gave the Blue Devils the Class B Central title and their 10th straight win. This is Shore’s second straight trip to the sectional final, as the Blue Devils seek their second title in four seasons, their sixth overall, and their third under head coach Mark Costantino.
This is Point Beach’s first trip to a state final since 1982 and its second appearance in the finals in school history. The Garnet Gulls will try to forget last week and make history, as they have never won a state title since the playoff system began in 1974. Head coach John Wagner won two state titles in a Hall of Fame stint at Roselle Park before coming to Point Beach in 2011 and looks to take the Garnet Gulls to similar heights.
What to watch for: This is a match-up of two punishing Wing-T running attacks, so the team that wins the battle up front will be the one who takes home the crown. Shore won a decisive victory in this area in the first meeting.
Shore is led by senior running back Brian Miller, who has 1,037 yards and 11 touchdowns for an offense that averages 235 yards rushing per game. Miller had 110 yards and a score in the first meeting with Point Beach. Sophomore fullback Doug Goldsmith, who also went over 100 against the Garnet Gulls, has 733 yards and five touchdowns to complement Miller. Senior quarterback Matt Muh, a Bucknell recruit, has thrown for 672 yards and 8 touchdowns and threw a big touchdown pass to Miller in the fourth quarter of a 15-6 comeback win over Asbury Park in the semifinals. He also threw two touchdown passes to break the ice in the first game against Point Beach.
Goldsmith also is a standout linebacker and leads the defense along with leading tackler James Bedell, a junior middle linebacker. Another linebacker, junior Mitchell Canditto, had three sacks in the win over Asbury Park. Junior Mike Moore and sophomore Jack Britton lead the secondary with three interceptions apiece.
Point Beach has its own workhorse back in junior Joe Wegrzyniak, a physical, between-the-tackles runner with breakaway speed who has 1,443 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns in his first season as a starter in the backfield but was held to only 20 yards rushing by Shore last week. Junior Michael Frauenheim provides the speed complement on the outside to Wegrzyniak, rushing for 679 yards on an average of 7 yards per carry. Marshall Gombos has also chipped in with 316 yards rushing to give Point Beach multiple options in its Wing-T attack.
The Garnet Gulls have a weapon in the passing game who is capable of swinging the outcome in senior Noah Yates, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver who is able to overpower smaller defensive backs on deep shots downfield by junior quarterback Jake Fioretti.
Yates is also a menace on defense with a Shore Conference-leading nine interceptions, three of which he has returned for touchdowns, including one in a 41-22 win over Burlington City in the semifinals. Wegrzyniak is also a standout linebacker who has a team-high 85 tackles, and he anchors the front seven along with Bill Barry, Sean Struncius, Tanner Smith and Frauenheim. Fioretti also has 43 tackles as a defensive back.
Shore clearly has the edge after sending a message in their first meeting, and mainly needs to once again minimize mistakes and win the battle up front to pave the way for Miller and Goldsmith and set up play-action with Muh. Point Beach has to do a better job up front on both sides of the ball if it’s going to reverse the result and make history.
The pick: Shore
SOUTH JERSEY GROUP III
(4) Delsea (9-2) vs. (3) Barnegat (10-1)
4 p.m. at Rowan University on Dec. 7
Background: This is old vs. new, as this is Barnegat’s first trip to a state final since the program’s inception in 2006, while this is the 14th state final appearance for Delsea, which won the championship in this bracket last year. The Crusaders are seeking their 11th state title in their illustrious program history.
What to watch for: This is two teams with big, physical front lines on offense that will try to lean on one another and break the other team’s will. Delsea runs the Wing-T and averages more than 320 yards rushing per game. It has a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in senior fullback Rob Hooks and junior halfback Isaiah Spencer, who both ran for over 100 yards in a 27-10 win over top-seeded Manasquan in the semifinals. The Crusaders rarely throw the ball, as senior quarterback Rob Rolle is also a running threat. He ran for two touchdowns in the win over Manasquan. This team just looks to bulldoze opponents with Hooks to soften things up to spring Spencer for big runs on the outside.
Delsea also has a fast and swarming defense led by senior linebacker Scott Parker and junior defensive end Phil Sampson. The secondary is also very good and athletic, as it registered three interceptions in the win over Manasquan.
Barnegat will counter with junior dual threat quarterback Cinjun Erskine, who has 1,691 yards and 20 touchdowns combined between rushing and passing. Junior Manny Bowen is a threat as a wide receiver, at linebacker and on special teams. Junior Tyler McGuinness has emerged as a workhorse back in the absence of senior A.J. Opre, who was in the midst of a big season before suffering a torn ACL in the middle of the regular season. McGuinness ran for 223 yards in the first round of the playoffs and then put up 157 in a 28-25 win over Northern Burlington in the semifinals. He is part of a deep group that also includes sophomore Paul Wickwire and junior Kevin Hoffman, both of whom have also had strong games in the last three weeks. They will run behind a mammoth offensive line led by 6-foot-7, 335-pound junior Sam Madden, a major FBS prospect, and senior Zach Andrews, a 6-foot-2, 308-pound FCS prospect.
Defensively, it will be up to a group led by Bowen, defensive end Greg Moran, linebacker Mark Magoon and defensive back Ricky Gerena to find a way to contain Delsea’s punishing running game in order for the Bengals to make history. This isn’t a bad matchup for the Bengals in the sense that they like to play physical, smashmouth football and have the size to do it, so it’s more a question of finding a way to beat Delsea’s speed on defense and in its running game.
The pick: Delsea