Football State Playoff Preview: Central Jersey
With 24 Shore Conference teams all dreaming of making it to that first weekend in December for the NJSIAA sectional championships, do-or-die time begins this weekend.
The Shore has teams in 10 different state playoff brackets, and here is a look at the match-ups in the five Central Jersey brackets. Check here for a South Jersey preview and check here for a preview on the two Non-Public brackets involving the Shore.
Shore team: (3) Manalapan
Breakdown: There will definitely be a new champion in this bracket as last year's winner, Hunterdon Central (4-5), which beat Manalapan, did not qualify this season.
Manalapan opens with sixth-seeded Old Bridge at home on Friday night, which looks like a favorable match-up for the Braves. Old Bridge lost 35-23 to Brick Memorial during the regular season, and Brick Memorial junior quarterback Tim Santiago piled up a career-high 228 yards rushing out of the flexbone offense. That means Old Bridge can expect to see plenty of senior tailback Imamu Mayfield, who leads the Shore with 27 touchdowns, out Manalapan's pro-style, downhill running attack.
Meanwhile, Old Bridge's offense revolves around quarterback Mike Gargano, who has over 1,000 yards combined between rushing and passing. Gargano should expect to see plenty of Kyle Mullen and Co.
If Manalapan takes care of its business, it will most likely have to travel to second-seeded Hillsborough (8-1) for the semifinals in search of the Braves' fourth straight trip to a sectional final. Hillsborough features a high-scoring, all-out aerial attack led by senior quarterback Ed Trimpert, who has thrown for 2,273 yards and 22 touchdowns this season, and his top wideout, senior Scott Levonaitis, who has 45 catches for 922 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Raiders also have a solid offensive line to protect Trimbert, so it will be one of the bigger challenges for Manalapan's secondary this season.
The main goal will be to sit on the ball with the Braves' running game and hit play action with quarterback Dan Anerella, wideout Gerard Hodge-Rocourt and others against a Hillsborough defense giving up 20.7 points per game to keep Trimpert and Co. off the field.
If Manalapan gets through two tough tests, there's a good bet top-seeded South Brunswick will be waiting at Rutgers in the final. The Vikings beat the Braves for the CJ Group V title in 2012, so Manalapan will have to find a way to solve them if it is finally going to get over the hump and win its first state title. South Brunswick is battle-tested, with wins over Middletown South, Old Bridge, Monroe and Piscataway already under its belt.
Non-Shore players to watch: There are a couple key ones besides the ones that I have already mentioned, but one of them stands above all - Dontae Strickland. The South Brunswick senior running back/wideout is one of the most explosive players in New Jersey. He is lethal in the running game, having run for 149 yards in the win over Middletown South while also returning a fumble 34 yards for a score.
The Syracuse recruit is averaging 11.8 yards per carry. Manalapan saw him in person when he was a sophomore and made big plays against the Braves in the championship game. Having seen the Middletown South film, I can just say that he moves at a whole other speed from everyone else on the field and he lines up all over the place on offense, defense and special teams.
In the Random Fact Department, the primary coach who recruited Strickland at Syracuse is assistant Bobby Acosta, who was the head coach at Monmouth Regional in 2006 when the Falcons won a school-record eight games and their only state playoff game in program history. Strickland isn't the only playmaker on South Brunswick, either. Quarterback Amir Johnson is another elusive runner who makes it hard to sell out completely to stop Strickland.
South Brunswick's potential semifinal game is no gimme, however, as Montgomery senior quarterback Chris Chugunov is a big-time player. A West Virginia recruit, Chugunov is one of the top passers in the state at 2,627 yards and 25 touchdowns with only three interceptions out of their shotgun spread offense. His younger brother, junior Mitch Chugunov, is his top target with 53 catches for 698 yards and 6 touchdowns, but Chris has spread it around, with seven receivers having at least 16 catches.
That Montgomery team has the potential to win a shootout with South Brunswick, which could mean Manalapan might have back-to-back games against very similar teams that throw the ball like crazy with quality quarterbacks, a scheme Manalapan hasn't really seen at all with its Class A North and nondivisional schedule this year.
Breakdown: This is the Shore Conference's playground, and a race that could ultimately decide the final No. 1 ranking. Brick is the defending champion and is trying to win back-to-back titles for the first time in its illustrious history since winning South Jersey Group IV three straight times from 1981-83.
Top-seeded Middletown South (6-2) faces a Burlington Township team in the first round that beat the Eagles 52-45 in the first round last year before losing to Brick in the semifinals. That strafing by Burlington and quarterback Khalil Trotman resulted in Middletown South changing its defensive scheme from its traditional 4-4 to more of a 4-2-5 look to match up better against the spread offenses. Trotman is no longer at Burlington Township as he split and went to join the all-star team at Timber Creek in the offseason. Trotman's replacement, converted safety Aaron Rogers, is a solid dual threat with more than 800 yards of offense, but he is questionable to play after missing two games with a leg injury suffered in a loss to Holy Cross.
The Eagles will counter with 1,000-yard rusher Cole Rogers and a defense that has posted five shutouts in eight games this season. They have linebackers like senior Sergio Gonzalez and junior Dylan Rogers, Cole's twin brother, who tackle well in space and are suited to stop the spread. Burlington has struggled against physical running teams, so it could be a big night for Rogers, which also would help keep Burlington's offense off the field.
If Middletown South takes care of business, the semifinal is going to be a rematch with either Freehold Boro (7-2) or Neptune (6-2), two teams that the Eagles beat by a combined 83-0 during the regular season. Freehold got off to a 7-0 start behind 1,000-yard rusher Josh Dixon and junior quarterback Jake Curry, but has lost by a combined 84-3 to Manalapan and Middletown South the past two weeks, so the Colonials are the underdog against a Neptune team that has won five straight and has posted three straight shutouts.
The Scarlet Fliers are looking like a different team than the one Middletown South saw the first time around when it waffled Neptune 41-0 on the road. Neptune did not have standout senior quarterback/running back/defensive back Royal Moore in that game because he was not eligible yet after transferring from Ocean. Senior running back Jaree Parrish has also been more of a consistent home run threat in recent weeks. Defense has been Neptune's calling card, with linebacker Oshane Curate, defensive backs Isaiah Calhoun and Cameron Calderon, and defensive lineman Andrew Holland-Samuels leading the way.
To get to where they want to go, the Scarlet Fliers are going to most likely have to find a way against Middletown South, which has beaten them nine straight times since Neptune beat the Eagles in the 1998 Central Jersey Group III final. They also will have to find a way to slow down Rogers, who had 198 yards rushing and four touchdowns in the regular-season win. The main question will be whether the Neptune defense is the one that shut down 1,800-yard rusher Dahmiere Willis and Long Branch two weeks ago, or the one that surrendered 356 total yards of offense in the loss to Middletown South.
If the seeds hold true and Middletown South reaches its mind-boggling 11th state final in the last 14 seasons, it will be seen as the underdog if Brick or Jackson Memorial emerges from the other side of the bracket. The Eagles are trying to win their first title since 2006 and the 10th in their proud history.
On the other side of the bracket, the main anticipation is a semifinal showdown between Brick and Jackson Memorial after Brick edged the Jaguars 30-24 in overtime during the regular season on its way to the Class A South title.
First, both teams have to take care of business in the first round. Behind explosive dual threat quarterback Carmen Sclafani, who has combined for 2,439 yards and 29 touchdowns between rushing and passing, Brick (8-1) will take on seventh-seeded Princeton (8-1) in the first round. The Little Tigers have not played anything close to the schedule Brick has played, so this is a big step up in competition for them. Overconfidence also isn't an issue, as Brick knows what can happen against underdog teams thanks to a stunning overtime loss to Wall (2-6) in the regular season for its only defeat.
Princeton has a 1,000-yard passer in junior David Beamer and an 1,100-yard rusher in junior Rory Helstrom, so it has good balance offensively. Brick will look to get an immediate lead and remove the running game from Princeton's playbook so that it can release Ray Fattaruso and Co. to get after Beamer.
Jackson Memorial (8-1), meanwhile, hosts sixth-seeded Middletown North (6-2), which has already guaranteed its first winning season in 14 years. The Lions are led by 1,000-yard rusher Chad Freshnock, sophomore quarterback Donald Glenn, senior wideout Jordan Pitts and senior tight end/linebacker Troy Thompson. Middletown North has not won a state playoff game since 2000 and is looking for its first state title since 1996. The whole crux of that game will come down to whether a Middletown North unit that has struggled in run defense against top opponents can slow down a versatile Jackson Memorial running attack behind a mammoth offensive line.
The Jaguars, ranked No. 1 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, have run for 2,333 yards as a team, highlighted by the tandem of junior Vinny Lee and sophomore Mike Gawlik, and have averaged 7.2 yards per carry. The Lions will have to find a way to counteract that or it will put a ton of pressure on the offense to play its best game of the season to try to win a shootout.
Should things stay true to form, Jackson Memorial at Brick will be the centerpiece game in the Shore Conference in the semifinals. This time around, the Jaguars have another weapon, senior wide receiver/safety Matt Castronuova, who wasn't eligible in the first game because he had transferred from Jackson Liberty. He gives Jackson an extra explosive player to worry about on jet sweeps and in the passing game while also serving as a threat on special teams and on defense at safety.
While Jackson has gotten much of the spotlight the past few weeks, Brick has quietly blown out four straight teams since its loss to Wall, although only one of them (Toms River North) had a winning record. With a defense led by senior linebacker James Juliano (123 tackles), Brick will try to slow down that run game while Sclafani, Fattaruso, wideout Ja'Sir Taylor, tight end Simon Bingelis, wideout Ja'Quez Johnson and its explosive offense try to keep the points coming against a Jackson defense led by its own star linebacker, senior Zach Tetro.
The Jaguars, who are trying to win their first state title since 2005, showed their potential when they took down Red Bank Catholic and its 40-game winning streak against the Shore. Winning this bracket is most likely going to take two wins over fellow Top 10 teams in the Shore and a Brick team that does not plan on surrendering that title. Since the loss to Wall, the Green Dragons are on a mission to finish the job and make that a distant memory, so that could be another epic game in the semifinals.
Non-Shore players to watch: The ones I already mentioned for Princeton and Burlington Township pretty much make up this group.
Shore teams: (8) Ocean; (5) Matawan; (4) Raritan; (2) Long Branch.
Breakdown: Top-seeded Hopewell Valley (7-1) is the defending champion, and the Shore's best bet in this bracket appears to be Long Branch, but the winner of the Matawan-Raritan game definitely has the ability to surprise.
Ocean (3-5) snuck in thanks to some help on the cutoff, and the Spartans are playing with house money at this point. Standout junior tailback Tyler Thompson is out for the season with a broken leg, but at least Ocean comes in with some momentum off a 41-22 win over Colts Neck in its first game without Thompson. Filling in for Thompson, Ru'Quan Dean ran for two touchdowns and returned a kickoff for a score, so along with wideout Marcus Blackman, Ocean has some weapons to make that game interesting against Hopewell Valley, which handed the Spartans their only loss last season in the semifinals.
A key player will be Ocean senior safety Frank Henry, who will need to have a big game in run support against Hopewell Valley 1,000-yard rusher Lorenzo Bryant, who is coming off a 226-yard game.
Raritan (4-4) hosts old rival Matawan (5-4) and will try to end a five-game losing streak against the Huskies and win its first state playoff game since 2009. The Huskies will try to keep the upper hand and win their first playoff game since capturing the Central Jersey Group II title in 2011. Matawan has been playing some of its best football at the right time, having won four of five, and could be peaking when it matters most.
Matawan, which beat Raritan 26-21 in the regular season, has shown it can win all types of ways, from opportunistic scoring defense and special teams to a big-play offense behind freshman quarterback L.C. Pearson, who has 1,294 yards passing and nine touchdowns. Junior linebacker Aliem Shaw and senior defensive lineman Jake Weber lead Matawan's defense, with junior Dejohn Rogers serving as a ballhawk and shutdown corner in the secondary. Senior Justin Ferrara also has been a great two-way standout as a wide receiver and defensive back. Senior kicker Adam Elliot, who has six field goals, also gives Matawan the edge on special teams.
The centerpiece of Raritan's offense is junior 1,000-yard rusher Derek Ernst, who had three touchdowns and over 170 yards rushing in the regular-season game against Matawan. The Rockets have to find a way to make some plays through the air behind senior quarterback Riley Sullivan, who Matawan has knocked out of the game in each of the past two years. The Rockets' defense enters with confidence after its first shutout since 2011 in a 28-0 win over Monmouth, and defensive back Vito Aleo has scored defensive touchdowns in two straight games.
Matawan's defense is an opportunistic unit that can cash in turnovers into instant touchdowns because of its speed, so Raritan has to limit its mistakes offensively and try to shorten the game with long drives. The Huskies will do what they always do - attack from all angles, cause pressure and try to turn it into big plays.
Barring an upset by Ocean, the winner of that game will go to Hopewell Valley, where stopping Bryant will be the primary objective. Hopewell has battled injuries at quarterback and has been a one-dimensional team, so if Matawan or Raritan can get consistent stops against the run game, it certainly has a good shot to advance to the final. Hopewell is returning previously injured starting quarterback Kevin Coleman, so that could make them a little harder to defend.
In the old days, it used to be assumed that a Shore team going to play a higher-seeded Mercer County team was going to be a romp for the Shore, but Mercer County has won this bracket the last two years, so its top teams have to be respected as legitimate threats.
On the other side of the bracket, Long Branch (6-2) will look to ride the Shore Conference's leading rusher, senior Dahmiere Willis (1,817 yards) to its first final appearance since 2007 in search of its first state title since 1999. The Green Wave have had two weeks off heading into their home game on Friday night against Hamilton West (3-5). The Hornets have played some quality teams tough, so their record is a little deceiving, but Long Branch should be fired up to bounce back from its last game, a 27-0 loss in which it was dominated by Neptune.
A win in that game means a potential semifinal home game against third-seeded Carteret, which Long Branch beat 31-6 in the second game of the season. A victory in that spot and it could be Willis vs. Bryant in a showdown of star running backs in the final. Either that, or it could be a Shore Conference opponent like Matawan or Raritan waiting for them. Long Branch beat Matawan 40-28 in the regular season in a game that was close until the last quarter before Willis polished off a school-record 370-yard rushing effort.
Up until two years ago, the Shore dominated this bracket, winning it every year except two from 1998 to 2011. Between Long Branch and Matawan or a potential darkhorse run by Raritan, there is a very good chance the Shore re-asserts itself and takes this one home.
Non-Shore players to watch: In addition to Bryant on Hopewell Valley, there are some others to keep an eye on.
Senior quarterback Nelson Baez has thrown for 718 yards on Carteret, and senior Ra'keem Bennett leads the Ramblers with 853 yards rushing on 7.8 yards per carry. Bennett also leads Carteret with 81 tackles.
Running back Ian Williams is one of the top offensive threats Long Branch has to worry about on Hamilton West, but the Green Wave have seen plenty of explosive backs this year.
Shore teams: (2) Rumson-Fair Haven; (8) Lakewood.
Breakdown: Rumson-Fair Haven is the defending champion and will try to win back-to-back titles for the first time in its history.
The primary obstacle for the Bulldogs (6-2) looks to be Roselle, which knocked off undefeated Bernards on Saturday to grab the No. 1 seed. The story of Rumson's season has been the nagging ankle injury to Princeton-bound senior running back Charlie Volker, the burgeoning star potential of sophomore quarterback Mike O'Connor and the development of a young defense. Volker sat out Rumson's 41-6 win over Holmdel on Friday to get ready for this Friday's home playoff game against seventh-seeded A.L. Johnson (4-4), and if he is 100 percent for the postseason, Rumson has to be the favorite to repeat.
Volker, who set the school record with 2,108 yards rushing as a junior on an 11-1 team, has been sensational when fully healthy, including a school-record 328 yards rushing in a win over Lakewood. O'Connor also has a 260-yard rushing game under his belt from a loss to St. John Vianney, so he has been another primary weapon. The Bulldogs have gone 17-1 the last two seasons when Volker has been in the starting lineup.
A.L. Johnson gave Roselle a game in a 20-7 regular-season loss and has been a team primarily built around defense, with an offense led by senior running back Matt Pedicine, a good all-around athlete who is committed to Hobart College on a lacrosse scholarship. Their big-play threat in the pass game is senior wideout Mark Barranger, who is also a standout in the secondary.
If Rumson takes care of business, it will most likely host third-seeded Cinnaminson in the semifinals. The Pirates (7-1) are led by senior quarterback Nick Thevanayagam (thank God I don't have to spell that name regularly), a converted running back who has 1,170 total yards and 26 touchdowns, including 20 on the ground. They operate out of the shotgun but keep the ball primarily on the ground, so it would essentially be the Rumson running game and Volker against Thevanayagam and the Pirates' running game. Also, Cinnaminson's defense has allowed less than 20 points in five of eight games this year, led by senior noseguard Chris Cintron, who has 10 sacks.
Lakewood (4-4), which won its first state playoff game since 1986 last season, will head to Roselle as the underdog in the first round. Defense is Lakewood's calling card, led by senior defensive end Datrell Reed and junior linebacker Amir Tyler, but the Piners will have to get more out of an offense that has averaged 15.8 points per game outside of two victories over winless teams. Temple-bound senior quarterback Chapelle Cook (916 yards rushing, 13 TDs) is capable of taking over games with his running ability and will need to have a big night against Roselle.
If Lakewood can avoid mistakes on offense and play a strong game against the run on defense, the Piners have a shot to pull the upset. Lakewood has already seen Rumson, so it knows what to expect against a high-caliber opponent in this bracket, although Roselle has more speed than Rumson at the skill spots.
The bottom line is that if Volker is healthy and Rumson's defense continues to get better every week, the Bulldogs should get back to the final and win it, most likely against Roselle.
Non-Shore players to watch: Roselle is led by running back/linebacker Darryn Canady and sophomore quarterback Gerald Hairston, the latter of whom scored with 11 seconds left to beat Bernards last week. The Rams have won multiple shootouts this season, so Lakewood has an opportunity to have immediate success on offense. Canady, a 225-pound senior, leads Roselle's defense with 63 tackles and also is an offensive threat at running back.
If Roselle gets by Lakewood, it would most likely host fifth-seeded Delaware Valley in the semifinals. The Terriers run a single-wing offense straight out of the 1950s that focuses almost exclusively on the running game and junior Corey Shedlock, who has 1,221 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns on an average of 8.1 yards per carry.
If sixth-seeded Bordentown upsets Cinnaminson to set up a semifinal at Rumson, it will most likely be because of a big game by senior running back Jahmire Van Kline, who is having a huge season with 1,804 yards rushing and 28 touchdowns.
Shore teams: (1) Shore Regional; (8) Point Beach.
Breakdown: Point Beach is the defending champion after winning its first state title last year, but the Garnet Gulls are a decided underdog this year against the Shore Regional team they beat in last year's championship game.
The Blue Devils already have a 17-0 win over Point Beach this year, and the Garnet Gulls are coming off a lop-sided loss to Mater Dei Prep. With a pile of injuries, including a season-ending broken collarbone by leading rusher Mike Frauenheim, Point Beach appears to be undermanned, but certainly will fight to the end under senior fullback/linebacker Joe Wegrzyniak and senior quarterback/safety Jake Fioretti.
Shore is looking to reach its third straight final and finish the job for its first state title since 2010. The Blue Devils are led by a defense featuring linebackers James Bedell and Doug Goldsmith along with defensive back Mike Moore that has allowed a Shore Conference-low 36 total points all season and registered four shutouts, including three in a row heading into the playoffs.
Goldsmith also leads the way offensively at fullback in Shore's punishing Wing-T ground attack, which also features speed to the outside in junior Tyreek McCain. The formula for Shore is pretty simple - shorten the game with long drives and play shutdown defense against the run.
If Shore takes care of Point Beach, it will host the Middlesex-New Egypt winner in the semifinals. Middlesex (6-2) is probably a slight favorite to win that game, and it just lost to a Spotswood team that Shore beat during the regular season while without Goldsmith. Shore is a solid favorite against either of those teams, so it should once again come down to whether they can finish the job in the final.
Non-Shore players to watch: Shore's primary obstacle to the title looks to be second-seeded Palmyra (7-1). The Panthers might have more speed at the skill positions than Shore has seen from any team this year. Six-foot-3, 190-pound junior wide receiver Kelvin Harmon is a game-breaking player who has 44 catches for 599 yards and 13 touchdowns and is also very dangerous on special teams as a returner. Quarterback Max Smyth, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior, already has the single-season school record with 24 touchdown passes and just threw five in a 45-0 romp over New Egypt last weekend.
Palmyra is a shotgun spread team, essentially the antithesis of Shore's old-school Wing-T attack, so it could be a big contrast of styles in deciding the title in this bracket.