Football: State Playoff Preview
One year after failing to win a state title for the first time since 1985, the Shore Conference is ready to burst back on to the scene in this year’s NJSIAA Tournament.
In four of the five Central Jersey brackets, a Shore Conference team is the No. 1 seed, and Manasquan is the top seed in South Jersey Group III. With high expectations for many teams, the Shore has a legitimate chance to sweep all five Central Jersey brackets and bring home a title in a South Jersey bracket.
With the playoffs set to get started this weekend, here is a look at each of the brackets involving Shore Conference teams.
Central Jersey Group V
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 8 Brick Memorial, No. 1 Manalapan
Defending Champion: South Brunswick
The Top Seed: Manalapan
The Favorite: Manalapan. It’s now or never for a Braves team that has been on the cusp of school history the past two years, losing in two straight sectional finals. The undefeated Braves have been a machine this year, with no team coming closer than 15 points in any game. A strong running game is led by senior tailback Tyler Leonetti, and the passing attack features quarterback Dan Anerella and one of the state’s top receivers, Rutgers recruit Saeed Blacknall, who has eight touchdown catches in his last three games. Senior linebacker Chris Noesges leads a defense that has not given up more than 14 points in any game this season. Their special teams have been historically good, having returned seven kicks or punts for touchdowns, led by four from junior Dan Debner. Plus, kicker/punter Mike Caggiano is one of the best in New Jersey. It’s 12-0 or bust for this team, plain and simple.
They will have to get past a local foe in the first round in Brick Memorial, which has won five out of six. Senior quarterback Rob Triano and senior running back Mike Basile make this a strong running team, and senior linebacker Jake Lombardo leads the Shore Conference in tackles. Brick Memorial has become known for its upsets as a low seed in the playoffs over the years, so Manalapan will have to be on its game.
The Darkhorse: Sayreville. Calling Sayreville a “darkhorse” is kind of crazy because the Bombers have won three straight sectional titles and have had Manalapan’s number. However, the Bombers started 1-2 this season and looked shaky, and it resulted in them dropping to the No. 5 seed after being realigned into this bracket following their dominance in Central Jersey Group IV. However, they have rattled off six straight wins and just nuked Monroe 56-26 in their final regular-season game. They will play Monroe again in the first round, and the winner most likely goes to Manalapan. If the Braves want this title, they are going to almost certainly have to go through the Bombers to get it.
Best First-Round Game: No. 6 South Brunswick (5-3) at No. 3 Trenton (8-1). The Vikings are the defending champs after beating Manalapan last season, so they are not going out without a fight even though they have not had as strong a season this year. This is Trenton’s best team in more than 20 years, and it will be interesting to see if the Tornadoes are for real.
Shore Player to Watch: Saeed Blacknall, Sr., WR, Manalapan. The Rutgers recruit is the major X-factor for Manalapan. When teams stack the box to stop Leonetti and Co., he makes them pay. His ability to spread the defense out and overpower defenders one-on-one makes the Braves very difficult to defend.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: Myles Hartsfield, Jr., RB/DB, Sayreville
When Sayreville has beaten Manalapan, it has been because it has an all-around explosive talent who makes game-changing plays. Previously it was Delon Stephenson, now at Rutgers, and the newest star is Hartsfield. He has 1,257 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns on a ridiculous average of 14 yards per carry. He also has 7 catches for 241 yards and 3 touchdowns, an average of 34 yards per catch. Also dangerous on special teams, he has 1,811 all-purpose yards and is also a standout safety. He currently has an offer from Rutgers.
Championship Pick: Manalapan over Old Bridge. The bottom line is that if Manalapan gets over the hump in a potential semifinal with Sayreville, the Braves will be the favorite over any team they see in the final. This is the best Manalapan team in program history. Now they just have to go out and prove it.
Central Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Brick, No. 3 Colts Neck, No. 4 Middletown South, No. 6 Neptune, No. 7 Middletown North.
Defending Champion: Sayreville (now in Central Jersey Group V)
The Top Seed: Brick
The Favorite: None. That’s what makes this bracket so fun. There’s no team you can point at and just say that team should get it done with no problem. This bracket is a free-for-all where anything could happen and it wouldn’t be surprising.
Brick is coming off a 9-7 loss to Jackson Memorial, and its chances revolve around the health of junior quarterback Carmen Sclafani, who has missed the last two weeks with a shoulder injury. With him, they have a shot against anyone. Without him, as they showed against Jackson, it’s a tall order to generate offense against a quality opponent. There also could be a potential rematch with Middletown South, who beat Brick 28-7 during the regular season.
The intriguing team is Middletown North, which is 3-5, but 3-1 in its last four games with an explosive offense led by freshman quarterback Donald Glenn and sophomore running back Chad Freshnock. Their three wins are over teams that are a combined 5-19, but they are playing with confidence and are dangerous on offense. They take on a Nottingham team that won the Central Jersey Group III title last year by beating three Shore Conference teams in the postseason. The Lions will go in with nothing to lose in their first playoff berth in four years and let it rip.
The Darkhorse: Middletown South. Very rarely do you see the words “darkhorse” and “Middletown South” associated with one another, but that is the case this year. The Eagles are a 4-4 team, but they have made the state finals in 10 of the last 12 seasons, including last year’s championship game where they lost to Sayreville. They took Colts Neck to overtime and beat Brick, so they certainly have a chance to make a run and have done it before.
Best First-Round Game: (6) Neptune (4-4) at (3) Colts Neck (7-1). An all-Shore Conference match-up, this pits an underdog Neptune squad that has gone to two straight state finals against a Colts Neck team looking to win its first state title in program history. Should be a defensive slugfest.
Shore Player to Watch: Carmen Sclafani, Jr., QB, Brick. If the Green Dragons are going to win their first state title since 1994, a healthy Sclafani is going to be needed to help lead the run. Junior running back/linebacker Ray Fattaruso also will be counted on to play big.
Non-Shore Player(s) to Watch: Ryan Malagrino, Sr., LB, Nottingham; Saquan Hampton, Sr., DB, Nottingham
One of Mercer County’s top linebackers, he played a great game against Neptune in last year’s Central Jersey Group III final. He is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker and also dangerous as a blitzer. Hampton has committed to Rutgers and has three interceptions this season. He is a lockdown cornerback for a team whose defense was the engine that drove their championship run last season.
Championship Pick: Colts Neck over Brick. There are so many wildcards in this bracket, but I think Colts Neck is solid enough on both sides of the ball to finish the job and make school history with Anthony Gargiulo pounding away in the run game and a rugged defense keeping them right in every game. Brick is a total wildcard given the health of Sclafani. They could win it or be gone before the final as the top seed. I wouldn’t be shocked if Middletown South made a run given how it has fared already against Colts Neck and Brick. Also, Nottingham could become the first Mercer County team to ever win back-to-back titles and could be a strong challenge for Colts Neck in the semifinals if it shakes out that way.
Central Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Ocean, No. 5 Long Branch
Defending Champion: Nottingham (now in Central Jersey Group IV)
The Top Seed: Lawrence (8-0)
The Favorite: Ocean. The Spartans are seeking their first NJSIAA title since 2005, and have the defense to do it. With Dan Loizos, Mike Halawani and Frank Henry leading a shutdown unit, and playmakers Tyler Thompson at tailback, Royal Moore at quarterback and Cole Mehr at receiver, they have the goods to get it done. The main question mark is the offense’s performance against quality opponents, as the Spartans have won three games where they scored seven points in each game. That’s a lot of pressure on the defense to be perfect. If the running game can get going consistently, this looks like the team to beat.
Lawrence may be the top seed, but it has never even won a state playoff game in program history and has struggled against Shore Conference opponents, so that team has a lot to prove.
The Darkhorse: Long Branch. The Green Wave badly want another crack at Ocean after losing 21-6 to the Spartans in a game that essentially decided the Class B North title. While their defense, led by Connor Mullan, Hunter Baillie, Deon Williams and Dahmiere Willis, has been tough all season, the offense has struggled to score against playoff-caliber opponents. They will have to find a way to throw the ball better and consistently move it on the ground, or the defense will be forced to play out of its mind to get them to their first sectional title since 1999.
Best First-Round Game: (5) Long Branch at (4) Carteret. The Ramblers went undefeated last year and won the Central Jersey Group II title before getting realigned into this bracket. Long Branch will have to go on the road and find a way to knock off a perennial playoff contender.
Shore Player to Watch: Dan Loizos, Sr., LB, Ocean. The Spartans’ signature has been defense, and their leading tackler is one of the best in the Shore Conference.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: Semei Mitchell, Sr., RB, Lawrence. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior has starred for Lawrence all season, including a 213-yard effort against Burlington Township and 160 against Northern Burlington, and also is a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Any team that wants to take down the top seed has to find a way to stop him.
Championship Pick: Ocean over Long Branch. I thought about picking Lawrence to be in the final, but that team is just too much of an unknown considering its playoff history. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lawrence got there considering Long Branch’s struggles to score at times this year. Maybe Lawrence will be like Nottingham last year and plow through a pair of Shore Conference teams to show how Mercer County continues to improve, but I think Ocean’s defense is enough to get the Spartans to the finish line.
Central Jersey Group II
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Rumson-Fair Haven, No. 6 Lakewood
Defending Champion: Carteret (now in Central Jersey Group III)
The Top Seed: Rumson-Fair Haven.
The Favorite: Rumson-Fair Haven. The Bulldogs have two games at Borden Stadium, and with the Shore Conference’s leading rusher, junior Charlie Volker, and a defense that has only given up more than one touchdown in a game one time all season, it’s all right there for Rumson.
Lakewood has been up and down, beating previously undefeated Barnegat one week and then losing to a winless Point Boro team the next. The Piners’ defense with Ben Watson, Amir Tyler and Datrell Reed should keep them in games, but the offense and junior Chapelle Cook will have to take it up a notch to make a darkhorse run.
The Darkhorse: (4) Rahway. A regular contender, this team has played perennial power Summit tough in a loss and could be a tough match-up for Rumson in the semifinals if it works out that way.
Best First-Round Game: (6) Lakewood (5-3) at (3) Delran (7-1). The Piners will go on the road and try to win their first state playoff game since winning their only state title in 1986.
Shore Player to Watch: Charlie Volker, Jr., RB, Rumson-FH. If a team is going to knock off the top seed, it is going to have to stop Volker, who is having a breakout season and regularly gets 25-plus carries per game.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: Sidney Gopre, Sr., LB, Weequahic. Committed to Rutgers, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior has 100 tackles already this season. He is a sideline-to-sideline force. It’s not hard to imagine a state final in which it’s Gopre and Charlie Volker collide repeatedly.
Championship Pick: Rumson-FH over Weequahic. I feel like a total homer picking all Shore teams to win these brackets, especially when Weequahic beat Rumson in last year’s playoffs. However, this Rumson team has a defense led by senior linebacker Tom Martello, defensive end Kevin Clayton and Rutgers recruit Donald Bedell that is capable of winning a low-scoring defensive battle with Weequahic and will be looking to avenge last year’s loss.
Central Jersey Group I
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Shore, No. 3 Point Beach, No. 5 Asbury Park
Defending Champion: Florence
The Top Seed: Shore
The Favorite: Shore. Florence is the defending champion, but has not looked as strong as last year and enters as the No. 6 seed with three losses. Shore has ripped off seven straight wins and gave undefeated Rumson a game in its one loss. However, Point Beach is also lurking out there, and if the Garnet Gulls get over the hump in the first round against Florence, which beat them in last year’s semifinals, we could have Shore-Point Beach two times in a row to end the season. The two teams play each other in their Thanksgiving game for the B Central title and then could play again for a state title a week later. Both have been playing great football heading into the postseason.
The wildcard is Asbury Park, which lost 10-0 to Shore and 10-7 to Point Beach on a late field goal. The Blue Bishops’ defense is clearly championship-caliber, so it’s just a question of whether an offense that has performed much better as of late can score enough on a Shore or a Point Beach, or both, to restore the Blue Bishops to the top spot in a bracket they have won four times since 2007.
The Darkhorse: Florence. The Flashes enter as the sixth seed at 5-3, but this is a tried-and-true postseason team that has done a ton of winning in the playoffs under legendary coach Joe Frappolli. You just can’t count them out, even after a shaky regular season.
Best First-Round Game: (6) Florence at (3) Point Beach. Florence broke Point Beach’s heart and ruined its undefeated season with a comeback win in last year’s semifinals, so emotions will be running high for the home team in this one. Junior fullback Joe Wegrzyniak and a tough defense led by defensive back Noah Yates, Wegrzyniak and junior Michael Frauenheim will be eager to erase the memory of last season.
Shore Player to Watch: Joe Wegrzyniak, Jr., RB/LB, Point Beach. A 1,000-yard rusher, he is the engine that drives Point Beach’s Wing-T attack and also is the team’s leading tackler on defense. To beat Point Beach, you have to stop him.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: Jake Whitaker, Sr., RB/DE, South Hunterdon
Whitaker leads the No. 2 seed with 765 yards rushing and also has five interceptions on defense, so he will be a player to watch if Point Beach ends up heading up to South Hunterdon for the semifinals.
Championship Pick: Shore over Point Beach. This could be one of those situations where one team gets the Thanksgiving game and the division title, and the other gets the state title. Shore came up just short against Florence in last year’s final. With a deep group of running backs led by Brian Miller and Doug Goldsmith and a defense that has not allowed more than 14 points in a game all season, the Blue Devils have the ingredients. So does Point Beach, so it could be two great weeks of football to end the season. The main question is whether Shore quarterback Matt Muh can make big throws under pressure if Point Beach (or Asbury Park) stuffs the Shore run game. I still wouldn’t count out Asbury Park from getting into the conversation, either.
South Jersey Group V
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 3 Jackson Memorial
Defending Champion: Williamstown
The Top Seed: Eastern
The Favorite: No. 2 Cherokee. Considering Cherokee beat top-seeded Eastern head-to-head in the regular season, it has to be given favorite status if the two teams meet again.
The Darkhorse: Jackson Memorial. The Class A South champions won’t be given a chance by many in a bracket that includes Eastern, Cherokee, Williamstown, etc. However, they will be home in the first round and have a solid running game led by Khani Glover and a tough defense led by senior linebackers Ken Bradley and Vinny Celidonio. The question is whether they can muster enough offense to win on the road against a team like Cherokee if they can get past a tough Rancocas Valley team in the first round at home.
Best First Round Game: (5) Williamstown at (4) Millville. The defending champs have to go on the road to start their title defense against a tough Millville team that Williamstown blew out in last year’s first round. Williamstown is a bit of a darkhorse but is still dangerous enough to win the bracket again.
Shore Player to Watch: Ken Bradley, Sr., RB/LB, Jackson Memorial
The leading tackler for the Jaguars and a great short-yardage back on offense, Bradley will have to be at his best if they are going to make a run.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: Tom Flacco, Sr., QB, Eastern. The younger brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is one of the state’s top signal-callers. He has thrown for 1,951 yards and 16 touchdowns this season with a pair of 300-yard passing games.
Championship Pick: Cherokee over Eastern. It could be a shootout in the final, but Cherokee’s defense looks good enough to put them over the top in a heavyweight showdown.
South Jersey Group IV
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 2 Toms River South, No. 5 Lacey.
Defending Champion: Timber Creek
The Top Seed: Timber Creek.
The Favorite: Timber Creek. This program has become a South Jersey juggernaut and is perennially packed with FBS talent. This year is no different, as the Chargers feature one of the state’s most explosive passing attacks.
The Darkhorse: Kingsway. Old Dominion recruit Ray Lawry is a standout running back and this team just blew out Williamstown, so they are dangerous.
Best First-Round Game: (6) Shawnee at (3) Hammonton. A traditional power that is always a threat in the state playoffs, Shawnee will have to go on the road to try to solve another perennial state playoff threat in a game between two solid programs.
Shore Player(s) to Watch: Christian Tutela, Sr., WR/DB, Lacey; Otis Kearney, Sr., RB/LB, Toms River South
Tutela leads the Shore in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, but the Lions have been in freefall. They have lost four straight after a 5-0 start and are essentially having the season Brick Memorial had last year when it started 5-0 and ended 5-5.
Kearney has an offer from Michigan State and several FCS programs and will look to help the Indians get back to the state finals for the first time since 1998. He is part of a talented group that also includes quarterback Tymere Berry, running back Khaleel Greene, wide receiver/defensive back Darrius Hart, and linebacker/kicker Russell Messler.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: Adonis Jennings, Sr., WR, Timber Creek
Jennings, who recently de-committed from Rutgers, is one of the state’s top wideouts and has formed a nearly unstoppable tandem with quarterback Dan Williams, who has 2,025 yards passing. Thomas has 53 catches for 883 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
Championship Pick: Timber Creek over Toms River South. I’ll give a vote of confidence to the local team, although I think the Hammonton-Shawnee winner is going to be a major handful in the semifinals for Toms River South. At least the game will at least be at Detwiler Stadium. Making it to the final and losing to Timber Creek would certainly constitute a strong showing for the Indians.
South Jersey Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 1 Manasquan, No. 3 Barnegat, No. 5 Central, No. 8 Wall
Defending Champion: Delsea
The Top Seed: Manasquan
The Favorite: Manasquan
The Darkhorse: Barnegat. The Bengals have tied the school record for wins with seven and have never made a state sectional final, so this would be uncharted territory. They will have to pick it up offensively to make it all the way through this bracket, but do have a defense led by linebacker Manny Bowen, defensive end Greg Moran and defensive back Ricky Gerena that should keep them in games. If quarterback Cinjun Erskine and the running back-by-committee situation make enough plays, they have a good shot to make their first final.
Central also has darkhorse potential, but that’s a tough opening-round game at defending champion Delsea, especially after losing to Manchester this past weekend.
Best First-Round Game: (8) Wall at (1) Manasquan. The Thanksgiving rivals will duke it out in a playoff game in the first round. I’m sure Manasquan would rather have had some out-of-area team not familiar with them that would have been down by two touchdowns at Warrior Field before they knew what was happening, and instead they get a fierce rival amped to ruin their season. The atmosphere is always great when these teams play, and then they’ll do it again on Thanksgiving.
Shore Player to Watch: Joe Fittin, Sr., WR, Manasquan. Fittin has become Manasquan’s big-play guy in the passing game with quarterback Tucker Caccavale, so teams have to find a way to make sure he doesn’t burn them for big plays. He also is a solid defensive back.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: Rob Hooks, Sr., FB, Delsea. The defending champs average 309 yards rushing per game, and Hooks is their leader with 737 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns. He has picked it up as the season has gone on with eight touchdowns in four games down the stretch.
Championship Pick: Manasquan over Northern Burlington. This Delsea team is good, but not quite as strong as some of its past teams, so Manasquan should be able to get by them in the semifinals at home in a tough game. The Warriors are balanced offensively between the passing game and the tandem of Joe Murphy and James McAlary on the ground, and the defense has been solid all year led by linebacker Blaine Birch and defensive lineman Monte Sinisi. This would be Manasquan’s Shore Conference-record 12th sectional title if they finish the job. It looks to be a Northern Burlington-Barnegat semifinal, so there certainly is the chance that it could be an all-Shore Conference final between Manasquan and Barnegat, who scrimmaged each other in the preseason.
Non-Public Group III
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 4 Red Bank Catholic, No. 6 Monsignor Donovan,
Defending Champion: St. Joseph’s-Montvale
The Top Seed: St. Joseph’s-Montvale.
The Favorite: St. Joseph’s-Montvale. Let’s see, the Green Knights are the No. 1 team in the state, ranked in the top five in the country and even No. 1 in some polls, and have 16 state titles. So yeah, they’re a slight favorite. And they have a bye in the first round because St. John Vianney opted out of the playoffs and instead will play a consolation game against Keyport.
The Darkhorse: Pope John XXIII. Sophomore quarterback Sonny Abramson has thrown for 2,294 yards and 29 touchdowns this season and is one of the best in the state. He already has offers from Rutgers and South Florida as a sophomore. If any team is going to have a prayer of beating St. Joe’s, it’s one with a quarterback who can sling it under pressure and keep them in the game. Pope John also has Ohio State recruit Noah Brown, an all-around athlete who is a threat at wide receiver, running back and in the secondary. He has 1,135 all-purpose yards and 17 touchdowns. Yet another weapon is tight end Ryan Izzo, who is committed to Florida State.
Best First-Round Game: (5) Immaculata at (4) Red Bank Catholic. The Shore Conference’s No. 1 team should have a fight on its hands in the first round at Count Basie Field. Immaculata just took out previously undefeated Phillipsburg, 31-28, in overtime this weekend and hung 60 on Montgomery a week earlier. The Caseys will need senior tailback Larry Redaelli and junior Mike Cordova, the quarterback tandem of Pat Toomey and Eddie Hahn, and a defense led by linebackers Jamie Gordinier and Ryan Schoer along with defensive lineman Quenton Nelson to all be at their best to get out of this round alive and head to Montvale.
They face an Immaculata defense led by Joe Vitiello, a defensive end headed to Boston College.
Shore Player to Watch: Quenton Nelson, Sr., OL/DL, Red Bank Catholic. The Notre Dame recruit will get a chance to show what he can do against the state’s best in the next two games if the Caseys make it to the semifinals and will be counted on to open holes against tough defensive fronts while stuffing opposing run games.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: Mark Fossati, Sr., RB/LB, St. Joseph’s-Montvale
You can take your pick with this team. There are about 10 players to watch. Fossati is an all-around force as one of the state’s top linebackers and a dynamic player offensively who is a rushing and receiving threat. There also is quarterback Spencer Aukamp, Rutgers recruit Kevin Wilkins on the offensive line, all-purpose back Sherman Alston, who is headed to Boston College, Rutgers recruit Kiy Hester at safety, and on and on.
Championship Pick: St. Joseph-Montvale over Pope John XXIII. Third-seeded Delbarton is always a threat, but it most likely will come down to two loaded teams squaring off, with St. Joe’s as the heavy favorite.
Non-Public Group I
Shore Teams in the Field: No. 7 Mater Dei Prep
Defending Champion: St. Joseph-Hammonton
The Top Seed: St. Joseph-Hammonton
The Favorite: St. Joseph-Hammonton. This team has 22 state titles and rules this bracket with an iron fist. Usually there is no suspense in this race.
The Darkhorse: St. Mary’s-Rutherford. The third seed made it to last year’s final before a 36-0 loss to St. Joe’s, and it looks to be more of the same.
Best First Round Game: (5) St. Anthony at (4) Queen of Peace. Two teams that are pretty evenly matched is about as good as it gets in this bracket.
Shore Player to Watch: Christian Palmer, Jr., QB, Mater Dei Prep
Palmer is coming off a great game in an overtime upset of Spotswood (7-2), and the Seraphs need him to be a dual threat and get the ball to playmakers like Eddie Lewis and Tysaun White to get their first playoff win since 1999. Mater Dei has a legitimate chance to knock off second-seeded Morristown-Beard, which would be a big step forward for its program.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: C.J. Lafragola, Jr., FB/LB, St. Joseph-Hammonton.
Lafragola was the quarterback before being moved to fullback in an offense that produces 320 yards rushing per game. He leads the team with 737 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns on eight yards per carry. He also has 44 tackles and 13 tackles for a loss on defense.
Championship Pick: St. Joseph-Hammonton over St. Mary’s Rutherford. Should be Groundhog Day again in this bracket.