Forecast Friday: Week Thirteen (Finals Week)
I can’t believe the season has gone so fast, and it’s coming to a close just when my prognosticating was starting to pick up after a pretty successful week with my Thanksgiving picks.
I first would like to thank everyone who has followed along all season, including the massive group of people whose teams I picked incorrectly against. Thanks for not egging my house. Yet.
Also, before I get to my final picks, I would like to commend Mater Dei Prep and Toms River East in particular for great efforts to end their seasons. They had a combined one win going into their respective Thanksgiving games and could have easily mailed in those games, but they fought hard and got to go out on a high note. I am happy for those seniors and the coaches who motivated the whole team until the end. You showed a lot of character.
Now we are down to four games left and a chance for the Shore Conference to sweep the Central Jersey state playoff brackets. If four state championships is considered a “down’’ year in the Shore Conference, I’m sure many conferences would sign up for that tomorrow.
Here we go. All games listed are on Dec. 3. Tickets for all the games at Rutgers are $9 for adults, $3 for students/seniors, and parking is $10. For the Asbury Park game at The College of New Jersey, tickets are $5.50 for adults, $2 for students/seniors and parking is free.
Last week: 15-3. Season record: 159-51.
Central Jersey Group IV final
Manalapan (10-1) vs. Sayreville (9-2), 1 p.m. at Rutgers Stadium
I was leaning hard to Sayreville for a while in this game, but call me a homer, because I have come around to the Manalapan perspective. That has been a bad choice since 2008 because Sayreville is 9-0 in its last nine games against Shore Conference competition, including a 32-20 win over Manalapan in the CJ IV semifinals last year and a 14-0 win over Brick Memorial in the championship game. Picking against the Bombers has been a bad idea, and I have great respect for that program.
Sayreville is the more battle-tested of the two teams. It has played South Brunswick twice, North Jersey II, Group IV finalist Piscataway, a tough Jackson Memorial team that beat Manalapan, and Central Jersey Group III semifinalist Woodbridge. Of Manalapan’s 11 wins, only two are against teams with winning records, and it battled Jackson Memorial in a last-second, 12-7 loss in the season opener.
Everyone knows what Manalapan is going to try to do – muscle Sayreville with tailback John Sieczkowski, kill the clock, and keep the ball out of Rutgers recruit Delon Stephenson’s hands as much as possible on offense. If the rule of thumb is that Sayreville’s defense is better than West Windsor South’s, whom Manalapan defeated in double overtime in the CJ IV semifinals, this is a tall task. The Pirates held Manalapan scoreless until there were 57 seconds left in regulation.
However, this is not the Sayreville team with Delon Stephenson and Syd Holt on the defensive line. That doesn’t mean they still aren’t talented, but they are not impenetrable like last year, when their D-line was one of the best in the state.
The key is going to be junior quarterback Mike Isabella and junior wide receiver Anthony Firkser. Isabella has made some clutch throws late in games with teams focused on Sieczkowski, including a pair of touchdown throws in the fourth quarter and overtime against West Windsor South, both to Firkser. It will be interesting to see if Sayreville uses quarterback Isaiah Cureton to cover Firkser because Cureton has the size to at least battle the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Firkser, a basketball star with great body control and tremendous hands. Stephenson plays safety, and you know he will be rolled to Firkser’s side all day.
I think freshman kicker Mike Caggiano could also come into play in this game. His field goal range is out to 40 yards, but there is also the question of how he will react to the atmosphere as a freshman playing in arguably the biggest game in Manalapan history.
Defensively, my main concern is Manalapan’s secondary letting Stephenson get behind them. They have been burned by the big play at times this season, and if Stephenson gets in a one-on-one matchup where it’s just a footrace to a long pass from Cureton, it’s over. Manalapan has to get pressure, so players like junior defensive lineman Jon Appice, Sieczkowski and others will all be very important. Sayreville runs the Wing-T and when it sees teams creeping toward the line to stop the run, that’s when it usually unleashes Stephenson down the field for the home run ball.
With all that said, I think this is Manalapan’s year to make history. Sieczkowski has played like a man possessed, and I think that has symbolized this team. The Braves will not be denied, even by an excellent opponent like Sayreville. This Manalapan team wasn’t supposed to be here because of all the studs that graduated from last year’s team. The hope is to prove everyone wrong one more time. The pick: Manalapan, 24-21.
Central Jersey Group III final
Neptune (10-1) vs. Steinert (9-2), 4 p.m. at Rutgers Stadium
This is a very intriguing matchup. Neptune’s offense has been unstoppable in the playoffs, while the defense has been excellent against the run but gashed badly by opposing passing games. Meanwhile, Steinert is on Cloud Nine right now after quarterback Adam Riese lit up Woodbridge through the air to put a team that had never won a state playoff game before this season into its first state sectional final.
Neptune has the added motivation of playing for fallen teammate, Naisere Nelson, who drowned this summer in Bradley Beach, so there is an emotional component as well. The Scarlet Fliers have a coach who practically marks down that he will be at Rutgers in the first week of December every year, as first-year man Mark Ciccotelli led Freehold to the CJ III title at Rutgers in two of the last three seasons. He knows how to handle the atmosphere and get his players ready.
I think the difference will be Neptune’s speed. The Scarlet Fliers, particularly offensively, will be hard for Steinert to slow down. Senior quarterback Jaheem Woods has been one of the Shore Conference’s top offensive players all season and no one has slowed him down in the playoffs. Neptune’s ability to run the ball means it can control the clock and keep it out of Riese’s hands. I still think Riese will hit some big plays, but not enough to win a shootout with Neptune.
This would be the first state title for a Mercer County team since 1985, so Steinert would enter the pantheon if it beat the trio of Wall, Woodbridge and then Neptune to win a title. The Scarlet Fliers can’t underestimate the roll that the Spartans are on. Neptune’s pass rush needs to get to Riese in a hurry and can’t get caught being overaggressive and having him beat them over the top.
While I think Steinert is a quality team and not the usual Mercer County squad that gets lit up by the Shore in the playoffs, I just have a feeling Neptune will find a way and will just have too much offense. The only thing I could see throwing things into question would be turnovers. Neptune has to take care of the ball. The pick: Neptune, 35-21.
Central Jersey Group II final
Rumson-Fair Haven (10-1) vs. Matawan (8-3), 7 p.m. at Rutgers
A rematch of last season’s final, the tables have turned. Rumson enters as the heavy favorite this time, while Matawan is looking to return the favor from last year (and earlier this season) and shock the Bulldogs.
It’s going to be a tall order with four defensive starters still suspended for a violation of school policy for a second straight game on the heels of a 35-8 upset loss at the hands of St. John Vianney on Saturday. The main way the Huskies are going to do it is by pounding the ball with senior tailback Larry Alston III and playing their best defensive game of the year with back-ups playing in key spots.
Rumson should be rested and ready to go after some players either sat out or did not play the full game in a 21-0 loss to Red Bank Catholic on Friday. That means senior Connor Riley and junior Connor Walsh are both ready to go in the running game to complement the passing of junior Danny Roberto. Missing two of their best defensive linemen could mean trouble for Matawan because if Rumson can establish the run early, it really opens the playbook for Roberto, particularly on second down.
What also hurts is that Matawan is not a deep team, so with players already out, Rumson will try to wear down the Huskies as the game goes on. It also means Rumson’s defensive line will have the certain advantage when it comes to stopping Alston.
It also depends on which Matawan team shows up. Will it be the one that turned in the lackluster effort last week against St. John Vianney, or the one that gritted out a hard-fought win on the road against Manasquan in the CJ II semifinals? I would think the latter, because if you can’t get up for a state championship game against your bitter rival, there is something wrong with you.
I just think Rumson is the more complete team, while Matawan is worse, not better, than the first time the two teams played because it is short-handed at some key positions. Rumson won’t take this game lightly one bit because all it has to do is look at what it did to Matawan last year to show what happens if you let the underdog stay right in the game.
As the final cherry on top, this would be head coach Shane Fallon’s 100th career victory for his alma mater at Rumson. The pick: Rumson-Fair Haven, 27-10.
Central Jersey Group I final
Asbury Park (9-2) vs. Florence (10-1), 10 a.m. at The College of New Jersey
The Blue Bishops are looking to brand themselves as a dynasty with their fourth title in five years in this bracket, and standing in their way is a team that knows all about being a dynasty in Central Jersey Group I. Florence won four straight titles from 2003-06, going 47-1 in that span, so they were Asbury Park before Asbury Park’s recent rise.
They are also coached by Joe Frappoli, whose 264 career wins currently lead all South Jersey coaches. Finally, they have experience beating vaunted Shore teams. In 2003, they stunned Keyport, 21-14, in the final to halt a previously unbeaten Red Raiders squad that featured Syracuse recruit J.J. Bedle at wide receiver and the school’s all-time leading rusher, Ken Cattouse.
Still, I like this match-up for Asbury Park because Florence employs the run-heavy Wing-T and nobody has been able to run the ball against the Blue Bishops all season. Not one team has run for more than 100 yards in a game against them all year, and that includes Central Jersey Group II finalist Rumson-Fair Haven and Central Jersey Group III finalist Neptune.
Asbury Park’s offense just has too many explosive components, from the Conover twins to Tahj Hammary to quarterback Robert Barksdale to hard-nosed senior Islam Joshua, to keep under wraps for a full game against Group I competition. Florence is not going to be better than Rumson or Neptune, but the Flashes will battle tooth and nail because they are a quality program. Plus, the game is practically in their backyard, as TCNJ is right up the road from Florence, so it should have a good-sized crowd there.
Asbury Park just closes on the ball so quickly that it can get hits for losses early on opposing possessions. Florence is not built to operate out of second-and-8 or third-and-9 all day because running the ball is its strength. Plus, moving Asbury Park junior defensive tackle Ra’Zahn Howard away from the point of attack is going to be a tall order, and trying to run outside on Asbury Park is suicide because of its speed to the perimeter on defense.
All along, Asbury Park has pretty much proven to be the class of Group I, and I don’t see that changing here. The pick: Asbury Park, 40-14.
NJSIAA Group IV Final:
Manalapan vs. Sayreville
NJSIAA Group III Final:
Neptune vs. Steinert
NJSIAA Group I Final:
Asbury Park vs. Florence
NJSIAA Group II Final:
Rumson Fair-Haven vs. Matawan
Total # Correct This Season
(as of 11/27/11)