*Click here for a photo gallery by Bill Normile*

STAFFORD — After a mostly lackluster first half for Toms River North, the Mariners regrouped at halftime and came out ready to get back to business. But when they turned the ball over by fumbling the second-half kickoff, setting up a touchdown for Southern, a game with major playoff implications was on the verge of slipping away.

“We always preach to the kids to just keep playing and don’t worry about the scoreboard; to stay the course,” said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. “But at that moment - I’m not going to lie to you - it crossed my mind that maybe this might not be our day.”

The Mariners trailed by eight as a result of the turnover, but instead of folding, Toms River North and its young and talented roster responded by scoring the game’s final 18 points for a come-from-behind 24-14 Shore Conference Class A South victory over the host Rams on Saturday afternoon.

“This was a weird game, but the kids played through all the circumstances, and that’s the sign of a team that’s starting to become battle-tested,” Oizerowitz said.

After Toms River North fumbled the second-half kickoff, Southern scored on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Jon Bleichner to Dom Vandebrook to open a 14-6 lead. Toms River North’s offense had been bogged down to that point, but got untracked at a crucial juncture with a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive to pull to within two points. Then the Mariners (5-2, 4-2) got a break when Southern fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Toms River North needed just four plays to go 31 yards for the go-ahead score.

Sophomore quarterback Mike Husni threw for 180 yards and a touchdown and ran for 88 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-14 victory over Southern Regional. (Photo by Bill Normile).

“The first half didn’t go as we planned and we knew it was going to be a tough game coming in here,” said Toms River North sophomore quarterback Mike Husni. “Our coaches said we have to play our game, that it’s going to be there and eventually it’s going to break.”

“We challenged the kids,” Oizerowitz said. “Coming off the season we had last year (1-9) and being in the position we’re in now, they needed to seize the moment. We faced a lot of adversity in many different ways, and I’m so proud of the way they responded.”

Toms River North entered the game in seventh place in the South Jersey Group V power-point standings - seven points ahead of Southern - and all but assured itself a spot in the tournament with Saturday’s victory. Husni threw for 180 yards and one touchdown on 11-of-15 passing and also ran for 88 yards and a pair of one-yard touchdowns. Junior running back Asante Moorer ran for a game-high 96 yards and a touchdown, and sophomore wide receiver Bryce Watts hauled in a 26-yard touchdown.

The Mariners’ defense completely shut down Southern’s rushing attack, holding the Rams (3-3, 2-3) to minus-22 yards on 27 carries. Southern made up for it with a record-setting aerial attack, however, with Bleichner throwing for a school-record 358 yards and two touchdowns on 17-of-30 passing. Vandebrook, a senior receiver, also had a career day with eight receptions for 181 yards and a touchdown. Junior running back Pat Walker added four catches for 93 yards and a score.

One of the reasons Toms River North struggled in the first half was a lack of possession. The Mariners ran just six offensive plays in the first quarter and trailed 7-0 after the first 12 minutes. Conversely, Southern looked good early in the game. Bleichner connected with Vandebrook for a 50-yard gain on the first series, but a great play by Watts to strip the ball and recover the fumble at the North six-yard line kept the Rams out of the end zone. The Mariners then went three-and-out, and Southern was able to get right back to work.

Starting from their own 37-yard line, the Rams went 63 yards in nine plays to take a 7-0 lead. Bleichner converted three third downs on the drive with an 11-yard pass to Zac Halliday, a 28-yard connection with Vandebrook and finally a 24-yard touchdown pass to Walker on a timely screen pass on third-and-16.

The wind was blowing hard from the west end zone all afternoon, and that made kickoff returns an adventure on that side of the field. Southern recovered a fumble on the next kickoff to start another drive from the North 40-yard line, but an interception by sophomore Darrion Carrington bailed out the Mariners’ special teams and set the stage for their first touchdown.

Starting at their own 34, the Mariners immediately pushed into Southern territory on an 11-yard run by Husni coupled with a 15-yard illegal participation penalty on the Rams. A Southern defender had his helmet ripped off by a Mariners player, and was flagged when he continued the play sans helmet. A 15-yard run by Husni on the final play of the first quarter moved the ball to the 20, and four plays later he spun away from pressure and found Watts for a 26-yard touchdown. The extra point was blocked, so Southern maintained a 7-6 lead.

The score would remain that way until early in the third quarter when Southern capitalized on Toms River North fumbling the second-half kickoff. The Rams went 20 yards in five plays, taking a 14-6 lead on Bleichner’s nine-yard touchdown pass to Vandebrook.

The next three drives would decide the game. On the ensuing possession, the Mariners showed some resolve with a 75-yard scoring drive to pull to within 14-12. Husni had a 32-yard completion to senior tight end Jordan Craig and a 14-yard pickup to junior tight end Calvin Jackson. Husni finished off the drive with a one-yard plunge, but the two-point pass attempt fell incomplete.

The wind played tricks with the ball once again on the next kickoff, and this time Toms River North was able to recover to get the ball right back at the Southern 31-yard line. A 17-yard run by Moorer on first down and a 10-yard run by Husni two-plays later set up Moorer’s three-yard run for an 18-14 lead.

“In the first half we stayed in the spread a lot and didn’t establish the run,” Husni said. “In the second half we said, ‘Let’s play North football,’ and we came out doing that.”

Southern threatened to re-take the lead on the next possession when a 19-yard pass to Vandebrook and a 47-yard catch-and-run by Walker on another screen pass moved the ball to the five-yard line. A big sack by senior linebacker Mike Siwiec on first down dropped Bleichner for an 11-yard loss back to the 16, and an illegal motion penalty on the next play made it second-and-goal from the 21. Bleichner’s eventual fourth down pass from the eight-yard line sailed over the head of Vandebrook and kept North in the lead.

The Mariners would hold onto the lead the rest of the way, adding another score on a one-yard run by Husni to cap an eight-play, 58-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter for a 24-14 lead.

A year after suffering through a 1-9 season, Toms River North looks to be back in the playoffs, and with so much talented youth on the roster, the arrow is trending up.

“We may have as much talent as anybody in the division, but we’re learning how to work Monday through Thursday and bring that to Friday and Saturday,” Oizerowitz said. “We’re getting close, but we’re not there yet.

“We’ve played on four cylinders all year, and we need to play on six and eight in order to beat the teams we have to beat to go where we want to go. We still have not put 48 minutes together, but we’re young and we’re learning. Today was a step in the right direction.”

 

Box Score

Toms River North 24, Southern 14

 

Toms River North Southern
First downs 17 12
Rushes-yards 39-193 27-(-22)
Passing 11-15-0 17-30-1
Passing yards 180 358
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-2
Penalties-yards 7-50 6-40

 

Toms River North (5-2, 4-2) 0 6 12 6 – 24

Southern (3-3, 2-3) 7 0 7 0 – 14

 

Scoring summary

S – Jon Bleichner 24-yard pass to Pat Walker (Brandon Barnetti kick)

T – Mike Husni 26-yard pass to Bryce Watts (kick blocked)

S – Jon Bleichner 9-yard pass to Dom Vandebrook (Brandon Barnetti kick)

T – Mike Husni 1-yard run (pass failed)

T – Asante Moorer 3-yard run (run failed)

T – Mike Husni 1-yard run (kick blocked)

 

Individual statistics

Rushing – T: Asante Moorer 15-96, Mike Husni 21-88, Parker Day 2-6, Bryce Watts 1-3. S: Pat Walker 11-12, Ryan Winkler 7-9, Anthony Gagliardi 1-2, Zac Halliday 1-1, Silas Farina 1-1, Sean Gesser 1-0, Jon Bleichner 5-(-47).

Passing – T: Mike Husni 11-15-0 180; S: Jon Bleichner 17-30-1 358.

Receiving – T: Asante Moorer 4-68, Jordan Craig 2-60, Bryce Watts 3-35, Calvin Jackson 1-14, Darrion Carrington 1-3; S: Dom Vandebrook 8-181, Pat Walker 4-93, Zac Halliday 2-41, Ricky Rolenc 1-16, Sean Gesser 1-15, Olufemi Palmer 1-12.

Interceptions – T: Darrion Carrington 1-0.