Jaree Parrish, Resilient Defense Help Neptune Upend No. 8 Ocean
OCEAN TOWNSHIP - Every team pays lip service to the preseason cliches of being a family and sticking together through adversity, but when they face the crucible of a tight game on the road, that's when you really find out who genuinely means it.
Neptune practiced what it preached when it held off a hard-charging Ocean team by sticking together and coming up with three crucial fourth-quarter turnovers, including a game-sealing interception from senior linebacker Diondre Dunn, on its way to upending the defending Class B North champions with a 30-27 victory at Carelli Field on Friday night.
Every time the No. 8 Spartans (0-1, 0-1) threatened to overtake the unranked Scarlet Fliers (1-0, 1-0) in the second half, Neptune had an answer to help give new head coach Rodney Taylor his first career victory.
"We showed that we work as a team, that we're a family, and that we can overcome any challenge,'' said senior defensive back Zaire Alston, who had a big fourth-quarter interception.
Neptune was shut out in the second half while Ocean rallied from 17 points down to make it a three-point game, but the Scarlet Fliers refused to fold up.
"I feel like they're buying into everything we've been preaching,'' Taylor said. "We knew we were going to come out and take a heavy blow from them (in the second half). That's an outstanding football team. We came out, we took the shot, and we kept fighting. Those kids stuck together, and when things got bad, they didn't turn against each other. They built each other up."
Neptune built a 30-13 halftime lead as senior running back Jaree Parrish rolled up 103 of his game-high 156 yards in the first half along with scoring a pair of touchdowns. However, Ocean forced a three-and-out to start the third quarter and then drove 83 yards on 13 plays and converted two fourth downs. The Spartans capped the drive with a 9-yard touchdown run on a zone read play by sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett on fourth-and-3 that showed they were not going to go quietly.
With the lead down to 10 points, Ocean junior linebacker Tyler Rossback recovered a fumble on Neptune's 18-yard line on the first play from scrimmage after Pickett's touchdown run. One play later, Pickett found senior Marcus Blackman for an 18-yard touchdown pass that drew a roar from the home crowd and shaved the lead to 30-27 after Ocean's second touchdown in the span of 26 seconds.
However, just when it looked like the Spartans would ride the wave of momentum to take the lead, Neptune's defense came up with big play after big play. Ocean drove 69 yards to Neptune's 10-yard line, but senior linebacker O'Shane Curate upended Spartans standout junior tailback Tyler Thompson, forcing a fumble that was recovered by senior safety Savior King at the 9-yard line to kill a golden opportunity for the Spartans with 11:11 left in the game.
Neptune was forced to punt after driving near midfield on its ensuing possession, and senior Hunter Daly pinned Ocean at its 7-yard line with 7:40 remaining. The Spartans mounted another big drive, converting a third-and-21 from their own 20 when Pickett found Thompson on a swing pass for a 38-yard gain. However, two plays later, Alston stepped in front of a pass at Neptune's 25-yard line for a drive-killing interception with 3:28 left in the game.
"I just read the receiver and the quarterback looked him down the whole time, so I jumped the route,'' Alston said.
Ocean had one last chance from its own 14-yard line after burning its final timeouts and forcing a Neptune punt with 1:35 left in the game, but Dunn capped the resilient defensive effort with one last clutch play. He stepped in front of a pass in the flat for a game-clinching interception with 1:27 left that allowed Neptune to take a knee.
"I saw Marcus (Blackman) and the other receiver, and it was a combination route,'' Dunn said. "I knew it had to be a slant, and I know Kenny (Pickett) is a first-year (varsity) quarterback, so he wasn't going to look me off, and he threw it right to me."
It helped Neptune hold on after a brilliant first half in which three different players scored to build a big enough cushion to withstand Ocean's comeback. The Scarlet Fliers scored on their opening drive, going 51 yards in six plays, with senior quarterback Ralph McLean scoring on a 10-yard run for a 7-0 lead with 8:10 left in the first quarter.
After the defense forced a second straight three-and-out, Neptune unveiled a dimension it lacked in its run-dominant offense during last year's 5-5 season. McLean unloaded a bomb to 6-foot-6 junior wideout Isaiah Calhoun, who leaped to make the catch and then eluded multiple defenders on his way to a 59-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 4:50 left in the first quarter.
"Ralph has been putting it there for me, and all I know is to just go up and get it,'' Calhoun said. "That's what my coaches taught me, so I'm just going to apply it to my game."
Ocean had not picked up a first down up to that point, but used its defense to get on the board. Senior safety Frank Henry blitzed from the edge and blindsided McLean, forcing a fumble recovered by the Spartans at Neptune's 25-yard line. On the next play, Pickett found Blackman for a 25-yard strike in the back of the end zone for the first of Blackman's two touchdown grabs to cut the lead to 14-6 after the extra point was no good.
The Spartans' defense then forced a three-and-out, but Daly pinned Ocean at its own 6-yard line with the punt. One play later, Pickett slipped while rolling out for a pass in the end zone, resulting in a safety that made it 16-6 with 18 seconds left in the first quarter. Neptune then tacked on a touchdown on the drive following the safety, going 40 yards in seven plays and scoring on a 19-yard run by Parrish, who is still recovering from a preseason knee injury but gutted it out in a strong performance.
"Jaree is not even 100 percent, and he fought every play,'' Taylor said.
"He showed what he can do,'' Dunn said. "There's nothing else to say. I think he and Tyler (Thompson) are the two best backs in the Shore."
Later in the second quarter, Thompson electrified the home crowd with a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown that trimmed Neptune's lead to 23-13 with 3:32 left in the half. However, Parrish answered on the Scarlet Fliers' next play from scrimmage when he ripped off a 64-yard touchdown run that helped give Neptune a 30-13 lead at the break.
"We went into halftime thinking, we got this game,'' Dunn said. "Coach (Taylor) told us no, they will sneak up on us, and that's exactly what they did, but we fought to the last second. That's where all that running and all that conditioning comes in."
While Thompson hurt Neptune on special teams, the Scarlet Fliers limited him to 84 yards on 23 carries. During the week, the role of Thompson on the Neptune scout team was played by senior Royal Moore, Thompson's former teammate. A quarterback/cornerback, Moore transferred to Neptune from Ocean last spring after starring for the Spartans as a junior, but has to sit out 30 days via the NJSIAA transfer rule, so he wasn't in uniform on Friday night. However, Taylor awarded him a game ball afterward for his help in preparing his teammates and staying positive.
"We knew on the scout team that Royal would give us a great look,'' Dunn said.
By taking out the defending division champions on their home field to start the season, the Scarlet Fliers showed that they may be the prime challenger to No. 1 Red Bank Catholic in Class B North this season.
"I feel like we're going to shock the Shore,'' Parrish said. "It's a big statement to show (everyone), don't sleep on us."
"We're not looking to send a message to anybody but ourselves - stick together, play together, work hard, and fight, and you can do anything,'' Taylor said.
Neptune 30, Ocean 27
. N O
First downs 13 16
Rushes-yards 37-176 38-123
Passing 4-8-0 9-17-2
Passing yards 102 134
Fumbles-lost 4-3 3-1
Penalties 9-63 1-5
Neptune (1-0, 1-0) 16 14 0 0 - 30
Ocean (0-1, 0-1) 6 7 14 0 - 27
N: McLean 10-yard run (Daly kick).
N: Calhoun 59-yard pass from McLean (Daly kick).
O: Blackman 25-yard pass from Pickett (kick failed).
N: Safety. Pickett tackled in end zone.
N: Parrish 19-yard run (Daly kick).
O: Thompson 91-yard punt return (Fisher kick).
N: Parrish 64-yard run (Daly kick).
O: Pickett 9-yard run (Fisher kick).
O: Blackman 18-yard pass from Pickett (Fisher kick).
Rushing - N: McLean 11-20, Parrish 21-156, King 5-0. O: Thompson 23-84, Pickett 13-45, Blackman 2-(-6).
Passing - N: McLean 4-8-0 102. O: Pickett 9-17-2 134.
Receiving - N: Calhoun 1-59, Ellington 2-35, Parrish 1-8. O: Blackman 4-81, Thompson 2-34, Stoothoff 1-6, Aldarelli 2-13.
Interceptions - N: Dunn 1-2, Alston 1-30.