Manalapan and Rumson Can Enter the Record Books with State Title Wins on Saturday
Of the 10 Shore Conference teams that will take the field on Saturday in state championship games, two of them have a chance to make history at Rutgers University.
Undefeated Manalapan will open the playoff slate when it takes on Piscataway at 10 a.m. in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V final, and the Braves have a chance to become the first team in school history to go 12-0. Rumson-Fair Haven will cap the day at Rutgers when it faces South Plainfield in the Central Jersey Group III final and tries to become the third program in Shore Conference history to win four consecutive state titles.
Both programs are in the midst of unprecedented runs at their respective schools. Rumson is playing in its seventh state sectional final in 10 years while Manalapan is in its fifth state final in the last six seasons. The Bulldogs are certainly a dynasty having won the Central Jersey Group II title in 2013 and 2014 before moving up to Central Jersey Group III where they took home the title last year. Manalapan won its first state title in 2014 in its fourth straight trip to the final, and has gone 68-13 over the last six seasons.
After finally breaking through for a state championship two years ago, the current cast of Braves is after another first: a perfect 12-0.
“It definitely think it means a lot to all of us,” said senior captain Cody Weiner. “They (2014 team) will always be the first, but to be the first one to be perfect, no one could take that away from us. It really motivates us a lot.”
“We’re not trying to hide from it, we’re embracing it,” said Manalapan head coach Ed Gurrieri. “But we don’t have to be 12-0 on Saturday, we just have to win one game.”
Manalapan went 6-5 last season, its most losses since going 5-5 in 2009. But the down year set the stage for this season and lit a fire under the core group of juniors and seniors. Coming off a state championship the year before, the Braves had a young team everywhere but along the offensive line and also had several season-ending injuries to key players. They had their 33-game Class A North winning streak snapped, as well, and it looked like their time as a contender was on hold for at least a year.
Manalapan was able to win its first round playoff game against Trenton and then nearly took down eventual champion South Brunswick in the semifinals, however. It took a touchdown on the final play of the game by the Vikings to win 27-21. Two weeks later South Brunswick walloped Old Bridge in the championship game, 42-0, leaving Manalapan’s players thinking what could have been.
“When we came up short to South Brunswick that’s when the hunger to be great really hit all the underclassmen, including me,” said senior Jon Pimentel. “It was a tough night for us, but sometimes failure is the first step toward greatness.”
Since then the Braves have defeated everyone in their path, including a 34-20 win over South Brunswick in this year’s playoff semifinals. They’ve done it with a balanced offense and a stingy defense, both of which are ranked third in the Shore in points scored and points allowed. A standout junior class features quarterback Luke Corcione, running back Naim Mayfield, wide receiver Scott Scherzer, fullback Chris Maksimik and linebacker Sal Tardogno.
Corcione has been outstanding with 1,692 yards passing and 26 touchdowns with only one interception, and gives Manalapan a dangerous weapon under center that can make teams pay if they load the box to stop the run.
“He’s a great kid and a great leader, and he understands our offense and has great checks at the line of scrimmage,” Gurrieri said.
Mayfield is among the Shore’s top running backs with 1,625 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns on an absurd 9.3 yards per carry. For a team that sets its foundation on a power running attack, Mayfield brings the total package at tailback. He is the younger brother of former Manalapan star Imamu Mayfield, who was the running back on the 2014 state championship team.
“I think he’s electric,” Gurrieri said. “When we run a typical power play we want four yards. If the offensive line blocks it for four yards you’re ok. When they block it up for four there’s a chance he can take it the distance at any moment, and that puts a lot of stress on a defense.”
Scherzer is the Braves’ top receiver with 38 catches for 678 yards and seven touchdowns. Tardogno leads the team in tackles with 105 and Maksimik is a thunderous blocker that sets the tone for the offense, and is also second on the team with nine touchdowns.
“Maksimik is at the point of attack with everything we do, and he’s probably the most important piece of our puzzle,” Gurrieri said. “Not only is he an elite blocker, but he runs the ball well and has great hands.”
The Braves are almost exclusively a two-platoon team, but when standout sophomore inside linebacker Tommy Pearce missed four games with an injury Maksimik stepped in and made sure the defense didn’t miss a beat.
“He’s just a great football player and I’m so happy when he gets acknowledged,” Gurrieri said. “When you get ready for us you have to account for him.”
The defense features Tardogno and Pearce as standouts at inside linebacker in the Braves’ 3-4 base, with Pimentel and junior Lazarus Marquez as the outside linebackers. Pimentel leads the team in sacks (6) and tackles for a loss (7). Weiner is the leader of the secondary that includes senior Sean Kinniburgh and juniors Eli Avivi and Symir Blacknall.
When they face Piscataway on Saturday morning it will be a rematch of a regular season game Manalapan won, 21-10, ironically also at Rutgers University. The Dan Higgins-led Chiefs have won eight sectional titles in their history and will be looking for payback. Since losing to Manalapan, Piscataway has been on a tear to reach the state final. The Chiefs have won four games in a row by at least 27 points, including a 42-3 win over Old Bridge in the semifinals after losing to the Knights in the regular season. They’ll have enormous support at High Point Solutions Stadium, which is in Piscataway.
“People say all the time it’s hard to beat a team twice in the same season,” Weiner said. “We saw what they did to Old Bridge. They’ve made adjustments and we’ve made ours.”
“It’s no secret they’re a fantastic program and have some great players,” Pimentel said. “Last game we fell behind and made the comeback, but this game we’ll definitely have to get rolling early. We beat them last time so the’ll be very fired up, but so will we.”
Manalapan will have to find a way to stop standout running back Elijah Barnwell, an FBS recruit who has 1,654 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns on the season. He ran for 148 yards on 25 carries and also had a touchdown on a screen pass in the first meeting.
“I don’t know if you can stop him, you just try to contain him and it’s not that simple,” Gurrieri said. “He’s a big kid with good speed, and they really have a lot of weapons. We have to be sound on every snap and be in the right gap. If one guy isn’t in the right place he’s the same as Naim, he can take it to the house.”
If Manalapan can duplicate its success from five weeks ago the Braves will be hoisting another state championship and doing so without a blemish on their record.
“Honestly, it means the world to me,” Pimentel said. “I’ve been playing this sport and been a Brave since I was seven years old. To be a senior in high school and have a chance to be the first undefeated team is amazing to me.”
Long after Manalapan takes the field and the sun has since set, Rumson will go for its fourth straight state championship and look to join a select group. Middletown South, which won four in a row from 2003 to 2006, and Manasquan, which won a Shore Conference-record five in a row from 1998 to 2002, are the only other Shore programs to have won four consecutive state titles.
Rumson’s steady climb to one of the Shore’s most consistent programs began in 2000 when current Holmdel athletic director Shane Fallon took over at his alma mater. In 2007 the Bulldogs reached their first sectional final since Fallon quarterbacked them to the 1989 Central Jersey Group II title game. Three years later in 2010 they won their first state title with a stunning 13-7 win over Matawan.
“It all started with Shane, he laid the foundation before Bryan (Batchler) and now myself,” said Rumson head coach Jerry Schulte. “Now we’re just in the process of maintaining it.”
Schulte has been along for all the success as the team’s defensive coordinator before becoming the head coach this season. It is his 16th year overall as a head coach in the Shore with previous stops at Mater Dei and Wall.
Schulte’s defenses are a major reason why Rumson has won four state titles and is on the brink of history. The Bulldogs have shut down some juggernaut offenses over the years, starting with the undefeated Matawan team in 2010. Their latest exploit came two weeks ago when they neutralized a Somerville team that was 10-0 and averaging over 50 points a game, winning 21-13 in the semifinals.
Leading the way for the Shore’s No. 2 defense is senior linebacker Mike Ruane. An FBS recruit who is committed to the University of Massachusetts, Ruane is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who can terrorize opposing quarterbacks and lead the way in stuffing a running game equally as well. He has 112 tackles, 4.5 sacks and multiple hits behind the line of scrimmage.
“Ruane is just one of those kids, you find them at every position,” Schulte said. “He just does things you can’t coach. He has that innate ability. He’s just a natural-born linebacker.”
Liam Adams and Chase Pfrang anchor along the defensive line while senior safety Mike Murdock leads the secondary that includes Jake Giannotto, James Melia, Pat Russo and Ryan Tuorto.
They will try to shut down a South Plainfield team that runs an I-formation offense led by sophomore fullback Zach DelVecchio. The Tigers use several formations and unbalanced looks to try and throw teams off, but it’s a run-heavy offense at its core.
The Tigers play a 4-4 defense and will no doubt key in on Rumson’s running game. Senior quarterback Mike O’Connor and senior running back Matt Vecchiarelli lead the offense running behind a line spearheaded by senior Tim Leonard. Vecchiarelli has 1,080 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on the season while O’Connor has rushed for 619 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing for 413 yards and six touchdowns. He doesn’t have overwhelming stats, but O’Connor, a Colgate recruit, is a dynamic threat.
“He’d be a running back in most offenses, and he has to be a nightmare to defend,” Schulte said. “He throws well and runs well, and he does things you just don’t coach. He has the natural ability to know when to take off. Half the time he’s running with the ball and we didn’t call that, and the next thing you know it’s a 60-yard touchdown.”
South Plainfield has never won a sectional title in three prior appearances, so Rumson has the big edge in experience. A matter-of-fact approach is something the Bulldogs have taken into the last three state finals, and it’ll be the same on Saturday night, regardless of the historical implications.
“To be honest we haven’t really talked about (winning four in a row) that much,” Schulte said. “The kids are aware of it and it’s in the back of their heads, but it’s not something we’ve been harping on. Since I’ve been here it’s always been a business-like approach.”
The Bulldogs are planning on Saturday night being business as usual.
Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.