One year ago, Manalapan quarterback Mike Isabella found himself forced out of his comfort zone by a talented and fast Sayreville defense in the Central Jersey Group IV final.

Manalapan senior quarterback Mike Isabella is a year older and better as he tries to lead the Braves to an undefeated season and their first state sectional title. (Photo by Bill Normile).

The Braves were in an unfamiliar spot, with 2,000-yard rusher John Sieczkowski struggling to find holes, and Isabella forced to throw more than usual in an eventual 23-11 loss that denied Manalapan its first state sectional title.

“(Isabella) was asked to do a couple of things in that Sayreville game that he wasn’t asked to do before,’’ said Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri. “We had him taking five-step drops when we usually run play-action, and he had a lot of pressure coming at him from up front. It was a whole different world, and something he wasn’t used to at the time.”

A year later, Isabella comes back better and more experienced as a senior, equipped to deal with any scenario and ready to help the Braves polish off their best season ever. Undefeated Manalapan will take on second-seeded South Brunswick at 7 p.m. Saturday at Rutgers in the Central Jersey Group V final in a bid to finish the job this time and capture its first state sectional title in program history.

“Last year, he was managing the game for us,’’ Gurrieri said. “This year, we gave him the keys to the car and let him go. He has shown this year he is equipped to handle any situation. No situation is too big.”

“Last year we just got beat all around – there’s no other way to say it,’’ Isabella said. “This year we’re prepared, and we’re ready.’’

In his second year as the starter, Isabella is having arguably the best season a Manalapan quarterback has ever had. He is 93-for-155 (60 percent) for 1,834 yards and 21 touchdown passes against only three interceptions. Gurrieri has also trusted him much more to make changes at the line of scrimmage and read defenses, making Manalapan harder to defend for teams that stunt up front shortly before the snap.

“He has improved by leaps and bounds,’’ Gurrieri said. “It’s stuff that doesn’t come up in the stats, like how well he reads coverages and how he is able to put us into the right play according to what he sees in coverage and the front. When he’s had to make a play, he’s made it, and he’s taken care of the ball and not tried to do more than he can do.’’

Isabella also worked diligently on his arm strength, which has noticeably improved. That makes a big difference considering Manalapan has two fearsome downfield threats in senior wide receiver Anthony Firkser and junior wideout Saeed Blacknall. Firkser, who has verbally committed to Harvard, has 38 catches for 883 yards and nine total touchdowns. Blacknall, who already has multiple FBS offers, has 35 catches for 657 yards and 15 total touchdowns.

It also helps that Firkser and Blacknall are team-first players, so Isabella doesn’t have two talented wideouts constantly badgering him for the ball.

“It’s not like that,’’ Isabella said. “We’re all out there for each other and the team. I just take what the defense gives me. Whoever is open, I’m going to take.’’

Making the passing game even more potent is a Manalapan running game that is as dangerous as ever. A program that became the first Shore Conference team to produce consecutive 2,000-yard rushers in the past two seasons has another talented back in junior Tyler Leonetti, who has 1,285 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns in his first season as the starter.

It shows the respect Isabella has commanded in his second season that some opposing defenses have schemed to take away the passing game first. For years, most teams stacked the box with at least eight defenders to stop the Braves’ physical running game, but Isabella and the wideouts have been so explosive that teams like Colts Neck and Hunterdon Central have concerned themselves with taking that away. That has left things open for Leonetti, who ran for 193 yards and two touchdowns in the semifinal win over Hunterdon Central.

“If a defense wants to take one guy away, they can do it with a scheme, and we’ve always just gone to the other guy,’’ Gurrieri said. “If you roll down one way to one guy, Mike knows the ball has to go the other way. Some of the stuff that comes late as far as stemming is concerned, he’ll audible right there and put us in the right play. That’s invaluable.”

The Braves’ defense is also much improved, making Manalapan arguably a more complete team than the one that faced Sayreville last year. Inserting  junior R.J. Krause, a starting tight end, at noseguard in Manalapan’s 3-4 scheme has turned the Braves into a rugged unit that also includes senior defensive lineman John Appice and junior linebacker Chris Noesges as top playmakers. Manalapan is only allowing 9.6 points per game.

Last season, Manalapan was an underdog against a Sayreville team that had won the title the year before. This season, the Braves enter as the favorite despite the fact that they have never won a state title. Having already won a school-record 11 games, they are expected to polish off the first 12-0 season in their history, so the pressure is on them in the first year of the newly-created Central Jersey Group V bracket.

“I look at as, we’ve been around the block a few times,’’ Isabella said. “We’ve been in all sorts of situations and have a lot of experience.”

That experience comes in handy because game day at Rutgers is like nothing teams have faced all year. It can’t be simulated.

“Walking through that parking lot and then walking down the stairs, it’s like ‘Gladiator’ running out of that tunnel, and then you’re in a middle of a war,’’ Gurrieri said. “You can talk to people about it, but until you’ve done it, you don’t know what it’s like. The kids were looking at the Jumbotron last year with their jaws dropped, and the music is blasting. Now it’s old hat to them.’’

This year they can look to their quarterback and team captain when things get hairy, knowing he has been through the fire before. Isabella and Manalapan have seen every type of scenario this season, whether it was being down 14-0 early to Colts Neck or having to come back in the fourth quarter to pull out a 35-31 win on the road against Central Jersey Group IV finalist Middletown South with a last-second defensive stand. Anything less than their first state title will be a disappointment for the Braves.

“I tell the kids that we’ve accomplished a lot this year, but we’re even with what we did last year,’’ Gurrieri said. “The wall is missing one brick. We want to put that 12th brick in the wall and finish what we started.’’