*Click here for a photo gallery by Bill Normile*

PISCATAWAY - Grinning amidst the postgame jubilation of Manalapan's first state championship in program history on Saturday, Braves senior Ben Sieczkowski spoke for a team that finally finished the job in its fourth straight trip to the NJSIAA finals.

"Four years of my life and all we've been through,'' Sieczkowski said. "It's good to know it was all worth it for this moment."

Manalapan celebrates winning its first NJSIAA title in school history after a 21-7 win over South Brunswick in Central Jersey Group V. (Photo by Bill Normile)

The third-seeded Braves took down the top seed, previously undefeated South Brunswick, with a 21-7 victory at HighPoint Solutions Stadium at Rutgers University in the Central Jersey Group V final to bring home their first state championship in five tries in the state finals in their history. A defense that made play after play and rose to the occasion in the red zone and an offensive line that paved the way for 252 total yards led the way to immortality in the halls of Manalapan against a Vikings team that beat the Braves (11-1) two years ago in the same spot for its first state title.

"It's an unforgettable feeling,'' said senior tight end/defensive end Kyle Mullen. "This is amazing to get with my brothers after how hard we've worked."

Manalapan seniors Kyle Mullen (#44) and Dan Anerella (#8) celebrate the program's first state championship. (Photo by Bill Normile)

"This program is about the kids,'' said head coach Ed Gurrieri. "They are the ones that did it. They have become such a close group that I think sometimes that closeness is more important than talent."

Unlike the past three years when the Braves have often had to play from behind, they never trailed in the game and executed the formula they have used countless times during their brilliant run to break the other team's will. They also bottled up Syracuse recruit Dontae Strickland, holding him to only 19 yards rushing on nine carries.

Senior tailback Imamu Mayfield ran for 76 yards on 20 carries and scored his 31st touchdown to cap a brilliant season for the Braves. (Photo by Bill Normile)

After a sack on a blindside hit by Strickland ended Manalapan's initial drive, the Braves' defense delivered for the first time in a resilient effort that would last throughout the game.

South Brunswick embarked on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that lasted until early in the second quarter with the game scoreless, but the Vikings (11-1) came away with nothing. South Brunswick had fourth-and-inches on the 3-yard line, but a false start penalty forced them to try 25-yard field goal attempt that was no good.

"I think that defensive stand set the tone for the whole game,'' Gurrieri said.

Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri celebrates leading the Braves to their first state title in school history. (Photo by Bill Normile)

Manalapan took the momentum from that stop and drove 80 yards in 15 plays, converting a fourth-and-1 when Sieczkowski battered his way up the middle for six yards and then converting a third-and-1 on an 8-yard run by Sieczkowski on another power run up the middle. Senior tailback Imamu Mayfield, who had 76 yards rushing on 20 carries, capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run for his Shore Conference-leading 31st touchdown before the state's all-time leader in points by a kicker, senior Mike Caggiano, made it 7-0 with 4:50 left in the second quarter.

"This was our type of game,'' Mayfield said. "We got the lead and we relied on our O-line."

South Brunswick answered with its lone scoring drive of the game, a seven-play, 65-yard march that ended with a 6-yard touchdown run by Strickland out of the wildcat formation to tie the game 7-7 with 1:33 left in the second quarter. That was the limit of the damage done by Strickland, who entered the game with 1,179 yards rushing on 12.7 yards per carry, but only had 32 total yards between rushing and receiving.

"We didn't give up the big play,'' said Mullen, who was a force with 2.5 sacks. "He's a great player and very quick, but we rallied to the ball and didn't give him any space to run."

"It was just option football,'' said Sieczkowski, a defensive lineman who blasted Strickland for an 8-yard loss in the win. "We bottled him up because we executed our assignments."

The Braves then swung the momentum to their side for good with a huge play right before the half. Senior quarterback Dan Anerella, who delivered on his promise to return with a strong game in the final after struggling last year, hit Mayfield on a throwback screen for a 61-yard gain as he followed lineman Jake Levine to South Brunswick's one-yard line. Sieczkowski then bulled in from a yard out with 19 seconds left in the quarter to give Manalapan a 14-7 halftime lead.

The teams traded possessions during a scoreless third quarter, as Strickland picked off a pass for South Brunswick and then the Manalapan defense made arguably the biggest stop of the game. South Brunswick drove from its 36-yard line to the Manalapan 18-yard line, where it faced fourth-and-inches. A wave of Braves defenders stonewalled Vikings quarterback Amir Johnson for no gain to kill the threat.

"That was all heart,'' Mullen said. "We just wanted it more."

After forcing a three-and-out, South Brunswick mounted another drive deep into Manalapan territory, making it to the Braves' 23-yard line before facing fourth-and-9. Braves defensive back Dan Debner erased that threat with the first of his two interceptions in the win.

"I just knew I had to make a play for this team,'' Debner said. "We were just able to dig deep every time they got close."

The Braves then threw the knockout punch with a nine-play, 76-yard drive as their offensive line battered South Brunswick to pave the way for Mayfield, who ran the ball seven straight times after a 32-yard completion from Anerella to wideout Gerard Hodge-Rocourt. Anerella then capped the drive with a 13-yard touchdown throw to Mullen for a 21-7 lead with 2:42 left in the game.

"That last drive was all heart,'' Sellmeyer said. "That was for all the Braves players and coaches who came before us. This one was for them."

"Having the lead just allowed us to ground the ball and go right at them with the run game, which is what we do best,'' Mayfield said. "That's what we've done all year."

Debner snatched one last interception to seal the win with his seventh pick of the season, and the celebration began for the Braves after three straight years of frustration on the trip to the Rutgers. Manalapan also registered its third straight 11-win season.

"These kids never got down on themselves,'' Gurrieri said. "We never dwelled on (the three straight final losses). We have graduated some great classes, but we're here every year. You can't dwell on the past, and these kids just stuck together and got it done. I couldn't be more proud."

 

Box score

Manalapan 21, South Brunswick 7

.                                M                  S

First downs              14               13

Rushes-yards      34-126            43-180

Passing                  6-8-1              5-7-2

Passing yards        126                 79

Fumbles-lost           1-0                0-0

Penalties               5-25                9-60

Manalapan (11-1)            0 14 0 7 - 21

So. Brunswick (11-1)      0  7  0  0 - 7

Scoring summary

M: Mayfield 1-yard run (Caggiano kick).

S: Strickland 6-yard run (Golden kick).

M: Sieczkowski 1-yard run (Caggiano kick).

M: Mullen 13-yard pass from Anerella (Caggiano kick).

Individual statistics

Rushing - S: Campbell 10-96, Johnson 18-50, Strickland 9-19, Hill 2-10, Golden 2-10, Allen 2-5. M: Mayfield 20-76, Debner 6-28, Sieczkowski 6-24, Anerella 2-(-2).

Passing - S: Johnson 5-7-2 79. M: Anerella 6-8-1 126.

Receiving - S: Allen 2-61, Strickland 2-13, Jabbie 1-5. M: Mayfield 1-61, Hodge-Rocourt 2-37, Debner 2-15, Mullen 1-13.

Interceptions - M: Debner 2-21. S: Strickland 1-0.