After producing a record six state champions in each of the past two seasons, the Shore Conference may have outdone itself this year as 10 teams have reached state finals across nine different brackets.

The Shore is guaranteed a champion in Central Jersey Group I, where Keyport and Asbury Park will square off, and has multiple favorites across several other brackets. The potential is certainly there for a Shore Conference-record seven champions or more this season, and it will all take place on one wild Saturday.

Mike Ruane and Rumson-Fair Haven are back in the state finals for the fourth straight year. (Photo by Mark Brown/B51 Photography.)

All nine games are being played on Dec. 3 across three different sites - Rutgers, Kean University, and Rowan University. It will be wall-to-wall football from 10 a.m. until the last games kick off at 7 p.m.

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The team that ended its longest drought between state final appearances was Middletown North, which punched its ticket to the North II Group IV championship game with a 20-0 win over Summit. The second-seeded Lions are in the state finals for the first time since winning their last title in 1996, and they will face a different team than the one they probably expected.

They will face fourth-seeded Sayreville, which upset defending champion and top-seeded Middletown South, in the final at 1 p.m. at Rutgers. While I'm guessing the whole "Sayreville rising from the ashes of the hazing scandal" storyline will be featured prominently leading up to the final, the resurgence of Middletown North under head coach Steve Bush is a great story in its own right.

The Lions, who face Middletown South on Thanksgiving this week, will get the spotlight to themselves on the day of the state finals after spending the last 15-plus years in the shadow of their cross-town rival, whom they haven't beaten since 2000.

Middletown North and senior Dwight Wilkerson (21) are back in the state finals for the first time in 20 years. (Photo by Rob Samuels).

This is Middletown North's sixth overall appearance in the finals, where they will be gunning for their fourth overall title. It was all about the defense under coordinator Geoff Massimini against Summit, as the Lions registered their first shutout of the season and their first since 2014 in the biggest game of the year.

The defense came up with a fumble recovery in the red zone, and senior Brendan Kube, better known as a star wideout, had an interception that set up a scoring drive. Senior Dwight Wilkerson, another two-way standout, had a team-high 11 tackles, senior Ryan Stark added 10, senior Nick Kish had 8 tackles and junior Austin DeWise had 2 sacks and the big fumble recovery to help spearhead the defense.

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Senior quarterback Donald Glenn threw for 240 yards and ran for a touchdown, Kube caught nine passes for 121 yards, Wilkerson scored on a 5-yard run and Joey Cavanagh kicked field goals of 23 and 25 yards. Junior running back Connor Welsh ran for 104 yards on 15 carries.

That Lions' defense will now be charged with slowing down a Sayreville team that just put 42 points on Middletown South behind star quarterback Jayson DeMild, who threw for 345 yards and 4 touchdowns to trigger the upset.

Making a Statement

One of the most impressive semifinal wins of the weekend across the state belonged to Mater Dei Prep, which routed seven-time defending state champion St. Joseph's-Hammonton, 26-0, in Non-Public Group II for one of the biggest wins in school history.

The Seraphs are now 11-0 for the first time and one win away from their first state championship. They will play fourth-seeded Holy Spirit at 1 p.m. at Kean University on Dec. 3 in their first appearance in a state final since 1999 and just the second in school history.

Marvin Pierre (1), Jonathan Lubintus (9), Russell Ferrisi (5) and the rest of the Mater Dei defense shut down St. Joe's to reach the Non-Public Group II final. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

The Shore's No. 1 defense, which entered the game allowing a mere 4.9 points per game, picked up its fifth shutout of the season and its fourth in the last five games. The Seraphs swallowed up St. Joe's Wing-T rushing attack with 11 tackles for a loss or no gain, 5 sacks and a fumble recovery. Star linebacker Marvin Pierre had two tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks, senior linebacker Jonathan Lubintus had three tackles for a loss, a sack and a fumble recovery, and defensive end Shane Mastro added two tackles for a loss.

Senior Eddie Lewis put on a show on special teams with a 95-yard punt return for a score and several other long returns for all the offense Mater Dei would need. Pierre had a pair of touchdowns, including a 48-yard catch from quarterback George Pearson.

“We had to show everybody that doubted us they were wrong,” senior Eddie Lewis told SSN's Bob Badders. “We’ve been wanting to make a statement all year, since my freshman year. We’re trying to show the whole Shore and the state that Mater Dei is here to make a statement.”

While the Seraphs have been polarizing in the Shore with their influx of transfers and new head coach Dino Mangiero, they are facing teams in the playoffs that have the same advantages to get talent from everywhere, making their win over St. Joe's an impressive one. Now Holy Spirit is all that stands between them and the program's first undefeated season in a year in which they have already set the school record for wins and captured the program's first division title.

Bulldogs Do it Again

The most terrifying thought for a team with a high-octane offense in the playoffs must be imagining Rumson-Fair Haven head coach Jerry Schulte in a dark room breaking down their film to find the weaknesses.

The Bulldogs have had a knack for tremendous defensive performances against high-powered offenses in the playoffs, and that was the storyline again as they shut down previously unbeaten Somerville, 21-13, in Central Jersey Group III to reach their fourth straight state final game.

Somerville entered the night second in the state in points per game at 50.1 yet were shut out in the second half by Rumson. The Bulldogs held quarterback Nick Couzzi, who entered the game with 3,222 yards of total offense between rushing and passing and 43 total touchdowns, to 163 yards passing and 40 rushing while also intercepting him three times.

James Melia had two of the interceptions and Pat Russo had a third one in the end zone to seal the win. Offensively, senior quarterback Mike O’Connor ran for 81 yards and threw a touchdown pass to Colin Pavluk, and senior running back Matt Vecchiarelli rolled up 120 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries.

The defensive performance will go down in Rumson lore at a program that has had two straight shutouts in state finals and memorably shut down two explosive offenses in beating Weequahic, 14-6, in 2013 and stunning Matawan, 13-7, in 2010, both in the state finals. Schulte was the defensive coordinator before taking over the head job this season.

Rumson will play third-seeded South Plainfield at 7 p.m. at Rutgers on Dec. 3 in a bid for Shore Conference immortality. Only Manasquan (1998-2002) and Middletown South (2003-06) have won four straight state titles.

Guess Who's Back?

The only other Shore state champion from last year besides Rumson that is back to defend its crown is Toms River North, which rolled into its second straight South Jersey Group V final with a 62-34 win over fifth-seeded Howell.

The undefeated Mariners, ranked No. 1 in the SSN Top 10, will play third-seeded Milville at 6 p.m. at Rowan on Dec. 3 in a bid to become the first Toms River North team to ever win back-to-back titles. Under coach Dave Oizerowitz, they have now won 21 straight after beating Howell for the second time this season in almost the exact same fashion.

Senior quarterback Mike Husni and Toms River North are back in the South Jersey Group V title game after a 62-34 win over Howell. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

They beat the Rebels 58-33 during the regular season, with senior running back Parker Day breaking 200 yards and scoring three touchdowns. On Friday, Day ran for 200 yards and 4 touchdowns as part of a 385-yard rushing night for the Mariners. Senior quarterback Mike Husni continued his assault on opposing defenses with 387 total yards and five total touchdowns, and the star wideout tandem of Darrion Carrington and Bryce Watts combined for eight catches for 204 yards and three touchdowns.

Toms River North is now averaging 46.9 points per game and has 516 total points heading into the final. The single-season Shore Conference record for points is believed to be the 544 scored by Red Bank Catholic in 2014.

Despite the loss, Howell is a team to watch in 2017 with the majority of its stars returning, including junior quarterback Eddie Morales, who had 361 total yards in defeat, and junior wideout Naz Brantley.

Another team that has gotten used to penciling in a trip to the finals on the first weekend of December under coach Ed Gurrieri is Manalapan, which remained unbeaten with a 34-20 win over South Brunswick to reach the Central Jersey Group V championship game.

Naim Mayfield and Manalapan remained unbeaten on their way to the Central Jersey Group V final (Photo by Mark Brown/B51 Photography.)

The Braves, who will have a rematch with a Piscataway team they beat in the regular season, play at 10 a.m. in Piscataway's backyard at Rutgers on Dec. 3. The win put Manalapan in the state finals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. They are the favorite to win their second CJ Group V championship in three years considering they have a 21-10 win over Piscataway on their resume already.

Junior running back Naim Mayfield continued his monster season with 228 yards rushing and three touchdowns in the win over defending champion South Brunswick, which beat Manalapan on a last-second touchdown in last year's playoffs. Junior quarterback Luke Corcione added a touchdown pass to Scott Scherzer, and fullback Chris Maksimik also had a touchdown run in the win. Manalapan is now one victory away from its first 12-0 season in program history with a team that returns almost all of its key components next season.

Back Where They Belong

Four of the Shore Conference's long-time winning programs find themselves back in the spotlight after a long drought between state finals appearances by their standards.

Manasquan, Wall, Asbury Park and Keyport will all be playing for titles on Dec. 3, and between them they have 26 sectional titles in their history.

Following uncharacteristic back-to-back losing seasons for Manasquan and Wall, the long-time Thanksgiving rivals are back playing for state championships.

Wall senior running back Sean Larkin helped the Crimson Knights reach their first state final in 12 years. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

Top-seeded Wall has dominated so far in South Jersey Group III under coach Dan Curcione, rolling into the final with a 49-21 win over Hamilton West. Senior Sean Larkin ran for 205 yards and a career-high five touchdowns to put Wall in its first state final since 2004.

Junior Chevesse Covin added a 37-yard touchdown run, and senior Gene Scott had a 43-yard pick six as part of a four-interception night for Wall's defense. The Crimson Knights will face defending champion Delsea at 11 a.m. at Rowan on Dec. 3 in search of their first title since 2002 and their fourth overall.

Manasquan is built much like Wall around a physical running game centered on junior Connor Morgan and a hard-nosed, opportunistic defense under coach Jay Price. The Warriors pulled out a 31-27 win in Central Jersey Group II over a Roselle team that entered the game averaging 53.3 points, the best in the state.

Morgan ran for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns on 39 carries and also threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to senior wide out Damaso Jaime. Senior quarterback Jerry Maher had a 34-yard touchdown pass to Jaime after an interception by Jaime on defense, and senior Adam Schreck kicked a 34-yard field goal.

Back in the finals for the first time since 2009, Manasquan will play Bernards at 7 p.m. at Kean on Dec. 3 in search of its Shore Conference-record 12th overall title and first since 2008. They are looking to erase their longest drought of state titles since the 1980s.

Of course, before they get to that, they have to face Wall on Thanksgiving in a match-up of state finalists. It marks the first time the two rivals have played each other with both headed to the state finals since 2002.

Keyport is now 10-1 and in the state finals for the first time since 2003 after a 27-14 win over Class B Central rival Point Beach. The Red Raiders have their most wins since going 11-1 in 2003 in the days of the Shore's all-time leading rusher, Ken Cattouse, and the late J.J. Bedle at wide receiver.

Sophomore fullback Devin Wollner has had a huge season, as he now has 1,532 yards rushing to go with 9 touchdowns in Keyport's Wing-T attack under coach Jay Graham. However, it was the passing game that came to the rescue on Friday as Chris Hogrefe threw a 76-yard touchdown to Joey Kay-Flagg with 1:24 left in the game to snap a 14-14 tie. Wollner added a 45-yard touchdown run as time expired, and Hogrefe and sophomore Greg Robinson, who leads the team with 10 touchdowns, each ran for a score.

Keyport will now play Asbury Park at 4 p.m. at Kean in the Central Jersey Group I final. The Red Raiders beat the Blue Bishops, 14-7, during the regular season. They are searching for their first state title since 2002 and their seventh overall.

Asbury Park is out to win its first state title since 2011. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Asbury Park emphatically dethroned two-time defending champion Shore Regional with a 39-19 victory by rattling off the last 20 points of the game to reach their first final since winning it all in the days of the Conover twins in 2011.

Nymeir Agologos had a career-high 150 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns on just 8 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Senior running back Paul Reed added a 45-yard touchdown run and Cishiume Simmons had a 1-yard touchdown run. Donte Abrams scored on a 45-yard punt return touchdown in the first quarter and Kharod Young iced the game with a 60-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

The victory stamped the resurgence of the Blue Bishops' program under coach Tim Fosque, who has led them to 13 wins in his two seasons after an uncharacteristic 2-8 season in 2013. Asbury Park ruled Central Jersey Group I with an iron fist for a stretch, winning four titles in five years through 2011, including three straight from 2007-09. Just like Keyport, they are looking for their seventh overall state title.

Dragons Find a Way

One of the most exciting of all the semifinals was at Brick, where the top-seeded Green Dragons held off fifth-seeded Freehold, 24-23, in a game that came down to the final minute.

Brick survived the one-man offensive onslaught known as Ashante Worthy, one week after the Freehold junior quarterback set Shore Conference records for rushing (465) and total touchdowns (10). The Green Dragons blocked a low kick on an extra point with 1:32 left in the game that proved to be the difference and also gave head coach Len Zdanowicz a memorable 45th birthday present.

Temple-bound senior Ja'Sir Taylor ran for 62 yards, a two-point conversion and a touchdown, including a key 11-yard run that iced the win, and also recovered an onside kick in the final minute and had a 47-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown. Cole Groschel and Rashon McCall each added touchdown runs to help Brick hold off Worthy, who had 175 yards rushing, 104 yards passing, and three total touchdowns.

Worthy finished the season with unofficially 2,056 yards rushing and 41 touchdowns, both school records. He also became the first Shore quarterback to ever rush for more than 2,000 yards and has received interest from Virginia and Georgia Tech, according to coach Dave Ellis.

Brick will face second-seeded Allentown at 4 p.m. at Rutgers on Dec. 3 in search of its eighth overall state title and its second in four seasons after winning it all in 2013.

Quick Hits

---Jackson Memorial's 41-15 loss to Allentown in Central Jersey Group IV ended the Jaguars' run of two straight state titles and marked the final game of one of the greatest players in school history. Senior Mike Gawlik became Jackson's all-time leading rusher, the first back in school history with three seasons of 1,000 yards rushing, and the program's first 2,000-yard rusher. He also has the single-season and career records for touchdowns.

---St. John Vianney's 45-20 loss in Non-Public Group III to the state's top-ranked team, St. Joseph-Montvale, marked the end of their third straight season with double-digit wins at 10-1. They also have won three straight division titles and 28 straight games against Shore Conference competition. They had only one 10-win season in their history (1980) before the current run and had never won three division titles in a row.

---Manchester finished the season on a high note with a 20-14 victory over Donovan Catholic to end up 3-7 after going 1-9 a season earlier.

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