NJSIAA Football Playoff Preview: Central Jersey
The road to a state championship begins this weekend in New Jersey and 26 Shore Conference teams will begin their quest to win three games and be crowned NJSIAA state sectional champions.
The Shore Conference will be represented in 10 different brackets, including all five Central Jersey sections. Central Jersey Group IV features the most Shore Conference teams with six of the eight teams coming from the Shore.
Postseason action gets underway with the state sectional quarterfinals on Friday, Nov. 10 and Saturday, Nov. 11. The semifinals are Friday, Nov. 17 and Saturday, Nov. 18. The sectional championship games will be played the weekend of Nov. 30-Dec. 3 at MetLife Stadium, Rutgers University, Kean University and Rowan University.
The defending champions from the Shore Conference are: Rumson-Fair Haven (CJ-III), Manasquan (CJ-II), Asbury Park (CJ-I), Wall (SJ-III, now in CJ-III) and Mater Dei Prep (NP-II).
Below are the previews for the five Central Jersey sections.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP V
8-Perth Amboy (3-5) at 1-Manalapan (9-0), Friday at 7 p.m.
5-North Brunswick (6-2) at 4-Freehold Township (7-2), Friday at 7 p.m.
6-Trenton (6-3) at 3-Old Bridge (6-2), Friday at 7 p.m.
7-Hillsborough (6-3) at 2-South Brunswick (7-1), Friday at 7 p.m.
The Braves have been dominant this season and enter as a fairly heavy favorite to take home the program’s second sectional title. This Manalapan team is loaded with talent and led by a tremendous senior class. It was likely they would run through their regular-season schedule undefeated, and that is precisely what has happened. Manalapan has done that in the past, however, and faltered in the state playoffs. Fair or not, Manalapan is at the point where it is judged almost solely on whether it wins a state championship or not. They’ve won division titles and looked great in the regular season in the past, but it’s about getting it done in December.
Manalapan’s offense has not been stopped by anyone this season and its defense has also been great. Senior running back Naim Mayfield leads the state with 2,114 yards rushing and 35 rushing touchdowns (36 total) in what can turn out to be a historic season. Senior quarterback Luke Corcione has quietly thrown for 1,108 yards and eight touchdowns with a 64 percent completion rate.
Contenders: South Brunswick, Old Bridge
South Brunswick and Manalapan have a lot of history in the playoffs, including Manalapan defeating the Vikings in 2014 to win their only state championship. South Brunswick is led by Penn State recruit Justin Shorter, who is one of the top-rated wide receivers in the country, and senior quarterback Felix Quinones, who is also the team’s leading rusher. The Vikings played one Shore Conference team in the regular season, defeating Brick Memorial, 35-14. South Brunswick’s only loss is to Piscataway, 28-14, while Manalapan defeated Piscataway, 28-0.
Old Bridge comes in with a 6-2 record having lost to South Brunswick (35-6) and Manalapan (34-13). If the seeds hold up the Knights will get a rematch with South Brunswick in the semifinals.
Shore shots: Freehold Township is in the playoffs for the third straight year and has experienced unprecedented success under third-year head coach Cory Davies. The Patriots had not made the playoffs in program history until the 2015 season. They are still searching for their first postseason win, however, so their quarterfinal game against North Brunswick is what this playoff appearance will be all about. If the Patriots can win their first playoff game they will likely face a Manalapan team that beat them 48-7 in Week 9.
Notes: Piscataway defeated Manalapan to win the bracket last season, but the Chiefs have been realigned to North 2, Group IV…Manalapan has reached either the Central Jersey Group V or IV final in five of the last six seasons…Freehold Township has made the playoffs for the third straight season and is looking to pick up the first postseason win in program history…South Brunswick and Hillsborough each have two sectional titles to tie for the most of any team on the bracket…Perth Amboy made the playoffs for the first time in program history…Trenton is coached by former Central Regional player and seven-year Donovan Catholic assistant Greg Hyslop.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP IV
8-Freehold (6-3) at 1-Nottingham (8-1), Saturday at 1 p.m.
5-Brick (5-4) at 4-Allentown (6-3), Friday at 5 p.m.
6-Middletown South (4-4) at 3-Long Branch (6-2), Friday at 7 p.m.
7-Jackson Memorial (5-4) at 2-Brick Memorial (7-2), Friday at 7 p.m.
You can throw the seeds into the fireplace in this bracket because any and all of the eight teams could realistically be hoisting the championship plaque in early December. This bracket is wide open. Nottingham may be the top seed, but the Northstars will have their hands full with Freehold and record-setting quarterback Ashante Worthy. Brick has been decimated by injuries this season, but the Dragons will be out for revenge against an Allentown team that blew them out in last season’s championship game. The quarterfinal games between Middletown South and Long Branch and Jackson Memorial and Brick Memorial are tossups. I would lean more toward some teams than others, but no team would shock me by winning it all.
This piggy-backs off what I already wrote, but an argument can be made for every team in the bracket to emerge victoriously. Nottingham is the top seed with an 8-1 record and enters on an eight-game winning streak. That one loss? A 34-7 set defeat at the hands of fourth-seeded Allentown in Week 0. The Northstars did not play a schedule near as difficult as Freehold’s and will have to deal with Colonials’ quarterback Ashante Worthy, who hasn’t been stopped all season. Worthy is second in the state with 2,040 yards rushing and 20th in passing yards with 1,632 for a state-best 3,672 combined yards and 44 touchdowns. Nottingham has one of the state’s leading rushers, as well, with Diontae Nicholson and his 1,538 yards.
Brick is the one team that seems like the longest shot because of how many top players it has lost to injury. Quarterback Jimmy Leblo went down early in the season and shortly after the Dragons lost standout defensive lineman Patrick Geisler. Brick has been banged up for what seems like the entire season. Facing Allentown on the road is a major challenge.
The two quarterfinal games pitting Shore Conference teams against one another could really go either way. Brick Memorial and Jackson Memorial just played in Week 9 with the Mustangs winning 27-21. These two teams have met twice in the Central Jersey Group IV finals, including in 2015 when Jackson reversed a regular season loss to win, 42-14. Long Branch won the regular-season meeting with Middletown South, 21-0, but it would be foolish to count out a program with the pedigree of the Eagles.
Shore shots: The Shore Conference is guaranteed to have at least one team in the championship game and the odds are pretty good an area team will emerge as champions. The team no one wants to play is Freehold, which enters on a five-game winning streak, has arguably the state’s most exciting player and is a nightmare to prepare for because of the unique nature of its offense. Brick Memorial has had the most consistent year of all the Shore teams and its only loss to a Shore Conference team came to rival Brick in Week 1. Middletown South has a championship-level defense and a veteran coaching staff that knows how to win in the postseason. Long Branch is solid on both sides of the ball and has a very good passing game with quarterback Juwan Wilkins throwing to a deep group of receivers. Jackson has played great defense all season and has a knack for big playoff performances. This is going to fun to watch play out.
Note: The Shore Conference dominates this section with six of the eight teams and will feature two all-Shore matchups in the first round…Allentown is the defending champion and will face Brick in a rematch of last season’s title game, a 41-6 victory for the Redbirds to claim their first state title…Middletown South has the most sectional titles among the group with 10 while Brick has seven and Jackson Memorial has five…Middletown South won the North 2, Group IV bracket in 2015 with a 12-0 record. The Eagles have made the playoffs 20 straight seasons…Jackson won this bracket in 2015 with a 42-14 win over Brick Memorial and in 2014 with a 21-18 win over Middletown South…Brick won the section in 2013…Freehold quarterback Ashante Worthy needs one touchdown to set the Shore Conference single-season record (45)…He currently has 2,040 yards rushing and 1,632 yards passing for 3,672 combined yards, which is believed to be the Shore Conference single-season record.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP III
8-Lawrence (5-4) at 1-Rumson-Fair Haven (7-1), Friday at 7 p.m.
5-Wall (4-4) at 4-Steinert (5-3), Saturday at 1 p.m.
6-Carteret (4-4) at 3-Monmouth (6-3), Saturday at 1 p.m.
7-Ewing (4-5) at 2-Somerville (8-1), Friday at 7 p.m.
Favorite: Rumson-Fair Haven
Rumson is chasing history this postseason in trying to become just the second Shore Conference program to win five consecutive NJSIAA state sectional championships. The top-seeded Bulldogs are 7-1 with their only loss coming in overtime to undefeated St. John Vianney. They already own a 48-25 win over third-seeded Monmouth, a 42-21 win over sixth-seeded Carteret and also have a 35-0 win over Middletown South.
Rumson’s running game has been electric with senior running back Peter Lucas rushing for 1,819 yards and 26 touchdowns and junior fullback Alex Maldjian adding 526 yards and seven touchdowns behind an underrated offensive line. Quarterback Dan Harby has been solid with 771 yards passing and six touchdowns, plus five rushing touchdowns. Rumson’s defense has been very good in allowing 15.1 points per game and should be expected to be lights out in the playoffs. Over the last 19 playoff games dating back to 2010, Rumson has allowed an average of just eight points per game under defensive coordinator and now head coach Jerry Schulte.
Contenders: Somerville, Monmouth
Somerville enters the playoffs with an 8-1 record and averaging 41.4 points per game, and is coming off a thrilling 42-36 comeback win over Summit in Week 9. The Pioneers have scored 50 or more points three times this season, including 82(!) in an 82-46 win over Scotch Plains-Fanwood in Week 9. Somerville would love to get a shot at Rumson in the final after the Bulldogs shut down their high-scoring offense in last season’s semifinals for their only loss of the season.
Monmouth is having arguably its best season in program history and will host Carteret in the program’s first home playoff game. Monmouth’s only playoff win came in 2006 so a win over the Ramblers to advance to the semifinals would be huge for a program that was 2-8 last season. The Falcons’ defense has been very good this season, but its overall number of 20.2 points allowed per game is skewed a bit by giving up 48 points in back-to-back losses to St. John Vianney and Rumson. Senior Ian Fitzgerald has been a great playmaker, and if the game is close late the Falcons can be confident knowing they have one of the Shore’s best kickers in senior Devon Johnson.
Shore shots: Other than Rumson and Monmouth, this section has Wall seeded fourth. The Crimson Knights won the South Jersey Group III title last season an lost a ton to graduation but were able to find their way back to the playoffs under first-year head coach Tony Grandinetti. Wall has essentially won the games it’s been favored in and lost the games it was the underdog, with maybe the exception of a Week 2 win over Central. The Crimson Knights have played a tough schedule so they’ll be prepared for a road game at Steinert, but after that would come against No. 1 Rumson.
Notes: Rumson is the two-time defending champion in the bracket and has won four straight titles overall. The Bulldogs are trying to become the second Shore Conference program to win five straight NJSIAA sectional championships (Manasquan, 1998-2002, is the other)…Somerville’s seven sectional titles are the most of any team in the bracket…Monmouth is making its third playoff appearance in program history and first since 2010.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP II
8-Raritan (4-4) at 1-Point Boro (9-0), Friday at 7 p.m.
5-Manasquan (5-3) at 4-Roselle (6-2), Friday at 7 p.m.
6-Holmdel (5-3) at 3-A.L. Johnson (7-1), Friday at 7 p.m.
7-Hillside (6-3) at 2-South River (9-0), Saturday at 1 p.m.
The No. 5 seed as the favorite? Yes. I know Point Boro and South River are both 9-0, but Manasquan is the defending champion and has played the most difficult schedule of any team in the bracket. Plus, having 12 sectional championships under your belt earns you the benefit of the doubt. Manasquan’s losses have come to Long Branch, Middletown South and Red Bank Catholic - all playoff teams - and its winning formula is tailor-made for the postseason. The Warriors’ defense has posted four shutouts this season and allowed just 11.6 points per game. Senior running back Connor Morgan is a human battering ram and leads the offense along with senior quarterback Tommy Antonucci and junior running back Canyon Birch.
Contenders: Point Boro, South River, Johnson, Roselle, Hillside
Point Boro enters the postseason undefeated for the first since 2005 when it went 12-0 and own its third state title in program history. The Panthers and their flexbone offense are led by senior quarterback James Fara and running backs Tanner Gordon and Brandon Cipriano and are averaging 34.3 points per game. Their defense has allowed just 13 points per game with one shutout. Point Boro’s strength of schedule isn’t the greatest, however, as they have just two wins over teams with winning record - Lacey and Monmouth. That could end up meaning nothing, but it’s something to think about.
South River is sort of in the same boat with a schedule comprised of Group I and II teams. The Rams needed overtime to defeat Middlesex in Week 2 and Keansburg in Week 7 and had to rally past a 3-5 Dunellen team in Week 9. Still, South River has found a way to win all it’s games so far and that certainly counts for something.
Johnson’s only loss came to an 8-1 Somerville team that is the No. 2 seed in Central Jersey Group III. The Crusaders also have wins over Roselle and Hillside. Roselle has a high-scoring offense at 34.6 points per game but nowhere near last season when it was averaging close to 60 when Manasquan won 31-27 in the semifinals. They’ll no doubt have revenge on their minds when they host Manasquan in the first round. Hillside has a win over Roselle and lost 22-13 to Johnson, so you have to throw the Comets into the mix, especially if they can shock South River in the first round.
Shore shots: Manasquan and Point Boro are certainly capable of reaching the final, and they could end up playing each other in the semifinals. The two schools were longtime Thanksgiving Day rivals before Manasquan shifted to playing Wall on turkey day.
Holmdel would have to go on an amazing run to make some noise in the bracket, but the Hornets are nonetheless a nice story in rebounding from a 2-8 season to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Raritan certainly can’t be counted out considering the Rockets entered the playoffs 3-5 in 2015 before going on an incredible run to win a state title by beating undefeated Lincoln.
Notes: Lincoln finished 2-7 but had 81 power points to finish eighth thanks to playing a game against St. Peter’s Prep and receiving 31 power points in defeat. However, a new NJSIAA rule stating teams with a .500 record can jump sub-.500 teams who earn extra power points playing the North Jersey parochial powers enabled Raritan to leapfrog Lincoln and then grab the No. 8 seed over Spotswood based on a 35-0 head-to-head win in Week 8. Simple, right?…Manasquan has a Shore Conference-record 12 sectional championships…Raritan and Point Boro met twice in 2014 with Point Boro winning in the regular season and Raritan taking the playoff matchup en route to a sectional title…South River is 9-0 and has won nine sectional titles overall…A Shore Conference team has won this bracket four straight seasons.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP I
8-Asbury Park (5-3) at 1-Burlington City (7-1), Friday at 7 p.m.
5-Shore (4-4) at 4-Middlesex (7-1), Friday at 7 p.m.
6-Florence (4-4) at 3-Bound Brook (7-2), Friday at 7 p.m.
7-Point Beach (5-4) at 2-Manville (7-1), Friday at 7 p.m.
Favorite: Burlington City
This is a tough call because I think this section is very even, but the nod goes to the Blue Devils. Their lone loss is to a Gateway team that is a contender for the South Jersey Group I title and whose only loss came to perennial power Paulsboro. Burlington City also has the state’s fourth-leading rusher, Jimmy Browne, who will enter the playoffs with 1,709 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns.
Contenders: Everyone else
This is Group I football, so all bets are off. From No. 1 through No. 8 these teams are pretty even, so the first round results could be all over the place.
Shore shots: Asbury Park is the defending champion and has some great playmakers led by senior Donte Abrams and a very underrated defense that is yielding just 12.5 points per game and has allowed over 20 points only once. Point Beach has senior running back Chris Webber back from a multi-game hiatus and has several solid seniors like quarterback Luke Frauenheim, wide receiver Josh Yates and running back/linebacker John Nista. Shore is an annual title contender and is more than capable of putting it together over three games despite an inconsistent regular season.
Notes: Asbury Park is the defending champion…The top seed was determined by a coin flip at NJSIAA headquarters since Burlington City and Manville finished with the same number of power points (119) and were equal in all tie-breaking criteria…Strength of schedule determined the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds as Asbury Park, Point Beach and Florence each finished with 82 power points…Keansburg made the playoffs at 2-7 last season but missed the cut this year with a 5-3 record…Middlesex edged Shore 22-21 in overtime in Week 6…Shore and Asbury Park each have seven sectional titles, tied for the most in the bracket. Florence has six…A Shore Conference team has won this bracket four straight seasons and nine of the last 10 years…Manville and Bound Brook have never won sectional titles.
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