NJSIAA Football Playoff Preview: Several Shore Teams Favored in What Could Be a Historic Postseason
After 10 weeks of regular season football the playoffs have arrived with 25 Shore Conference teams looking to bring home the ultimate prize of an NJSIAA sectional championship.
The Shore has had a record six state champions crowned in back-to-back seasons, and with teams having qualified in 10 different sections, including eight teams seeded either No. 1 or No. 2, there’s a solid chance the record book will have to be amended in early December.
There are a few heavy favorites, a handful of darkhorses and some long shots among area teams. Let’s take a look at each playoff bracket involving Shore Conference teams and breakdown what to expect over the next four weeks.
North 2, Group IV
8-JFK Iselin at 1-Middletown South
5-Sayreville at 4-Phillipsburg
6-Colonia at 3-Summit
7-Woodbridge at 2-Middletown North
Middletown South and Middletown North are the two Shore teams in this section and they are also the top two seeds.
Middletown South (6-2) had its 17-game winning streak snapped with a Week 7 loss to Toms River North, then dropped its second straight game with a loss to St. John Vianney. Both those teams are 9-0 and ranked in the top 10 in New Jersey, so it’s not as if they are bad defeats. The Eagles bounced back with a dominating 22-3 win over South Jersey Group III No. 1 seed Wall to regain some momentum heading into a postseason where they’ll try to win their 11th sectional title.
Middletown North is also 6-2 and enters the playoffs off a 32-8 win over Ocean where senior quarterback Donald Glenn threw for 357 yards and three touchdowns. The Lions have six games against playoff teams, including wins over Wall and Howell. They have captured three sectional titles in program history with their last championship coming in 1996.
Middletown South is the prohibitive favorite and opens up with JFK-Iselin (4-5), who is coached by former Keyport standout Pete Christathakis. The Mustangs have lost three in a row. Middletown North hosts Woodbridge (5-4) in the first round, which conversely enters on a three-game winning streak.
It seems obvious considering their seeds, but Middletown North and Middletown South have a great shot at meeting in the final. Each should have no issue in their opening game. Middletown South is looking at a semifinal game against either Phillipsburg or Sayreville. A game against the Stateliners would be a rematch of last season’s sectional final, and there the Eagles showed their defense is tailor-made to stop Phillipsburg’s rushing attack. Sayreville is much improved and has a very good quarterback in Jayson DeMild, so the Bombers could be a tough out.
Middletown North’s semifinal opponent would be either Colonia (5-4) or Summit (7-2). Colonia enters on a four-game winning streak while Summit was just blown out by high-flying Somerville, 42-7. Middletown North has played a much better schedule than either team and that will be a major factor. Red Bank Catholic is a common opponent with Colonia, and the Patriots lost 35-0 while Middletown North fell 30-27 on a last-minute field goal. Summit is a storied program with 12 finals appearances and eight sectional titles, but this isn’t one of its vintage groups and they have been banged up this season.
If the Eagles and Lions do reach the final it would make for an interesting two weeks as the teams are also Thanksgiving rivals. Middletown South would be the favorite in both games, but this is the best team Middletown North has had in many years, so it could be a classic if they do indeed square off for a state championship.
Central Jersey Group V
8-New Brunswick at 1-Manalapan
5-South Brunswick at 4-Freehold Township
6-Hillsborough at 3-Old Bridge
7-Hunterdon Central at 2-Piscataway
Manalapan is the No. 1 seed with Freehold Township as the No. 4 seed. The Braves stamped themselves as the favorite when they beat No. 2 seed Piscataway 21-10 at Rutgers in Week 8, and they are looking to finish off the program’s first 12-0 season and bring home their second sectional title. Freehold Township (7-1) is making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in school history and is looking for its first postseason win in program history. That would also give the Patriots a program single-season record eight wins.
Manalapan (9-0) opens with a New Brunswick (4-5) team coached by Don Sofilkanich, who won three straight state titles with Asbury Park from 2007 to 2009 and also coached at Neptune. A win there would set them up for a semifinal game against either Freehold Township or defending sectional champion South Brunswick (6-2). The Braves beat Freehold Township 35-0 last week and allowed less than 100 yards of offense. Manalapan has wins over both teams South Brunswick lost to - Old Bridge (41-0) and Piscataway.
As mentioned, Freehold Township has a tough game right away with South Brunswick. The Patriots have a prolific passing offense with quarterback Charles Sabbagh and receivers Adrian Rybaltowski and Anthony Lotti, and have already seen the best the bracket has in Manalapan. A win in the first round would be historic for the program.
Lurking on the other side of the bracket is Piscataway along with Old Bridge, Hillsborough and Hunterdon Central. Manalapan would be favored over any of those teams, but a rematch with Piscataway seems likely. The Braves’ offense is balanced with quarterback Luke Corcione and running back Naim Mayfield leading a very deep group of playmakers. Its defense has been great all season, as well, and has plenty of standouts. It won’t be a cakewalk, but the title is Manalapan’s for the taking.
Central Jersey Group IV
8-Neptune at 1-Brick
5-Freehold at 4-Pennsauken
6-Jackson Memorial at 3-Nottingham
7-Moorestown at 2-Allentown
A bracket filled with Shore teams has Brick as the No. 1 seed, Freehold at No. 4, Jackson Memorial at No. 6 and Neptune at No. 8.
Brick, Allentown and Nottingham were all tied with 115 power points, but the Dragons won the tiebreaker for the top seed based on strength of schedule. The Dragons are 6-3, but the combined record of the opponents they lost to - Toms River North, St. John Vianney and Central - is 25-2. The Dragons are certainly battle-tested. They’ll be a big favorite over a 2-6 Neptune team that has lost three straight. They would see the winner of Pennsauken and Freehold in the semifinals and would also be favored there as they go for their eighth sectional title.
Freehold started 0-4 but closed the regular season with five straight wins to remarkably earn a top-five seed. The Colonials’ entire season changed when they decided to move junior running back Ashante Worthy to quarterback and install a spread scheme. In five games at quarterback he’s had three 300-yard rushing games and two games with seven total touchdowns. He has 1,416 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns, 661 yards passing and 6 touchdowns plus a kickoff return touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown. He is the kind of game-breaking player that can key an upset and lead the Colonials on a run.
The team no one wants to see is two-time defending champion Jackson Memorial, and unfortunately for Nottingham that’s who comes to town in the quarterfinals. It’s been an up-and-down season for the 5-4 Jaguars, but they come in hot having won three in a row. All their losses are to playoff teams (Central would have been the No. 4 seed in South Jersey Group IV but was disqualified), so that is important to note. Jackson has the state’s leading rusher in senior Mike Gawlik, who leads the state with 1,803 yards rushing. He has posted two 300-yard rushing games this season and plays his best in big games. The Jaguars have been at their best in the playoffs over the last two seasons, so it’s safe to expect they’ll be ready to go.
The team to watch out for is Allentown, which has arguably its best team ever with quarterback Jordan Winston and stud linebacker/tight end Rick Mottram leading the way. A semifinal between the No. 2 Redbirds and Jackson Memorial would be a great one.
Central Jersey Group III
8-Rahway at 1-Somerville
5-Cranford at 4-Rumson-Fair Haven
6-Lawrence at 3-South Plainfield
7-Carteret at 2-Ewing
Fourth-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven is the only Shore Conference team in what is usually a section stocked with local teams. The Bulldogs are the defending champions and trying to become the third Shore Conference team to win four straight state titles.
To do so, Rumson will have to beat a very good Cranford team in the first round and then an undefeated Somerville team with a ridiculous offense and one of the state’s best quarterbacks in Nick Couzzi just to reach the final. You can never discount Rumson when its defense is coached by Jerry Schulte, who is now the head coach along with remaining the defensive coordinator. The Bulldogs’ defensive performances in the playoffs under Schulte have been nothing short of legendary, so they’ll relish the challenge of stopping a high-powered offense.
Cranford is 7-2 with losses to Somerville and Rahway, and has won six straight games following a 1-2 start. Somerville is 9-0 and is coached by former New Jersey Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek. The Pioneers are averaging 50.4 points per game and have won every game by at least 20 points. Couzzi has insane numbers and is to the Mid-State 38 Conference what Toms River North’s Mike Husni is to the Shore Conference with 2,251 yards passing and 30 touchdowns and 823 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. Watching senior linebacker Mike Ruane lead Rumson’s defense into Somerville for a semifinal game would be great theater. If Rumson can reach the final it would certainly be the favorite.
Central Jersey Group II
8-Raritan at 1-Lincoln
5-Bernards at 4-Point Boro
6-A.L. Johnson at 3-Manasquan
7-Harrison at 2-Roselle
Defending sectional champion Raritan, a Manasquan team returning to the playoffs after two years out and a surprising Point Boro squad represent the Shore Conference here. In having three of the eight teams, the Shore has a good chance to come away with a championship, but the three qualifiers have plenty of work to do.
Raritan vs. Lincoln is the best No. 8 vs. No. 1 matchup in any bracket, and is a rematch of last season’s epic final where a 6-5 Raritan squad stunned an 11-0 Lincoln team, 28-26. Now the Lions get another crack at the Rockets, and will do so on their home field. To say they are out for revenge would probably be putting it mildly. Even so, this year’s Lincoln team is nowhere near the juggernaut it was last season. The Lions are 5-3, and earned the No. 1 seed mostly because of the new power points regulations that give extra points - even in losses - to teams that play the North Jersey Super Football Conference United Red and White division catholic schools. Their 47-6 loss to St. Peter’s Prep helped them jump undefeated Roselle for the top spot. Makes total sense, right? One of their wins is a forfeit, and they enter having lost two straight.
Raritan, on the other hand, has won five games in a row after an 0-3 start. Senior quarterback Marc Carnivale and senior running back Vito Aleo have led the offense, while UConn-bound senior linebacker Ryan Dickens leads the defense. This should be an intense game.
The Point Boro-Bernards game is difficult to predict. Bernards has solid wins over Shabazz and Bound Brook. Point Boro is 8-1 and the Class B South champion, but when it had to play a higher caliber opponent it lost 41-7 to Ocean.
Manasquan is enjoying a resurgent season and is looking to win the program’s 12th sectional title. The Warriors should get past Johnson (5-3) in the first round, but their likely semifinal opponent, Roselle (8-0), is averaging a state-high 51 points per game. The Rams have scored 60 or more points three times. They don’t play nearly as difficult a schedule as Manasquan, however. The Warriors are 7-1 with the tried and true Manasquan way of a power running game and stingy defense. Quarterback Jerry Maher and running back Connor Morgan both missed their Week 9 win over Red Bank Catholic, so they’ll need them back to make a run.
Central Jersey Group I
8-Keansburg at 1-Shore
4-New Egypt at 5-Asbury Park
6-Manville at 3-Keyport
7-Florence at 2-Point Beach
With five of the eight teams hailing from the same division in the Shore Conference, this may as well be labeled the Class B Central tournament. New Egypt, Manville and Florence will have something to say about that, but it would be stunning if a Shore team didn’t win this section.
Shore has a 42-0 win over Keansburg already this season, so you can pencil in the Blue Devils to reach the semifinals. It could very well be an all-Shore Conference final four with Asbury Park the only team not technically favored to win in the first round. The Blue Bishops will be a big test for a New Egypt team that has just one playoff victory in its history. The Warriors are coached by former Barnegat assistant Steve Fence.
If it ends up being Shore vs. Asbury Park and Keyport vs. Point Beach in the semifinals, all bets are off. Keyport would probably be considered the favorite since it has wins over Shore, Asbury Park and Point Beach, but every game between the four teams was close and they are all fairly even. Shore is trying to win its third straight state title and eighth overall. The Blue Devils would be the sixth (or seventh if Jackson Memorial wins Central Jersey Group IV first) Shore Conference team to win three in a row. Keyport has six sectional titles with the last coming in 2002, Asbury Park also has six and won three in a row from 2007 to 2009, and Point Beach won its only title in 2013 by beating Shore in a thriller. Buckle up.
South Jersey Group V
8-Atlantic City at 1-Toms River North
5-Howell at 4-Vineland
6-Cherokee at 3-Millville
7-Southern at 2-Rancocas Valley
Undefeated and Shore Sports Network No. 1 Toms River North leads a trio of Shore Conference teams in what is routinely one of the toughest public school brackets in New Jersey.
The Mariners are 9-0 and the defending champions, and enter as a sizable favorite to repeat and secure the program’s second 12-0 season. An offense led by senior quarterback Mike Husni is averaging 47.5 points per game. Husni is the first Shore Conference quarterback to run and throw for over 1,000 yards each in three straight seasons, and enters the playoffs with 1,683 yards passing and 21 touchdowns and 1,233 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. He’s pretty good.
Senior running back Parker Day has an oh-by-the-way 1,055 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns and is averaging 9.3 yards per carry. Senior wide receivers Bryce Watts and Darrion Carrington are each averaging over 25 yards per reception with Carrington taking in 27 passes for 703 yards and 13 touchdowns and Watts, a Rutgers recruit with 4.35 speed, catching 27 passes for 695 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Howell has found its identity under third-year head coach Luke Sinkhorn with an up-tempo run-pass option offense led by quarterback Eddie Morales. The junior is coming off a monster 303-yard, six-touchdown performance in a 50-34 win over Marlboro and has thrown for 1,745 yards and 22 touchdowns this year. He spreads the ball around with Naz Brantley, Dan Cacciatore and Ryan Mazik all over 25 receptions on the year. Brantley has a team-high 571 yards and 10 touchdowns on 29 catches while Cacciatore leads the team in catches with 33 for 373 yards and 5 scores. Running back Nick Chambers has 684 yards and nine touchdowns. The Rebels have a difficult road game at Vineland (7-1) to start, and the winner then has to face Toms River North, so the path is extremely tough. Howell lost to Toms River North 58-33 in Week 4.
Southern rallied from an 0-3 start to the season to qualify with a 5-4 record. The Rams have seen Toms River North and even have a win over Jackson Memorial, but Rancocas Valley will be a major challenge in the first round.
You wouldn’t think so by looking at the seeds, but No. 6 Cherokee is the biggest obstacle in Toms River North’s path. The Chiefs are a perennial title contender and even at 5-3 will be a tough out in the playoffs.
South Jersey Group III
8-Camden at 1-Wall
5-Hamilton West at 4-Lakewood
6-Seneca at 3-Delsea
7-Pemberton at 2-Burlington Township
Top-seeded Wall and fourth-seeded Lakewood are the Shore’s entrants in the bracket. The Crimson Knights have lost two of three after a 5-0 start, but have the goods to win it all. Lakewood needed a win over Pinelands last week to secure a spot, but doing so gave the Piners a home game in the first round.
Wall hasn’t reached a sectional final since losing to the Knowshon Moreno-led Middletown South team in 2004, and last won a state crown in 2002. Lakewood’s only sectional title came in 1986.
Wall has a pretty good path to the final as the top seed. The Crimson Knights are a senior-laden team that has been led by its offense line and running back Sean Larkin. Junior quarterback Eddie Scott has also had a breakout year while senior wide out R.J. Janeczek offers big plays in the passing game.
Lakewood could win its first-round game but would be a very big underdog against Wall in the semifinals. Standout junior quarterback Zyhier Jones missed the win over Pinelands with an injury, and if he remains out the Piners are in trouble.
Burlington Township is 7-1, but the team to worry about on the other side of the bracket for Wall is third-seeded Delsea. This isn’t a powerhouse Crusaders team at 5-4, but the Sal Marchese-led program knows how to win in the postseason. All they’ve done is make 16 state finals and win 13 titles.
Non-Public Group III
1-St. Joseph (Montvale), bye
5-St. John Vianney at 4-Camden Catholic
6-Red Bank Catholic at 3-Pope John
7-Bishop Ahr at 2-DePaul
After losing in the semifinals two years ago and falling in the championship game last season, is this the year St. John Vianney finally breaks through?
That is the biggest question surrounding the local teams in Non-Public Group III. The 9-0 Lancers are the No. 5 seed, while Red Bank Catholic (5-4) is the No. 6 seed. The Caseys are a young team that will have to go up to Sussex County to take on a battle-tested Pope John squad. Even with a win there, they will likely get defending sectional champion DePaul in the semifinals.
St. John Vianney has a brutal road to its first title since 1980 with fellow unbeaten Camden Catholic in the first round. The winner there gets a state No. 1 St. Joseph (Montvale), which will also be rested because of a first-round bye. Even though the Lancers are undefeated, they have the most difficult road to a title of any Shore Conference team. Everything they have done throughout the offseason and regular season has been geared to this moment, so they will be ready. Can the shock the state?
Non-Public Group II
8-Immaculata at 1-Hudson Catholic
5-Montclair Kimberley at 4-Holy Spirit
6-Holy Cross at 3-St. Joseph (Hammonton)
7-St. Anthony at 2-Mater Dei Prep
Mater Dei Prep hasn’t been talked about much this season because it hasn’t played in many big games and has also bludgeoned every opponent it’s faced. The time is now to pay attention to a Seraphs squad that is having a historic season.
Under first-year head coach Dino Mangiero, who came in with a championship pedigree from his time at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep and as a former NFL defensive lineman, the Seraphs (9-0) captured their first division title in program history by winning Class B Central and set the program record for wins in a season. The first sectional title in program history may be next.
Hudson Catholic is the top seed, but that is again thanks to the new power points rules. The Seraphs are the only undefeated team in the section. Third-seeded St. Joseph (Hammonton) has to be considered the favorite since it wins the bracket pretty much every year, and No. 4 Holy Spirit is also an annual contender. Mater Dei, however, is as talented as either of them with junior quarterback George Pearson, senior wide out Eddie Lewis and senior running back/linebacker Marvin Pierre. Are the Seraphs deep enough and experienced enough is the question. They could be a year away, or this could be the season the budding powerhouse realizes its potential.
Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.