Non-Public Semifinals: St. John Vianney, Mater Dei Prep Looking to Shake up the State
Of all the Shore Conference teams remaining in the state playoffs, the chance to make the biggest statement across New Jersey belongs to St. John Vianney and Mater Dei Prep.
Both squads will be taking on traditional non-public powerhouses that have a long history of success in the state playoffs. A win by either or both would show the heights their programs have reached in a short time while showing the strength of the Shore.
St. John Vianney will try to topple the state's No. 1 team, St. Joseph's-Montvale, while Mater Dei Prep aims to send a message by knocking off St. Joseph's-Hammonton, which has won a mind-boggling 25 sectional titles.
Here is a look at both semifinals.
NON-PUBLIC GROUP III
(5) St. John Vianney (10-0) at (1) St. Joseph's-Montvale (7-2), Saturday at 1 p.m.
Winner plays the winner of (3) Pope John XXIII at (2) DePaul in the final at time/site/date TBA
Game breakdown: St. John Vianney is looking for its second straight trip to the state finals after falling to Depaul in last year's championship game. The Lancers have not won a state title since 1981 but are in the midst of their best stretch since the early 1980s with three straight division titles and 28 straight wins against Shore Conference competition.
The only mountain left to climb under coach Derek Sininsky is winning a state title, and the Lancers have the tallest order of any Shore team. St. Joe's is a perennial power that has 17 sectional titles and is 54-15 all time in the state playoffs.
This game will feature some of the top recruits in New Jersey going head-to-head, starting up front on the line. St. John Vianney features Rutgers recruit Micah Clark, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound senior lineman considered to be the No. 1 recruit at any position in New Jersey. He and linemate Jamaal Beaty, also headed to Rutgers, front an offense that enters averaging 33.4 points per game, fourth in the Shore.
Villanova recruit Chris Chukwuneke has 1,134 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns to lead an offense that has an array of weapons out of the spread. Two-way standout Johnny Buchanan, better known as a fierce linebacker, also has 424 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.
Quarterback Haaziq Daniels is a running threat with 296 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns in addition to 858 yards and 7 touchdowns passing. Wide receiver Zyaire Sterling is another big-play threat with 405 yards and 4 touchdowns on an average of 23.8 yards per catch. He also is a menace on special teams with two punt return touchdowns and a kickoff return for a score.
Wideout Sam East has 21 catches for 442 yards and 3 touchdowns and Chukwuneke is a receiving threat with 193 yards. Add all that up, and you have a group that has been a handful for every team it has faced this year.
St. Joe's defense is allowing 19.7 points against a schedule that is much more challenging than St. John Vianney's, including three games against out-of-state powers. It's a star-studded unit that includes junior defensive end Dorian Hardy, a top-five N.J. recruit with offers from the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Florida and LSU, who could go head-up with Clark at times in a highly-anticipated match-up.
The Green Knights also feature senior linebacker Louis Acceus, who has a team-high 88 tackles, including 13 for a loss. Oh, and Acceus also has double-digit FBS offers, with Maryland, N.C. State, North Carolina and others vying for his services.
Lurking in the secondary is junior safety Evan Stewart, who has offers from Rutgers, Navy, North Carolina, Boston College and more. He has 3 interceptions to lead the team.
The backbone of St. John Vianney's team has been a defense that is fourth in the Shore in allowing only 9.5 points per game and just bottled up previously undefeated Camden Catholic in a 33-13 win in the first round.
Clark also plays in the middle of the defensive line, where he has 48 tackles, including 10 for a loss, despite most teams running away from him. He could end up tangling with St. Joe's offensive tackle Robert Martin, a 6-5, 275-pound Penn State recruit, and Joshua Fedd-Jackson, a 6-foot-2, 305-pound senior guard who counts North Carolina, Rutgers and Michigan among his top suitors.
Buchanan is one of the top linebackers in the Shore with 120 tackles, 10 for a loss, 4 sacks and a pair of interceptions. Josiah Walker has 72 tackles, 12 for a loss, and defensive end Nick Denieski is one of the top pass rushers in the Shore with 14 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss. A.J. Calabro anchors the secondary with 62 tackles and 4 interceptions, and East and Sterling have combined for 12 pass break-ups.
This will be their biggest test of the season against a Green Knights offense averaging 25.4 points per game against a tough schedule. Earlier this month, they hung 38 on defending champion Depaul in a regular-season game.
Junior Nick Patti has thrown for 1,292 yards and 8 touchdowns, while the running game has amassed 1,919 yards on an average of 5.2 yards per rush. Acceus leads the team with 727 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns, and senior Jordan Scott, a 5-foot-7 dynamo, has 403 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns on 7.6 yards per carry. Scott also has 13 catches for 236 yards in a receiving group that includes 6-foot-5 junior tight end Matt Alaimo (20-287), who is also a baseball star and has a football offer from Rutgers.
This game should come down to the guys up front. When Red Bank Catholic finally got over the hump and beat St. Joseph's-Montvale on its way to winning Non-Public Group III in 2014, it was because the Caseys dominated them up front with the running game. If Chukwuneke has a long day running the ball, it will be a bleak outlook for the Lancers. Conversely, if St. John Vianney can neutralize St. Joe's running game and make the Green Knights one-dimensional, they have a shot to make some big plays and generate turnovers.
The Lancers have to minimize mistakes because barring a miracle, they can't get away with a four-turnover game and still pull it out of the fire like they did in a last-second thriller against Middletown South. They have the high-level playmakers to score against a tough defense, so it's all about execution.
The ancillary benefit of winning a game like this for St. John Vianney is that it's free advertising for their program. You take out a team like St. Joe's on the big stage and it makes the sales pitch even stronger when it comes to attracting more talent.
NON-PUBLIC GROUP II
(3) St. Joseph's-Hammonton (7-3) at (2) Mater Dei Prep (10-0), Saturday at 1 p.m.
Winner plays the winner of (8) Immaculata at (4) Holy Spirit in the final, time/site/date TBA.
Game breakdown: This is the biggest home game in Mater Dei Prep history, plain and simple. The Seraphs already have the school single-season record for wins and their first division title this season, so the only other gap in the resume is the program's first state title.
Mater Dei has only been to the state finals once, and that was in 1999. They face a St. Joe's team that has been to the finals a ridiculous 33 times (the playoff system started in 1974) and won 25 of them. This is not a vintage, juggernaut St. Joe's squad packed with FBS talent, but they are still plenty dangerous after playing a tough schedule under Hall of Fame coach Paul Sacco. They walloped Holy Cross, 48-0, in the first round, while Mater Dei buried St. Anthony 51-8 for just their fourth playoff win in school history.
Two years ago, Mater Dei gave St. Joe's a battle in the semifinals before ultimately falling 41-18 when the Wildcats pulled away in the end. But this is a different Mater Dei team, one that imported a host of talent via transfers this year as well as bringing in head coach Dino Mangiero, a championship coach from Poly Prep up in Brooklyn. By doing so, the Seraphs sent a message that they are building a program to supersede St. Joe's as one of the premier small-school non-public teams in the state.
Mater Dei has the No. 2 offense in the Shore at 40.6 points per game and the No. 1 defense at 4.9 points per game. The offense is engineered by junior quarterback George Pearson, who has multiple FBS offers and has thrown for 20-plus touchdowns and also is a threat as a runner. He counts senior wide receiver Eddie Lewis, who has offers from Indiana, Syracuse, Boston College, Rutgers, Colorado State, Temple, North Carolina, Iowa and more, as his top target. Junior Kyle Devaney also has been a playmaker for the Seraphs along with Russell Ferrisi.
Senior Marvin Pierre, a standout linebacker, also is a punishing runner, and Sincere Saunders ran for 134 yards in the win over St. Anthony.
They face a stingy St. Joe's defense allowing only 10 points per game that is led by a stout defensive front in their 5-2 base. Defensive end Sencere Tapp, has 70 tackles, including 17 for a loss and 9.5 sacks, defensive tackle Elijah Hardee has 58 stops, 19 for a loss, 275-pound noseguard Darius Collins has 12 tackles for a loss, and linebacker Mike Mascioli has 62 tackles and 17 tackles for a loss. In the secondary, Pearson will have to account for safety Cejai Parrish, who has 6 interceptions.
Mater Dei Prep's defense is led by Pierre, who has offers from Boston College, Buffalo, Bowling Green and Indiana, and Ferrisi at linebacker. Izaiah Henderson is the Seraphs' top pass rusher at defensive end, and he will be also be counted on to help set the edge and play assignment football against St. Joe's Wing-T rushing attack. Justice George helps anchor the secondary at corner.
The Seraphs' unit is based more on speed than size, swarming to the ball to stop the run. Considering pretty much every team in Class B Central, which Mater Dei rolled through this year, is a running offense, this is a good match-up for the Seraphs. St. Joe's is all about the ground attack in the Wing-T, rolling up 2,339 yards rushing on 5.7 yards per rush this season.
The leader for the Wildcats is junior Qwahsin Townsel, who has 1,055 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. Sophomore Nate Johnson is also a threat with 495 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns on 7 yards per carry. Quarterback Matt Tucker has only thrown for 468 yards and 7 touchcdowns on 55 attempts all season, which is about two games' worth for Pearson, so it shows how everything revolves around the run game.
A big question will be how Mater Dei will respond to being in a four-quarter dogfight. The Seraphs have beaten every team they've played by at least 22 points, including four shutouts, and have not been held under 35 points in any game. They have not had to go toe-to-toe with anyone in a physical, exhausting game because they've blown everyone out, so it most likely will be unfamiliar territory.
This game will answer two other questions as Mater Dei seeks its first 12-0 season. Will Mater Dei's small-school schedule, which included no games against SSN Top 10 teams, hurt them when they have to dramatically raise their level against a battle-tested St. Joe's? Is Mater Dei's line on both sides of the ball good enough to get a stalemate with the Wildcats and let Mater Dei's playmakers decide the game?
We're going to find out soon, and it should be a lot of fun to watch.