By Scott Stump -- SSN Contributor

BRICK TOWNSHIP – When Red Bank Catholic running back Zack Bair plowed into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown in the second half of Thursday night’s 41st annual Shore Sports Network All-Shore Gridiron Classic, it was like he was finally back home.

“I definitely missed that feeling,’’ Bair said.

The Caseys’ star finished with 52 yards and a score on 9 carries as part of a star-studded backfield in Monmouth County’s 28-14 win over Ocean County at Brick Memorial to end his standout career on his terms after an injury derailed his senior year.

Bair was in the midst of a monster season for the Caseys this past fall when he fractured his big toe and part of the inside of his right foot in a showdown with rival St. John Vianney, causing him to miss the final 3 ½ games of his senior year.

“To have him come back tonight and do what he does best, it was great to see,’’ said Monmouth County and RBC teammate Brandon Lombana, who had a touchdown catch in the win.

Bair had racked up 1,087 yards and 15 touchdowns on only 79 carries in just over six games for an outrageous 13.7 yards per carry before his season-ending injury. His absence dealt the Caseys’ potent offense a serious blow, but they bounced back from a loss to the Lancers to win two games before falling to perennial state power St. Joseph’s-Montvale in the first round of the NJSIAA playoffs to finish 8-2.

“Going into a game like that (against St. John Vianney), we were all pretty psyched about it,’’ Bair said. “To have it end like that, it definitely hurt, but that’s why I wanted to come out one last time, play one last game and get back on the field again.”

Bair was part of a Monmouth County offense that included a stellar group of wide receivers and star quarterbacks Ashante Worthy of Freehold and Juwan Wilkins of Long Branch. Worthy, who holds multiple state records, took home offensive MVP honors, but Bair was just excited to be back on the field and showing what he can do.

“We had a lot of good players in this game, and we knew we were going to have a lot of fun finding ways to get each of us the ball and getting the offense working, and I think we did a great job today,’’ he said.

“It’s great to be able to go out with a win. Even though it’s an all-star game, it almost feels even better, getting to meet all these kids and go out with a win.”

Bair had been training with Val Barnaby at ESSA Sports Training in Tinton Falls since his injury, so there was no trepidation when he first stepped on the field for practice this week. The coaches at his future home, Dartmouth College, also gave him the green light to play in the all-star game.

“I’m back to 100 percent, so it felt good to be back out there,’’ he said.

Bair also made a lasting impression during the week on his Monmouth County teammates as well as the coaching staff, led by Long Branch’s Dan George.

George knows all about Bair, considering he exploded for 227 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries in a 42-28 win over a Green Wave team that went on to capture the Central Jersey Group IV title.

“I don’t know if any (Gridiron Classic) team ever assembled a group of offensive players like this, but if you came to the first practice or you came to the last practice, (Bair) stood out,’’ George said. “You said, ‘Who’s that No. 22?’’’

The coaching staff selected Bair as this year’s Monmouth County recipient of the prestigious Sam Mills Award, named for the player who best embodies the perseverance and character of the late Sam Mills, a Long Branch legend who starred as a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints in the 1980s.

It speaks volumes about Bair that he was selected, given Mills’ ties to Long Branch and the fact that the coaches were primarily from Long Branch and there were five Green Wave players on the Monmouth County squad.

“I said, how could you not?’’ George said. “He had a season-ending injury, he works his butt off, he’s going to an Ivy League school, and he just wants to get back on the field again.”

Bair’s Monmouth County and RBC teammate, offensive lineman Richie Christie, knows all about what Bair went through this season considering the same thing happened to him as a junior. He broke his ankle against St. John Vianney and missed the last three games before rebounding to have a healthy senior year that earned him a berth in the All-Shore Gridiron Classic.

He got to block for Bair one last time on Thursday night.

“Zack makes our job 10 times easier,’’ Christie said. “You’ve just got to make him a hole and he’s gone.

“It’s his hard work and relentlessness (that makes him great). Zack can have a 70-yard run, get stopped at the 5-yard line, and he’ll be pissed.”

Thursday night was all about smiles, as Bair ended his high school career on his own terms with a final strong performance before he heads off to Dartmouth.

“Getting a chance to meet a lot of these guys after watching their highlights every week and playing against them, and getting to know them over the course of this week and hang out with them outside practice, it was such a great experience,’’ he said.

 

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