Shore Conference Brings Home Five State Titles
Five teams bringing home state titles, two stunning upsets and an incredible finish highlighted the final weekend of the Shore Conference football season.
Rumson-Fair Haven, Manasquan, Asbury Park, Mater Dei Prep and Wall took home coveted NJSIAA sectional championship trophies with resounding victories. The five champions were one shy of the Shore Conference single-season record of six that was reached in each of the last two seasons.
The Shore finished 4-4 in the finals outside of the one head-to-head Shore match-up in which Asbury Park beat Class B Central rival Keyport. The two stunners were a 34-13 loss to Piscataway by Manalapan and a 22-16 loss to Millville by Toms River North, both of whom were unbeaten favorites.
Leading the way was Mater Dei Prep, which won its first state title in history in amazing fashion by beating Holy Spirit 26-20 in Non-Public Group II with three seconds left in the game. The Seraphs pulled off a hook-and-lateral play from the 50-yard line as junior quarterback George Pearson hit junior wideout Kyle Devaney with a 10-yard pass and he flipped it to a streaking Eddie Lewis, who took it to the house for the win as the crowd erupted at Kean University's Alumni Stadium.
I've been covering games for 17 years and that finish was right up there with Corey Lavin's touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to give Jackson Memorial a 30-28 win over Brick Memorial in the 2005 Central Jersey Group IV final as the greatest ending to a state final that I've witnessed.
Mater Dei Prep offensive coordinator Lance Bennett made the call on a play that head coach Dino Mangiero said they practice every week. The stunning finish wrapped up the first 12-0 season in Seraphs history and left them as the Shore Conference's only unbeaten team after losses by No. 1 Toms River North and No. 2 Manalapan, throwing their name into what is sure to be a ferocious debate for the final No. 1 ranking.
Pearson finished with four touchdown passes if you count the hook-and-lateral for another memorable day at Kean. When he was a freshman at Matawan, he threw four touchdown passes to help the Huskies win the Central Jersey Group III title on the same field. He is the rare player in Shore history to win state titles with two different teams, with the most recent being linebacker/running back Jazzmar Clax with Freehold in 2010 and Neptune in 2011.
With Pearson, Devaney, DE/TE Izaiah Henderson and more talent returning, the Seraphs should be a strong contender to make it two in a row. The main talk surrounding the rise of their program is whether they should be in the small-school Class B Central any more.
It could come to the point similar to St. Joseph's-Hammonton in South Jersey, which moved to a division facing bigger schools in what is now the West Jersey Football League. The Shore version would be the Seraphs moving to Class A North or B North, but that is all conjecture now because there haven't been any of those types of formal discussions.
Rumson-Fair Haven made some impressive history of its own with its fourth straight state title, joining Manasquan (1998-02) and Middletown South 2003-06) as the only programs in Shore Conference history to win at least four in a row. The Bulldogs beat South Plainfield 27-22 to capture the Central Jersey Group III title at Rutgers, sending out their talented senior class out with a ring for every year of their high school careers.
Senior running back Matt Vecchiarelli ran for 196 yards and three touchdowns and senior quarterback Mike O’Connor ran for 105 yards and a touchdown as Rumson rolled up 314 yards on the ground. Rumson did the heavy lifting in the semifinals by taking out an undefeated Somerville team averaging 50 points per game, but had to battle back from a 14-0 deficit against South Plainfield to seal the deal in the final.
The Bulldogs have won the four straight titles under two different head coaches (Bryan Batchler from 2013-15 and Jerry Schulte this year) and five titles in the last six years under three different coaches (Shane Fallon in 2010), which shows the strength of their program. Next year will be a big test given the talent in this senior class, but the Bulldogs have shown that they can lose plenty to graduation and still come right back and play for titles. They have now won five in their history, all since 2010.
The longest drought that ended other than Mater Dei Prep was by Wall, which brought home its first state title in 14 years by beating Delsea 20-7 in South Jersey Group III. The Crimson Knights used the formula they relied upon all season - pounding the ball on the ground with tailback Sean Larkin and a senior-laden offensive line, and hard-nosed defense. The result was their fourth state title in school history.
Larkin capped a tremendous senior season with 171 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries against a Delsea team that had won four straight state titles. In three playoff wins, Larkin ran for 792 yards and 13 touchdowns, which is as good as it gets in the postseason.
Head coach Dan Curcione and his staff helped the Crimson Knights become a championship team after four straight losing seasons, restoring a program that had a long stretch where it was a perennial top 10 team in the Shore. They graduate a huge senior class, so next year the challenge will be replacing that experience and talent, but obviously this season is something to build a foundation upon.
Speaking of restoring glory, two of the Shore's longtime standard-bearers, Manasquan and Asbury Park, are back on top.
Manasquan won its first state title since 2008 and its Shore Conference-record 12th overall by dominating Bernards, 42-6, in Central Jersey Group II. The Warriors racked up 300 yards rushing, including 130 in the first half by junior Connor Morgan, who had to leave the game with an ankle injury. Canyon Birch and Tommy Meyer picked up right where he left off in the second half with 150-plus yards rushing and three touchdowns.
The seniors went out as champions after consecutive 3-7 seasons, taking their place among all the other memorable teams in Manasquan history. It was also the first title under head coach Jay Price, a Manasquan graduate who played for legendary coach Vic Kubu and now has led the Warriors back to the top.
They also look to be right in the hunt again next season with Morgan, safety Tommy Antonucci (two INTs in the final), Birch and more returning.
As for Asbury Park, the Blue Bishops won their first Central Jersey Group I crown since 2011 with a 26-17 comeback thriller over Keyport. Senior running back Namir Argilagos went out with a bang, rolling up 175 yards rushing and three touchdowns, including a pair of fourth-quarter scores that helped them rally from an 11-point deficit. Senior Josmere Taylor also had a big 31-yard touchdown catch from Ja'king Agostini that jumpstarted the comeback.
Asbury Park, which avenged a regular-season loss to the 10-win Red Raiders, won its seventh title overall and fifth since 2007. It was the first one under coach Tim Fosque, an Asbury Park graduate who brought his alma mater back to the top in only two seasons. He also became the third different coach during this run of five titles in nine years to lead the Blue Bishops to a championship, showing the consistency of their talent and strength of the program.
It was a tough ending for Keyport, but the future looks bright for the Red Raiders under coach Jay Graham after being denied their first title since 2002. Fullback Devin Wollner will be back after a huge sophomore season with 1,673 yards and 9 touchdowns, and sophomore running back Greg Robinson and junior wideout Joey Kay-Flagg also return as building blocks.
The season surprisingly ended in losses for Manalapan and Toms River North. The Braves fell in Central Jersey Group V to a Piscataway team they beat during the regular season, giving them four losses in the state finals in the past six seasons. The good news is that the majority of their talented core returns, led by junior tailback Naim Mayfield, junior quarterback Luke Corcione and sophomore linebacker Tommy Pearce, so they have the ammunition to make another run and finish the job next season.
Toms River North entered the South Jersey Group V final as the defending champions and the top-ranked public school team in the state but came up short in a loss to Millville, which won its first state title since 1975. The Mariners were held to their lowest point total of the season to deny their bid to become the first back-to-back state champs in school history and end the careers of a standout senior class.
Senior quarterback Mike Husni ran for a score to finish the year with 44 total touchdowns, tying the single-season Shore Conference record set by Mater Dei Prep's Christian Palmer in 2014. He finishes his career as one of the best quarterbacks in Shore Conference history.
There was one other Monmouth County team that won a state title, but unfortunately it came at the expense of a Shore team. Allentown beat Brick 41-6 in Central Jersey Group IV to win its first state title in history, rushing for 328 yards to deny the Green Dragons their first title since 2013.
Middletown North's first trip to the state finals in 20 years ended in a 41-14 loss to Sayreville in North II Group IV to end a nine-win season for the Lions. Senior quarterback Donald Glenn finished his career as the Shore Conference's all-time leader in passing yards (7,498) and touchdown passes (71) in a year in which Middletown North won its most games since 1996 and beat Middletown South for the first time in 16 years. Senior Brendan Kube also became the first wide receiver in Shore Conference history to have two 1,000-yard receiving seasons.