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Shore Conference Football Midseason Report

With Week Five in the books, we have reached the halfway point of the season for a majority of the Shore Conference teams, so it’s time to take a look at everything that has happened so far and a look ahead at how it might all end up.

Long Branch running back/linebacker Joscil Jackson has been one of the Shore Conference’s best through the first half of the season. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle).

Brick Memorial’s 40-28 win that ended Neptune’s 14-game winning streak in Week Five may be the signal that it’s going to be an exciting finish with some heavyweight teams slugging it out for division titles before the state playoffs hit. The good news is that it looks like the debate between many teams in the top 10 will be settled on the field.

Also, while I name some players who have impressed so far, it’s not like I am saying they are All-Shore. Nothing is guaranteed at this point. These are just the players who have stood out thus far.

Best Division Race – Class A South. Four of these teams are ranked in the All Shore Media Top 10. Brick Memorial and Lacey are both in the top five, while Toms River North and Southern are right behind in second place. Brick Memorial still has to face all three of those other teams, so this race is far from over. It should be one slugfest after another that will have fans roaring right into November. Southern is the defending champion, but the most impressive teams so far have been Brick Memorial and Lacey, so we’ll see how it turns out. Runner-up: Class B South. Monsignor Donovan is alone in first place, but there are four teams only one game behind the Griffins, so there is a lot of football still to be played. Also, with super-sophomore quarterback Cinjun Erskine now eligible for Barnegat, the Bengals could be a factor down the stretch, although they need the Griffins to stumble because Monsignor Donovan already beat them.

Update on the other division races: In Class A North, Manalapan’s final hurdle to its third straight division title looks to be Colts Neck on the road on Oct. 20. In Class A Central, the race looks to be coming down to the Thanksgiving game between Red Bank Catholic and defending champion Rumson-Fair Haven. RBC has beaten the Bulldogs nine straight times and is looking for its sixth division title in the last eight years. In Class B North, Neptune has already beaten prime contenders Long Branch and Matawan and should roll to its first division title since 1998. In Class B Central, it looks to be coming down to the Thanksgiving matchup between Shore Regional and Point Beach, although Keansburg and Keyport will try to monkey wrench that scenario. Shore is looking for its second division title in three seasons, while Point Beach is searching for its first division title since 1997.

Biggest surprise (Team): Monsignor Donovan. The Griffins lost 40-0 to St. John Vianney in the opener after looking shaky in the preseason, yet have come back strong. They have not won a division title since 1993, but control their own fate for the Class B South title. Colts Neck is 4-0 for the first time in school history, but that’s not surprising given their schedule so far. Back-to-back wins over St. John Vianney and Manalapan would vault the Cougars past Monsignor Donovan as the surprise team in the Shore. St. John Vianney also has the chance to win its next four games, which would make the Lancers 6-2 and open some eyes around the Shore. Their win over Monsignor Donovan also is looking better and better by the week. I would also put Marlboro in this category. The Mustangs went winless last season and already have two divisional wins for the first time since 1999. Holmdel is also 3-2 after going 1-9 last season and has a shutout victory over defending Class B South champion Barnegat.

Biggest surprise (Player): Ryan Kurtz, Sr., Keansburg. Kurtz is a veteran, having started last year and a handful of games his sophomore year, but he has taken it up several notches this season.  The Titans are 4-1 after winning one game in the last two seasons combined, and Kurtz has devastated opposing defenses. He has had two games of five touchdowns combined between passing and rushing and has the Titans averaging 33.6 points per game after scoring 16.4 per game last year. The next major test will be to see if he can continue that level of success against Class B Central competition like Shore, Point Beach and Asbury Park.

Top newcomers: St. John Vianney junior quarterback Billy DeMato has already thrown for more than 1,000 yards in four games after transferring from Bishop Ahr. Neptune senior quarterback Ajee Patterson has also been sensational in his first and only season as the Scarlet Fliers’ starter, and the Colts Neck senior quarterback Mike Campbell has also made an impact in his only year as the starting signal-caller. Lacey senior wideout Bill Belford and Red Bank Catholic running back Jesse Flaherty have also been impact players in their first and only varsity seasons. Toms River North sophomore quarterback Carmen Sclafani has kept the offense potent for the Mariners in his first season as the starter. Matawan senior John Alston has become an important playmaker on offense for the Huskies in his only season in that role. Ocean freshman running back Tyler Thompson already has a 200-yard rushing game under his belt and appears to be one of the future superstars in the Shore Conference. Lakewood sophomore Chapelle Cook already has two 100-yard rushing games to get the Piners off to a 3-1 start. Finally, even though Brick Memorial’s Mike Basile was a defensive standout as a sophomore, he has exploded in his first season as a starting running back on offense with 13 touchdowns in five games. I also liked what I saw from Long Branch sophomore defensive end Hunter Baillie, who should be an impact player for the next two years.

Most improved (Teams): This is a three-way tie between Brick Memorial, Lacey and Point Beach. Brick Memorial has taken a quantum leap forward offensively to build a unit led by senior quarterback Ryan Cieplenski that is one of the most explosive in the Shore Conference. Lacey has done even better, averaging 46 points per game after scoring 14.4 in going 4-6 last year. Lacey and Brick Memorial have both already surpassed their win totals from last season and look to be prime contenders for division and state titles. Point Beach is off to a 5-0 start in impressive fashion, using the three-headed monster of Danny Tighe, Kyle Samaritano and Andre Cochran to devastate teams on the ground to the tune of 45.8 points per game. The Garnet Gulls tied the school record with eight wins last year, but they have the look of a team that has the potential to go 12-0 and win the program’s first state championship. Jackson Liberty also deserves a mention as its defense has gone from giving up 24 points per game to only eight this year, led by linebacker Chris Cruz and defensive back Matt Castronuova. Shore Regional is off to a 4-1 start after a six-win season and has the look of a contender for division and state titles with a defense stifling teams to an average of six points per game.

Most Improved (Players): A major reason that Lacey’s offense has exploded has been the progression of junior quarterback Tom Kelly, who took his lumps as a sophomore but has emerged as a force for the Lions. I would also put Brick Memorial senior quarterback Ryan Cieplenski in this category. Coach Walt Currie’s quarterbacks tend to take a big step forward in their second year at the helm of the triple option, and Cieplenski has become a monster, regularly amassing 250-plus yards between passing and running. Manalapan junior wide receiver Saeed Blacknall was promising as a sophomore but has emerged as the best wideout in the Shore Conference so far this season. He already has multiple FBS offers, and he is one of the most explosive all-around talents in the Shore thanks to his return ability in special teams. Long Branch senior Joscil Jackson has always been solid, but he has turned into a beast as a linebacker and a punishing runner as a senior.

Best Quarterback: This is still a wide-open race, but I would give Brick Memorial senior Ryan Cieplenski the edge right now after the monster game against Neptune and consistent brilliance all season. St. John Vianney’s Billy DeMato and Neptune’s Ajee Patterson are right behind, with Rumson-Fair Haven’s Danny Roberto and Lacey’s Tom Kelly in the mix as well. I think a darkhorse could be Manalapan’s Mike Isabella, given the firepower he has at his disposal and the fact that the Braves could go deep into the postseason. Toms River North’s Carmen Sclafani, Keansburg’s Ryan Kurtz, Keyport’s Alex Thomson and Matawan’s Kashaun Barnes need big performances against upcoming talented opponents to go up a notch. Middletown South’s Kyle Brey is also starting to come on strong. RBC’s Pat Toomey has been efficient, but the Caseys’ running game often takes much of the spotlight.

Best running back: This is even more wide open than the quarterbacks. So many teams run the spread now that the tailback is almost forgotten at a lot of places or teams feature multiple backs. Middletown South senior Jake Ripnick and Lacey senior Kyle Spatz have looked like the most consistently productive backs. Brick Memorial’s Mike Basile is explosive every time he touches the ball but usually doesn’t run the ball more than 10-11 times in a game. Colts Neck’s Anthony Gargiulo will need some big games coming up to really show what he can do against quality competition. The teams with stellar rushing attacks like Red Bank Catholic, Long Branch, and Point Beach have a stable of runners, so it’s hard to separate them. RBC has Larry Redaelli, Mike Cordova and Jesse Flaherty; Point Beach has Kyle Samaritano, Danny Tighe and Andre Cochran;  Long Branch has Joscil Jackson, Deon Williams and the soon-to-return Dwight Clark. Monsignor Donovan is another top running team with multiple weapons that are hard to separate like Grant Klimek and Vincent Grasso. A darkhorse is Southern’s Abe Gonzalez, who quietly keeps churning out 100-yard games, and Shore’s Jack Kelly is another to consider if the Blue Devils keep racking up wins. Lacey’s Christian Tutela is also a weapon, but he is more of a utility-style player who can run, make plays as a receiver, play in the secondary and serve as one of the Shore’s better punters.

Best receiver: This is always tough because some will argue that stats are all that matters, but that is unfair to top receivers who play in offenses where they don’t throw the ball like crazy. From what I’ve seen in person, Manalapan’s Saeed Blacknall is the most impressive wideout in the Shore. His own teammate, senior Anthony Firkser, is right there, and so is Colts Neck senior Tim Vangelas. Barnegat’s Pat Moran is consistently productive and may explode now that sophomore Cinjun Erskine takes over at quarterback. Rumson’s Jack Ryan will have good numbers as Danny Roberto’s favorite target and the Bulldogs will be in some big games in the postseason, so he will have a chance to make his case. A darkhorse people aren’t talking about who is quietly having a big season is St. John Vianney’s Steve Callari, who has turned in some outstanding performances for a team that puts up big numbers in the air. Lancers senior Ishmael Hyman, who has several FBS offers, is trying to get back on track after battling a knee injury. Southern junior Mike Gesicki is having a strong season and will really get a chance to cement his case in the coming weeks with games against Lacey and Brick Memorial. Neptune’s Geoff Fairbanks is another one right there for a first-team spot and he plays in an offense that features him in the passing game. Point Boro’s Kyle McGarry is another talent, but the Panthers’ offense has struggled in a recent two-game skid.

Best offensive lineman: Certainly Monsignor Donovan’s Brad Henson, a University of Virginia recruit, is in this category, but the most universally raved-about lineman is Red Bank Catholic junior tackle Quenton Nelson. He has offers from Ohio State, Boston College, Maryland, Old Dominion, Penn State and Rutgers and has dominated this year. At 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, he plays with a nasty edge for one of the Shore Conference’s top running attacks yet is very athletic as well. This is often a hard position for me to judge because I am watching the ball while filming the game, so I do rely heavily on watching film when I can and talking to a lot of coaches. I will look to delve a little deeper for the top O-linemen in coming weeks.

Best defensive lineman: Returning first-teamer Josh Klecko of Red Bank Catholic has missed some games with a knee injury, while Red Bank defensive end Garrett Sickels and his team have had an uphill battle with an 0-4 start. I would put Manalapan’s John Appice, Brick’s Dan Watson, Lacey’s Tim Grochowski, Toms River North’s Garrett Kroeger, Brick Memorial’s Richie Kuhn, Shore Regional’s Matt Proto and Luis Bernardes and Middletown South’s Taylor Hendrickson up there from what I’ve seen, but there are plenty of other deserving names out there. A darkhorse could be Keyport’s Connor Thomson.  I’m looking forward to seeing Southern’s front line this week because the Rams have been a stingy defensive team.

Best linebacker: The most impressive linebacker I have seen in person this year is Long Branch’s Joscil Jackson, a great combination of size and speed who hits like a ton of bricks. Manalapan’s Chris Noesges also has been solid, and Middletown South usually has a candidate, most likely Ryan Patterson this year. The Holmdel tandem of Brett Lambert and sophomore Frank Condito has anchored that unit, and Rumson’s Travis Clark has led a productive Bulldogs’ defense. A rising star on an outstanding defense is Red Bank Catholic’s Ryan Schoer, a junior who leads the Caseys in tackles. Brick Memorial junior Jake Lombardo is another to watch along with fellow junior Nick Costa. Lacey’s Casey Sirotniak and Liam Dolly deserve consideration along with Toms River North’s Tom Pizzola. Matawan’s Dan Incle, Ocean’s Dan Loizos, Neptune’s David Calderon, Jackson Memorial’s Ken Bradley, Shore’s Jack Kelly, St. John Vianney’s Tom Turi, Point Beach’s Kyle Samaritano, Jackson Liberty’s Chris Cruz, Barnegat’s Greg Moran and Lakewood’s Solomon Cobbs make this a pretty deep position in the Shore.

Best defensive back: Some of the Shore’s best have been out of action, as Long Branch corner/safety Dwight Clark has yet to play because of an ankle injury and Lakewood safety Tyrice Beverette also has missed two games with a variety of physical issues. Matawan’s Glenn Cross has moved from linebacker to safety and remained productive, and I liked what I saw from Long Branch’s Corey Morris and Shabazz Shuler when I saw them in person. Neptune cornerback Kyle Lewis also has been excellent and made big plays in big games. Red Bank Catholic senior James Taylor has been very solid, but he is more of a utility-type player because of his outstanding return ability on special teams and his impact as a wide receiver. Rumson’s secondary has been solid all-around between the Nitto brothers and Michael Clarke. Barnegat’s Pat Moran has been a force at safety, and Asbury Park’s Jaquele Goodman is a playmaker in the back for the Blue Bishops. This is another position that is hard to judge without watching more highlights and film because a cornerback who is locking someone down is not as noticeable when you are following the ball on every play. This is another position I will look to delve deeper into during the coming weeks.

Best kicker: This is a loaded category. I would give Toms River North’s Chris Gulla a slight edge over the likes of Middletown South’s Connor Ryan, Matawan’s Mike Creamer, Red Bank Catholic’s Pat Toomey, Rumson’s Jake D’Amelio, Manalapan’s Mike Caggiano, Shore’s Jake Monteiro, Barnegat’s Pat Moran, Lacey’s Liam Dolly, and Monsignor Donovan’s Grant Klimek. This category is more often determined by opportunity than skill. The kickers who get the most field goal attempts or get more chances to hit clutch kicks in big games get a leg up (no pun intended) on their competition.

Coach of the Year: I would say one of the best jobs done so far has been by Monsignor Donovan’s Dan Duddy, whose Griffins bounced back from a season-opening loss to win three straight and take sole possession of first place in Class B South. If Monsignor Donovan wins its first division title since 1993, that’s not a bad argument. Last year’s ASM Coach of the Year, Point Beach’s John Wagner, could be right there for a second consecutive accolade. The Garnet Gulls have real potential to go 12-0 and win a state title, which they have never done. Brick Memorial’s Walt Currie and Lacey’s Lou Vircillo both have teams that are undefeated and have already surpassed their win totals from last year, so they are ones to watch. If Manalapan wins its first state title, Ed Gurrieri will be a strong candidate. Shore’s Mark Costantino could also be in the mix if the Blue Devils win division and state titles for the second time in three years. Still, so much can happen between now and December. Coach of the Year is often not decided until that final weekend, so it’s hard to speculate too much with so many big games coming up. All it takes is an impressive playoff run for the likes of Middletown South’s Steve Antonucci or Long Branch’s Dan George and they would surge right to the front.

State playoff predictions: Manalapan and Brick Memorial will fight for the Central Jersey Group V title. Sayreville will be the favorite to take the title over Middletown South in CJ IV. Neptune still looks like the favorite to repeat as CJ III champs, with Long Branch and Allentown looking like prime contenders. Rumson-Fair Haven should be right there for its third straight appearance in the CJ II final, with Shabazz looking like the prime obstacle. The CJ I title looks like it will be a showdown between Point Beach and Shore, who could play a week earlier for the B Central title on Thanksgiving. In South Jersey, Southern and Toms River North will be contenders in South Jersey Group V, where Williamstown is the favorite. Lacey will be a serious contender in SJ IV, with Timber Creek as a primary roadblock. Barnegat could make waves in SJ III, with Delsea as a main threat. Finally, Red Bank Catholic will try to make its first state final since 1980 in Non-Public Group III, where defending champion St. Joseph-Montvale is the heavy favorite.

And finally, a few quick accolades.

Best haircut –  (tie) Joe Hans, Brick Memorial and Ben Watson, Lakewood

Best in-game wearing of a tuxedo – Never question the Lakewood coaching staff’s commitment to the Piners. The coaches will be there even if it means leaving at halftime for a wedding.

Best snackbar – No idea. Twitter posts have robbed me of any free time to eat.

Best highlight – (tie) A juking, 70-yard touchdown by Toms River North’s Joey Fields (click here) and Sam Shaud’s unbelievable sideline catch for Rumson to help beat Shore (click here).

Biggest mid-season acquisitions – Barnegat is now settled at quarterback with Holy Spirit transfer Cinjun Erskine getting eligible this week after sitting via NJSIAA transfer rule. Long Branch is also awaiting the return of senior star Dwight Clark at tailback, which could make the Green Wave a big factor going into the postseason.

Best atmosphere – Middletown South vs. Manalapan at The Swamp. The crowd was going nuts from beginning to end and there was plenty of tension and big plays. Plus it came down to the final 25 seconds.

 

 

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