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Shore Conference Football Playoff Picks

A maximum of nine Shore Conference teams have a shot to make the state sectional finals this weekend, and I think seven of them making it is a pretty realistic outcome.

Anthony Firkser and Manalapan take on Hunterdon Central in Central Jersey Group V in a bid to reach their second straight sectional final. (Photo by Bill Normile).

Before we get that, I would like to declare my Thanksgiving picks shockingly decent. Going into the final two games on Saturday, I had only lost one game and it was by a touchdown, but then Jackson Memorial and St. John Vianney finished their seasons strong to hand me two losses on the way out the door. Still, not bad, and to all the seniors who wrapped up their careers this past week, good luck in everything going forward.

For the 11 teams still standing, good luck this weekend. The Shore is guaranteed to have two finalists, as Shore Regional hosts Asbury Park in Central Jersey Group I, and Colts Neck welcomes Middletown South in Central Jersey Group IV.

Last week: 15-3

Season: 189-53

Friday’s Games

Central Jersey Group V

Hunterdon Central (5-4-1) at Manalapan (10-0), 7 p.m.: Hunterdon Central has been a tough out in the playoffs over the years, so Manalapan should get a challenge, but when I saw this bracket before the playoffs started, I felt like it would be a disappointment if the Braves didn’t take home their first state title. No team has held Manalapan under 24 points this season, and Hunterdon Central’s defense gives up 23 points per game, so the Braves have a chance to put up a big number in this one. There is the potential for a shootout given that Hunterdon Central averages 33 points per game and has a 1,400-yard rusher in Jason Cabinda. Teams have gashed Manalapan on the ground at times this season, but it’s not like Manalapan isn’t equipped to keep up if it gets wild on the scoreboard. Senior quarterback Mike Isabella, junior tailback Tyler Leonetti and star wideouts Anthony Firkser and Saeed Blacknall have just been too much for any team to contain for 48 minutes. The Braves can set the school record for wins in the process. The pick: Manalapan.

Central Jersey Group III

Neptune (8-2) at Allentown (9-1), 7 p.m.: This should be one of the most fun and competitive games of the night. Neptune is the defending Central Jersey Group III champs, so if Allentown wants to make school history by reaching its first sectional final, it has to take it from them. The Redbirds had Neptune on the ropes in a 40-33 overtime loss in last year’s playoffs. There will be plenty of explosive offensive players on the field in this one. Neptune’s defense has been very solid against the run in the past two weeks and seems to have improved in the last third of the season, so I think the Scarlet Fliers will do enough to slow down Allentown dynamo Norman Williams. The offense has to avoid turnovers and the offensive line has to give senior quarterback Ajee Patterson time to throw. If those two things happen, I think Neptune has enough firepower to get this done. This is not like the old days where I would just predict the Shore Conference team to walk to victory. Allentown is a legitimately talented team that is establishing a program that will be a regular contender in this bracket. It’s going to take all Neptune has got, but its speed and playmaking ability down the field looks to be the difference. I picked Neptune to repeat as champions before the playoffs started, so I’m not backing off that now. The main thing that scares me is that this Neptune team has been so flaky. The Scarlet Fliers can make your jaw drop in awe in some games and make you shake your head wondering how they are so lost in others. If they are locked in, they will be fine. The pick: Neptune.

Central Jersey Group I

Asbury Park (6-3) at Shore (8-2), 7 p.m.: It’s kind of weird how it worked out that after both of Shore’s losses this season, it has had to play Asbury Park the following week. The first time, the Blue Devils beat the Blue Bishops 37-12 after losing to Rumson-Fair Haven in overtime. Now they look to bounce back from a 19-7 loss to Point Beach that cost them the Class B Central title. I covered the first meeting between these two teams, and it was all about Shore’s defense creating turnovers for easy scores and making Asbury Park one-dimensional on offense. Asbury Park is the defending CJ Group I champion, so it is not going down without a fight. Shore desperately wants another shot at Point Beach, and this is the only way to get it. I think the Shore defense will make the plays again while the offense regains its footing to grind out a victory and reach the Blue Devils’ second sectional final in the last three years. The pick: Shore.

Florence (9-1) at Point Beach (10-0), 7 p.m.: It should be another great atmosphere at Point Beach with the Garnet Gulls gunning for their first sectional final appearance since 1982 and the second in school history. Florence is a battle-tested, perennially tough team that is used to playing in pressure-filled playoff games, so it will not be intimidated. I just think this is Beach’s year, plain and simple. Nobody has stopped those three running backs (Danny Tighe, Andre Cochran, Kyle Samaritano) all season, and Point Beach showed last week against Shore that it can win with defense when the offense shoots itself in the foot with holding penalties and fumbles. This is a complete team. The pick: Point Beach.

South Jersey Group V

Southern (8-2) at Eastern (7-3), 7 p.m.: This is another game that could be a lot of fun given the results of the first-round games for these two teams. Southern pulled out a 33-32 thriller over Washington Township, while Eastern outlasted Toms River North 41-38 in a wild game. It’s going to be Eastern quarterback Tom Flacco against a quality Southern secondary led by Luke Sheehan and Mike Gesicki. The X-factor is Southern’s pass rush. The Rams have to get after Flacco and force him to throw under pressure. On the flip side, the Rams have to take care of the ball and straight up pound Eastern with Abe Gonzalez and the running game and then hit the Vikings hard on play-action by senior quarterback Dan Higgins unloading it to the 6-foot-6 Gesicki and fellow wideout Nick Hem. I think the Rams can pull this off as long as they avoid turnovers. I feel like this pick is a littler homer-ish, but I legitimately think Southern can do this. The pick: Southern.

Saturday’s Games

Central Jersey Group IV

Middletown South (7-3) at Colts Neck (9-1), 1 p.m.: This is the best local game on Saturday, so there should be a good crowd in Cougar-land. Colts Neck beat Middletown South 28-9 in their first meeting with a balanced offense and an opportunistic defense. I would anticipate the Eagles will give Colts Neck more of a battle this time around, but I picked Colts Neck to reach its first sectional final before the playoffs started and I am sticking with that. The combination of Anthony Gargiulo on the ground and the work of quarterback Mike Campbell, wideout Tim Vangelas and tight end Connor Canonico in the air has been tough for anyone to completely slow down. I also think Colts Neck has one of the best groups, if not the best group, of linebackers in the Shore Conference. That’s key against a team that wants to establish the run like Middletown South with Jake Ripnick. The pick: Colts Neck.

Central Jersey Group III

Long Branch (9-1) at Nottingham (9-1), 1 p.m.: I picked Long Branch to reach the final, and I am staying with that. Dwight Clark seems to be easing back into the groove, and Joscil Jackson will be back from an ankle injury. Manasquan had this Nottingham team on the ropes and couldn’t put the Northstars away, and Long Branch is a better team than Manasquan. I think the Green Wave’s speed will be the difference, and their secondary is one of the better ones I have seen. That will be crucial against a Nottingham team intent on doing damage in the air. Watch for sophomore defensive back Dahmiere Willis. He looks like the next big-time player at Long Branch. I think the big three of Clark, Jackson and Deon Williams will pound away on the ground and the Green Wave will be back in the finals for the first time since 2007. The pick: Long Branch.

South Jersey Group IV

Kingsway (7-3) at Lacey (10-0), 1 p.m.: Kingsway is a scary team for a sixth seed, with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers led by stud back Ray Lawry. That’s not the best matchup for a Lacey defense that has given up some big rushing totals this year. The good news is that Lacey has an offense that can pull it out of the scoreboard starts shooting sparks. The question is whether the Lions will still be rotating quarterbacks between junior Tom Kelly and sophomore Conor Davies now that Kelly is back from a broken collarbone that halted a brilliant season. The two both played in the first-round win over Toms River South, so we’ll see if the Lions go back with Kelly and stick with him or use them both. Kingsway’s defense gave up 242 yards rushing in the first round, so you know Lacey 1,000-yard rusher Kyle Spatz is smiling when he watches that film. This game is on Lacey’s defense, the way I see it. The Lions are going to score, so if the defense can just get a couple stops or turn turnovers into points (Lacey has 8 defensive touchdowns this year), Lacey should get its eagerly-awaited rematch with Timber Creek in the final. The pick: Lacey.

Non-Public Group III

Red Bank Catholic (10-0) at St. Joseph-Montvale (8-2), 1 p.m.: No problem, RBC. All you have to do to make your first state final since 1980 is to go on the road and beat the No. 1 team in the state, the same team that just ended Don Bosco Prep’s 61-game winning streak against New Jersey competition. Nothing like going from Goliath all season to David in the state playoffs. RBC is equipped to stay in the game because of its big offensive line and a rugged front seven that has no fear of a physical game. Where these North Jersey juggernauts usually separate themselves is with elite skill players and game-changing speed. Can RBC cover their receivers, led by Ricky Jeune? Can the Caseys stop stud running back Sherman Alston from busting big runs for 48 minutes? Can quarterback Pat Toomey make enough throws to win the game if he has to put it up 20-plus times because the running game isn’t dominating like it usually does against Shore competition? We’re going to find out. I will say one thing: talking to RBC players all year, they love these games. They went to RBC because they wanted to play in these games and test themselves against the best of the best in New Jersey. If you play well in a game like this, college coaches will be calling and that film will be circulating, which is a nice side benefit. This is the final frontier for RBC. It has accomplished everything else, so this is the final step, and by far the hardest one. I will be making the trip up to Montvale, which is two miles south of the border to Maine, because there is going to be some great talent on the field and it should be something to see. I don’t have the guts to pick RBC, but what Shore fan wouldn’t love to see the Caseys get it done? The pick: St. Joseph-Montvale.

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