Shore Conference State Sectional Semifinal Preview
With 11 Shore Conference teams still standing in the state playoffs, this weekend will decide who gets to play for a state championship.
Nine games featuring Shore Conference teams are on the slate this weekend, from the small schools battling it out in Central Jersey Group I, to the big boys in Group V and Non-Public Group III waging major showdowns. Here is a look at what to watch in each of the nine games, and the keys to victory for each of the Shore Conference teams involved.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP V
(4) Hunterdon Central (5-4-1) at (1) Manalapan (10-0), Friday at 7 p.m.
Manalapan’s keys to victory
- Stop the run. Hunterdon Central will look to establish the ground game and control the clock with junior running back Jason Cabinda, who has 1,427 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns, averaging 158 yards rushing per game. A strong front seven for the Braves led by defensive lineman John Appice (78 tackles) and linebacker Chris Noesges (118 tackles) needs to consistently force the Red Devils into second-and-8, third-and-7 situations that take Cabinda out of the game plan.
- Hit the big play. There are few defensive backs in the state who can stay with Manalapan wideouts Anthony Firkser and Saeed Blacknall. They almost certainly will get behind the defense early on, so if senior quarterback Mike Isabella (1,709 yards, 21 TDs) can hit them for a long ball early to put Hunterdon Central on its heels, that will be crucial.
- Take care of the ball. A main way Hunterdon Central can hang in this game is if Manalapan limits its possessions with turnovers. Junior tailback Tyler Leonetti is an effective weapon to set up the deep shot to those wideouts, and as long as he protects the ball, the Braves should be able to consistently move down the field.
- Get an early lead. If Manalapan can get up by double digits early on and force Hunterdon Central to move away from the run to primarily throwing the ball, the Braves will be in a good spot. Hunterdon Central quarterback junior quarterback Michael Knight has been effective with 1,064 yards passing and nine touchdowns, but most of it comes from play action and having an effective running game to set up the pass. Appice (9.5 sacks) is one of the Shore’s fiercest pass rushers, so if Manalapan can tell him to just go after the quarterback without worrying as much about the run, that’s a big advantage.
Game notes: Manalapan is 10-0 for the first time in school history and can set the school record for wins by beating Hunterdon Central…The Braves are shooting for their second straight sectional final and third in school history. They have never won a state title…Hunterdon Central beat another Shore Conference opponent, Brick Memorial, 40-21 in the first round…Senior wideout Anthony Firkser, who has verbally committed to play football and basketball at Harvard, has 35 catches for 810 yards and 9 total touchdowns for the Braves. Junior wideout Saeed Blacknall, who has multiple FBS offers, has 33 catches for 620 yards and a team-high 15 touchdowns…Junior tailback Tyler Leonetti has 1,092 yards and 14 touchdowns to keep Manalapan’s streak alive of having a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2003….Hunterdon Central has three primary receivers: junior wideout Ryan Dunleavy (28-429, 3 TD); senior Jonathan Delello (22-315, 3 TD); senior Tyler Parker (21-360, 5 TD)…Manalapan is averaging 37.5 points per game and giving up 9.9. Hunterdon Central, which has won 5 of 6 games after an 0-3 start, is averaging 33 points per game and giving up 22.7 points per game…Hunterdon Central has reached nine sectional finals in its history and won five state championships.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP IV
(7) Middletown South (7-3) at (3) Colts Neck (9-1), 1 p.m. on Saturday
Colts Neck keys to the game
- Stop the run. It’s been no coincidence that in games where Middletown South senior fullback Jake Ripnick (1,002 yards, 15 TDs) has been held in check, the Eagles have struggled. Colts Neck’s rugged front seven, led by a stellar group of linebackers, needs to get a stalemate up front.
- Balanced offense. The Cougars are hard to defend because if you sell out on junior tailback Anthony Gargiulo (1,189 yards, 14 TDs), you leave yourself open to get torched downfield by the combination of senior quarterback Mike Campbell (1,814 yards, 17 TDs) and senior wideout Tim Vangelas (46-918, 13 TDs). If Colts Neck can consistently get in second-and-5 or shorter, it becomes very difficult to stop because you have to defend some many different options.
- Create turnovers. Colts Neck’s linebackers play the pass pretty well and the team has a whopping 18 interceptions as a whole. They were able to come up with a key red zone turnover in their first meeting with the Eagles, and they need to continue the trend of frustrating teams by stalling out drives with picks.
Middletown South keys to the game
- Win up front on both sides. The Eagles’ offensive line has to get a consistent push in order to establish Ripnick and force Colts Neck’s defense to take that extra step toward the line of scrimmage to set up play-action. The longer Middletown South can pound away with Ripnick, the less time it has to worry about Colts Neck’s multi-dimensional offense. On the other side, it has to find a way to slow down Gargiulo and make Colts Neck one-dimensional.
- Pressure Campbell. The Eagles need to get some heat on Campbell and keep him bracketed in the pocket on passing downs. He is a mobile quarterback who can make plays with his legs, so they need to force him to sit in the pocket and take a shot from a pass rusher if he is going to get a pass off downfield. Defensive linemen Conner Spreen and Taylor Hendrickson will be key in this area.
- Finish drives. Middletown South has shown it can move the ball against this team, but it can’t have the red zone turnovers and lack of execution deep in Colts Neck territory that hurt the Eagles in their first meeting with the Cougars. When they get a chance to hit a big play-action pass, they have to execute it. When they get down near the goal line, they have to find a way to punch it in.
Game notes: Colts Neck beat Middletown South 28-9 in the regular season for its first win ever against the Eagles…The Cougars have already set a school single-season record with 9 wins…Colts Neck head coach Greg LaCava is a former Middletown South assistant who coached on the state championship teams in the early 1990s…The Cougars have never reached a sectional final…Middletown South is second all-time in Shore Conference history with 9 sectional titles. The Eagles are gunning for their 19th sectional final appearance in history and their 10th in the last 12 seasons…Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci is tied for third in Shore Conference history with five sectional titles….Anthony Gargiulo also plays linebacker and leads Colts Neck with 119 tackles. Senior linebacker Gio Zefferino has 103 and senior linebacker Mike Monda has 101. Junior defensive back John Miller has a team-high six interceptions…Senior wideout Tim Vangelas has offers from Bucknell, Colgate, Lafayette and Monmouth University.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP III
(3) Long Branch (9-1) at (2) Nottingham (9-1), Saturday at 1 p.m.
Long Branch keys to the game
- Win up front. If Long Branch’s offense line wins the battle, Nottingham is in serious trouble because the Green Wave’s three-headed attack will be almost impossible to stop. Seniors Joscil Jackson (981 yards, 9 TDs) and Dwight Clark and junior Deon Williams (679 yards, 11 TDs) form a rugged group of relentless backs. Jackson didn’t play on Thanksgiving because of a nagging ankle injury from Long Branch’s first-round playoff win over Matawan, but should be good to go in this one. This is Clark’s third game back from a broken ankle suffered in the preseason. He scored his first touchdown of the year last week in a win over Red Bank on Thanksgiving.
- Prevent the big play. Nottingham is an explosive offensive team that has a balanced offense with 1,400 yards passing between two quarterbacks and 1,330 yards on the ground. The Northstars have good speed to the outside, and a pivotal score in their first-round win over Manasquan was an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown by Saquaan Hampton. Long Branch has to force Nottingham to grind out long drives and not let it hit big plays in the running game that set up play-action.
- Get a pass rush. While Nottingham’s running game has picked it up in the last two weeks, this team is at its best when it can make plays in the air with the tandem of quarterbacks Luke Westerberg and Stephen Adams. If the likes of Arturo Rios and Hunter Baillie can get after those two consistently, it could lead to turnovers that Long Branch turns into clock-chewing drives with its running game.
Game notes: Long Branch is trying to reach its first sectional final since 2007 and win its first sectional title since 1999 and the third in school history…Nottingham is coming off its first state playoff victory since 2005 and has never reached a state final. The last Mercer County public school team to win a state championship was Ewing in 1985…The Northstars enter banged up, as top running backs Wroway Williams and Josh Lajeunesse and starting offensive lineman Aaron Levinson all sat out of a win over Notre Dame on Friday with minor injuries and are expected to be ready to go on Saturday…Long Branch sophomore kicker Vicente Mota is 6-for-6 on field goal attempts this year and 27-for-34 on PATs…Green Wave senior quarterback Avry Griffin has combined for 931 total yards and 11 touchdowns between rushing and passing…Nottingham rotates quarterbacks. Senior Luke Westerberg has thrown for 798 yards and 9 touchdowns, and junior Stephen Adams has thrown for 602 yards and 9 touchdowns.
(4) Neptune (8-2) at (1) Allentown (9-1), 7 p.m. on Friday
Neptune keys to the game
- Take care of the ball. Neptune’s offense has been turnover-prone this season, and when it hit a two-game skid in the middle of the season, a big reason was an offense that was giving the ball away, including six turnovers in a loss to Red Bank. Allentown has an explosive offense, so Neptune wants to limit the amount of possessions it gets while also dictating field position. Not to mention that Neptune’s big-play offense is hard to stop when it executes properly between senior quarterback Ajee Patterson (2,123 yards, 20 TDs passing/88-433, 10 TDs rushing) and his army of playmakers in the passing game – Keith Kirkwood, Geoff Fairbanks, Keyshawn Rice and Myles Martin.
- Neutralize Norman Williams. This is easier said than done, but if Neptune can take him out of the gameplan, that will be huge. The 6-foot, 200-pound Williams has 1,372 yards rushing and is averaging 7.9 yards per carry. He also has 13 catches for 276 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 121 yards against Neptune last year in the Scarlet Fliers’ wild, 40-33 overtime win over the Redbirds. Jamming him up at the line of scrimmage early in the game could also help dent Allentown’s confidence a little.
- Take advantage of mismatches. When Neptune is at its best, it gets one-on-one mismatches and exploits them. If Keith Kirkwood is single-covered by a smaller corner, put the ball up for him to go get it. If Geoff Fairbanks is open in space across the middle of the field with one defender to beat, get it to him. There are certain players who Allentown has no answer for, and Neptune needs to get the ball in their hands.
Game notes: Neptune is trying to repeat as Central Jersey Group III champions and win consecutive state titles for the first time since 1997-98 and the second time in program history…In his first and only varsity football season, senior Keith Kirkwood, who has multiple Division I offers in basketball, has gotten a football offer from Hawaii and interest from Penn State, Maryland, UConn, N.C. State, West Virginia and Louisville. Kirkwood has 27 catches for 623 yards and 7 touchdowns…Senior wideout Geoff Fairbanks has offers from Liberty University and Monmouth, and he leads the team with 31 catches for 471 yards and 4 touchdowns…Neptune has five players with 16 or more catches…Allentown had never won a state playoff game in its history before beating Ocean 35-7 in the first round. The Redbirds made their first playoff appearance ever last year and lost to Neptune in the first round…Neptune head coach Mark Ciccotelli has led three teams to CJ III titles, two at Freehold and one at Neptune.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP I
(4) Asbury Park (6-3) at (1) Shore (8-2), 7 p.m. on Friday
Shore Regional keys to the game
- Pound the ball on the ground. Shore’s running attack was neutralized by Point Beach last week to the tune of 17 yards, so the Blue Devils look to get back on track against an Asbury Park team they beat 37-12 during the regular season by moving the ball on the ground in the Wing-T. Shore ran for 116 yards on Asbury Park in the first meeting, which was a deceiving stat because the defense put Shore in great field position most of the game.
- Protect the quarterback. Opponents have been able to generate points off sacks on quarterback Matt Muh (722 yds, 11 TDs), whether it’s blindside hits for fumbles or interceptions. Asbury Park scored on a fumble recovery off a sack in their first meeting. Last week, Muh was sacked six times by Point Beach. The Blue Devils’ offensive line has to give him time to operate.
- Make Asbury Park one-dimensional. Shore completely took away Asbury Park’s passing game in the first meeting, recording three interceptions, one of which Chris Vaccaro returned 50 yards for a touchdown. If they can force Asbury Park to line up in the Wildcat and make it obvious that the Blue Bishops are running, they will be in great shape.
Asbury Park keys to the game
- No turnovers. This has been an Achilles’ heel for the Blue Bishops. Junior quarterback Robert Barksdale has thrown 13 touchdown passes, but he has also thrown 15 interceptions, including four last week in a loss to Neptune. He has to make good decisions and limit Shore’s possessions.
- Win the field position battle. Shore dominated on special teams and defense in particular in their first meeting, often putting Asbury Park’s offense in a deep hole to start drives. The Blue Bishops have to find a way to reverse that in this game.
- Run the ball effectively. This was a challenge in their first meeting. The Blue Bishops have to hit some big plays with senior Shaheim Tillman (736 yds, 4 TDs), junior Daquane Bland-Bennett and sophomore Tyquis Davis on the ground to loosen up Shore’s defense so that it can’t send everyone at Barksdale.
Game notes: Shore and Asbury Park have combined to win the last five Central Jersey Group I titles, with Asbury Park winning four of them. Asbury Park has six sectional titles in its history, while Shore has five…Shore’s leading rusher is senior fullback Jack Kelly, who has 765 yards and 10 touchdowns…Shore’s defense has 9 interceptions on the season, led by two apiece for Connor Rogers and Brian Miller…Shore is trying to win its second CJ I title in the last three seasons, while Asbury Park is trying to win its fifth in the last six years.
(3) Florence (9-1) at (2) Point Beach (10-0), 7 p.m. on Friday
Point Beach keys to the game
- No turnovers. Point Beach’s running game featuring seniors Kyle Samaritano, Danny Tighe and Andre Cochran has been unstoppable all year long. The only thing that can slow them down is turning the ball over.
- Defend the run. This will be the second straight week that the Garnet Gulls are facing a fellow Wing-T team, as Florence has run it forever under 39-year head coach Joe Frappolli. The fearsome Point Beach defensive line needs to get a stalemate and allow the linebackers to come in and make plays. If they can get a lead and force Florence to be one-dimensional in the passing game, they will be in the driver’s seat.
- Seize an early lead. Point Beach will be at home and looking to ride a wave of momentum from a large crowd. If it can score a couple touchdowns early and get Florence on its heels, it will be tough for the Flashes to recover, especially because they are not a throwing team built to come from behind.
Game notes: Point Beach is trying to reach its first sectional final since 1982 and its second in school history. The Garnet Gulls have never won a state title. They have already won a school-record 10 games, but have never won two playoff games in the same season…Senior Danny Tighe leads the Shore Conference with 1,551 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns on 13.7 yards per carry. Seniors Kyle Samaritano and Andre Cochran each have over 700 yards rushing as well…The Garnet Gulls have scored 40 or more points in nine of their 10 games…Florence last won a state title in 2006 and has won five state championships in its history in 12 appearances in the finals…Asbury Park beat Florence 42-18 in last year’s CJ Group I championship game….Florence senior linebacker and leading tackler Rich Meyers has received FCS interest and also has 10 touchdowns as a wingback on offense.
SOUTH JERSEY GROUP V
(6) Southern (8-2) at (2) Eastern (7-3), 7 p.m. on Friday
Southern keys to the game
- Get a consistent pass rush. Even though Southern has a standout secondary, Eastern quarterback Tom Flacco is too good to be left sitting back there. Lacey quarterback Tom Kelly was able to pick apart Southern early in the season with short, accurate passes because he had time to throw. The Rams don’t want to let that happen in this game.
- Run the ball effectively. The best way to keep Eastern’s potent offense off the field is to pound the Vikings with senior tailback Abe Gonzalez (1,123 yards, 17 total TDs) and eat up the clock while also setting up play-action shots to wideouts Mike Gesicki and Nick Hem.
- Don’t panic. Eastern is a big-play team that will try to swing the haymaker early on while playing on its home field. Southern needs to shake off any big plays and keep attacking. Eastern gave up 38 points to Toms River North last week, so its defense can be scored on quickly. Southern has to mentally be ready for a potential see-saw game where the momentum goes back and forth.
Game notes: Southern is trying to reach its first sectional final since 2008 and the second in school history. The Rams have never won a state title…Southern senior quarterback Dan Higgins has thrown for 1,509 yards and 17 touchdowns on 58 percent accuracy. His top target is 6-foot-6 junior wideout Mike Gesicki, who has offers from Rutgers and Boston College. He has 40 catches for 740 yards and 8 touchdowns. Fellow wideout Nick Hem has 27 catches for 391 yards and 3 touchdowns…Eastern quarterback Tom Flacco is the younger brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. He has thrown for over 2,500 yards for the Vikings, who are averaging 26.8 points per game. Southern enters averaging 25.6 points per game…Could be a nice battle between Gesicki and Eastern defensive back Eli Woodard, who is committed to Ohio State. Both play wideout and defensive back…Defensive back Luke Sheehan leads the Rams with six interceptions and Gesicki has four…Eastern has reached the finals six times, and its only state championship came in 2003.
SOUTH JERSEY GROUP IV
(6) Kingsway (7-3) at (2) Lacey (10-0), Saturday at 1 p.m.
Lacey keys to the game
- Bleed the clock with Kyle Spatz. Kingsway won a wild, 52-47 game over Moorestown in the first round, so the best-case scenario for Lacey would be that it just wears out the Dragons’ defense with senior tailback Kyle Spatz (1,134 yards, 17 total TDs) and keeps Kingsway’s offense off the field. Lacey has shown it can win a shootout, like its 45-31 win over Toms River South in the first round, but it doesn’t want the Kingsway offense to gain confidence as the game progresses. Kingsway gave up 242 yards rushing to Moorestown in that game, so it’s ripe for Spatz to have a big day.
- Slow down Ray Lawry. This is easier said than done, as the Kingsway junior running back has 1,828 yards rushing and has been an explosive threat all season. He scored four touchdowns in the win over Moorestown and exploded for 260 yards rushing and five touchdowns in a win over Clearview in their Thanksgiving game. He has taken unofficial visits to Penn State, Rutgers, and Temple but does not have any offers yet. Still, he is the engine that drives the team. Frustrate him, and Kingsway is in trouble. Lacey has struggled defensively at times against teams with solid running attacks, so this has the potential to become Spatz and Lawry trading highlight plays. The bad news for the Lions is that Lawry is not the only weapon, as Kingsway has two 1,000-yard rushers, with Emilio Irving going for 1,046 yards.
- Hit big plays off play-action. If Spatz starts having his way, that will open it up for quarterbacks Tom Kelly and Conor Davies to have some opportunities for big scoring plays with wideouts Bill Belford and Christian Tutela down the field.
Game notes: Lacey is shooting for its second undefeated season in three years. The Lions have won four state titles in their history…Head coach Lou Vircillo is the only coach in the history of Lacey’s program, which started in 1981. His 258 career wins rank third all-time in Shore Conference history…Lacey won its 13th division title this season…Kingsway shared a division title with Clearview and Shawnee this season…Kingsway has reached three sectional finals in its history, winning one title…Lacey is second in the Shore Conference in points per game at 39.2…Lacey quarterback Tom Kelly (1,132 yards, 14 TDs passing) returned to see limited action in the first round of the playoffs after missing a month from a broken collarbone. Sophomore Conor Davies was 41-for-49 for 531 yards and 8 touchdowns in Kelly’s absence…Lacey senior kicker Liam Dolly has booted 19 touchbacks this season in addition to two field goals. He also has 68 tackles as a linebacker.
NON-PUBLIC GROUP III
(4) Red Bank Catholic (10-0) at St. Joseph-Montvale (8-2), 1 p.m. on Saturday
Red Bank Catholic keys to the game
- Control the line of scrimmage on offense. Clearly this is a tall task against a team like St. Joseph, but the Caseys are big and physical enough to be able to move the pile enough to keep the chains moving. They have to win this battle because if they are in third-and-7 all day, they are done. Junior tackle Quenton Nelson, a high-level FBS recruit, leads the way.
- Get a pass rush. St. Joe’s quarterback Spencer Aukamp (1,300 yards, 9 TDs) has a lethal wideout in 6-foot-3 senior Ricky Jeune, who has six FBS offers. The Caseys have to get on top of Aukamp before he has time for long patterns to develop and can unload it to Jeune. Junior running back Sherman Alston is averaging 9.4 yards per carry this season in amassing 846 yards and 11 touchdowns, so this is a balanced offense. Still, RBC would rather take a chance with the game coming down to its run defense.
- Move the chains with accurate, short passes. Junior quarterback Pat Toomey (774 yards, 6 TDs) is going to have to hit some throws under pressure to move the chains because it won’t be easy to just line up and bulldoze St. Joe’s with the running game like RBC did to the Shore Conference this year with the trio of junior Larry Redaelli (891 yards, 12 TDs), sophomore Mike Cordova (493, 5) and senior Jesse Flaherty (411, 8). It definitely helps that Toomey is a good athlete who can make plays with his legs and throw on the run.
Game notes: St. Joseph-Montvale is the defending Non-Public Group III champion and has won 15 sectional titles in its illustrious history…The Green Knights are coming off a 20-10 win over Don Bosco Prep that ended the Ironmen’s 61-game winning streak against Shore Conference competition…RBC has tied the school record with 10 wins. The Caseys have not made a state final since 1980 and their only state championship came in 1976…RBC senior two-way lineman Josh Klecko is verbally committed to Rutgers…Junior linebacker Mark Fossati is a tremendous all-around player and the leader of the St. Joe’s defense with 135 tackles and 2.5 sacks…RBC needs to win the battle on special teams and has the ability to do it. Toomey has kicked 12 touchbacks, three field goals and 46 PATs, and senior James Taylor has returned five kicks/punts for touchdowns this year.