Shore Conference Thanksgiving Football Picks
I was so close to the Holy Grail of an undefeated week as far as my playoff picks were concerned.
It took one team rallying from a 17-point hole (Bridgeton), another coming back from a 14-point second-half deficit (Nottingham) and a third getting a three-point upset on the road (Weequahic) to thwart my dream and prevent the world from spinning off its axis and hurtling into the sun. There’s always the next round, I guess.
This week is never easy because these rivalry games often bring dormant teams to life, producing surprising efforts and some eye-opening scores as seniors from teams that are out of the playoffs realize this is their last shot at a victory. I am squarely on the side of eliminating these Thanksgiving games in favor of a streamlined playoff system that crowns Group champions, but that appears to be a pipe dream at this point.
This year, it's the small schools that will be front and center on Turkey Day as No. 6 Point Beach hosts No. 9 Shore Regional in a showdown for the Class B Central title. Manalapan (A North); Red Bank Catholic (A Central); and Monsignor Donovan (B South) are playing to clinch outright division titles, while Long Branch can clinch a tie with Neptune for the Class B North title by beating Red Bank Regional.
While the games may leave something to be desired, this Thanksgiving will have a deeper meaning to many around the Shore. It might not be celebrated at the usual kitchen table or in the same house or with the usual food because of the destruction of Superstorm Sandy, but all that matters are the faces sitting around you as you dig into that meal. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and may your post-meal turkey coma be glorious.
Last week: 26-8
Freehold (2-7) at Freehold Township (3-6), 5:30 p.m.: This series resumed in 2010 after being held from 1972-99 and Freehold has won the two most recent meetings. This game got a little more interesting when Freehold’s offense and quarterback Brad Jones came to life in a consolation game win over Middletown North after struggling most of the season. Freehold Township has won three out of four after an 0-5 start and is looking to cap a solid finish. The Patriots have a huge senior class, so I would think that group wants to go out with a win and get Freehold Township on the board in this renewed rivalry. The pick: Freehold Township.
Manalapan (9-0, 5-0) at Marlboro (4-5, 2-3), 5:30 p.m.: This has become an annual coronation for the Braves, as they will look to clinch their third straight outright Class A North title with a win here. This is the first time in program history that Manalapan has won three straight division titles. The last two years, this also was the game where Manalapan running backs Josh Firkser and John Sieczkowski passed the 2,000-yard rushing mark. Junior Tyler Leonetti just went over 1,000 in the Braves’ playoff win to keep the streak alive of a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2003. Manalapan has won 16 straight divisional games coming into this one. The pick: Manalapan.
Colts Neck (8-1, 4-1) at Howell (1-8, 0-5), 5:30 p.m.: While this could look like a trap game with Colts Neck hosting Middletown South in a huge Central Jersey Group IV semifinal next week, there is some incentive here for the Cougars. Many of these players on both teams played Pop Warner together, so there is the bragging rights factor, and Colts Neck can also set the school record for wins. Howell’s offense came to life in a 42-7 win over Perth Amboy last week for the team’s first victory, as senior quarterback John Quinlan threw for a career-high 305 yards and four touchdowns. However, Colts Neck’s balanced offense of tailback Anthony Gargiulo and the passing combo of quarterback Mike Campbell and wideout Tim Vangelas has been tough for anyone to stop, plus Colts Neck has had one of the Shore’s top defenses all year. The pick: Colts Neck.
Barnegat (4-5, 4-2) at Pinelands (0-8, 0-6), 7 p.m.: Barnegat lost an 18-17 heartbreaker to Bridgeton after leading 17-0 in last week’s South Jersey Group III playoffs, so this is a chance to finish on a high note. The young Bengals are primarily sophomores and juniors, so the future looks bright for this squad. This will mark the end of the brilliant career of senior wideout/defensive back/kicker Pat Moran, who set several school records during his three-year varsity career. Unfortunately for Pinelands, it looks like the Wildcats will start next season with a 21-game losing streak. They also have to shake off the rust as they have not played since Oct. 26 thanks to the combination of the hurricane, a bye, and the fact that they did not have a consolation game. The pick: Barnegat.
Holmdel (3-6, 1-4) at Raritan (0-9, 0-5), 10 a.m.: This is a chance for one of these teams to end on a high note after forgettable seasons. Holmdel has lost six straight after a 3-0 start, and Raritan is trying to avoid possibly its first winless season ever. Both teams lost by 20 or more points in their consolation games. Holmdel lost starting quarterback Robbie Cantelli to a season-ending injury on Oct. 19 and Raritan has struggled all year on offense. Raritan has dominated this short series so far, winning every game by a healthy margin, but this looks like the year Holmdel gets on the board. The pick: Holmdel.
Red Bank Catholic (9-0) at Rumson-Fair Haven (7-2), 10 a.m.: This looks to be the usual coronation of RBC as division champions, as the Caseys can clinch the outright Class A Central crown for their third straight division title and fifth in six years. Rumson comes in banged up after a playoff loss to Weequahic in which standout linebacker/tailback Travis Clark left in the first quarter with a foot injury. RBC is going for 10 straight wins over its old rival before it plays its biggest game of the season by far when it heads to St. Joseph-Montvale in the Non-Public Group III semifinals. RBC’s punishing running game and swarming defense should do their thing as usual here. The pick: Red Bank Catholic.
Red Bank (4-5, 2-3) at Long Branch (8-1, 4-1), 10:30 a.m.: This is a scary game for a Long Branch team that is still alive in Central Jersey Group III because this is a large and proud group of Red Bank seniors looking to win five of six to end the season on a high note. However, there is plenty of incentive for Long Branch, as this is a championship game. The Green Wave can clinch a tie with Neptune for the Class B North title, their first title since 2007. Red Bank has been pretty tough against the run in the last month, so it will be interesting to see how the Long Branch backfield of Deon Williams, Joscil Jackson and Dwight Clark does against Garrett Sickels, Isaac Coats, Dillon Stambaugh and Co. The X-factor is senior quarterback Avry Griffin. If he can hit some passes to loosen things up and break some runs of his own, Long Branch should be fine. It also remains to be seen if Red Bank’s offense can generate anything against Long Branch’s rugged defense led by Jackson at linebacker and sophomore defensive end Hunter Baillie. The pick: Long Branch.
Asbury Park (6-2) at Neptune (7-2), 10:30 a.m.: One of the oldest and best Thanksgiving rivalries in the Shore, this game rarely disappoints. Last year Neptune won a doozy in a matchup of two teams that won state championships. The Group I Blue Bishops always seem to take it up a notch against their Group III counterparts to show the small schools can play with anybody. Defense is the backbone of both of these teams, so the play of Asbury Park quarterback Robert Barksdale and Neptune quarterback Ajee Patterson against those tough units should determine the outcome. Both teams are in the state sectional semifinals, but this game might mean more to them than even a playoff game. I think Neptune’s offensive weapons and a defense that is solid against the run will be the difference. The pick: Neptune.
Monmouth (2-7) at Ocean (4-4-1), 10:30 a.m.: Monmouth romped over Highland Park in its consolation game, while Ocean lost 35-7 to top-seeded Allentown in Central Jersey Group III last week. Ocean has dominated this so-called “rivalry” and should continue that here. There are two solid senior quarterbacks in this game, Monmouth’s Jeff Farrah and Ocean’s Andrew Mehr, who want to go out with a bang, so maybe there will be some fireworks. The pick: Ocean.
Middletown South (6-3, 3-2) at Middletown North (2-7, 2-3), 10:30 a.m.: The pageantry and the crowd surrounding this game are always good, while the competition on the field usually is not. Middletown South has not lost this game in 12 years, and I don’t see that changing this year as the Eagles try to keep the momentum going for an anticipated rematch with Colts Neck in the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals. The pick: Middletown South.
Shore (8-1, 4-0) at Point Beach (9-0, 4-0), 10:30 a.m.: The small schools take center stage on Thanksgiving for once as this is by far the best of all the Thanksgiving games in the area this year. The Class B Central title is on the line for two teams that have been on a collision course all season. Point Beach has been unstoppable, scoring 40-plus points in every game this year. Shore has won eight straight and also has been dominant, so something will have to give. Both teams run the Wing-T, so simulating one another in practice has not been a problem. Point Beach has a breakaway back in Danny Tighe, and Shore has one in Mark Costantino. Shore has a pounding rusher in Jack Kelly, and Point Beach has one in Andre Cochran. Point Beach also has Kyle Samaritano as another dangerous running threat. Much of this game will come down to line play. The two teams are so similar that whichever side wins the brute force battle up front should win this game. As always in Group I, most players go both ways, so these linemen will be slugging it out on both sides of the ball all game. I give Point Beach the slight edge up front, and I think that will be the difference given the Garnet Gulls’ talented backfield. The X-factor is Shore quarterback Matt Muh. If he can hit some passes downfield early and put Point Beach on its heels, this could get awfully interesting. Plus, it could easily be the first of two meetings, as there is a good chance these teams will play again in the Central Jersey Group I final. The pick: Point Beach.
Southern (7-2) at Central (3-5), 11 a.m.: This series is resuming for the first time since 2005, and Central leads the all-time series 21-17-1. However, Southern has the clear upper hand in this one, and its great senior class will look to have a moment to remember before it travels to Eastern for a semifinal showdown in South Jersey Group V. The pick: Southern.
Lakewood (6-3) at Toms River South (4-5), 11 a.m.: This is the oldest Thanksgiving rivalry in the Shore and for the past 8-9 years it has been a clunker between two struggling teams. However, I think this can be one of the most exciting games of all this year. You have a pair of playoff teams that fought hard against favored opponents last week and came up short. Toms River South looks like a team that could be a major factor in the Shore next year with young talent like Otis Kearney, Tymere Berry, Darrius Hart and more returning. Lakewood has plenty of young talent of its own that should keep this program on the right track, but it will be losing four seniors in particular who have been crucial to its resurrection. Senior quarterback/safety Tyrice Beverette, senior linebackers Herbie White and Marquise Oliver, and senior cornerback/running back/wideout Tyron Wimberly will all be playing their final games. This could turn into a shootout, but Toms River South’s offense is equipped for that. It will be interesting to see how Toms River South’s potent rushing attack will do against Lakewood’s stingy run defense that shut down Neptune last week. This is a tough one to pick. Will Lakewood’s seniors go out with a bang, or will Toms River South serve notice to the Shore to get ready for next year? The pick: Toms River South.
Wall (2-6-1) at Manasquan (4-5), 11 a.m.: This is usually a crown jewel in the Thanksgiving schedule, but not so much this year. It still should be a great atmosphere as always, but it features a young Wall team coming off a loss in its consolation game facing a sub-.500 Manasquan team coming off a tough 21-14 loss to Nottingham in the playoffs in a game it led 14-0. It is extremely rare for both of these teams to enter this game with losing records, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be as intense. The game will be broadcast live on the radio on 1160/1310 a.m. and streamed online at shoresportsnetwork.com. The pick: Manasquan.
Monsignor Donovan (5-4, 5-1) at Manchester (1-7, 1-5), 6 p.m.: Monsignor Donovan took it on the chin from Red Bank Catholic in the state playoffs, but the Griffins can end on a high note by beating the Hawks to clinch the outright Class B South title, their first division title since 1993. Quarterback Vinny Grasso will be back in the lineup, which should allow a Griffins team with some top seniors playing for the last time like running back Grant Klimek and Virginia-bound lineman Brad Henson. The pick: Monsignor Donovan.
Toms River East (2-7, 0-6) at Toms River North (5-4, 4-2), 7 p.m.: The Raiders exploded for almost 500 yards rushing in their consolation game win over Woodrow Wilson, while the Mariners dropped a 41-38 heartbreaker to Eastern in South Jersey Group V. Toms River East surprised Toms River North in this game last year, which should keep the Mariners on their toes. If Toms River North can put 38 on Eastern, you’ve got to think it can get this win. The pick: Toms River North.
Matawan (6-3) at St. John Vianney (5-4), 11 a.m.: This could be a fun game. St. John Vianney upset Matawan in this game last year, one week before the Huskies stunned Rumson-Fair Haven to win the Central Jersey Group II title. Now both teams are out of the playoffs after losses last week. St. John Vianney throws the ball like crazy and has struggled on defense against quality teams, while Matawan relies on its defense and special teams and grinds it out on offense. I think Matawan will want some payback for last year and will keep it on the ground to try and bleed the clock while the defense sends the house at Billy DeMato. This is the first time in four years that the Huskies don’t have another game looming after this one. The question is which team is still hungry for this game and which team feels like the season is over because the playoffs are done, or will they both go all out? This is also a game with a lot of symbolic meaning because these schools battle over players. St. John Vianney got one of Matawan’s top Pop Warner players from last year and looks to continue to mine that area, while the Huskies want to keep their talent at home. The pick: Matawan.
Jackson Memorial (2-7) at Jackson Liberty (6-3), 1 p.m.: This is another fun one. Jackson Liberty has never beaten Jackson Memorial in its short six-year history, but on paper the Lions are the favorite to do just that in this one. Jackson Liberty is coming off its first playoff appearance ever, a 28-14 loss to Colonia. Jackson Memorial lost to Lenape in its consolation game and has had an otherwise forgettable season, so this is a straight pride game to remind the Lions that no matter who the Jaguars’ season goes, they still rule the town. Jackson Liberty has a little bit more of a dynamic offense, but sophomore quarterback Matt Castronuova left last week’s game with an injury, so his status could affect the outcome in this one. The pick: Jackson Liberty.