Spotlight Thursday: Brick Memorial vs. Howell
When it comes to Brick Memorial’s nondivisional matchup with Howell on Friday night, forgive the Mustangs if they are just as worried about the numbers on other scoreboards as the ones on their own that night.
The game, which will be broadcast live on The Shore Sports Network on 1310/1160 a.m. and 105.7 f.m., is Brick Memorial’s ninth of the season. That means it does not count toward the Mustangs’ state playoff hopes, as only the first eight games count in the power-point standings. After its latest gut-wrenching loss, a last-second, 23-21 nondivisional setback to Manalapan last week, Brick Memorial (4-4) needs some help from other teams in order to snag a spot in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV bracket, where it has reached the finals in three straight seasons.
“It’s something we talked to the team about early in the week,’’ said Brick Memorial head coach Walt Currie. “We’re not going to know about the playoffs until the middle of the weekend or maybe even Monday, so we’re trying to put it on the backburner. We’re coming off a loss, and we want to get back on the winning track.’’
Meanwhile, Howell (3-4) is out of the running for a berth in CJ IV, so the Rebels are just looking to finish the season strong behind record-setting senior quarterback Ryan Davies. Pride is the main thing on the line on Friday night, while Brick Memorial also will be keeping an eye on two games in particular on Friday night – North Brunswick at South Plainfield, and Southern at Middletown North. The Mustangs need a win from either South Plainfield or Southern to get into the postseason. If that doesn’t work out, they will be fully cheering for Neptune on Saturday in hopes that the Scarlet Fliers beat Colts Neck, another CJ IV hopeful.
That is out of Brick Memorial’s hands, so the Mustangs will focus on avenging a loss from last year against Howell, which is coming off its bye week. Davies leads New Jersey with 2,209 yards passing and 24 touchdowns, and wide receiver Brandon Yaegel leads the state with 61 catches for 923 yards and 9 touchdowns in Howell’s no-huddle, spread offense. Davies already has a Shore Conference career-record 62 touchdown passes and looks to add to that total as well.
“Just trying to contain a passing attack like Howell’s year in and year out, it’s nearly impossible,’’ Currie said. “You couple that with having Davies back there, and you just hope to hang on to the football long enough to limit possessions and big plays so that you have a chance in the fourth quarter.’’
Brick Memorial senior defensive back Zach Santos is second in the Shore Conference with six interceptions, so he will be key in a secondary that will be strongly tested by Davies and a deep receiving corps that also includes Tory Robinson, Torian Mitchell, Nick Craig, John Oftering and Pat Devine.
Howell’s Achilles’ heel has been its porous run defense, as multiple teams have rushed for more than 300 yards against the Rebels. In Howell’s last game, Manalapan senior tailback John Sieczkowski amassed a Shore Conference-record 425 yards rushing in a 40-21 win by the Braves.
Normally, that would mean Brick Memorial should have a field day considering the Mustangs employ the run-heavy flexbone option offense. However, unlike previous seasons under Currie, it’s actually been the passing game behind junior quarterback Ryan Cieplinski that has been the most explosive part of the Mustangs’ offense.
“We hope that every week we can get a little bit better in the running game and be more balanced,’’ Currie said. “Our strength has been throwing the ball, and we knew that coming in, so part of what our evolution has been is to run the ball better. If you're going to win big games in big spots going forward, you have to be able to run the ball a little bit.’’
Running backs Justin Hockaday and Jarred Eccles have been effective receivers out of the backfield, while senior Ray Contrucci, who caught the game-tying touchdown pass against Manalapan with 1:46 left last week, has been a solid vertical threat. Junior fullback Anthony Miller has been the Mustangs’ best power-running threat.
No team in the Shore Conference has had more excruciating losses than Brick Memorial, whose four defeats are by a combined 10 points, with all of them coming in the final minute of regulation or in overtime. Recovering from that many devastating losses would be tough for most teams, but the Mustangs have taken it as a sign that they are right there with some of the top teams in the area.
“Believe it or not, it's not as hard as you think,’’ Currie said about recovering from the close losses.
“When you play teams so close, even though we're losing those games, we also understand that we're right there with the best football teams around. We know that we're a good team, and we know that good teams make their own breaks. We just hope to get a shot in the playoffs, make a little noise and prove to ourselves and to other people that we are a good team and tough to beat.’’
This is the final home game for Brick Memorial’s seniors, which always carries extra weight even if the game has no bearing on power points or a divisional race. Both teams are focused on strong finishes to their seasons, even if it means that the playoffs go on without them. However, Currie admitted that while his team is solely focused on Howell, afterward might be a different story.
“This is still an important game to us, and that’s all we’re worrying about,’’ he said. “But I’m sure afterward, everyone will be whipping out their cell phones to check on the scores of those other games.’’