Spotlight Thursday: Manalapan
At a program that has produced a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2003, one of the best compliments Manalapan can receive is that if you pluck out a game film from five years ago, the performance of the offensive line doesn’t look much different than one from this season.
“In the last 10 years, we have had a lot of the same (college) coaches coming through our building and recruiting kids,’’ said Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri. “They say, ‘You know coach, we watch your films every year, and they look exactly the same.’ It’s a compliment to the kids and the coaching staff that we keep that continuity and that the kids are able to see what the guys before them did and know it works. They take a lot of pride in that streak.’’
However, the last two seasons have been anything but just like the ones that came before them. In fact, they made Shore Conference history.
For the first time in this area, a team has produced consecutive 2,000-yard rushers. Current Wagner freshman Josh Firkser set the school record with 2,053 yards last year, and it didn’t even last one season. In his first and only season as the starting tailback, senior John Sieczkowski has amassed 2,115 yards rushing with one huge game to go. The Braves (10-1) will take on defending sectional champion Sayreville at 1 p.m. Saturday at Rutgers Stadium in a bid to win their first Central Jersey Group IV title. The game will be broadcast live right here on The Shore Sports Network on 105.7 f.m. and streamed online at ShoreSportsNetwork.com.
In addition to the single-season school record, Sieczkowski also set the single-game Shore Conference record with 425 yards in a regular-season game against Howell. That erased the record of 420 set by Middletown South legend and current Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno.
“We were pumped, especially the two-year starters who also blocked for Josh, to become the first team to do it,’’ said senior right tackle Brandon Pearce, a two-year starter. “We knew Sieczkowski was a beast because he benches 450 (pounds) and can run, so we knew he was an animal, but I don’t know if we thought he would do this much. We say it all the time – the Manalapan offensive line has done someone no one else in the area has ever done.’’
If Manalapan makes it to the finish line and adds to its school-record 10 wins, there’s a good chance it will be because of an outstanding offensive line along with senior fullback Jesse McEnery. Coached by veteran assistant Joe Tetley, the Braves’ group of Pearce, senior center Jimmy Danella, junior left tackle Jon Appice, senior left guard Mitch Moy, junior right guard Derek Brooks and sophomore tight end R.J. Krause has been one of the Shore Conference’s best. They also have weathered a season-ending injury to Danella, a three-year starter who suffered a broken fibula in a regular-season win over Toms River North and has been replaced at center by junior Alex Salzman.
In addition to the tutelage of Tetley, the intensive offseason weight training program has been a crucial part of the offensive line’s ongoing success. Starting on Jan. 2, the day they come back from winter break, the Braves are in the weight room three days a week until August. Also, in the last 12 years of the offseason weight-lifting event featuring the six schools in the Freehold Regional District, the Braves had more wins than any other program.
“Yes, definitely it plays a huge role,’’ Appice said. “If you know you're the strongest, you don't have to worry about doing the finesse things. You can just go and be powerful.’’
When Gurrieri, who has been with the program since 1997, took over as head coach for his first stint from 2004-06, he emphasized the importance of the weight room. He reduced the number of quarters a player would need to play in order to earn a varsity letter if that player met certain offseason weightlifting requirements.
“If you worked hard in the weight room, I rewarded you,’’ Gurrieri said. “You had a better chance of getting a varsity letter even if you didn’t play as much during the season.’’
“It goes from January to August, and it shows you who really has the character to put in the work,’’ Danella said.
The strength program is especially important because Manalapan does not have enormous linemen. Often its line is a bit undersized, but still strong enough to execute the Braves’ downhill running attack out of the I-formation. This season’s group averages only 218 pounds across, with Appice being the biggest at 255.
“We haven’t had the big kids except for Steven Carr (6-3 ,325) last year,’’ Gurrieri said. “They are hard-working kids, and coach Tetley takes the meatloaf and makes it into steak.’’
“We’re not the biggest kids, but we can dominate most defensive lines,’’ Pearce said.
That allows Manalapan to execute a straightforward gameplan. The Braves are coming right at you, and they don’t care if you know it. In their two previous playoff games, West Windsor South and Brick Memorial both yanked a cornerback in favor of another defender to put into the box, yet still could not ultimately slow down Sieczkowski.
“I have the best fullback in the Shore and the best line,’’ Sieczkowski said. “They clear the way, and all I have to do is run.’’
“Definitely part of it is mental,’’ Pearce said. “You can't be afraid to hit somebody and put a helmet in their chest. We have a lot of head up blocking in our scheme, so you can’t punk out.’’
They will be facing one of their toughest challenges when they meet up with Sayreville on Saturday, just over a year after the Bombers beat Manalapan 32-20 in the CJ IV semifinals last season. The good news is that Sayreville’s defensive line is not as fearsome as last season, when it featured current Rutgers freshman Daryl Stephenson at tackle and one of the top players in the state, defensive end Syd Holt.
“I think we’re going to have to play our best game,’’ Gurrieri said. “They’re not what they were last year up front, so I think we match up pretty good with them up front this time. They will be the fastest team we play, so we have to go straight downhill and negate their speed.’’
“We know that teams know we run power and counter, but we think, ‘Can they stop us?’’’ Appice said. “(Sayreville) is definitely going to be our biggest challenge because they have very good speed that is dominant, but if we can go and pound them, we should be able to get the job done.’’
Like any good offensive line, camaraderie has also played a large part in the Braves’ success. They have meshed together off the field, which has paid dividends on it.
“You have to know how the person next to you plays and what their habits are so that you can compensate for each other,’’ Pearce said. “If I know the guy next to me is a little slow off the ball, I have to get off faster. My right guard and I know that when we are on a combo block, we know how long the other guy will stay on it. It’s like muscle memory at this point.’’
“Individually they’re all good kids, but they play better as a group,’’ Gurrieri said.
That deep friendship also means that the Braves will be playing on Saturday in honor of Danella, who has the excruciating task of having to stand and watch his friends take the field on the big stage at Rutgers Stadium.
“It’s unbelievably tough,’’ Danella said. “It makes me very upset I can’t be out there. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but they’re saying, ‘We’re doing this for you,’ which makes me feel good. Coach Tetley also said that he wants me to help out recognizing fronts and helping out (Salzman) so I can still be a part of it.’’
The excitement is at an all-time high and the bandwagon is full as Manalapan tries to make school history in just its second state sectional final appearance in its existence.
The only other question is what the offensive line will get as a reward from Sieczkowski for making history by paving the way for two straight 2,000-yard backs, Sieczkowski’s multiple school records and a possible state championship.
“We’re still waiting on the Rolexes,’’ Pearce said before laughing.
“He didn’t get me a Rolex, but he’s taken me out for lunch,’’ Danella said. “That wasn’t bad.’’