State Championship Football Picks
I can’t believe we are down to the final week. I told myself I wasn’t going to cry, but then I started looking back on some of my past picks from this season and couldn’t stop myself.
Five Shore Conference teams have a shot to be immortal at their respective schools, and all five have challenging games. Before I get to my final picks, I just want to say thanks for reading all season. It’s been a lot of fun and a privilege to cover another year of Shore Conference football, and I thank everyone out there who has supported our coverage at ShoreSportsNetwork.com and AllShoreMedia.com. I would also like to thank Shore Sports Network for having me aboard for a second season of coverage to augment its award-winning radio work and online efforts.
Of course, I would love to see all five Shore Conference teams bring home titles, which would tie the record for the most Shore teams winning state championships in one season, but I will try to look at these games honestly and realistically. As I see it, three Shore teams (Southern, Shore Regional, Middletown South) are underdogs, while Neptune and Manalapan are favorites.
Last week: 5-4
South Jersey Group V
Southern (9-2) vs. Williamstown (11-0), 7 p.m. at Rowan University: To me, Southern is the biggest underdog of any of the Shore Conference teams. Williamstown has been a powerhouse and is considered the top team in South Jersey as it seeks its first state title. Southern is also playing for its first state sectional championship, so one team is coming out of this with a historic victory. For comparison sake, the Washington Township team that Southern beat 33-32 in the first round was beaten 42-0 on Thanksgiving by Williamstown, and the Eastern team Southern beat 30-27 with 21 seconds left in the game lost 34-17 to Williamstown. With that said, Southern definitely has a shot given that it is well-coached and peaking at the right time.
The Rams’ offense is playing at its highest level all season, having scored 98 points in its last three games. Senior tailback Abe Gonzalez has eight touchdowns in two playoff games, so he is playing out of his mind, and the passing attack has been locked in between quarterback Dan Higgins and wideouts Mike Gesicki and Nick Hem.
After facing some potent passing attacks, Southern’s defense is now going to have to play the game of its life against a loaded Williamstown running game. The tandem of juniors John Chamberlin (1,127 yards, 24 TDs) and Marques Little (924 yards, 15 TDs) is right there with Kingsway among outstanding South Jersey backfields. Plus, Kali Boyce has also run for 757 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Southern is going to have to take care of the ball, force some turnovers on defense to limit Williamstown’s possessions and play to its strength. Williamstown has a tremendous group of linebackers, so establishing Gonzalez in the run game is not going to be easy. This is a game where Gesicki could be a huge difference-maker if he can overpower Williamstown’s corners deep down the field on play-action shots by Higgins to get Williamstown to back off the line.
In Southern’s other final appearance, it pushed an undefeated Mainland team to the absolute brink in a 21-14 loss in South Jersey Group IV in 2008. Williamstown has been a great regular season team in the last five years but has coughed it up in the playoffs. Southern needs to stay close into the fourth quarter to see if Williamstown will blink first because all the pressure is on the Braves. I would love to see it happen, but it’s a tall order for the Rams. The pick: Williamstown.
Central Jersey Group V
Manalapan (11-0) vs. South Brunswick (9-2), 7 p.m. at Rutgers: This is the game Manalapan has been thinking about since the minute last year’s loss to Sayreville in the Central Jersey Group IV final ended. This is the best team Manalapan has ever had, but the Braves still have to put a stamp on it by winning their first state title in school history. They have an offense that is almost impossible to slow down because they can pound you with Tyler Leonetti and the run game or go up top from quarterback Mike Isabella to wideouts Saeed Blacknall and Anthony Firkser, plus their offensive line is solid as always. They also have a talented kicker in sophomore Mike Caggiano.
The defense has quietly also been outstanding in the latter half of the season, so this is as complete a team as Manalapan has ever had. That defense will face a South Brunswick team that runs the triple option with punishing 240-pound fullback Dahrae Ford and quarterback T.J. Perkowski but will also jump into spread looks and take shots downfield to Rutgers recruit T.J. Taylor, another dynamic threat.
There are going to be plenty of playmakers on the field, and both teams are gunning for their first state titles. Manalapan has been to this spot before, while South Brunswick has not. I just think anything less than finishing the job would be a bitter disappointment for the Braves, and that will push them over the finish line. The pick: Manalapan.
Central Jersey Group IV
Sayreville (11-0) vs. Middletown South (8-3), 4 p.m. at Rutgers: It’s always weird to see Middletown South as an underdog, but that is clearly the case here. Sayreville has won this bracket the last two years and is on a mission to lock down its first unbeaten season since 1949. Middletown South’s offense has exploded in the postseason, putting up 85 points in two games as things have really started to click with senior Eli Smith in the backfield with 1,000-yard rusher Jake Ripnick and junior quarterback Kyle Brey making plays downfield in the passing game with wideouts Anthony Citarella and Andrew Wisialko along with tight end Taylor Hendrickson.
Sayreville has the speed advantage and is always a tough and prepared team. Defensively, they can always run and they are always physical up front, which means Middletown South is going to have to make some plays in the passing game early to get the Bombers off the line of scrimmage. Sayreville has only given up nine touchdowns all season (!), and four of them were in blowout wins when the game was out of hand. They go 280-270-265 up front, which will not be easy to deal with. They are going to have to give Brey some time to throw and Smith and Ripnick some lanes to run or it will be a long afternoon. Safeties Myles Hartsfield and Malik Pressley have solid closing speed, so Brey is going to have to be on target with any deep throws to avoid turnovers.
Hartsfield is also part of a solid backfield with Zeke Perkinson and quarterback Isaiah Cureton, who is a strong all-around player. Middletown South’s defense has been up and down all year and has given up 28 or more points to five of the six playoff teams the Eagles have faced this year. Still, this is Middletown South. This is a coaching staff that is one of the best in the Shore and has players who are peaking at the perfect time on offense, so no one would be shocked if the Eagles pull it off. I have picked against Sayreville the past few years, and the Bombers have owned the Shore Conference, so regretfully I am going with the favorite in this one. The pick: Sayreville.
Central Jersey Group III
Neptune (9-2) vs. Nottingham (10-1), 1 p.m. at The College of New Jersey: This is a great match-up between the explosive offense of Neptune vs. the immovable defense of Nottingham. If defense truly wins championships, it will be put to the test here.
This game comes down to a couple key things. Neptune’s tackles will have to play a great game because Nottingham has two talented defensive ends, including Zach Mesday, who is pushing 20 sacks this season. The Scarlet Fliers have to keep Mesday and Co. off of senior quarterback Ajee Patterson and give him time to set his feet and throw. As always, Neptune’s wideouts, primarily Geoff Fairbanks, Keith Kirkwood and Keyshawn Rice, have to get separation. A big X-factor is senior running back Myles Martin because there will be some opportunities to hit Nottingham with draw plays and screens to take advantage of the Northstars’ aggressiveness. Neptune also can’t turn the ball over and allow Nottingham to try and burn the clock and shorten the game by sitting on the ball.
Neptune’s defense also needs to be opportunistic and make Nottingham pay for any mistakes, particularly in the passing game. Another key is going to be matching the Northstars’ intensity. This team has a gigantic chip on its shoulder about hearing how a Mercer County public school team has not won a state title since 1985 and that Mercer County football is inferior to the Shore. The upper echelon of Mercer County definitely appears to be closing the gap, so this is not like the old days when it would just be a Shore Conference cakewalk. Nottingham has already beaten two Shore teams in the playoffs (Manasquan and Long Branch) and would love nothing more than to shut up everyone and yap to the world that it took down the mighty Shore Conference. It’s up to Neptune to match that fire with the pride of a team defending its state title. The pick: Neptune.
Central Jersey Group I
Shore (9-2) vs. Florence (10-1), 10 a.m. at The College of New Jersey: Of the three Shore Conference underdogs, I think the Blue Devils have the best shot to pull off the win, even though logic (Florence beat Pt. Beach which beat Shore) would dictate it won’t happen. Point Beach held Florence to 127 total yards in its 17-14 loss in the semifinals, but Florence’s defense was ferocious. There is no subtlety to what the Flashes do. They will pack eight in the box and try to smash Shore at the point of attack in the Blue Devils’ Wing-T offense, which is the same offense Point Beach employs.
This is Matt Muh’s chance to shine. The Blue Devils’ junior quarterback will have people open downfield so he can be the difference in this one. The major X-factor is whether Shore’s offensive line can protect him long enough to make throws, which has been a problem in big games this season. If Shore can hit some big passes early and get a double-digit lead, it will be in business. Florence quarterback Ben Horner went 0-for-3 with two interceptions in the air against Point Beach, so if Shore can force the Flashes to have to throw, that is ideal. That is also much easier said than done.
This is the ultimate test of the interior of Shore’s defensive line and its linebackers. Florence just lines up in the I-formation and runs straight downhill with a pair of punishing backs in Curtis Thompson and Rich Myers. Those two rarely go down on first contact, so Shore will have to swarm to the ball and gang tackle on every play. The Blue Devils’ run defense struggled in losses to Point Beach and Rumson-Fair Haven, so that unit has to play its best game of the season. Florence is a tremendous program with a proud tradition, so it’s always scary picking against the Flashes, especially considering they just took out Point Beach and also beat Shore 23-0 in the playoffs last year. The Flashes made the final last year and got thumped by Asbury Park, while Shore is looking for its second title in the last three years. I think the Blue Devils can do it. The pick: Shore.