State Playoff Preview
The NJSIAA playoffs are set to kick off this weekend, with 27 Shore Conference teams beginning their quest to be the last ones standing when the smoke clears on the second weekend of December at the state finals.
There are strong contenders from the Shore Conference in all four Central Jersey brackets and some quality teams that should be in the hunt in three South Jersey brackets as well as No. 1 Red Bank Catholic looking to make noise in the Non-Public Group III playoffs.
Here is a section-by-section breakdown of the Shore Conference’s chances in each bracket.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP V
Shore Conference teams: (1) Manalapan; (5) Brick Memorial
Bracket favorite: Manalapan
Breakdown: It’s now or never for Manalapan. The Braves are undefeated and this looks to be the best team in school history. The Braves have home field advantage until the final, and their nemesis that has beaten them the past two years, Sayreville, is in Central Jersey Group IV. Manalapan has never won a state sectional title, so all signs point to making school history. The Braves’ explosive offense is led by senior quarterback Mike Isabella, who has thrown for 1,387 yards and a school-record 17 touchdowns, primarily to star wideouts Anthony Firkser and Saeed Blacknall, the latter of whom has 11 touchdowns between receiving and special teams this season. Junior tailback Tyler Leonetti is well on the way to keeping Manalapan’s streak of a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2003 going with 931 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. A defense led by defensive tackle John Appice and linebacker Chris Noesges also has been very solid. Manalapan could also make history by becoming the first winner of this bracket, which was created before this season.
Brick Memorial limps in on a four-game losing streak. The Mustangs have often found the magic on the road as a low seed in the state playoffs, but this team has struggled mightily in recent weeks, particularly with its run defense, which does not bode well against a run-oriented Hunterdon Central team in the first round. If Brick Memorial even gets out of the first round, that’s not a bad accomplishment given how much it has struggled in the last month.
Manalapan has won 18 of its last 19 games, with its loss to Sayreville in last season’s CJ IV final being the only setback. The main contender looks to be second-seeded South Brunswick, with battle-tested Old Bridge as another possibility. South Brunswick has an explosive offense that includes Rutgers recruit T.J. Taylor at wide receiver and quarterback T.J. Perkowski, a dual threat who has 1,306 total yards and 15 total touchdowns.
The pick: Manalapan over South Brunswick.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP IV
Shore Conference teams: (3) Colts Neck, (5) Jackson Liberty, (7) Middletown South
Bracket favorite: (1) Sayreville
Breakdown: Sayreville has ruled this bracket with an iron fist, winning it the past two years and entering this season as the favorite again. Sayreville also will be playing with plenty of emotion for a town that suffered heavy damage in Hurricane Sandy.
The Bombers are a fierce defensive team, and they have owned the Shore Conference the last four years. Linebacker Deion Miller and defensive lineman Brian McDonough lead a defense that is adept at stuffing the run and has not allowed more than 14 points in any game this season. Quarterback Isaiah Cureton is a dynamic athlete who is a dual threat and leads and offense averaging 32 points per game.
The Shore’s best hope appears to be Colts Neck, which has never reached a sectional final and has only one state playoff win in its history from back in 2000. The Cougars are a well-balanced offensive team with junior workhorse Anthony Gargiulo (911 yards, 8 TDs) in the backfield and the prolific combo of senior quarterback Mike Campbell (1,418 yards, 13 TDs) and senior wideout Tim Vangelas (777 yds receiving, 12 TDs). They host Steinert in the first home playoff game in school history, and with a defense led by Gargiulo and linebackers Nick Volpe, Gio Zefferino and Mike Monda, they have a complete team capable of making a run to history. They are good enough to win this whole bracket because they are physical enough to slug it out with Sayreville in the trenches. Steinert is no pushover in the first round, as it is the only team to beat second-seeded West Windsor South this season and reached last year’s Central Jersey Group III final.
Middletown South just lost 28-9 to Colts Neck and enters as an underdog that will have to win on the road to get to the final. They face No. 2 West Windsor South, a quality team that pushed a good Manalapan team to overtime in last year’s CJ IV semifinals. Middletown South is led by senior fullback Jake Ripnick and junior quarterback Kyle Brey, with Taylor Hendrickson and Connor Spreen leading the defense. The main question mark for Middletown South has been generating offense against quality opponents in the latter half of the season, and they will need to that unless they can find a way to stifle a player no team has truly stopped. West Windsor South’s Brian Schoenauer, a University of Pennsylvania recruit, has never been held under 100 yards rushing in his four-year varsity career and has 1,478 yards and 27 touchdowns this season.
As for Jackson Liberty, the Lions are in the state playoffs for the first time in their six-year existence as a varsity program. Their six wins are already a school record, and they have been playing some of their best football at the right time. They moved sophomore Matt Castronuova from wideout to quarterback and have won three straight since then, so they enter the playoffs on a roll. Castronuova’s running ability has opened things up for junior tailback Bruce Almodovar, who also has been productive. A winless Raritan team pushed Colonia deep into the fourth quarter in a 13-3 loss during the regular season, so there is the chance the Lions could go on the road and make history with their first state playoff win in the first round.
The pick: Sayreville over Colts Neck
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP III
Shore Conference teams: (3) Long Branch; (4) Neptune; (5) Lakewood; (6) Matawan; (7) Manasquan; (8) Ocean.
Bracket favorite: Neptune
Breakdown: Allentown is the No. 1 seed and has never reached a sectional final, so the Redbirds still have something to prove. Neptune is the defending champion and appears to have righted the ship after a two-game losing streak in the middle of the regular season. The Scarlet Fliers have the most explosive passing attack around behind senior quarterback Ajee Patterson, who just strafed Wall for a school-record 440 yards passing and five touchdowns. He has three quality targets in the senior trio of Geoff Fairbanks, Keith Kirkwood and Keyshawn Rice. As long as this unit doesn’t turn the ball over, it can score on anybody, so the main question is how the defense will hold up against some tough opponents.
Long Branch is another strong contender with the running tandem of senior Joscil Jackson (916 yards, 9 TDs) and junior Deon Williams (622 yards, 11 TDs) and the return of senior tailback Dwight Clark, a two-time, 1,000-yard rusher who missed all of the regular season with a broken ankle suffered in the preseason. How they incorporate Clark into their pounding, I-formation running game and how rusty he is after so much time away will be factors. They have a tough challenge right off the bat against a Matawan team that pushed the Green Wave to the brink in a 24-21 win on a field goal by Vicente Mota in the final seconds during the regular season.
Matawan and Long Branch each have not played a game for three weeks due to the storm, a bye for Long Branch and a cancelled game for Matawan. The Huskies are led by dual threat quarterback Kashaun Barnes on offense and a defense featuring linebacker Dan Incle and a tough defensive line that includes Seamus Weldon and Samad Thomas. Matawan will look to keep it close, grind the clock and possibly return the favor by using its own talented kicker, Mike Creamer, to be the difference late in the game. Another question is whether Matawan-Long Branch will be such a slugfest that the winner will limp into the next round after a bruising game and get caught by a team it normally would beat.
A featured match-up of the first round will be Lakewood at Neptune on Saturday at 2 p.m., with the Piners playing in the state playoffs for the first time since 2002. This game features a pair of dynamic quarterbacks in Patterson and Lakewood senior Tyrice Beverette, another dual threat who is also an outstanding safety on defense. Lakewood’s calling card has been a much-improved defense whose secondary will have its hands full with Neptune’s passing attack. The Piners will be looking for big games out of brothers Chapelle Cook, a sophomore tailback, and Anthony Cook, a senior wideout/defensive back.
Manasquan may have the most momentum of any Shore team in the bracket coming off a 14-9 comeback win over previously unbeaten Rumson-Fair Haven last week just to qualify. Senior safety Chris Miller leads a solid defense, while the offense will rely on junior tailback Joe Murphy and downfield threat Connor Grogan. They don’t have the luxury of their home field magic, however, as they have to go to No. 2 Nottingham in the first round. Nottingham has never won a state title and only has three playoff wins in its history, while Manasquan has won 11 state titles and has a 39-18 record all-time in the playoffs. Nottingham did push top-seeded Allentown to the brink in a 24-21 loss, but will still have to overcome the stigma that Mercer County teams do not fare well against the Shore Conference in the state playoffs by beating a program that has had more success than any Shore team in history in the playoffs.
Allentown showed last year that it is capable of pushing a good team from the Shore very hard when it gave Neptune all it could handle in a 40-33 loss in overtime in the playoffs. The Redbirds’ passing attack tore up Neptune, and quarterback Nick Palladino has over 1,400 yards passing and 18 touchdowns this season in addition to 1,000-yard rusher Norman Williams being another threat. If Neptune gets by Lakewood, it would see Allentown in the second round and it could be an all-out shootout.
Ocean is out to make sure that Allentown never even makes it out of the first round. The Spartans secured the No. 8 seed on the cutoff and are a solid team led by senior quarterback Andrew Mehr and junior linebacker Dan Loizos. The Spartans’ secondary will be tested mightily by the Redbirds, but again, it’s not like Shore Conference teams have not done well on the road in these spots before. However, by all accounts, Allentown is a legitimate team so it will take the best game Ocean has played this year to beat them.
If it ends being Neptune against Long Branch in the final, it would be a rematch of a game Neptune won 27-14 in the regular season. The Scarlet Fliers scored on two interception returns for touchdowns in that game while Long Branch moved the ball on the ground pretty well, so a rematch could be a different story, especially with Dwight Clark in there. But in this bracket, there are no guarantees. Any team could get beaten in the first round. Long Branch’s secondary is also very solid, and Neptune’s running game has been AWOL most of the season, so it would be a juicy matchup.
The pick: Neptune over Long Branch.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP II
Shore Conference team: (3) Rumson-Fair Haven
Bracket favorite: Shabazz
Breakdown: Shabazz looked like the team to beat early in the season but stumbled with two losses, although it still should be right there. Rumson (7-1), which has reached the last two CJ II finals and won it in 2010, comes in off a disappointing 14-9 loss to a .500 Manasquan team on the road. The Bulldogs host Weequahic in the first round and then most likely a trip to second-seeded Delran in the semifinals.
The Bulldogs knew they would have to deal with teams with a ton of speed and explosiveness in this playoff bracket, which is why they scrimmaged teams like Neptune and Willingboro to get prepared. Weequahic should be a major challenge in the first round, but this Rumson team led by senior quarterback Danny Roberto, senior wideout John Ryan, and senior running back/linebacker Travis Clark is battle-tested. It will be a dramatic difference speed-wise between Weequahic and most of the teams on Rumson’s schedule, so the Bulldogs will look to prevent the big play early on and get their footing to try and grind out a win. Quarterback Kedar Clark leads an explosive Weequahic offense that also features Kadarious Bullock and Nate Jackson. Weequahic’s secondary is also very fast and closes well, so Roberto and his receivers will have to be on their game.
If they make it to the final, it will most likely be Shabazz or top-seeded Carteret waiting on the other end. Carteret is led by the explosive Jerod Johnson, a running back who has 1,108 yards and 16 touchdowns this season and over 4,000 yards rushing for his career. However, the Shore has done pretty well against Carteret in the state playoffs over the years, although the Ramblers beat Rumson in the CJ II final in 2007.
The pick: Shabazz over Rumson-FH.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP I
Shore Conference teams: (1) Shore; (2) Point Beach; (4) Asbury Park; (6) Keyport; (8) Keansburg.
Bracket co-favorites: Shore and Point Beach.
Breakdown: This is essentially the Class B Central race all over again with three nonconference teams sprinkled in. All season, it has looked like a collision course between Shore and Point Beach in the final. Shore is trying to win its second CJ I title in the last three seasons, while Point Beach is gunning for its first state sectional championship in program history. With a first-round win over South River, the Garnet Gulls will set a school record with their ninth victory of the season.
Point Beach and Shore have already routed Asbury Park, Keyport and Keansburg, so those teams are all trying to close the gap. The main monkey wrench to a Shore-Point Beach final appears to be third-seeded Florence, which lost to Asbury Park in last season’s CJ I championship game, beating Shore Regional along the way to the final.
Shore and Point Beach will also play next week on Thanksgiving with the Class B Central title on the line, so they could square off twice in the span of three weeks if the seeds hold true. The teams are almost a mirror image of one another as both run the Wing-T and have multiple running threats as well as quarterbacks who can hurt you if you sell out against the run. Point Beach has the three-headed running attack of seniors Danny Tighe, the Shore Conference’s leading rusher, Kyle Samaritano and Andre Cochran as well as sophomore quarterback Jake Fioretti. Shore features Jack Kelly, Kevin Masica and Mark Costantino and junior quarterback Matt Muh. The game will be won up front between a pair of talented lines with many players who play on both sides of the ball.
Shore’s run defense has shown cracks at times in games against Rumson-Fair Haven and Keansburg, but the secondary has been excellent and the pass rush consistent. Point Beach’s defense has dominated even though an offense that has not been held under 40 points in any game this season has garnered the headlines.
The main darkhorse among the other teams looks to be defending champion Asbury Park. The Blue Bishops lost decisively to Point Beach and Shore but have enough talent to make it interesting the second time around with junior quarterback Robert Barksdale, junior running back Daquane Bland-Bennett, sophomore Tyquis Davis and senior Shaheim Tillman. Keyport’s aerial attack led by junior quarterback Alex Thomson and wideouts Greg Armstrong and Tyler Alvarez will have to play out of its mind to get out of the first round against Florence given the defense’s struggles in recent weeks against Shore and Point Beach.
Keansburg quarterback Ryan Kurtz ran for 196 yards in a 35-18 loss to Shore in the regular season, so the Titans will try to give the Blue Devils a run for their money in the first round. However, Keansburg was badly battered by Hurricane Sandy and struggled to even locate all of its players in recent weeks, so trying to get up for a playoff game has not been easy.
The pick: Point Beach over Shore.
SOUTH JERSEY GROUP V
Shore Conference teams: (6) Southern; (7) Toms River North
Bracket favorite: (1) Williamstown
Breakdown: Both Shore Conference teams are underdogs in this newly-created bracket, which features most of the perennial powers from the old South Jersey Group IV section. Williamstown enters unbeaten as the favorite, but the Braves have entered with high expectations plenty of times in recent years and only have a 1-9 playoff record all-time, so they need to show they are more than a regular-season wonder.
Southern enters playing very solid football and has the emotion of playing for the victims of the hurricane in a district hit hard by the storm. Senior Abe Gonzalez leads the rushing attack with 875 yards and 13 total touchdowns, while senior quarterback Dan Higgins has thrown for 1,083 yards and 12 touchdowns. His main target is 6-foot-5 junior Mike Gesicki, an FBS prospect who has 30 catches for 563 yards and six touchdowns. This team has struggled to crack 20 points against high-level opponents, and it may have to do that in order to knock off third-seeded Washington Township, which is led by quarterback Thomas Hildebrand and an offense that has averaged 42 points in its last three games.
Toms River North is a heavy underdog as the seventh seed on the road against a quality Eastern team. It all depends on which Toms River North team shows up, the one that picked up a hard-fought win over Southern and beat Brick Memorial, or the one that was stunned by Brick and routed by Manalapan. Sophomore quarterback Carmen Sclafani leads the shotgun spread offense and is a dangerous running threat on option plays. Junior wideouts Joey Fields and Kyle Carrington and senior Damien Singleton are the primary big-play threats. Eastern has three losses, but two of them are to strong teams in Williamstown and the top seed in SJ IV, Timber Creek.
Eastern’s quarterback is Tom Flacco, the younger brother of Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco, and his top target is Ohio State recruit Eli Woodard, who has 32 catches for 607 yards. Woodard will be playing defensive back for the Buckeyes, but is a dangerous all-around threat.
I think the darkhorse in all this is Atlantic City. The town was devastated by the storm, so this team will be playing with a ton of emotion and has enough talent to pull this off.
The pick: Atlantic City over Eastern.
SOUTH JERSEY GROUP IV
Shore Conference teams: (2) Lacey; (7) Toms River South.
Bracket favorite: (1) Timber Creek
Breakdown: One of the Shore Conference teams is going out in the first round, as Toms River South will play at Lacey on Saturday. Lacey already beat the Indians 42-20 in a regular-season game. The main question is whether Lacey can reach its second final in three years and knock off favorite Timber Creek with injured junior quarterback Tom Kelly out of the lineup.
Sophomore back-up Conor Davies showed great improvement in his second start, a 42-0 win over Brick Memorial, which has to be encouraging. He has plenty of weapons in senior tailback Kyle Spatz and a talented group of wideouts that includes Bill Belford, Christian Tutela, Brandon Boos and R.J. Kurtz. The Lions have played a fairly challenging schedule and remain unbeaten, so they are ready for this run and are guaranteed two home games.
It’s never easy to beat a team twice, especially a young one that only trailed Lacey 21-20 at the half in their first meeting and ran the ball at will behind junior fullback Otis Kearney. Sophomore quarterback Tymere Berry is a dual threat, and Darrius Hart is also a playmaker. The Indians are young and will play with nothing to lose considering there is a good chance they will be back better and stronger next year to finish the job, so Lacey will have a dogfight on its hands.
Timber Creek has become a talent factory for a public school, pumping out two or three FBS recruits a year. This year’s crop includes defensive end Dajuan Drennon and lineman Greg Webb, both of whom are headed to North Carolina, running back Zaire Williams (West Virginia), 6-foot-5 wideout Myles Nash (Rutgers), defensive back Eric Church (Kent State) and 275-pound defensive tackle Dyaire Hicks, who has FBS interest. Other than that, the cupboard is pretty bare. In all seriousness, that will be a serious test for the Lions if they make it to the finish line. The one silver lining is that Lacey does not have a Thanksgiving game, so it will have two weeks to prepare for the semifinals if it beats Toms River South and another week to rest.
The pick: Timber Creek over Lacey.
SOUTH JERSEY GROUP III
Shore Conference teams: (3) Barnegat; (5) Point Boro
Bracket favorite: (2) Delsea
Breakdown: Barnegat has made the sectional semifinals in each of the past two seasons and has a shot to do it again after being realigned into South Jersey Group III from SJ II. The good news for Barnegat is that it is now in a different bracket from the 800-pound gorilla of West Deptford, which has beaten the Bengals the last two seasons.
The bad news is that another perennial playoff contender, Delsea, still lurks as the favorite. Barnegat is a .500 team yet got the No. 3 seed and a home game, so that will tell you about the relative strength of this bracket after Delsea at No. 2. Barnegat’s offense has been up and down as it has dealt with injuries and quarterback Cinjun Erskine getting his feet wet with his first real varsity action at quarterback. One weapon is senior Pat Moran, who passed 2,000 career yards receiving in Barnegat’s last game. Class B South teams have not done well outside the division this year and Barnegat just got shut out by a Red Bank team that did not make the postseason. Bridgeton has some good speed and could be a problem, but Barnegat should find a way to get out of the first round at home. The bad news is that it means a trip to Delsea in the semifinals, which is where things will most likely come to an end.
Point Boro has a shot to make a darkhorse run despite the fact that it enters on a two-game losing streak and just got shut out by Lakewood. Northern Burlington is a beatable team on the road in the first round, although don’t forget that Northern Burlington knocked off Middletown South in Central Jersey Group III last year. They are a .500 team but have a high-scoring offense and not much defense, so it comes down to whether Point Boro can win a shootout if necessary with an offense that has struggled at times this year. The combination of quarterback Chris Oliphant, fullback Ryan Prout and wideout Kyle McGarry will have to make plays, while a defense led by Kurt Van Benschoten needs to slow the Greyhounds down. Top seed Burlington Township is also a beatable team, but I think that might be a stretch.
The pick: Delsea over Burlington Township.
NON-PUBLIC GROUP III
Shore Conference teams: (4) Red Bank Catholic; (5) Msgr. Donovan; (7) St. John Vianney
Bracket favorite: (1) St. Joseph-Montvale.
Breakdown: The main storyline here is whether Red Bank Catholic is ready to take that next step and break up the monopoly of North Jersey parochial juggernauts by taking down St. Joe’s-Montvale. RBC has won 22 straight against the Shore Conference, so the only teams stopping the Caseys have been in the state playoffs.
RBC should roll past Monsignor Donovan in the first round, leaving the Griffins to focus on beating Manchester in their Thanksgiving game in order to clinch the outright Class B South title. The Caseys are led by a balanced backfield of Larry Redaelli, Mike Cordova and Jesse Flaherty, and junior quarterback Pat Toomey has been solid. Senior wideout/defensive back Chris Whitlock has been a threat in all three phases of the game along with senior James Taylor.
Defensively, the Caseys feature a ferocious group led by Rutgers recruit Josh Klecko, defensive end Richie Curran and high-level FBS prospect Quenton Nelson up front as well as linebackers Ryan Schoer, Jamie Gordinier and Dylan Hroncich. They will have to deal with St. Joe’s, which has dominated this bracket for years and is the defending champion. Its only losses are to Good Counsel (Md.) and Paramus Catholic, and the Green Knights boast an overtime win over Bergen Catholic and a win over another power in St. Peter’s Prep.
Quarterback Spencer Aukamp is a stud, and his top wideout, Ricky Jeune, has six FBS offers and will be a handful for RBC’s secondary. The Green Knights also have a deep backfield and a defense led by safety Mark Fossati. The game will come down to how well RBC can prevent the big play and force St. Joe’s to grind out drives, and Toomey will have to make plays in the passing game because trying to just line up and punish the Green Knights by running downhill all game is a tall order.
If RBC wins that game, it will be the favorite to beat second-seeded Delbarton, which beat RBC in double overtime in last year’s semifinals. The Caseys have not reached a state sectional final since 1980 and their only state title came in 1976, so winning this bracket would be a very loud statement heard across New Jersey.
St. John Vianney, which is in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, has to travel to Delbarton in the first round. This is the latest building block in a program trying to reach RBC’s level. They will have their hands full with explosive running back Jamie White, who has battled injuries this year but played a strong game in the win over RBC last year. The Lancers will try to keep up with junior quarterback Billy DeMato and receivers Steve Callari and Ishmael Hyman in the spread offense.
The pick: St. Joseph-Montvale over Delbarton.
NON-PUBLIC GROUP I
Shore Conference team: (7) Mater Dei Prep
Bracket favorite: (1) St. Joseph-Hammonton.
Breakdown: This is the most predictable bracket in the state. St. Joseph-Hammonton should hammer everyone in its path on the way to its eight billionth title (actually it would be its 22nd).
Mater Dei Prep is in happy to be here mode considering it’s 1-8 and still got a playoff berth. The Seraphs will play at undefeated St. Mary’s-Rutherford in the first round to end the season. It’s been an emotional time for Mater Dei, which had many students and coaches greatly affected by the hurricane and has also had plenty of students and coaches working hard to help those in the Bayshore community and beyond.
The pick: St. Joseph-Hammonton over. St. Mary’s-Rutherford.
Central Jersey Group V
(8) Monroe at (1) Manalapan, 7 p.m.
(5) Brick Memorial at (4) Hunterdon Central, 7 p.m.
Central Jersey Group IV
(7) Middletown South at (2) West Windsor South, 7 p.m.
Central Jersey Group III
(6) Matawan at (3) Long Branch, 7 p.m.
Central Jersey Group II
(6) Weequahic at (3) Rumson-FH, 7 p.m.
Central Jersey Group I
(8) Keansburg at (1) Shore, 7 p.m.
(7) South River at (2) Point Beach, 7 p.m.
South Jersey Group V
(6) Southern at (3) Washington Twp., 7 p.m.
(7) Toms River North at (2) Eastern, 7 p.m.
South Jersey Group III
(5) Point Boro at (4) Northern Burlington, 7 p.m.
(6) Bridgeton at (3) Barnegat, 7 p.m.
Non-Public Group III
(5) Msgr. Donovan at (4) Red Bank Catholic, 7 p.m.
Central Jersey Group IV
(6) Steinert at (3) Colts Neck, 1 p.m.
(5) Jackson Liberty at (4) Colonia, 5 p.m.
Central Jersey Group III
(7) Manasquan at (2) Nottingham, 1 p.m.
(5) Lakewood at (4) Neptune, 2 p.m.
(8) Ocean at (1) Allentown, 7 p.m.
Central Jersey Group I
(5) South Hunterdon at (4) Asbury Park, 1 p.m.
(6) Keyport at (3) Florence, 1 p.m.
South Jersey Group IV
(7) Toms River South at (2) Lacey, 1 p.m.
Non-Public Group III
(7) St. John Vianney at (2) Delbarton, 1 p.m.
Non-Public Group I
(7) Mater Dei Prep at (2) St. Mary’s-Rutherford, 1 p.m.