Talented Offensive Lines Look to Pave the Way for Toms River North, Wall in South Jersey Finals
Their individual members may not be not household names in the Shore Conference, but if the offensive lines at Toms River North and Wall perform up to the high level they have set this season, it's a good bet their teams will be hoisting South Jersey sectional championship trophies on Saturday.
Whether it's a Toms River North group that has paved the way for an offense poised to take its place among the greatest in Shore history, or a senior-laden Wall unit that has the Crimson Knights on the cusp of their first state title in 14 years, both have been instrumental in their teams' success this season.
The Mariners' unit has paved the way for the Shore's No. 1 offense at 46.9 points per game and set the table for star senior Mike Husni to rewrite conference history in his four years as the starting quarterback. Husni already is the first quarterback in Shore history to ever register three straight seasons of at least 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards passing.
He enters Saturday's South Jersey Group V final against Millville, which will be at 6 p.m. at Rowan University, just 23 yards shy of becoming the first Shore signal-caller to ever have 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a season. He also has 43 total touchdowns between rushing and passing, putting him one shy of tying the Shore Conference single-season record set by Mater Dei Prep's Christian Palmer in 2014.
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Toms River North also has 516 points for the season, which is well within striking distance of the Shore Conference-record 543 scored by Red Bank Catholic in 2014 when the Caseys won the Non-Public Group III title.
"This is the best offensive line we've ever had here,'' said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz, who was previously an assistant on the 2007 Mariners team that went undefeated.
Senior center Will Sagarese is a three-year starter who makes all the calls at the line and is part of a group that Oizerowitz particularly cited for their intelligence. Senior Esiah Santamaria is another three-year starter at guard, 290-pound senior Matt Melamed is a two-year starter at tackle, senior Chris Renda saw time last year before starting at guard this season, and 270-pound senior Dan Benishti starts at the other tackle spot after starting multiple games last year.
Senior Cole LaBatch, who is 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, is a ferocious blocking tight end, and 6-foot-6, 245-pound senior Dan Madsen also will line up at tight end in some formations and play H-back. Senior Joe Nardoza, who is 6-foot-1, 275 pounds, will come in as a fullback when the Mariners go double tight.
The Mariners average 308.9 yards rushing and 179.7 yards passing per game for a gaudy 488.6 total yards per game.
Under offensive line coach Bill Dowd, it's a unit that is versatile enough to lean on teams with a power running game based on an inside zone and outside zone scheme but also athletic enough to spring big plays on the edge and get downfield. They also have done a good job of minimizing penalties on a team with four explosive athletes in the backfield who can reverse field at any time.
That's what makes the top-ranked public school team in the state so difficult to defend. The Mariners can attack with a physical, downhill runner in senior Parker Day, who has 1,412 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns in addition to Husni's 1,545 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. Then if you load up the box, Husni will find the star wideout tandem of seniors Darrion Carrington and Bryce Watts, who have combined for 64 catches for 1,674 yards and 24 touchdowns, in space or downfield.
"They are pretty versatile, and they run really well,'' Oizerowitz said about the offensive line. "They have a mean streak in them, but they play with discipline."
In order to become the first Toms River North team to ever win back-to-back state titles, the unbeaten Mariners will have to solve a Millville team whose defense is its strength, allowing 14.6 points per game with four shutouts. However, Millville just allowed 45 points in a Thanksgiving loss to Vineland, the team that Howell beat in the first round of the South Jersey Group V playoffs before Toms River North beat the Rebels 62-34 in the semifinals.
The Thunderbolts (9-2) play a 3-5-3 stack led by speedy linebackers Zack Douglas and Jermer Downing and specialize in bringing pressure from all angles with different rushers.
"Really identifying who's coming (with pressure) and who's not coming is going to be the issue for our line,'' Oizerowitz said. "If anybody can handle it, it's them."
The goal is one final dominant performance for an offensive line that not only can stake its claim to being the best in Mariners' history, but one of the best in Shore Conference history.
Just like Toms River North, Wall's rugged offensive line is all seniors, although a big difference is that many of them also play heavy minutes on the defensive line. They look to bring home the program's first state title since 2002 in their first appearance in a final since 2004.
"I've been watching the program since I was four years old, going to the games and seeing Wall win,'' said senior left guard Mike Andrejco. "My goal from the start was building back up to what we were and being competitive again."
The Crimson Knights will face defending champion Delsea at 11 a.m. at Rowan University on Saturday in the South Jersey Group III final. A big reason Wall is playing for a title is an offense that averages 241 yards rushing per game and ranks seventh in the Shore at 29.3 points per game.
Senior tailback Sean Larkin has rolled up 1,349 yards rushing and a school-record 24 touchdowns this season. As a team, the Crimson Knights have compiled 2,651 yards on the ground, including 550 on an average of 9.2 yards per carry by speedy junior Chevesse Covin, 387 by junior quarterback Eddie Scott, and 353 by junior Brady McNally.
They have done so behind a unit coached by Tony Grandinetti that features senior left tackle Sean Ferguson, Andrejco at left guard, senior center Ryan Venice, and twin brothers Darryl and Darryin Valme at right guard and right tackle, respectively. Wall also has a pair of talented tight ends in seniors Gene Scott and Jack Byrne.
"I think that the best thing they do is they really wear on the other team,'' said Wall head coach Dan Curcione. "They lean on you and tire you out."
The proof is on the scoreboard. Wall (9-2) has outscored teams 187-51 in the second half this year, including 112-35 in the third quarter.
"We put a very high importance on being in unbelievable shape,'' Curcione said. "They know enough of our system by now that we didn't need to start the football stuff until a day or two after the Fourth of July. Before that, it was all just lifting and running."
"In the offseason, conditioning was hell,'' Andrejco said. "I feel like that's why we're such a strong second-half team."
After four straight losing seasons, experience has also manifested itself on the scoreboard this year as the Crimson Knights faced a daunting schedule in Class B North and came out with nine wins. Having a group up front on both sides of the ball that is steady and does not panic has been huge.
"I feel like we all trust each other,'' Andrejco said. "We all know each other, so we're not afraid to say something to the other guy if someone is messing up or slacking. We're able to hold each other accountable."
They entered the season with the lofty goal of having Larkin rush for at least 150 yards per game and they have nearly hit it, as he has averaged 134.9 per game. At the most crucial point of their season, they have been playing their best, as Larkin has erupted for a combined 621 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in playoff wins over Camden and Hamilton West as well a win over Central Jersey Group II finalist Manasquan on Thanksgiving.
"(Larkin) is a good downhill runner for our scheme,'' Curcione said. "He fits the bill with the way he runs, and he offers us the home run play."
The final challenge is a Delsea team that enters at 7-4 and allows 19.1 points per game. The majority of their opponents this season were spread passing teams, so the physical style of Wall's running game is not one they have had to deal with too often this fall.
"I take it as a compliment,'' Andrejco said about Delsea focusing on stopping the run. "If you're focusing that much on one of the aspects of our game, that's basically saying, 'Hey, you guys are really good at this.'''
Delsea's main attribute on defense is speed, which Wall looks to counter with its power up the middle and on the edge.
"Their D-line gets off the ball quickly and gets to their gaps,'' Andrejco said. "I think we're just going to try to contain their speed and make sure we stay on our blocks."
This is also uncharted territory for a group that had never won a playoff game in their four years until this season. Curcione coached in a state final as a defensive assistant for an unbeaten Toms River North team in 2007 so he knows what the atmosphere is like.
"I told them it's a football game, and they've played football their whole lives,'' Curcione said. "We're not changing one thing we do this week in practice."
A win would give the Crimson Knights their fourth state title in school history and restore them to the top after some years in the wilderness.
"It would be a huge boost to the program,'' Andrejco said. "We've had kids transferring out of Wall and going to RBC and other schools, so I feel it would open up kids' eyes to show we're back on top, so they should stay here and keep up the tradition."