The Fifth Down: Week Eight
Well, this is it. We are down to the final week before the state playoffs kick off, and there looks to be a good amount of drama as always.
One difference this year is that so many teams have scrapped their Thanksgiving games (which I totally agree with, by the way) that many teams are playing their ninth games of the season this week. That means those games do not count toward power-point totals because only the first eight games count, with teams allowed to throw out one game toward their total, a rule that was created to encourage teams to play harder schedules.
With the creation of Group V two years ago, it has watered down several brackets, so it's a hit-or-miss affair. There are some brackets where the bottom features numerous teams that are not even close to .500, while there are others that are tough from top to bottom. You know, like it should be when a state championship is on the line. It's like the regular season is meaningless for some teams, who have the leeway to go 2-6 and still get in, and tough for others, like a Middletown North team that could wind up 6-2 and still potentially not make it.
Anyway, here's a look at how things are shaping up for the Shore Conference, as well as news and notes from Week Eight action. The NJSIAA will release the official playoff brackets on Sunday morning after the conclusion of this weekend's games.
Most exciting bracket: Central Jersey Group IV
This is shaping up to be a royal rumble, and it currently features five of the top 10 teams from the Shore Sports Network Top 10. Brick and Jackson Memorial are tied for first with 139 power points, and both have already played eight games, so the No. 1 seed should come down to residual points. Brick can deny the Jaguars residual points for their win over Toms River South by beating the Indians on Friday night, which also would clinch the outright Class A South title for the Green Dragons, who are division champs for the first time since 2008.
Brick will have standout senior running back/linebacker Ray Fattaruso in the lineup after he was ejected in last week's win over Toms River North. "Ejection or removal of a player for a specific sport rule will carry the disqualification penalty only when it includes a flagrant unsportsmanlike act,'' according to the NJSIAA handbook. What that usually means is that if you get ejected for mouthing off to an official, a player usually doesn't have to sit the one-game suspension unless it involved racial or homophobic comments, but if he throws a punch or something deemed flagrant by the officials, he sits the mandatory one game.
The Green Dragons also have to be on their best behavior this week against the Indians because by NJSIAA rule, if a team has three disqualifications in the course of the regular season, it is banned from participating in the playoffs. Brick had two against the Mariners.
If Brick and Jackson Memorial are tied in power points after this weekend, Brick will get the No. 1 seed because of a 30-24 overtime win over the Jaguars during the regular season thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Green Dragons are the defending CJ IV champions and are trying to win back-to-back state titles for the first time since winning South Jersey Group IV three straight times from 1981-83.
Middletown South can make it interesting by beating Freehold (7-1) to jump the Colonials for the third spot and be only a handful of points away from challenging the top two for the No. 1 seed. One of the benefits of getting the No. 1 seed is that a team most likely avoids Middletown South early in the tournament. The bad news for Freehold is that if the Colonials upset the Eagles, it doesn't count toward their power-point total because this is their ninth game, so residual points could mean them being seeded anywhere from third to fifth.
The team coming on strong in this bracket is Neptune, which came roaring back into the playoff picture with a big 27-0 victory over Long Branch (6-2) last week. The Scarlet Fliers are currently in the sixth spot, making their nondivisional game against Toms River North (5-3) this week a huge one for them. While it's meaningless, power-points-wise, for the Mariners, Neptune could potentially be in danger of being out of the playoffs if it loses and Burlington Township, Northern Burlington and Middletown North all win. The Scarlet Fliers could be the low seed that no one wants to play in the first round.
Middletown North (5-2) needs a win over Freehold Township (3-5) to have a shot at grabbing one of the final two seeds for its second straight state playoff performance.
I would be genuinely surprised if a Shore Conference team did not win this bracket. Princeton (7-1) lurks as a contender, but this could be Brick-Jackson Memorial Part II or another great all-Shore Conference match-up. Regardless, the last team standing in this bracket will have earned an impressive state title.
Shore Conference best bets to win titles: Winner of CJ IV, Rumson-Fair Haven, Shore Regional
In addition to the aforementioned Central Jersey Group IV, the two other best bets to bring home titles are teams in two brackets that the Shore Conference also won last year.
Rumson-Fair Haven (5-2) looks to have a good shot at being the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group II after winning it last year. As long as the Bulldogs take care of business against Holmdel (2-5) this week and second-seeded Roselle (5-2) loses to undefeated Bernards, the title will once again go through Borden Stadium. Senior tailback Charlie Volker, a Princeton recruit, sat out the second half of a 27-7 win over Raritan last week for precautionary reasons as he continues to try to get back to 100 percent from a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss two games earlier in the season.
Rumson at full strength looks to be the best team in this bracket. Cinnaminson is 6-1, but in its one real test it got mauled 62-29 by undefeated Holy Cross. The Bulldogs' first-round match-up looks to either be a rematch with Lakewood, which it already beat 33-12 this season, or a game against Point Boro (4-4). Lakewood and Point Boro play each other this week, and if Lakewood wins, it will jump up into the middle of the pack at a five or six seed and away from Rumson, but if it loses, it could be in a battle for the eighth seed with Point Boro on residual points.
Either way, if Rumson's running game has all its weapons and its young defense continues to improve, the Bulldogs have a good shot at winning consecutive state titles for the first time in program history.
As for Shore Regional, the Blue Devils are out to finish the job in Central Jersey Group I after losing in the last two finals. If they take care of business against Asbury Park (2-5) this week, they will lock up the No. 1 seed for the second straight year while also wrapping up the outright Class B Central title for the second straight season.
It's almost certain that Shore will have a second meeting against Point Beach in the first round. Shore, which beat the Garnet Gulls 17-0 last week, routed Point Beach 31-0 at the end of the regular season last year, only for Point Beach to come back and stun the Blue Devils 12-7 in the state final a week later.
"We absolutely have to stay focused,” senior linebacker James Bedell said after last week's win. “We played a great game, but that doesn’t mean they can’t come back and smack us just like last year, so that’s going to be our motivation.”
Point Beach lost senior running back Mike Frauenheim, its leading rusher and a defensive standout, to a broken collarbone before the Shore game and also has had several injuries on both sides of its line, so it will be an uphill battle for the Garnet Gulls, who have to face a strong Mater Dei Prep (6-2) team this week. This is Point Beach's ninth game, so it won't count toward their power-point total.
The Shore Conference teams have routinely knocked off second seed South Hunterdon in this bracket the past few years, so it's looking like Middlesex or New Egypt might be the main obstacles in Shore's way. If the Blue Devils keep playing defense like they have been and keep the running game at full tilt behind Doug Goldsmith, they should get it done, but having to face Point Beach twice can't be a good feeling.
Good shot to be finalists: Long Branch, Manalapan
With Manalapan, it really depends on whether the Braves pick up enough residual points to slide into the No. 3 spot in Central Jersey Group V this week, as the top four teams have all played eight games already. Manalapan currently sits in fourth, and while its game against Howell is important because it gives them the outright Class A North crown, it won't count toward their total.
If they stay in fourth, that almost certainly means a semifinal game at undefeated South Brunswick, which makes their chances of reaching the final certainly more difficult. Manalapan has lost three straight state finals, including one to South Brunswick in 2012, so it is out to finish the job and win its first state title in program history. It was going to have to run into the Vikings and Syracuse-bound star Dontae Strickland sooner or later, but it would be better to have that be in the championship game. Hillsborough and Montgomery are also tough opponents, and Manalapan could have to go through Hillsborough and South Brunswick to finally get over the hump, which is no easy challenge.
Long Branch (6-2) will be a top-two seed in Central Jersey Group III regardless of what happens this weekend. The Green Wave are relying solely on residual points because they have played their eight games, so it comes down to whether defending champion Hopewell Valley (6-1) beats Northern Burlington (5-2) to jump second-seeded Carteret and make a run at the No. 1 seed.
If Long Branch gets the top seed, that most likely means a semifinal matchup on its home field against either Raritan, which has played the Green Wave tough in the playoffs in the past, or Matawan, another old foe. Long Branch star Dahmiere Willis erupted for a school-record 370 yards rushing in a win over Matawan during the regular season, but that was a tight game until Long Branch pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 40-28 win. Plus, Long Branch is trying to regroup after it was dominated by Neptune in a 27-0 loss last week, showing some chinks in the armor as Willis was held to 17 yards rushing.
Raritan, which is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, can put itself in position to get a home game as the No. 4 seed by beating Monmouth (2-5) this week and getting residual points from Red Bank beating winless Manchester. It will be a tight race for the 4 seed with Matawan, which plays Barnegat this week in its ninth game, so it won't count for seeding. Matawan beat Raritan 26-21 earlier this season and has won five straight against the Rockets dating back to 2009.
Red Bank (3-4) also has a chance to sneak in as the eighth seed by beating Manchester and getting some help on residuals. The Bucs need Hamilton West (2-5) to lose to Hightstown (2-6) to help their cause in order to make their first state playoff appearance since 2011. If Long Branch gets the No. 1 seed, there could be a 1-8 matchup between the Green Wave and Red Bank, who are longtime Thanksgiving rivals.
Hopewell Valley has to be respected as the favorite in this bracket as the defending champion, but it is not as powerful as last year. If it does come down to Long Branch against Hopewell in the final, it would be two star running backs going head to head. Willis leads the Shore with 1,817 yards rushing, while Hopewell's Lorenzo Bryant, a transfer from Notre Dame, leads the West Jersey Football League in rushing and just picked up an offer from Towson University.
Non-Public brackets: Is this finally Red Bank Catholic's year?
The good news for RBC is that if nationally-ranked Paramus Catholic, the No. 1 team in the state, can beat defending Non-Public Group III champion St. Joseph's-Montvale this week, the Green Knights should at least have to come to Count Basie Field for the semifinals this year if St. Joe's ends up holding on to get the No. 3 seed. St. Joe's has knocked RBC out of the playoffs in the semifinals in each of the last two seasons on its home field and has won three straight titles.
The Caseys currently sit as the second seed with 148 points, compared to 125 for St. Joe's. If St. Joe's stuns Paramus Catholic, it would jump RBC and push Delbarton (8-0) for the No. 1 seed on residual points. RBC has a great Top 10 match-up this week against Jackson Memorial (7-1), but unfortunately it's the ninth game for both teams so the Caseys can't get the power-point haul if they knock off the Jaguars to win their 41st straight Shore Conference game.
St. Joe's hasn't been quite the unstoppable juggernaut it has been in past years, as seen by its overtime loss to Bergen Catholic, but it still plays as tough a schedule as any team in the state and has beaten RBC by at least three touchdowns in their last two meetings. That's what surprises me about some of these state rankings that have RBC ahead of St. Joe's. Until the Caseys finally rise up and win, the Green Knights should always be ranked ahead.
If RBC secures the No. 2 seed, that most likely means a first-round home game against either Camden Catholic (6-1) or Bishop Ahr (3-4). RBC is trying to reach its first state final since 1980 and win its first state title since 1976.
The intriguing team in this bracket is St. John Vianney (8-0), whose game against Manasquan this week will not count toward its seeding because it's the Lancers' ninth game, although they can lock up the outright Class A Central title with a win. If St. Joe's loses to Paramus Catholic, it could be a race of residual points with St. John Vianney for the No. 3 seed, as those two teams are currently only separated by one power point.
If the Lancers got the three seed, that could change everything. It could mean a potential semifinal match-up between RBC and St. John Vianney at Count Basie Field, a game plenty of people would love to see. It also would mean that both Shore teams wouldn't have to worry about having to go through both St. Joe's and Delbarton to win the title because those two teams would most likely meet in the other semifinal.
If St. John Vianney gets the No. 4 seed, that most likely means a first-round home game against Pope John XXIII and junior quarterback Sonny Abramson, who has nine FBS offers already. That looks to be a great quarterback match-up against St. John Vianney junior Anthony Brown, who is generating FBS interest of his own during a breakout season. St. John Vianney, which has already won its first division title since 1982 this season, has not won a state playoff game since 1981 and has only won three in its history.
In Non-Public Group I, Mater Dei Prep looks to have a first-round rematch on the road against Morristown-Beard, who it beat in last year's playoffs. Then that will be the end of the road, as the winner will have to go to defending champion St. Joseph's-Hammonton, which is on a whole other level from the teams in this bracket every year.
Best bet in South Jersey: Brick Memorial.
Brick Memorial currently sits in fourth in South Jersey Group V, but there is a good chance it will be jumped by Cherokee and slide to the fifth spot. The Mustangs have already played eight games, so they can only get residual points from this weekend's games.
Same goes for Toms River North, which is currently in the sixth spot, but has to hold its breath because the three teams behind it, Atlantic City, Egg Harbor and Southern, all have games this week that will count toward their totals and could potentially leave the Mariners hoping for enough residuals to hang on for a playoff spot. So essentially the Mariners will be rooting for Brick Memorial against Southern on Friday night, while the Rams will try to knock off the Mustangs to secure a spot.
Brick Memorial quarterback Tim Santiago was in a boot last week with an ankle injury during a win over Toms River South, and since the game is essentially meaningless for the Mustangs, he could rest up for the playoffs this week, which certainly can't hurt Southern's chances. One way or another, that game is crucial for multiple teams.
The South Jersey Group V bracket always features quality teams, but it's not as stacked this year as in past seasons. Unbeaten Lenape (7-0) has a huge game with Rancocas Valley (6-1) this weekend that is for the No. 1 seed, and the winner of that game would be considered the favorite.
Brick Memorial is mainly the Shore's best bet in the South Jersey brackets because the odds are so daunting in the other brackets. It still would be a darkhorse run if the Mustangs made it to the final. They have essentially been the team that has beaten the teams it should have beaten and lost to the higher-ranked teams, but they are always dangerous as an underdog in the postseason. The bad news is that they would probably have to do all their winning on the road.
Toms River South has to upset Brick this week just to have a shot to sneak into the field in South Jersey Group IV, and even if that happened, Timber Creek, Shawnee and Hammonton make this a rugged bracket with little hope for the Indians.
The South Jersey Group III bracket is interesting as far as first-round games go, depending on how the seeds shake out. Central looks like the No. 4 seed but could potentially snag the No. 3 spot by beating Jackson Liberty (4-4) this week. If they got the No. 4 seed, it most likely means a first-round home game against Wall (2-6) or Oakcrest (4-3) depending on how Oakcrest does in its game against Holy Spirit (3-4) this week. If Central beats Jackson Liberty, it has the chance with some residuals to get the No. 3 seed over Bridgeton, which still would most likely mean a game against Wall or Oakcrest.
Central has only won one playoff game in its history, and that was in 1994. They look to change that this season while also grabbing a piece of their first division title since 1994 by beating Jackson Liberty.
If Manasquan upsets St. John Vianney (8-0), that would vault the Warriors potentially all the way to the No. 4 seed and a home game, but that is a tall task given how the Lancers have played. Manasquan is currently in the seventh spot and could potentially get jumped by Cumberland (2-5) if Cumberland beats Highland (2-6) this weekend and Manasquan loses.
Defending champion Delsea (5-3) looks to be the No. 2 seed and is still the team to beat even though it has three losses because two of those losses came against Camden and Timber Creek, who are both undefeated. Delsea has also won five straight heading into this week's game against Kingsway. Allentown (6-2) looks to be the top seed and only has losses to Rancocas Valley and Lenape, two teams who fighting for the No. 1 seed in South Jersey Group V. The Redbirds have never even reached a state final in their history and have only ever won one playoff game, but this could be the year considering they just smacked defending Central Jersey Group III champion Hopewell Valley 38-14. They could have to deal with Manasquan in a first-round game, which no team really wants given the Warriors' playoff history.
No matter who makes it out of the scrum of the first round between Central, Manasquan and Wall, all of them are underdogs to win it all.
In South Jersey Group II, Barnegat (6-1) is in a brutal bracket. It almost doesn't matter where they are seeded because every opponent will be tough. They most likely could have to go to defending champion Haddonfield in the first round or undefeated Buena depending on how Barnegat does against Matawan this week. This bracket also features undefeated Camden, perennial power West Deptford (7-1), 2013 runner-up Woodstown (6-1) and perennial power Glassboro (6-1). This looks like the hardest small-school public bracket in the state.
The good news for Barnegat is that Penn State recruit Manny Bowen will be back in the lineup this week against Matawan. Similar to Brick's Ray Fattaruso, Bowen was ejected from a win over Lakewood last week but does not have to sit out this game because it was not deemed a flagrant act, according to coach Rob Davis.
News and notes
**Ocean junior running back Tyler Thompson said he underwent successful surgery at Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank on Saturday after breaking his left leg in a loss to Red Bank Catholic on Friday night. Thompson, who has multiple FBS offers, was on his way to a third straight 1,000-yard rushing season for the Spartans. His doctors anticipate a full recovery, which is estimated at around six months, according to head coach Don Klein.
**With 1,060 passing yards, junior quarterback Jack O'Brien has become Freehold Township's first 1,000-yard passer since 1996, according to coach Mike D'Antonio.
**Brick senior quarterback Carmen Sclafani has gone over 1,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season for the second time. He also did it as a sophomore at Toms River North and was on pace to do it last year at Brick before a knee injury sidelined him for two games. He also has registered three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, a rare feat for a quarterback in recent Shore Conference history.
**Manalapan has won 31 straight divisional games and has not lost a division game since Class A North was re-formed in 2010.
**Red Bank Catholic junior two-way lineman Liam Smith added an offer from Duke, senior lineman Dan Wilen picked up an offer from Central Connecticut State, and senior defensive back Mike DeMonte has been offered by Bentley, according to coach Jim Portela.
**Shore Regional senior James Bedell has gotten interest from Rutgers, Virginia and others as a long-snapper.
**Pinelands' 33 points in its win over Manchester mark its highest total since a 56-13 win over Toms River South in 2010.
**Red Bank junior kicker Jack O'Connor nailed a 40-yard field goal in the win over Holmdel, tied with Brick Memorial's Matt Cuppari for the second-longest in the Shore this year. St. John Vianney junior Joe Rice has hit a 41-yard field goal this season.
**Jackson Memorial sophomore running back Mike Gawlik has scored a combined seven touchdowns in the last two games, including four in last week's win over Toms River East.
**Great week for the Hartman family from Pinelands, who combined for six touchdown catches. Wilkes University tight end Jeremy Hartman was named to the Middle Atlantic Conference honor roll after catching three touchdowns in an overtime loss to Albright. Not to be outdone, Bucknell senior tight end Jake Hartman was named the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Week after catching three touchdowns of his own in an overtime win over Lafayette.