*Rapid Reaction column: Week 3*

*Shore Sports Network Football Players of the Week, 10/1/13*

*Shore Sports Network Top 10 rankings*

The most-anticipated regular-season game of the Shore Conference season thus far, a landmark NJSIAA ruling and some teams on the rise highlight this week’s Rundown.

Note: Make sure to check out the Thursday Night High School Football Show from 7-8:30 p.m. on 105.7 f.m. and streaming online at 1057thehawk.com.

Manalapan and senior linebacker Matt McCann will look to make some big plays on defense as they welcome Middletown South on Friday night for a Class A North showdown. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle).

1. Buckle up for Middletown South at Manalapan on Friday night.

The No. 4 Eagles head to face the No. 2 Braves on Friday night in the biggest showdown between ranked teams so far this season. The winner gets a huge leg up in the Class A North race, with another top-five team, No. 5 Colts Neck, still lurking out there. This also will be a power-point haul toward a home game or two in the state playoffs for the winner, and Manalapan also brings an 18-game divisional winning streak into the clash.

Last year’s game between these teams was a 35-31 thriller at The Swamp that Manalapan won in comeback fashion. The Eagles were at Manalapan’s 12-yard line in the final seconds, but a fumble recovery by Braves’ linebacker Matt McCann sealed the win for the visitors.

This year’s game features many of the same players, from Manalapan wideout and Rutgers recruit Saeed Blacknall, who had two touchdowns in last year’s game, to Middletown South quarterback Kyle Brey, who threw touchdown passes to Tayler Hendrickson and Andrew Wisialko, who are also back.

You would have to think Middletown South will not make the mistake again of punting to Blacknall, who took one 85 yards to the house last year. Brey is also settled in at quarterback, whereas last year it was just his third varsity start.

Manalapan has an extra wrinkle to defend this year in junior quarterback Charles Lombana, a transfer from Jackson Memorial. The Braves have run some zone read with Lombana this season to take advantage of his running ability, whereas Mike Isabella was more of a pocket passer last year.

This is one of those games where linemen can make their All-Shore reputations by winning individual battles because both sides have plenty of talent up front, including the Eagles tandem of Hendrickson and senior Conner Spreen in the middle on defense. Middletown South ran for 239 yards in the loss last year, but is more of a passing team this year that uses the run to set up throws downfield. Manalapan has a veteran defense filled with returning starters, so almost everyone experienced the championship-level atmosphere at The Swamp last year.

Middletown South’s running game should be a big X-factor, as the Eagles want to sit on the ball, bleed the clock and keep it out of the hands of an explosive Manalapan group. The Eagles want to get Manalapan into second-and-long consistently so they can go after Lombana and see what kind of throws he makes with a rusher bearing down on him. Manalapan wants to take Tyler Leonetti and Nelson Rivera and pound away up front to get into second-and-5 regularly to keep Middletown South guessing and take shots downfield with Blacknall.

It all adds up to a must-see game.

2. Mater Dei Prep and Wall step up to the plate.

Two teams that have generated some buzz in the early going will get their first real tests of the season on Friday night after starting 3-0.

Mater Dei Prep goes on the road to face defending Class B Central champion Point Beach, while Wall travels to face defending Class B North co-champion Long Branch.

Mater Dei just hung 49 points on Dunellen in a 49-35 win, marking its highest point total since 1972, one week after Dunellen lost 15-6 to Point Beach. The Garnet Gulls are coming off a 7-3 nonconference loss to Spotswood.

Essentially, this is the Seraphs’ new-look explosive offense against a tough Point Beach defense. This also will be a test to see how good Mater Dei is up front, particularly defensively, because the Garnet Gulls will look to grind them with the running game in the Wing-T, four yards at a time, to keep their offense off the field.

If Mater Dei gets this one, its best start since 1986 will now have the stamp of “division title contender” on it and serve notice that this is a team to be reckoned with. Point Beach, meanwhile, is out to send the Seraphs back to the drawing board and show that it is still the team to beat despite losing a stellar backfield to graduation that has resulted in much less offensive production this season.

As for Wall, the Crimson Knights have been the one team in Class B North that has consistently put up points so far this season.They are averaging a division-best 28.7 points per game, with Ocean being the next-closest at 21.7 points per game, and that's mainly because of 51 points in a season-opening victory over winless Manchester.

Senior tailback Pete Miceli is coming off a 4-touchdown showing in a 44-7 win over Freehold and has been the engine of the team along with senior quarterback Jack Gifford. They will face the toughest run defense they have seen so far in Long Branch, led by Hunter Baillie and Saquan Gwaltney up front and Connor Mullan at linebacker.

Long Branch, meanwhile, has had a lot of struggles with an almost all-new offense. The Green Wave are averaging 13 points per game and needed overtime to hit that mark on Saturday in a 13-7 win over Neptune. Wall's defense also has been stellar so far, only allowing 14 total points in three games, so Long Branch is going to have to find some answers to jumpstart the running game with Deon Williams, T.J. Covin and Dahmiere Willis and become less one-dimensional by getting the passing game going.

This is the chance for Wall to make a statement that it is on its way back to becoming a top 10 team in the Shore, while Long Branch is out to show it isn't going anywhere despite its offensive woes.

3. Landmark NJSIAA ruling involving Brick’s Anthony Starego

The Brick kicker with autism can now focus on trying to win the job against incumbent Steve Ferlisi and enjoy the remainder of the season after gaining an unprecedented fifth year of eligibility from the NJSIAA last Friday.

The main question going forward is whether Starego is an isolated case, or whether this has opened Pandora's box involving athletes with autism and other conditions going forward. An athlete with autism potentially giving a team a competitive advantage was never seen in Shore Conference football until Starego came along, and I would think kicker is really the only position on the field that a player with autism could be expected to make an impact.

One scenario I've envisioned involves basketball. It's been well-documented that Starego's condition helps him as a kicker because it involves constant repetition. I could see a basketball player with autism being a free-throw machine because it involves repetition. A team could put him in at the end of games to try to close out wins. However, the only way this would relate to Starego's case would be if the player is 19 before his senior year or has surpassed his eight-semester limit by NJSIAA rule and is seeking more eligibility. It certainly will be interesting to see if this case becomes a loophole for others to use, or whether it truly becomes a one-time situation.

4. Jackson Memorial’s Khani Glover starts strong

Every year there are a group of players who take it up a notch and boost their team in the process. Last season, it was Lacey quarterback Tom Kelly, who made a quantum leap after struggling as a sophomore to become a force as a junior in a new spread offense, and the Lions went 10-1.

This year it could be Jackson Memorial tailback Khani Glover, who rolled up 170 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in a win over Brick Memorial last week. His open-field elusiveness and speed to the outside have improved, and he has four touchdowns in two games. Certainly, credit also has to go to Jackson Memorial's improved offensive line.

Much of the Jaguars' struggles in a 3-7 campaign last year were due to an offense that averaged 17.7 points per game, including only 14.6 against state playoff qualifiers. The defense has returned to dominating form thus far, so if the offense can continue to produce as the schedule gets more difficult, you're looking at a team that will make a serious run at the Class A South title.

5. Warriors out for revenge

Manasquan welcomes St. John Vianney to Vic Kubu Warrior Field on Saturday for a Class A Central match-up after losing a wild game to the Lancers last season.

The Warriors were up 35-6 before St. John Vianney came roaring all the way back for a 39-35 win in which now-senior quarterback Billy DeMato went bananas for 316 yards passing and six touchdowns.

With Manasquan at 2-1 and St. John Vianney at 1-2, this game is huge for both teams, power-point wise, when it comes to the state playoff picture. The Lancers just faced Rumson-Fair Haven and Red Bank Catholic back-to-back, while Manasquan took a beating from the Caseys and then bounced back to roll past winless Raritan.

This is one of those swing games that can send a season quickly heading in a positive or negative direction. In talking to the Manasquan players in the preseason, this one has been circled for a while on the schedule because of the letdown last year. I would also hazard to guess that St. John Vianney has either never won on Manasquan's field or it's been since the early 1980s if it happened so they will be motivated to make some history after last season's amazing comeback.

6. B South darkhorse

Quietly Central Regional is only one victory away from tying its win total from all of last season thanks to a 2-1 start under new coach Willie Jacobs.

An important reason has been the play of senior quarterback Marquis Drumright and the addition of wideout Isaiah Akers, a senior transfer from Toms River South who had 10 catches for 117 yards in a 28-0 win over Point Boro last week. This is Drumright's second season as a starter and he is off to a solid start with multiple 200-yard passing games.

If Central takes care of business in a home game against Pinelands (1-2) this week and Barnegat beats Jackson Liberty, the two will square off at Barnegat on Oct. 18 with sole possession of first place in the division on the line.

7. Big games to watch in Week Four

Middletown South at Manalapan, Friday at 7 - No explanation needed here.

Lacey at Toms River South, Friday at 7 - A big hurdle for Lacey to clear if it wants to repeat as A South champ.

Brick at Southern, Friday at 7 - Another good Class A South battle that also has important power points at stake, plus Brick wants to keep pace with the division leaders.

Wall at Long Branch, Friday at 7 - Is Wall for real or will Long Branch maintain the upper hand? We'll find out. The winner will be the only other team with a spotless division record outside of Ocean.

Mater Dei Prep at Point Beach, Friday at 7 - Same scenario as Wall as far as making a statement.

Red Bank at Rumson-FH, Friday at 7 - The Battle of Ridge Road is always a good rivalry game.

Shore at South River, Saturday at 1 - Big game seeding-wise for Central Jersey Group I.

St. John Vianney at Manasquan, Saturday at 2 - Warriors looking for revenge, Lancers looking for some history.

8. Alumnus of the Week - East Stroudsburg Junior DT Bryan Thomson

The former first-team All-Shore defensive lineman from Keyport and reigning PSAC East Defensive Player of the Year recently set a school record with his ninth (!) career blocked kick. Thomson is the oldest of three brothers to star for the Red Raiders, as Connor Thomson was a standout lineman as a senior last year and Alex is the current starting quarterback and holds several school passing records.

9. Stat of the week: 42.

Toms River East had not scored a point in two games before erupting for 42 in a loss to No. 3 Lacey. Rarely do you see a team snap out of that kind of funk against an opponent the caliber of Lacey, which is the defending Class A South champion. Senior tailback Matt Gudzak had 52 total yards rushing in two games on 20 carries coming into the afternoon, and then erupted for 184 and three touchdowns.

Toms River East switched to a Delaware Wing-T and some I-formation from its multiple wing offense and looked like a completely different team. The Raiders could be an X-factor in the division race despite an 0-3 start if they are going to put up those kinds of numbers going forward.

10. Around Central and South Jersey

So far, the two teams that looked like they would be primary obstacles to Manalapan in Central Jersey Group V have struggled. Defending champion South Brunswick and three-time defending sectional champion Sayreville, which moved up to CJ V this year, are both off to 1-2 starts. The teams out of the Greater Middlesex Conference to watch in that bracket are Old Bridge, which has impressive wins over both Sayreville and South Brunswick, and Monroe, which is off to a 3-0 start that also includes a win over South Brunswick.

Old Bridge has a kicker, Ed Mish, who hit from 43 yards in the win over South Brunswick and has hit from 55 in practice, so you never know when that could come into play down the line in a close playoff game. Old Bridge also held the Vikings to just 189 total yards, so its defense is pretty solid. Monroe just held a Woodbridge team averaging 300 yards rushing to 21 total yards in a 49-0 wipeout.

Joe Frappolli, the legendary Florence coach who helped the Flashes knock off Point Beach and Shore last year on their way to the Central Jersey Group I title, will reach a rare milestone when he coaches in his 400th career game at Robbinsville on Saturday.

Defending champion Williamstown still is the team to beat in South Jersey Group V, but it barely got out alive against Cherokee this past weekend. The Braves pulled out a 13-10 win over a Chiefs team that also looks to be a playoff factor.

Up in North Jersey, the 800-pound gorilla in No. 1 Red Bank Catholic's bracket, Non-Public Group III, scored an impressive win as St. Joseph-Montavale rolled over Bergen Catholic 49-6. St. Joe's is ranked No. 14 in the country by USA Today, and its Oct. 26 home game against Paramus Catholic and Michigan recruit Jabrill Peppers, ranked No. 3 in the nation, is shaping up to be the game of the year in New Jersey by far.

 

Week Four schedule

Friday, Oct. 4

Marlboro at Freehold Twp., 6:30 p.m.

Midd. South at Manalapan, 7 p.m.

Colts Neck at Midd. North, 7 p.m.

Raritan at RB Catholic, 7 p.m.

Red Bank at Rumson-FH, 7 p.m.

Lacey at TR South, 7 p.m.

Brick at Southern, 7 p.m.

TR North at Jackson Mem., 7 p.m.

Wall at Long Branch, 7 p.m.

Matawan at Neptune, 7 p.m.

Ocean at JFK-Iselin, 7 p.m.

Mater Dei at Pt. Beach, 7 p.m.

Asbury Park at Pt. Boro, 7 p.m.

Keansburg at Dunellen, 7 p.m.

Lakewood at Manchester, 7 p.m.

Jackson Liberty at Barnegat, 7 p.m.

Pinelands at Central, 7 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 5

Shore at South River, 2 p.m.

SJ Vianney at Manasquan, 2 p.m.

Holmdel at Monmouth, 2 p.m.

Keyport at Middlesex, 2 p.m.

Brick Mem. at TR East, 3 p.m.

Ohio State at Northwestern, 8 p.m.