Week Eight Shore Conference Football Picks
We are getting down to crunch time now, with teams fighting for their playoff lives, home games in the postseason and division titles. Like Bart Scott, I can't wait.
While the stakes are higher once the playoffs start, I am a big fan of these two weeks leading up to the postseason. The energy level at games always seems to be much higher, and you see tremendous performances from seniors who want to avoid the tumbleweed crowds of the consolation game at all costs.
No. 1 Red Bank Catholic gets its first real test of the season when it goes on the road to face No. 5 Middletown South in a nondivisional game that will slingshot the winner up in the power-point rankings in their respective brackets. There are several other important games, particularly on Friday night, so we'll see how it all turns out.
As for my picks last week, it was kind of a ho-hum week at 18-4. During the next Shore Conference athletic directors meeting, I am voting to disband Class B South because it costs me at least one game every week. If I had to guess, I would say 75 percent of the games in that division this season have been tied or within seven points in the fourth quarter.
When it comes to the Brick upset of Toms River North, I think only those wearing green-and-white would have seen that one coming. The story of Anthony Starego, the kicker with autism, has been the story of the week, and rightfully so. If they pull off the upset over undefeated Lacey this week, it will really go into hyperdrive.
On the flipside of the playoff drama is trying to pick these games between two teams that are already out of the running for the postseason. Which team has put a postage stamp on its season, and which team will fight to the end? Always hard to figure out.
Last week: 18-4
Matawan (5-1, 4-1) at No. 6 Long Branch (6-1, 3-1), 6 p.m.: This game has major implications for the Class B North title and Central Jersey Group III seeding. The winner puts itself in position to most likely share a piece of the division crown with Neptune and secure at least one home game in the state playoffs. Looking at the common opponents between these teams, Long Branch has been the more impressive squad, but this is an old-school rivalry. Matawan will not back down and has a defense that has kept the Huskies in every game except the Neptune loss this year. Long Branch enters with one of the most devastating running attacks in the Shore Conference thanks to a veteran, physical offense line and the tandem of junior Deon Williams and senior Joscil Jackson. Keeping this team under 200 yards rushing has been a chore for most squads. Long Branch has won four straight and 11 of 12, while Matawan has won two in a row. Matawan has played to its defense and special teams all year, as its usually explosive offense has yet to crack 27 points in a game this year. I just think Long Branch's running game is going to be tough to slow down, and if senior quarterback Avry Griffin can hit some passes off play-action, Matawan will be in a lot of trouble. It comes down to how well Matawan's offense can produce against a Long Branch defense with a standout secondary and a penchant for creating turnovers. To me, Long Branch is starting to build the tidal (green?) wave toward a serious run in Central Jersey Group III. The pick: Long Branch.
Middletown North (1-5, 1-2) at Howell (0-6, 0-3), 6:30 p.m.: These are two teams playing out the string, but Middletown North has played a much tougher schedule. Howell just lost by 28 points to a Freehold Township team that was previously winless, so the pick here is for the Lions to pick up their second win as they finally get a breather after seeing one top team in the Shore or the state seemingly every week. Quarterback Cody Thompson was a little banged up at the end of a loss to South Brunswick last week, so hopefully he is back in one piece and ready to finish out his senior season. The pick: Middletown North.
No. 8 Colts Neck (5-1, 3-1) at Freehold Township (1-5, 1-3), 6:30 p.m.: Freehold Township comes in with the confidence of its first victory of the season, while Colts Neck is trying to bounce back from a 24-21 loss to undefeated Manalapan. The Cougars still have plenty of incentive in this one as they are trying to lock down their first state playoff berth since 2008. It should be the usual - a heavy dose of junior tailback Anthony Gargiulo, some big plays on passes to Tim Vangelas and Connor Canonico, and a rugged defense led by a stellar group of linebackers. The pick: Colts Neck.
Central (2-4, 1-4) at Msgr. Donovan (4-2, 4-0), 6:30 p.m.: There's no time for Monsignor Donovan to cry over last week's 30-0 beatdown at the hands of unbeaten Rumson because the Griffins are still on track to win their first division title since 1993. To get one step closer, they have to win this game against the team that Griffins' head man Dan Duddy once coached. Monsignor Donovan will need to gets its running game back on track with Grant Klimek and Vincent Grasso after getting bottled up by Rumson. Central's offense came alive last week after some struggles, but the bad news is that it wasn't enough in a 33-27 loss to Lakewood that put the Golden Eagles' state playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. However, a win here could give them a shot at making a second straight playoff appearance for the first time since 1998-99. While Monsignor Donovan has struggled outside the division, picking against the Griffins in B South play has been a bad idea, so I am sticking with them. The pick: Monsignor Donovan.
Toms River North (4-2) at No. 2 Manalapan (6-0), 7 p.m.: This is one of the highlight games of Friday night, a nondivisional showdown with a barrel of power points on the line. Manalapan has a shot at the top seed in Central Jersey Group V with a win in this one while Toms River North would vault to a top-three seed. For the third straight season, Toms River North comes into this game really needing a win, especially after being stunned by Brick last week. Manalapan has won a pair of last-second thrillers over the Mariners in the last two years to knock them out of playoff contention, so Toms River North will try to get over the hump. Manalapan proved itself in a big game yet again last week by rallying for a 24-21 win over Colts Neck in a match-up of unbeaten teams. The Braves showed that even on a day when their star wideouts, Anthony Firkser and Saeed Blacknall, get put in the Witness Protection Program, they can still win a big game by going to the bread-and-butter of their power running game with Tyler Leonetti and Dave Debner. Toms River North's offense has been up and down - shaky one week, explosive the next. They usually get up for this game, but the way Manalapan has played against quality competition, I just can't see picking against this Braves team at home in a high-stakes game. The pick: Manalapan.
No. 9 Southern (4-2, 3-2) at Jackson Memorial (1-5, 1-4), 7 p.m.: Southern re-energized its season with a crucial 28-21 win over Brick Memorial that it needed last week for its state playoff hopes. The Rams rushed for 278 yards in the win, including a career-high 170 by senior Abe Gonzalez, so the running game is in great shape coming into this game. Jackson Memorial's offense showed some signs of life last week as sophomore quarterback Joe Demaio tied a school record set by Tom Tarver in 1984 by throwing four touchdown passes and also had a school-record 19 completions in a 45-28 loss to Lacey. Southern is third in power points in South Jersey Group V right now, so it is on pace to secure a home game for a second straight year if it can take care of business. The pick: Southern.
Brick Memorial (5-2, 3-2) at Toms River South (3-3, 3-2), 7 p.m.: I really like this game. I think this is one of the most underrated games of the weekend. A Brick Memorial team that has suffered two straight losses and needs to right the ship and try to secure a home game in the Central Jersey Group V bracket against an up-and-coming Toms River South team that has won two straight and has playoff aspirations of its own that would be greatly helped by a win here. Brick Memorial gave up nearly 300 yards rushing to Southern last week, while Toms River South's rushing attack has been on fire behind junior running back Otis Kearney and sophomore quarterback Tymere Berry. The Indians are also sky-high after a 38-6 win over Toms River East ended a 10-year, 18-game losing streak to fellow Toms River schools, and they will be at home in front of what will surely be a raucous Detwiler Stadium crowd. Brick Memorial's offense has been solid but not as explosive as earlier in the season, so the Mustangs will need to pull it together behind quarterback Ryan Cieplenski and junior Mike Basile while the defense regroups. I am so tempted to pick Toms River South here because I feel like this team's playmakers are really getting rolling, but I will give Brick Memorial the benefit of the doubt as the program that has been there, done that in these games before, while this is uncharted territory for a young Indians team. The pick: Brick Memorial.
No. 1 Red Bank Catholic (6-0) at No. 5 Middletown South (5-1), 7 p.m.: Video of this game will be streamed live on rbcsports.com for those who can't make it to the weekend's biggest showdown at The Swamp. RBC has not had a chance against a ranked opponent to really prove that it is the No. 1 team in the Shore, considering unbeaten teams like Lacey and Manalapan have better resumes right now. This is the Caseys' chance to show that they are still the kings of the mountain looking down on everyone else. That is a spot that Middletown South once occupied regularly in the 2000s, and it's a place the Eagles would like to return. On paper, this looks pretty straightforward. Middletown South will put eight in the box and probably even have a ninth defender lurking near the line of scrimmage to stop RBC's power running game. They will dare junior quarterback Pat Toomey to make accurate throws under pressure to beat them while trying to get big plays on defense from players like junior defensive lineman Taylor Hendrickson and senior cornerback Eli Smith, the latter of whom has two interception returns for touchdowns this year. If the Eagles can consistently get RBC into third-and-5 or worse, that is ideal. RBC will use its size and depth up front to try to wear down the Eagles while jackhammering them with the trio of Jesse Flaherty, Mike Cordova and Larry Redaelli. I think this is Toomey's chance to shine, and he is going to have to prove he can make throws in a big game at some point because there is a snowball's chance in hell that RBC is beating the teams in its state playoff bracket with just the power running game. A great match-up could be RBC junior tackle Quenton Nelson, a major FBS prospect, against Hendrickson, who has received FCS interest. On the other side of the ball, RBC's defense will do the same thing to Middletown South - dare Kyle Brey to beat them throwing the ball. The Caseys' rugged front seven will look to remove senior fullback Jake Ripnick as a factor (easier said than done) and then unleash the hounds on Brey and see if he can make accurate throws against a ball-hawking RBC secondary led by senior Chris Whitlock. Special teams could also be huge in this game. Smith is a homerun threat as a punt and kick returner for Middletown South, while senior James Taylor is the same for RBC. Also, Toomey is an outstanding kicker, and so is Eagles senior Connor Ryan. This is the type of game where All-Shore reputations are made, and it's also the type of game where that youth superstar leaning on the fence with his father might make his mind up about where to play in high school. The winner almost certainly guarantees itself at least one home playoff game as well as the respect of the Shore Conference fans. RBC also has a 20-game winning streak against Shore Conference competition on the line for what that's worth, although that probably doesn't impress too many Eagles backers considering they have the Shore Conference record of 43 straight wins against all competition set in the Knowshon Moreno era from 2003-06. The pick: Red Bank Catholic.
No. 3 Lacey (7-0, 5-0) at Brick (2-5, 2-3), 7 p.m.: This game will be live on the radio on 105.7 "The Hawk'' f.m. and streamed online at 1057thehawk.com. I'm not going to go way in depth on it because you can read a full preview here, but this game definitely is a lot more fun than it looked like it would be a few weeks ago. Brick has had the magic the last two weeks, while Lacey is looking to lock down the outright Class A South title and make its bid for the No. 1 seed in South Jersey Group IV with a win. This is the last game for Lacey that will count toward its power points, as next week's meeting with Brick Memorial will be the Lions' ninth game, and only the first eight count toward the playoffs. This will also be the first career start of sophomore quarterback Conor Davies, in for injured starter Tom Kelly. The pick: Lacey.
Holmdel (3-4, 1-3) at St. John Vianney (3-3, 2-2), 7 p.m.: The Battle of Holmdel has some stakes to it as both teams are fighting for their state playoff lives. Holmdel was dealt a blow when standout quarterback Robbie Cantelli suffered an injury to his non-throwing arm in a loss to Manasquan last week, so his availability is up in the air right now. St. John Vianney got back on track with a win over Monmouth Regional last week, and star wideout Ishmael Hyman made his return to the lineup. There is going to be a lot of pressure on the Holmdel defense to step up in this one with the offense possibly without Cantelli or at least with Cantelli not near 100 percent. I think St. John Vianney has should have enough offense to pull this one out, and watch out for senior Steve Callari on special teams, as he has returned a kickoff for a touchdown in two straight games. The pick: St. John Vianney.
Jackson Liberty (4-2, 3-2) at Point Boro (5-2, 4-1), 7 p.m.: Oh no, it's B South again. Just like Holmdel-St. John Vianney, these are two other teams that need this one as far as securing their state playoff position. Jackson Liberty moved standout sophomore Matt Castronuova from wideout to quarterback last week and he ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Pinelands, so we'll see if that move continues to pay dividends against a tougher opponent this week. This is the last game for Point Boro that counts toward the power points in South Jersey Group III, where they are currently third, so taking this one should guarantee a home game at Al Saner Field in the postseason. While Point Boro seems securely in the playoffs at this point, Jackson Liberty really needs this one. The Lions have never made the playoffs since their inception in 2007, and they are currently in eighth in Central Jersey Group IV. A win here and that probably does it as far as making history for the Lions. Jackson Liberty has been a hard team to figure out. A 3-0 start, then a 2-3 skid. The main question is whether this offensive change flips the switch on their season. I'm going with the Panthers because Point Boro seems to play well at home, but if you're a Jackson Liberty fan, that should be a good thing because I never get these B South games right. The pick: Point Boro.
Lakewood (5-1, 4-1) at Barnegat (3-3, 3-2), 7 p.m.: Another toss-up B South game. Barnegat has struggled to score this season with a host of young players on offense, while Lakewood can smell that first state playoff berth since 2002. It has been a remarkable turnaround season for the Piners, and they have the momentum right now. The best player on the field is Lakewood senior Tyrice Beverette, but he has plenty of help from a talented Piners roster, particularly on an improved defense. Quietly one of the best hires of the offseason was Lakewood bringing in new defensive coordinator Jamil Jackson, a former Rutgers standout who previously coached at Elizabeth and Linden. A team that gave up 25 points per game last year and got bulldozed by opposing running games is now allowing 14.2 points per game and swarming to the ball. The pick: Lakewood.
Pinelands (0-7, 0-5) at Manchester (0-6, 0-4), 7 p.m.: Someone will get their first win in this one, and Manchester has had two weeks to prepare. Pinelands has lost 19 straight games, so this is a golden opportunity to erase that mark, especially after scoring a season-high 28 points in a loss to Jackson Liberty last week. Manchester is a young team that has taken its lumps, but this is a great opportunity for the Hawks to gain confidence. The pick: Manchester.
Keansburg (4-3, 1-2) at No. 10 Shore (5-1, 2-0), 7 p.m.: Keansburg has lost by a combined 81-0 the last two weeks to Point Beach and Keyport after a 4-1 start, so the Titans are searching for answers and a boost to an offense that was outstanding early on. Shore has been cruising along since a season-opening loss to Rumson-Fair Haven, gearing up for an anticipated showdown with Point Beach down the line. Shore's calling card is a ferocious defense that forces turnovers and jams up the running game, and the offense is a diverse running attack with the ability to go deep behind junior quarterback Matt Muh. The pick: Shore.
Middlesex (2-4) at Asbury Park (4-2), noon: Asbury Park has won two straight and is trying to gain momentum for the Central Jersey Group I playoffs, where the Blue Bishops are the defending champs. Getting a first-round home game is probably a stretch with the trio of Point Beach, Shore and Florence at the top, so the main thing is getting the offense in gear and making improvements for when the Blue Bishops inevitably see Point Beach or Shore again or run into a Florence team that they blew out in last year's CJ I final. The pick: Asbury Park.
No. 7 Point Beach (7-0, 3-0) at Keyport (6-1, 2-1), noon: This is the biggest game of the day in the Shore Conference. The Garnet Gulls have buried every team they have played this year, including a 54-20 win over an Asbury Park team that beat Keyport 36-7 in the season opener. Keyport believes it is a much better team now after winning six straight. Point Beach is averaging 45 points per game and has not been held under 40 all year thanks to a rugged offensive line and the three-headed monster of Danny Tighe, Kyle Samaritano and Andre Cochran. Keyport junior quarterback Alex Thomson has already set the single-season school record for passing yards and also is a very dangerous runner so the Point Beach secondary will be tested. I know Keyport is playing much better football and is tough at home, but Point Beach has been one of the most impressive teams against its schedule of any squad in the Shore this year. The Garnet Gulls are looking to set up a showdown with Shore on Thanksgiving and want that No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group I, so they have to have this one. The pick: Point Beach.
No. 4 Rumson-Fair Haven (6-0, 3-0) at Monmouth (1-5, 1-3), 12:30 p.m.: This looks pretty straightforward, with Rumson's defense bottling up a Monmouth offense that has struggled to score and the offense establishing the run and hitting some touchdown passes over the top from senior quarterback Danny Roberto. Rumson chugs on toward a top-3 seed in Central Jersey Group II, where it has made two straight finals. The pick: Rumson-FH.
Perth Amboy (0-6) at Marlboro (2-4), 1 p.m.: Perth Amboy may be winless, but four of its wins are by 13 or less points, so it has been competitive. Marlboro just saw Middletown South last week, so the competition level won't be nearly that high. I would think the Mustangs will bounce back here and try to get back to .500. The pick: Marlboro.
Red Bank (1-5, 1-3) at Freehold (1-5, 1-3), 1 p.m.: This is the definition of the type of game I mentioned in the opener. Two teams out of the playoffs, nothing more to play for than pride. Both offenses have struggled pretty much all year, while the defenses have been underrated. This could be a 7-0 game just looking at previous scores. I guess if Red Bank can beat Neptune and take Matawan to double-overtime it should be able to eke one out on the road against Freehold. Honestly, I have no idea. The pick: Red Bank.
Ocean (3-3, 1-3) at Wall (2-4, 1-3), 1 p.m.: Ocean's offense has been pretty solid, while the defense gave up nearly 350 yards rushing last week in a loss to Long Branch. Wall's rushing attack is not on that level, and the Crimson Knights have only scored more than 14 points twice all season. Still, these teams always seem to play each other tough, and Wall has had two weeks to prepare because of its bye. I just think Ocean has the more explosive players in Tyler Thompson, Jair Bernier and Royal Moore, and that will be the difference. Plus, if Ocean wants any prayer of making the playoffs in Central Jersey Group III, it has to have this game. The pick: Ocean.
Metuchen (3-4) at Mater Dei Prep (0-7), 1 p.m.: The Seraphs have seen the best of the best in Central Jersey Group I while playing in Class B Central and could give the Bulldogs a run, but the road team is the clear favorite. The pick: Metuchen.