Week One Shore Conference Football Picks
Welcome back to “Blind Man Throwing Darts at a Wall,” an ongoing series that has now been running for 14 seasons of Shore Conference football.
Last year’s picks have been buried at the bottom of the ocean, never to be spoken of again. This is now the season of rebirth, when everyone still has a shot to be great, including me. First off, before I get to the Week One picks, let’s please stay healthy. There is nothing worse than hearing about these season-ending injuries that some key players have suffered in the preseason. Thoughts for a speedy recovery go out to seniors like Red Bank Catholic quarterback Mike Corcione, Brick Memorial fullback/linebacker Anthony Miller and Southern wide receiver Kevin Barreau.
Now it’s time for the real thing. All the bluster from the scrimmages, all the hype about certain teams or players, we find out if it’s for real now. Cue the iPod to “In the Air Tonight.”
Brick at No. 6 Brick Memorial, 7 p.m.: This game will be live on the radio on 105.7 The Hawk and also on 1160/1310AM while being streamed online at www.shoresportsnetwork.com. Brick Memorial has won the last two and four of six against its cross-town rival, but Brick gave the Mustangs a good battle last year in a 17-10 win by Brick Memorial. I’m giving Brick Memorial the nod for two reasons. One, they are the home team, and two, Brick is breaking in some sophomores at key spots. That is not an easy atmosphere for your first varsity game. This also has added stakes because it’s a divisional game now, so the loser is immediately behind in the pack in Class A South. I could see Brick Memorial junior Mike Basile having a breakout game at running back to show that he is on his way to a strong season. The pick: Brick Memorial.
St. John Vianney at Monsignor Donovan, 6:30 p.m.: This is a very tricky game to figure out. Monsignor Donovan’s triple option has given the Lancers’ defense fits when they have played in recent years. Meanwhile, St. John Vianney has the makings of an explosive offense, but if the Griffins run their triple option effectively, it keeps that Lancers group off the field for long stretches. Monsignor Donovan is a senior-dominated team, while St. John Vianney is a young team integrating a lot of new players. One matchup that could be a fun one to watch if it comes to fruition is St. John Vianney sophomore defensive lineman Clay Kemp, a highly-touted transfer from St. Peter’s Prep, going against Monsignor Donovan guard Brad Henson, a senior who has already committed to Virginia. I felt like I underestimated Monsignor Donovan last year, so I’ll give the Griffins the slight edge at home and see if they can deliver. The pick: Monsignor Donovan.
No. 4 Southern at Freehold Township, 6:30 p.m.: This game has a whiff of upset potential just because Southern comes in nursing a rash of nagging injuries, while Freehold Township returns its entire senior-laden team and has high expectations of making a leap forward from a two-win season. On the other hand, if I think Southern is good enough to win Class A South again, the Rams should take this game. This game is mainly a referendum on whether Freehold Township’s offense is any better after averaging 8.5 points per game last week. I also am interested to see how Southern’s running game will look after graduating Class A South Offensive Player of the Year T.J. Bellissimo at tailback. The pick: Southern.
No. 3 Manalapan at Jackson Memorial, 7 p.m.: Here we go again. Manalapan is the favorite, poised for a big season. Jackson Memorial is the underdog but also is Manalapan Kryptonite, having beaten the Braves three straight times in the season opener. This would be the biggest one yet for the Jaguars given that they lost nine starters on defense, star tailback Brandon Winston and quarterback Jimmy Celidonio to graduation. However, there is still talent there and Jackson is big and experienced up front on offense. I might be walking into the same bear trap again, but this Manalapan team just has more weapons and talent on paper. With that said, if Jackson can jam up the running game and force Manalapan into obvious passing downs, the Jaguars can keep their mastery of the Braves going. Where Manalapan kills teams is in second-and-4 or situations like that where it can either stick with the running game or go up top to stud wideouts Anthony Firkser and Saeed Blacknall on play-action and it’s hard for the defense to cheat against either one. It’s all about finishing for Manalapan. They have been stopped on big fourth downs late in games or driven the ball deep into Jackson territory and not punched it in during these losses the last few years. The pick: Manalapan.
Central at Toms River South, 7 p.m.: This is an interesting game for these two nearby rivals for multiple reasons. Particularly for Toms River South, which is about to enter the gauntlet of Class A South, it wants to get any wins that it can. Also, these teams are now in a fight for players to a degree even though no one will come right out and say that. Now that Central is designated as a choice school by the state, it can accept students from as far as 20 miles away. That makes Toms River a fertile ground. There was even a player who was on Central this summer and went back to Toms River South. A win by Central would not only be a good start to the season but also a symbolic gesture to players at the youth levels who might start considering Central as an option. On the field, Toms River South has a strong group of skill players, while Central is debuting a new offense that will throw the ball much more behind junior quarterback Marcus Drumright. Watch out for junior Javon Hardy, who has moved from quarterback to wideout, to be a playmaker. This has the makings of a great game. I give the home team a slight edge in front of what should be a raucous crowd at Detwiler Stadium. The pick: Toms River South.
No. 5 Lacey at Pinelands, 7 p.m.: This is a good game for Lacey to get the newer wrinkles in its offense up to speed after an up-and-down preseason with new assistants Cory Davies and John Tierney trying to implement different things. Pinelands was winless and overmatched in every game last year, so if it can be competitive for four quarters against a team like the Lions, that would be a big step forward. Lacey wants to gain some early confidence before it gets into the meat of a tough Class A South schedule. The pick: Lacey.
Raritan at No. 2 Neptune, 7 p.m.: This is the start of a hellish four-game stretch for Raritan, so the main thing it wants to take away from this game is confidence, let alone a win. Neptune will have its home crowd fired up to watch the defending Central Jersey Group III champions and will look to come out and throw the haymaker in the first half. I’m interested to see how the Neptune running game fares after looking so-so during the preseason with a lot of new faces or players taking on bigger roles back there. Raritan’s secondary will be seriously tested by Neptune quarterback Ajee Patterson and wideouts Geoff Fairbanks and Keith Kirkwood. If the Rockets can keep it close going into the fourth quarter, it might be enough to rattle some of the newcomers not used to a pressure-packed game against an underdog in front of a big crowd. I still think Neptune just has too many weapons. The pick: Neptune.
No. 10 Barnegat Holmdel, 7 p.m.: This begins “Operation: Holding the Fort” for Barnegat, as it plays the first four games without highly-touted transfer Cinjun Erskine, a sophomore quarterback, because of NJSIAA transfer rules. Senior Pat Moran, normally a standout wideout, will most likely be at quarterback running the option. He can’t throw it to himself, though, so we’ll see what else Barnegat has at the skill positions with a group of new receivers and new running backs. The Bengals should be able to rely on an imposing offensive line to move the ball consistently. Holmdel debuts a new/old offense, going back to the triple option after a one-year hiatus, with new quarterback Robbie Cantelli running the show. Holmdel was a one-win team last year and Barnegat won a division title, so if Holmdel gets this one, that would be a pretty stern message in Week One. It might not be pretty, but I think Barnegat will grind one out. The pick: Barnegat.
Shore at No. 7 Rumson-FH, 7 p.m.: What’s not to like about this game? Borden Stadium should be rocking as the two fierce rivals in every sport kick off the season in style. Not only that, but Rumson coach Shane Fallon is going for his 100th career win against the team that he secured his first career win against way back in 1998. Both of these teams have big expectations this season, so this is an early quality victory for either side. This is particularly a chance for Group I Shore to show that it can knock off a bigger school and perennial playoff contender. While Rumson quarterback Danny Roberto returns as one of the Shore’s best, this will be an interesting glimpse at Shore’s new signal-caller, junior Matt Muh. He was overmatched as a sophomore starter for Holmdel last year before transferring, so we’ll see if he’s made a leap forward this season. Shore will always want to run the ball first in its Wing-T, but Muh has the capability to sting defenses with the longball. This also will be a look at Rumson’s rebuilt front four after graduating all of the members of a stellar defensive line from last year. How they stuff the run will be crucial. The pick: Rumson-FH.
Wall at Jackson Liberty, 7 p.m.: This is a tough game to try and figure out in Week One. Wall lost just about its entire starting lineup to graduation and has a new head coach and offensive system under Nick Gregorio. Jackson Liberty graduated stud tailback Justin Billups and is going back to ground-and-pound on offense. I will give the home team the edge because it has more experience on the field and some underrated playmakers at wideout for returning quarterback Bob Davies. The pick: Jackson Liberty.
Ocean at Manchester, 7 p.m.: Manchester is somewhat in rebuilding mode after heavy graduation losses and some transfers leaving, so there will be a ton of new faces seeing their first significant varsity action in this one. Meanwhile, Ocean is hell-bent on returning to relevance among the Shore’s elite, so it has to have this game. This is a chance to see some of the changes Ocean has made on offense under three-year starting quarterback Andrew Mehr, and an opportunity to get a look at new playmakers like sophomore Royal Moore and freshman Tyler Thompson. The pick: Ocean.
No. 8 Matawan at Bishop Ahr, 7 p.m.: This is the debut of new Matawan head coach John Kaye, as the Huskies head north to face Bishop Ahr and former Asbury Park/Neptune head coach Don Sofilkanich. Considering Bishop Ahr’s two-year starting quarterback, Billy Demato, is now at St. John Vianney, I would give Matawan an immediate edge there. The Huskies looked good in the preseason and are ready to make a drive toward a fourth straight state final after being realigned into Central Jersey Group III. Their defense will swarm the run game and they will make Kaye’s debut a success. The pick: Matawan.
Cardinal McCarrick at Point Beach, 7 p.m.: Point Beach gave everyone a hint of the comeback season to come last year when it detonated Cardinal McCarrick 53-6 in the opener. I would expect more fireworks of that variety as the Garnet Gulls get things rolling in a season with high expectations. Kyle Samaritano and Andre Cochran should do their thing on the ground and get the momentum going for 2012. The pick: Point Beach.
Keyport at Asbury Park, noon: This is an immediate dividing game in Class B Central, where Asbury Park is the defending champion. In what looks like it might be a four-team race between these two teams and Point Beach and Shore Regional, the winner of this gets an immediate leg up while the loser is already behind the eight-ball after Week One. Asbury Park returns Robert Barksdale to run the offense at quarterback, but the jury is out on the replacements at the other skill spots. I would look for the Blue Bishops’ defense to carry them early on, and they will be in an all-out attack on Keyport junior quarterback Alex Thomson. This is Thomson’s chance to show his improvement after being overmatched at times as a sophomore last year. It also will be a test to see if Keyport’s offensive line has improved after Asbury Park swarmed Thomson in a win over the Red Raiders last year. The Blue Bishops will be christening their new artificial turf field at Asbury Park Stadium, and I think they will find a way. The pick: Asbury Park.
Keansburg at Mater Dei Prep, noon: The annual Thanksgiving game between the two old rivals has been moved to the season opener. Keansburg is eager for revenge after being knocked off by Mater Dei last year for Mater Dei’s only win in a season where both teams went 1-9. That means somebody will equal their win total from last year in the first week and gain much-needed confidence. Keansburg has almost its entire team back on both sides of the ball, including three-year starter Ryan Kurtz at quarterback. Mater Dei has all of its linemen back but is still trying to settle its skill position players. I just think Da Burg is going to be so eager for payback that it will be tough to stop. The pick: Keansburg.
Long Branch at Manasquan, 1 p.m.: The Green Wave will not have star tailback Dwight Clark, who is out with an injury, but I still think they will have enough skill players to get this one done. Manasquan’s 23-game home winning streak was snapped by Matawan in last year’s Central Jersey Group II semifinals, so Long Branch is aiming to give the Warriors a rare two-game skid at Vic Kubu Warrior Field. Long Branch senior fullback Joscil Jackson will shoulder more of the rushing load and senior quarterback Avery Griffin is ready to step up and be more of a playmaker. Also keep an eye on sophomore Dahmiere Willis, perhaps the next big star at Long Branch, who should get some carries and play in the secondary in Clark’s absence. Manasquan is breaking in a new quarterback, Tucker Caccavale, and will try to re-establish its running game with Joe Fittin and Joe Murphy. The Warriors probably also left the sprinklers on all week to slow down their mud, er, grass field in order to counteract Long Branch’s speed. The pick: Long Branch.
Toms River East at Colts Neck, 1 p.m.: I felt this was one of the hardest games to pick this weekend. Toms River East is coming off a two-win season but returns a lot of promising players, while Colts Neck returns a handful of talented players but will have a lot of new faces on defense and on the offensive line. It all comes down to how well Colts Neck can stop the run because Toms River East is going to try to break the Cougars’ backs with a strong dose of junior Matt Gudzak, a battering ram of a running back who also has good speed. Colts Neck will counter with its own power back, Anthony Gargiulo, but also has the ability to make plays in the passing game with standout wideout Tim Vangelas. I’ll give the home team the slight edge. The pick: Colts Neck.
J.P. Stevens at Marlboro, 1 p.m.: Marlboro went winless last year, so a victory here would be beyond huge for this team’s confidence. The Mustangs return almost everyone from last year and have a new spread offense. The defense looked fairly solid in the preseason. J.P. Stevens is coming off a 3-7 season and beat Marlboro by 23 points last year. While I would like to give the Shore team some love, when you’re coming off an 0-10 year, it’s hard to get the benefit of the doubt. I hope I’m wrong. The pick: J.P. Stevens.
No. 1 Red Bank Catholic at Red Bank, 1 p.m.: The Battle of Red Bank has some interesting subplots going on in what is already an old rivalry with plenty of juice. RBC lost starting quarterback Mike Corcione to a torn ACL in the preseason, so junior Pat Toomey will have to step in and perform while playing against what should be one of the Shore Conference’s tougher defenses. Red Bank also enters banged up, with standout linebacker Dillon Stambaugh and offensive playmaker Jahimere Hinton both questionable to suit up. Also, Red Bank’s offensive coordinator last year, Nick Varanelli, is now an assistant at RBC. It’s no secret that the top-ranked Caseys will line up with their mammoth offensive line and try to run over the Bucs. RBC can cycle in fresh linemen all game, so it will be up to Red Bank to stand up to that. There are some great matchups up front in this game, like possibly Penn State-bound Garrett Sickels going up against 295-pound junior tackle Quenton Nelson, a major FBS prospect in his own right. There also is Red Bank’s big man in the middle, senior Isaac Coates, going against that stout RBC line. The whole game boils down to whether Red Bank can move the ball against RBC’s rugged defense. RBR had a hard time scoring against playoff-caliber teams last year, and RBC’s defense is as nasty as it gets in the Shore Conference. Of course, this game also has a symbolic value in that RBC wants to keep a stranglehold on the pipeline of talent in Little Silver, Shrewsbury and Red Bank, while RBR wants to continue its return to prominence and show the talent at the youth level that it can go to its local high school and play for a strong team. I see RBC in a fairly low-scoring game. The pick: Red Bank Catholic.
Point Boro at Monmouth, 1 p.m.: Point Boro is coming off a state playoff berth, while Monmouth went 1-9 last season. The Panthers will try to pound Monmouth with the run game and then go up top to Kyle McGarry, while the Falcons will counter with quarterback Jeff Farrah trying to make plays downfield in the passing game. This is strictly a pedigree pick for me. Point Boro is a contending, playoff-caliber team year-in and year-out, while Monmouth is still trying to become that kind of program. The pick: Point Boro.
Lakewood at Freehold, 1 p.m.: The Piners return dynamic talent Tyrice Beverette at quarterback and have added playmakers in the passing game and in the backfield, but it comes down to how well their line can protect Beverette. Freehold returns its entire offensive line, which has imposing size and experience. I think that will be the difference in a hard-fought game featuring a lot of exciting playmakers. I could see Cequan Smith-Rush having a nice day on the ground and Freehold kicking off its comeback campaign with a hard-fought win after holding its breath that Beverette doesn’t single-handedly beat them. The pick: Freehold.
Howell at Toms River North, 7 p.m.: The Rebels enter with a major question mark at quarterback, as senior John Quinlan, a 6-foot-5 gunslinger ready to be the next star in an offense that routinely produces them, could be out with a left knee injury. If that happens, that is a tough blow to their chances and puts a lot of pressure on sophomore back-up Connor McGlynn in his first varsity game. Toms River North is also debuting a new quarterback in junior Carmen Sclafani, who has three stud wideouts in his disposal in Joey Fields, Kyle Carrington and Damien Singleton. The Mariners looked good in the preseason and are ready to send the message that they are back among the Shore’s elite. The pick: Toms River North.