What to Watch For: Week Five
With some big divisional games and a host of toss-up games that look to be crucial for several teams' state playoff hopes, Week Five in Shore Conference football has plenty to keep an eye on.
Here are some things to watch this weekend:
Power-point swings and division strength
There are a host of nondivisional games that should be huge when it comes to teams' playoff fortunes, starting with the Top 10 showdown between No. 7 Rumson-Fair Haven and No. 8 Long Branch on Friday night.
The Bulldogs are the defending Central Jersey Group II champions and are coming off a loss to St. John Vianney. Long Branch, which competes in Central Jersey Group III, has won three straight since a season-opening loss to No. 1 Red Bank Catholic. The winner stands to gain a haul of power points and should get plenty of residuals as these teams will most likely do plenty more winning before the playoff cut-off. Long Branch is currently a point behind Hopewell Valley for the top seed in CJ III, while Rumson is sitting in seventh in CJ II, although the Bulldogs have played one less game because they had a first-week bye.
This also could be a great battle of two of the Shore Conference's best running backs. Long Branch senior Dahmiere Willis has been out of his mind in the last three games, rushing for more than 200 yards in every game and ballooning that to a career-high 307 yards last week against Colts Neck. He leads the Shore Conference with 898 yards rushing and has 10 touchdowns.
It's still up in the air whether his counterpart on Rumson, senior Charlie Volker, will be on the field on Friday night after missing last week's game against the Lancers with a high ankle sprain. The Princeton recruit will be evaluated by the athletic trainer on Thursday and could be a game-time decision. He ran for over 100 yards in each of Rumson's first two games before aggravating the ankle injury in a win over Monmouth Regional. If he can't go, the Bulldogs will once again rely on sophomores Mike O'Connor at quarterback and Matt Vecchiarelli at running back to pick up the slack.
O'Connor ran for a career-high 260 yards and three touchdowns in the loss to St. John Vianney last week, so he will be the focal point of a Long Branch defense led by senior linebacker Hunter Baillie, while linebacker Max Pfrang and the Rumson defense will be zeroed in on Willis. The team that can get some separation and force the other side to have to throw the ball in the second half will have the decided advantage. This game is also a good one to compare the relative strengths of Class A Central (Rumson) vs. Class B North (Long Branch).
Two other big nondivisional games to watch on Friday night are Middletown North at Ocean, and Manasquan at Barnegat. Middletown North is coming off a 56-34 loss to No. 3 Manalapan, but showed it can put points on the board against a quality opponent. Ocean, meanwhile is coming off a 14-7 loss to Manasquan, in which it was never able to really get its offense in gear.
Ocean currently sits in 12th in power points in Central Jersey Group III, so it could really use this one against the Group IV Lions (2-2), who are in the ninth spot right now in CJ Group IV. Two great running backs in this game from the Class of 2016 in Middletown North's Chad Freshnock and Ocean's Tyler Thompson. Middletown North's offense has picked it up after a slow start, but the defense has struggled against the likes of Freehold's Josh Dixon and Manalapan's Imamu Mayfield in the run game, so Thompson will be another challenge.
Ocean's defense has also struggled against the run, giving up 224 yards to Manasquan's James McAlary last week and 156 to Neptune's Jaree Parrish in the opener. A loss here puts Ocean's playoff hopes in a bleak spot considering it still has games against No. 1 Red Bank Catholic and No. 8 Long Branch before the cut-off. The Lions are also looking to get over the .500 mark with three games in which they will be a favorite coming up before the cut-off. Again, this is a good game to measure the relative strength of divisions between middle-of-the-pack teams in Class A North (Middletown North) and Class B North (Ocean).
Down in Barnegat, the Bengals host a Manasquan team that has won three straight after a season-opening loss to Raritan. The Bengals are also 3-1, having won two in a row since a loss to Central. This is another game with two strong running attacks, with Manasquan led by McAlary and Barnegat led by the combination of quarterback Cinjun Erskine, running backs Tyler McGuinness and Paul Wickwire, and the occasional burst from Penn State-bound linebacker Manny Bowen.
Manasquan sits in second in power points in South Jersey Group III, where it reached the semifinals last year before bowing to eventual champion Delsea. Barnegat, which lost to Delsea in the final, is now in South Jersey Group II, where it sits in fifth in power points. A win for either one could go a long way toward securing at least one home game in the postseason. This game pits the strength of two teams near the top of the standings in Class A Central (Manasquan) and Class B South (Barnegat).
Division slugfests continue
The two main division games to watch this weekend are both in Ocean County.
Toms River North takes on No. 6 Jackson Memorial in the Jersey Mike's Game of the Week on Friday night in a Class A South rumble at "The Jungle," while Central travels to Point Boro on Saturday at 2 p.m. for a key Class B South game.
Jackson Memorial pushed No. 2 Brick to the brink in a 30-24 overtime loss last week, and there's no time to rest as a talented Mariners team is looking to stay right in the hunt in the Class A South race. This is one of those separation games where the winner keeps the pressure on first-place Brick, while the loser is most likely out of any chance to win a division title.
There are a host of talented skill players on both of these teams, including the Toms River North crew of sophomore quarterback Mike Husni, junior tailback Asante Moorer, sophomore running back Parker Day, senior tight end Jordan Craig and a deep group of wideouts. Jackson Memorial features junior tailback Vinny Lee, who lit up Brick last week on his way to a pair of touchdowns, as well as senior quarterback Joe DeMaio, wideouts Aaron Curet and Kyle Johnson, and sophomore running back Mike Gawlik, in addition to a big and physical offensive line. The Jaguars also add senior wideout Matt Castronuova, a Jackson Liberty transfer who had to sit out 30 days. He was a second-team All-Shore safety as a junior in addition to being a weapon on offense.
Like the games mentioned above, this is also a big one for both teams as far as taking a big step toward securing a playoff berth and jockeying for at least one home game. The winner will stay in second place in the division, while the loser drops two games off the lead. You can listen to the game live on 1160/1310 a.m. and streaming here on ShoreSportsNetwork.com.
Over in Point Pleasant on Saturday, the first-place Panthers will take on Central as they try to keep their grip on the lead in Class B South against a Golden Eagles team that already has a win over Barnegat under its belt. Central sophomore running back Mike Bickford has been one of the Shore's best in the first four weeks and just put up 228 yards last week against Pinelands, while the Panthers have been led by a much-improved defense and an offense featuring senior quarterback Jack Fitzsimmons and junior running back Devin Connelly.
This game will all be predicated on which defense does a better job stopping the run game. It could be played on a sloppy field after a night of rain on Friday, so points could potentially be at a premium. This begins a divisional gauntlet for Point Boro, which still has to face Barnegat, Jackson Liberty and Lakewood. A win by Central throws the race into chaos again, with the Golden Eagles, Point Boro, Barnegat, Jackson Liberty and Lakewood all right in play for the championship.
Nonconference match-ups of interest
The Greater Middlesex Conference-Shore Conference crossover games continue, with three games in particular that stand out.
Brick Memorial goes up north to face an always-solid Old Bridge program in a game that has playoff berth implications for both teams. Both teams run the triple option so they will face almost mirror images of one another, but Old Bridge throws the ball more than the Mustangs behind quarterback Mike Gargano. Brick Memorial's Tim Santiago has gotten more comfortable by the week as Brick Memorial's quarterback, so it should be a good showdown.
Matawan faces an unbeaten Colonia team with a chance to vault itself up the power-point standings in Central Jersey Group III, where it currently sits in fifth. The Huskies have won two straight, and if they can get this one, it would go a long way toward helping them return to the postseason after missing the playoffs last year.
Finally, on Friday Point Beach heads to Dunellen, which is going for a sweep of the top three teams in Class B Central. Dunellen beat Mater Dei Prep 50-38 and took out Shore Regional last week with a 16-7 comeback victory. Now it faces the defending Central Jersey Group I champions, who grinded out a 9-6 win over a Spotswood team that beat Dunellen 28-14 in the season opener.
The Garnet Gulls have been led by senior quarterback Jake Fioretti and senior fullback Joe Wegrzyniak, who also leads the defense at linebacker along with Tanner Smith up front. This game should give a little more clarity to the Central Jersey Group I picture. Middlesex has stamped itself as the team to beat at 4-0 with a win over Point Beach, but these games have all been very close, so the margin is slim for Shore or Point Beach to roar right back into the championship picture come playoff time. This game will show whether Dunellen is the main contender right behind Middlesex or whether Point Beach will once again be right there to defend its title.
Quick hits on other things to watch:
**Red Bank Catholic is looking to make it 37 straight wins against the Shore when it hosts winless Colts Neck on Friday night.
**Manalapan is looking to make it 29 straight wins against Shore Conference competition when it travels to Lacey on Saturday. If the Braves can beat the Lions and then a tough Middletown South team, something will have to give with the streak for either Manalapan or RBC when the Braves and Caseys square off on Oct. 24.
**Holmdel, Wall, Manchester, Colts Neck, and Keyport will all try again to get their first wins under their new coaches.
**Brick has the Shore Conference's longest current winning streak at seven games. The Green Dragons will try to make it eight when they host winless Wall on Friday night. The Shore Conference record, by the way, is 43 straight wins by the Knowshon Moreno-led Middletown South teams from 2003-2006.
**Highland Park is 0-16 against Shore Conference competition since losing to Asbury Park in the 2009 Central Jersey Group I final. Keyport will try to keep that streak intact when it faces the Owls on Friday night in a match-up of winless teams.
**Lacey has lost a school-record nine straight dating back to last year, leaving head coach Lou Vircillo still stuck on 263 career wins, tied for second all time in Shore history with the late Vic Kubu. The Lions have yet another tall order this weekend in No. 3 Manalapan.