Wildcard Wednesday: Central Jersey Group IV Preview
With 20 teams in action this weekend, it’s playoff time in the Shore Conference.
To get you started, here is a look at a bracket featuring two of the Shore Conference’s top 10 teams. Check back on AllShoreMedia.com for previews on each bracket.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP IV
The favorite: No. 1 South Brunswick (8-0).
Contenders: No. 2 Manalapan (7-1), No. 4 Jackson Memorial (7-1), No. 5 Sayreville (7-1)
The underdogs: No. 3 West Windsor South (7-1), No. 6 North Brunswick (5-3), No. 7 Brick Memorial (4-5), No. 8 Hillsborough (4-4).
The skinny on the Shore teams:
Manalapan (7-1): The Braves have won seven straight after a season-opening, 12-7 loss to Jackson Memorial in the last seconds. Their pro-style offense, which averages 30 points per game, revolves around a downhill running attack featuring senior tailback John Sieczkowski, who has run for 1,412 yards and 16 touchdowns, including a Shore Conference-record 425-yard rushing day against Howell. Junior quarterback Mike Isabella has been steady and efficient and has shown he can win games if he has to, as he did in going 19-for-22 for 177 yards and a touchdown in a comeback win over Brick Memorial. His main target is 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior wide receiver Anthony Firkser, one of the toughest one-on-one match-ups of any wideout in the Shore. The offensive line is a little banged up but gets off the ball well. Senior fullback Jesse McEnery is a punishing blocker but is currently trying to recover from an injury and may be questionable for the playoff opener.
The defense, which is allowing 16 points per game, is also led by Sieczkowski, who is a three-year starter at linebacker, along with fellow three-year starter Alex McPherson at linebacker. Junior John Appice is a standout lineman up front, and senior defensive back Vito Gadaleta has been a playmaker in the secondary. This is a fast and active defense that flies to the ball but is prone to giving up the big play.
Jackson Memorial (7-1): The Jaguars have to be a little irked that a team they beat, Manalapan, wound up with a higher seed and a more favorable road to the championship game, but that’s how the schedule worked out.
This has been a resurgent year for Jackson, which had missed the playoffs the past three seasons after having made nine straight postseason appearances while capturing three straight championships from 1999-2007. The Jaguars are a rugged defensive team that features a senior-laden unit that includes one of the top pass rushers in the Shore, senior defensive end James Cowen, as well as standout linebackers Ken Bradley and Dimitrie Christodoylakis. Jackson is allowing only 8 points per game and has not given up more than 21 in a game all season. It has a very strong front seven, and senior Brandon Winston is one of the best cover corners in the Shore Conference.
Winston also leads the Jaguars’ spread offense, which is averaging 22 points per game. He has rushed for 1,048 yards and 8 touchdowns for his second straight 1,000-yard season. Senior quarterback Jimmy Celidonio is primarily a rushing threat who has run for nearly 500 yards himself while throwing for just over 400 yards. When he does go to the air, it’s usually to speedy senior Johntel Thomas. Essentially, this is a team that wants to run the ball, control the clock, and play tough defense.
Brick Memorial (4-5): The Mustangs, who have made three straight CJ IV final appearances, limp in under .500 after a 23-7 loss to non-playoff qualifier Howell, but they are still dangerous. They made the finals in 2008 and 2009 as a No. 5 seed or lower, so this team has won big playoff games on the road before.
The major question mark is junior quarterback Ryan Cieplinski, the engine of the triple option offense and the best passer the Mustangs have had since Chris James in the mid-2000s. He missed the Howell game with a knee fracture and is questionable for the rematch with Manalapan, who beat Brick Memorial, 23-21, on a last-second field goal. His presence will be crucial to the Mustangs having a shot because they are much more of a passing team than they have been in recent seasons. Running back Justin Hockaday has been a big-play threat as a rusher and a receiver, senior Ray Contrucci has been the deep threat at wide receiver, and junior fullback Anthony Miller gets the hard yards up the middle for an offense that averages 19 points per game.
Defensively, the Mustangs have allowed 15 points per game but have had several late-game letdowns. Jackson Memorial beat them on a touchdown pass with under a minute left in regulation, Middletown South beat them in overtime on a field goal, and Manalapan drove down into field goal range and won on a 37-yard boot with two seconds left in the game, so protecting leads has been a problem.
Senior Jarred Eccles is a leader at linebacker, while senior Zach Santos has six interceptions at cornerback, including three he has returned for touchdowns. While the Mustangs enter as an underdog, they cannot be counted out because of their recent history and ability to rise to the occasion once the playoffs arrive.
Out-of-area players to watch:
Delon Stephenson, Sr., RB/DB, Sayreville: A Rutgers recruit, Stephenson is the younger brother of current Rutgers freshman lineman Daryl Stephenson and one of the most dynamic all-around players in the state. He has 853 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns and also has 24 catches for 237 yards. Stephenson also is a dynamo on special teams. Wherever he lines up, he must be accounted for.
Jevon Tyree, Sr., DB, South Brunswick: Tyree has nine Division I-A offers from the likes of Maryland, Georgia Tech, UConn and Rutgers and is considered one of the top defensive backs in the state. He is an explosive all-around athlete who can change the game in an instant if he steps in front of a pass.
Brian Schoenauer, Jr., RB, West Windsor South: Schoenauer has run for over 1,000 yards for the Pirates.
LaShawn Boyd, Fr., RB, North Brunswick: Only a freshman, Boyd is a former Pop Warner star who has become a huge part of this team. He is only 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds but has great speed and vision. He had 928 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing to serve as a nice complement to quarterback Tim Parson and wide receiver Devin Clark.
John Banaciski, Jr., RB, Hillsborough: If Hillsborough (4-5) is going to have any prayer of upsetting South Brunswick, Banaciski has to have a big game. He has run for 1,468 yards and 16 touchdowns. His older brother is a player at Dartmouth.
Playoff pedigree of non-Shore Conference teams:
South Brunswick: The Vikings are only 1-3 all time in the playoffs, winning their first and only state playoff game in 2008 as the No. 1 seed before being stunned by fifth-seeded Brick Memorial in the semifinals.
North Brunswick: The Raiders are 2-7 all time in the state playoffs and have reach the finals once but have never won a sectional title.
Sayreville: The Bombers are 17-15 all-time in the playoffs and have won two state titles, both of which have come since 1997, including winning CJ IV last year. This team has been to the finals in two of the last three years, so this is a program that is used to the playoff atmosphere and expectations.
Hillsborough: The Raiders are 8-9 all time in the state playoffs and have won two state titles. However, Hillsborough’s last playoff win was seven years ago. Its last title came in 2000.
West Windsor South: The Pirates are 6-15 in their playoff history and have made three state finals but have never won a state title. They are part of the Mercer County drought of state championships that dates back to 1985.
Shore odds of winning the title – Medium. The Brick Memorial-Manalapan winner has a solid shot to make the final by most likely having to beat North Brunswick. South Brunswick remains the heavy favorite and is considered a top 10 team in the state, but the Vikings have been the No. 1 seed before and faltered in 2008. They have never reached a state final, so this is uncharted territory for them. Manalapan has only reached the finals once (2003) and has never won a title either, while Brick Memorial has gone to three straight finals and won it in 2008. If Jackson Memorial somehow beats Sayreville and South Brunswick, the Jaguars will be the favorite to win their first title since 2005 and their fourth overall in school history, but that’s a tough road to hoe.
X-factors for Shore teams:
Manalapan: Special teams. Freshman kicker Mike Caggiano has already shown he can make big kicks under pressure with his 37-yarder to beat Brick Memorial, while junior Anthony Firkser is a dangerous punt returner. In a tight game, having the advantage in those areas could be the difference.
Jackson Memorial: The passing game. Senior quarterback Jimmy Celidonio has shown he can make clutch passes late in games to lead the Jaguars to victory, as he threw touchdowns inside the final 50 seconds to beat Brick Memorial and Manalapan. However, he has never had to really deal with a double-digit deficit that would require him to throw the ball 15- or 20-plus times, so it will be interesting to see what happens if the Jaguars are faced with that scenario.
Brick Memorial: Health. If junior quarterback Ryan Cieplinski can’t suit up against Manalapan or is ineffective because of a knee injury, that may doom the Mustangs to a one-and-done scenario.
Quick facts: Jackson Memorial is 6-0 all-time in first-round playoff games at home. The Jaguars host Sayreville, who they have only played once in their history (beating them 38-7 in 2004), on Friday night. They are 8-2 all-time against Middlesex County schools, with both losses coming to East Brunswick in 2004 and 2009…Manalapan has won consecutive division titles for the first time since 1998-99 and the second time in school history…Brick Memorial has made nine of its 13 state playoff appearances in program history since 2001…Manalapan has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2003…Jackson Memorial had a 1,000-yard rusher every year from 1995-2007 before having the streak snapped. Senior Brandon Winston has run for 1,000 yards in two straight seasons…South Brunswick won the Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division title for the second time in three years and outright for the first time.
Random thoughts: While South Brunswick is the heavy favorite, I still think a Shore Conference team can win this section. If Jackson Memorial beats Sayreville in the first round, I think the Mustangs are a real threat. This isn’t the loaded Sayreville team of last year that had a beastly defensive line that was impossible to run against, so Jackson can legitimately pull this off. Plus, if they somehow run into Manalapan in the final, the Jaguars have had the Braves’ number in recent seasons, including a 12-7 win over them in the season opener this year. I think Manalapan should make the final, and will probably be the underdog no matter which team (South Brunswick, Sayreville, Jackson) makes the final. It would be interesting that last year’s Manalapan team was the one saddled with all the expectations of winning the program’s first title and couldn’t do it, losing to Sayreville in the semifinals. This year’s team came in with lower outside expectations because of the stars lost to graduation. Watch this squad be the one to make history.