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Wildcard Wednesday: Thanksgiving Preview

Steve Cluley, Wall QB
Steve Cluley, Wall QB (Photo by Cliff Lavelle, All Shore Media)

Three of the games that are usually used as ammunition by traditionalists for keeping Thanksgiving games in favor of scrapping them to make way for a playoff system that would crown overall Group champions also happen to be three huge games this season.

Here is a look at each big game along with some notes from other games.

No. 2 Rumson-Fair Haven (10-0) at No. 1 Red Bank Catholic (9-1), Friday at 7 p.m.

Red Bank Catholic leads this all-time series 28-24-6 and has not lost to the Bulldogs since 2002, but this might be the biggest showdown between these two teams in the history of this rivalry. They occupy the top two spots in the All Shore Media Top 10, and Rumson will play for its second straight Central Jersey Group II title just over a week later when it faces Matawan at Rutgers Stadium on Dec. 3 at 7 p.m.

RBC is coming off a gut-wrenching, 30-23, double-overtime loss to Delbarton in a match-up of undefeated, Top 10 teams in the state in the Non-Public Group III semifinals that denied RBC a shot at its first state final since 1980. In addition, senior running back John DiStefano, a 1,500-yard rusher, suffered a season-ending dislocated kneecap and will not play against Rumson, which adds to the intrigue. Sophomore Larry Redaelli gave RBC fans a glimpse of a promising future when he ran for 95 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in relief of DiStefano against a high-caliber opponent in a pressure-filled atmosphere on the road.

“It’s definitely difficult to play without (DiStefano),” said standout senior two-way lineman Joe Coscarelli. “We have Larry Redaelli stepping in his place, and Larry is focused and ready to go. As a sophomore, that’s a lot of pressure getting put into that Delbarton game, so I give him a lot of credit.”

“I don’t really think that affects anything that much,” said Rumson senior defensive tackle Jack Eisenstadt. “We know their sophomore running back, No. 21 (Redaelli), is a very good back. Their offensive line is very good, so we are going to act as if (Redaelli) has been playing all year and that he is the one who is a 1,500-yard rusher.”

Rumson has already won a school-record 10 games, while RBC would set a school record with its 10th win in a victory. Bulldogs head coach Shane Fallon is also one win shy of 100 career victories in his 14th season, adding another wrinkle to the proceedings. If RBC wins, it will lock up the final No. 1 ranking in the Shore Conference for the second time in four seasons, while if Rumson wins, it would then be able to finish No. 1 and undefeated for the first time in school history with a win over Matawan in the championship game.

Both teams feature some of the Shore Conference’s top linemen on both sides of the ball, so it will be a slugfest in the trenches. Coscarelli and Eisenstadt are leading candidates for All Shore Media Defensive Player of the Year, while Rumson also features standouts Jake Clapp, Jake Miles and Mike Alonzo up front, while RBC includes the trio of juniors Josh Klecko, Ron Robinson and Richie Curran on its defensive line. Both teams also have physical offensive lines that have had their way with most opponents this season.

“I’m just taking it as going against another football team,” Coscarelli said. “They’re awesome football players up front, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have to play our best. Both teams are going to be fired up, and it’s going to come down to whoever is more physical.”

“We’ve been looking forward to this game all season,” Eisenstadt said. “They have a great football team, and have a lot of similar aspects to our team. Since the preseason, there has been a lot of talk about their defensive line and our defensive line, so this should determine a lot. It’s evenly matched, so it’s going to be a good battle.”

This also marks the first time since 1998 that both teams have only had one week to prepare, as RBC’s 42-6 win over Pope John XXIII in the playoff quarterfinals was its first postseason win in 13 years.

“This week we’ve all been jacked up about Rumson,” Coscarelli said. “We both hate each other, in football terms. We’re close off the field, but on the field, it’s a fight. Delbarton is in the past now, and like coach (Jim) Portela told us, ‘Successful people don’t live in the past.’

Both quarterbacks, Rumson junior Danny Roberto and RBC senior Ryan Spahr, have shown they can throw the ball with success in pressure situations. Roberto helped carry the Bulldogs to a 22-point victory against Central Jersey Group I finalist Asbury Park despite on 32 rushing yards because of his passing. Spahr kept the Caseys right in it against Delbarton despite the loss of DiStefano by throwing for a pair of touchdown passes.

There will be no holding back by either team at Count Basie Field, as Rumson tries to end RBC’s dominance, while the Caseys look to continue to have the upper hand in a showdown of two programs that have ascended to the Shore Conference’s elite in the last five years. RBC has won with brute strength up front in its recent streak, so we’ll see if this is the year the Bulldogs can match the Caseys up front and turn the tide or not.

No. 3 Neptune (9-1) at No. 9 Asbury Park (9-1), Thursday at 10:30 a.m.

One of the oldest rivalries in the state, this is one of those games that many fans and players consider even more important than a state final. Both of these teams also will be playing in one of those a week later, as Asbury Park faces Florence in a bid to win its fourth Central Jersey Group I title in five seasons, while Neptune takes on Steinert in search of its first Central Jersey Group III title since 1998.

Before all that, these teams will face off at Asbury Park Stadium in a game between two potential state champions. It’s the first time since 1987 that both will be playing in state finals one game after their Thanksgiving showdown. Hopefully things work out better in the end, as both teams lost in their state championship games that year.

The game also features the juicy match-up of Neptune’s powerful run game, which exploded for 521 yards in a 60-27 win over top-seeded Northern Burlington in the state semifinals last weekend, against Asbury Park’s ferocious run defense, which has not allowed more than 100 yards rushing in any game this season. The game also features two of the Shore Conference’s most dynamic skill players in Neptune senior quarterback Jaheem Woods and Asbury Park senior running back Armond Conover. Much of the game will come down to how well Neptune’s defense slows down Asbury Park’s running game, and how well Woods can throw the ball against a Blue Bishops’ defense that has been susceptible to the pass.

In at least one instance, it’s a family feud as well. Asbury Park 315-pound two-way lineman Ra’Zahn Howard, a junior, is the first cousin of Neptune senior fullback/linebacker Jazzmar Clax, a Division I-prospect. Howard grew up in Asbury Park, then played his first two years at Winslow Township before transferring back.

“(Howard) is a beast,” Clax told ASM’s Chris Melvin. “He plays with a high motor like myself, but on Thanksgiving, it’s not going to matter that we are cousins. He’s a phenomenal player. I wish I were able to see him play a tougher schedule, but I can’t take anything away from him as a player. We are going to take them down, and after the game, we will be family again.”

“They won’t be able to stop us,” Howard said. “Jazzmar and I are one of a kind – relentless players. I’m just much bigger. He has never competed against a lineman like me, so he’s in trouble.”

No. 8 Manasquan (9-1) at Wall (7-2), Thursday at 11 a.m.

Always one of the best-attended and high-stakes Thanksgiving games, this year is no different. Just like last season, the winner will claim the outright Class C Central title, and Manasquan is the defending champion after a 21-16 comeback win last year. The Warriors are seeking their fourth straight division title and their 16th in the last 21 years, while Wall is seeking its first division title since 2007 and its first outright title since 2001. The game will also be live on the radio on 105.7 f.m. and streamed online at www.shoresportsnetwork.com, so make sure to check it out if you can’t make it.

Both teams enter off disappointing exits in the state playoffs, as Manasquan lost 24-14 to Matawan in the Central Jersey Group II semifinals on Saturday, while Wall fell 19-7 to eventual Central Jersey Group III finalist in the quarterfinals for its second straight loss after a 7-0 start. Manasquan leads the series 6-5 since it was renewed in 2000, so it’s been neck and neck.

Both teams need it to validate their seasons after being knocked for playing soft schedules and then suffering losses when the competition got harder. The home team has won the last two meetings, and both teams enter with prolific passing attacks led by senior quarterbacks, Manasquan’s Tyler Saito and Wall’s Steve Cluley.

“I think this game means everything,” said Wall senior lineman Matt Ford. “We played a bunch of teams people say weren’t good and then lost two games against the two best teams we faced, so if we win this game, we’ll show we weren’t a fluke team all year.”

This senior class at Wall has been heralded since its entry into the school, but technically it hasn’t won anything concrete.

“When coach (Chris) Barnes gave a speech to us, it didn’t hit me until he mentioned that,” Cluley said. “On paper, we haven’t won anything, so this would be a nice way to end our careers.”

Manasquan is trying to quickly recover from a loss to Matawan in which it nearly roared back from a 17-0 fourth-quarter deficit to pull out a win. It watched a 23-game home winning streak go up in smoke and fell to the Huskies in the state playoffs for the third straight year. Then it only had four days to get ready for a showdown with a title on the line.

“(Legendary former) Coach (Vic) Kubu would tell you if he was here, ‘Go home and cry about it, and lose some sleep over it, but you can’t let it beat you twice,’” Manasquan coach Jay Price said about the loss to Matawan. “These kids have a title to play for, and they’ll be back up and ready to go. They always are.”

Manasquan’s talented senior class has had the number of its Wall counterpart, beating them during an undefeated freshman season and last year for the division title.

“No doublt, only me, (tight end) Derek (Gardner) and Matt (Ford) have a win against Manasquan on our whole team right now, and that was sophomore year,” Cluley said. “We’re trying to tell the guys how awesome that feeling was on that Thanksgiving. Last year was the worst feeling we’ve ever had. Winning this game on Thanksgiving is like a state championship, if not almost better.”

Thanksgiving Notes

Point Beach can set a school record with its eighth victory if it beats Shore Regional on Wednesday night. The Garnet Gulls have not won a Thanksgiving game since 1996, according to The Asbury Park Press, when they beat Shore 34-8…Howell senior quarterback Ryan Davies is 192 yards away from being the first Shore Conference quarterback and the fourth in state history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season. He is 56 yards away from passing his own conference record of 2,864 yards set last season. Senior wide receiver Brandon Yaegel already has a Shore Conference-record 82 catches and is eight yards shy of passing the Shore Conference single-season receiving yards record of 1,135 set by Manalapan’s Kevin Cruz in 2009. The Rebels play Colts Neck on Thursday morning…Freehold will be bringing out portable lights for a rare night game against rival Freehold Township on Wednesday night.

Barnegat can win a school-record seventh game and seal up its first outright division title in program history by beating winless Pinelands on Thursday…Middletown South has not lost to Middletown North since 2000 in their annual meeting…Manalapan senior tailback John Sieczkowski is 81 yards away from making Shore Conference history by becoming the Braves’ second consecutive 2,000-yard rusher. He is 135 yards away from passing Josh Firkser’s school record of 2,053 yards set last year. The Braves face winless Marlboro on Wednesday night. They can also clinch their second straight outright Class A North title and win their 12th straight divisional game…Jackson Memorial has never lost to rival Jackson Liberty in three meetings. The teams meet Wednesday night…Central senior Kalyph Hardy is 35 yards shy of becoming the first Central running back to pass 2,000 yards in a season. The Golden Eagles face Point Boro on Thursday.

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