2023 NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 4 Football Championship Preview: Long Branch vs. Winslow Township
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP 4 CHAMPIONSHIP
WHO: (6) Long Branch (6-4) at (1) Winslow Township (9-2)
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 10, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Winslow Township High School - 10 Cooper Folly Road, Atco, NJ 08004
LONG BRANCH'S ROAD TO THE FINAL: Defeated Jackson Memorial, 13-0, in the quarterfinals; defeated Brick Memorial, 21-7, in the semifinals.
WINSLOW'S ROAD TO THE FINAL: Defeated Pennsauken, 46-14, in the quarterfinals; defeated Hammonton, 33-6, in the semifinals.
LONG BRANCH'S BEST WINS: 13-0 over Jackson Memorial, 21-7 over Brick Memorial
WINSLOW'S BEST WINS: 28-13 over South Jersey Group 3 finalist Delsea; 27-14 over Shawnee; 14-0 over Central Jersey Group 3 finalist Cedar Creek; 33-6 over Hammonton.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Long Branch is making its 23rd playoff appearance all-time and will be playing in its 11th sectional championship game. The Green Wave have four sectional titles, the last of which were back-to-back Central Jersey Group 4 titles in 2017 and 2018, including a 12-1 season in 2018 when they also won a regional championship. Long Branch has a 28-18 playoff record since the NJSIAA postseason began in 1974...Winslow's playoff success has come in the last two seasons in which the Eagles won the program's first sectional title with a 34-22 win over Shawnee in 2021. This will be their second appearance in a sectional final. Winslow has nine playoff appearances in its history and owns a 9-8 record.
Analysis: When Long Branch concluded the season with a 37-point loss to Colts Neck, it was hard to envision the Green Wave putting together a deep run in the playoffs. Yet, three weeks later, here we are. Long Branch has pulled a complete 180 on the defensive side of the ball to limit two of the Shore's top rushing attacks in the first two rounds of the playoffs to advance to its 11th sectional final and first since 2018.
Road warriors in wins over third-seeded Jackson Memorial and second-seeded Brick Memorial, Long Branch will have to pull another road upset to win its fifth sectional championship. This challenge will be its toughest yet.
Standing in the way of sixth-seeded Long Branch is a top-seeded Winslow team that enters with a 9-2 record and has defeated some of South Jersey's best teams. Winslow's two losses are 22-19 to South Jersey Group 5 finalist Cherokee in Week 0 and a 27-25 loss to Central Jersey Group 5 finalist Washington Township on a Hail Mary as time expired. They ended South Jersey Group 3 finalist Delsea's 23-game regular-season winning streak and also own a 14-0 win over Central Jersey Group 3 finalist Cedar Creek. Many of the Shore Conference teams playing in sectional finals this weekend have played a tougher schedule than their opponent, but that is not the case in this matchup.
The Eagles are coached by former Penn State star running back Bill Belton, a Winslow graduate, and the offense is helmed by his former teammate and NFL quarterback Christian Hackenberg. They average 34.4 points per game and are coming off a 33-6 win over Hammonton in the semifinals. Their offense had an interesting dynamic at quarterback where freshman Jalen Parker won the starting job over junior Deante Ruffin, who threw for over 2,000 yards at Camden as a sophomore before transferring. Parker, however, suffered an injury and is out for the season, so Ruffin has stepped in and helped lead the Eagles to wins in four of their last five games. He threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns in the victory over Hammonton. Winslow is loaded with FBS talent, including 6-foot-3 senior wide receiver Jaylan Hornsby, a transfer from Camden who is committed to Texas A&M. He has 16 catches for 267 yards and six touchdowns in seven games after sitting out the first four games in line with the NJSIAA's transfer policy. The team's leading receiver is junior Cam Miller, who has monstrous numbers with 51 receptions for a school-record 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns. He is 129 yards away from becoming Winslow's all-time leading receiver. There's also sophomore Nyqir Helton with 24 catches for 535 yards and seven touchdowns. Senior Kameron Brown is the team's leading rusher with 613 yards and four touchdowns while Ruffin leads with eight rushing touchdowns.
Long Branch's aforementioned defensive turnaround came after allowing 57 points to Colts Neck in the regular-season finale. The Green Wave responded to shut out Jackson Memorial and hold standout sophomore running back Jonah Glenn to 87 yards on 21 carries. In the semifinals, they held a Brick Memorial offense that was averaging 37.6 points per game to only one touchdown and kept record-setting quarterback Connor Dietz from taking over the game. The difference this time is that Winslow will look to do most of its damage through the air. Junior linebacker Joseph Corley has put together a breakout season with 57 tackles, 4 sacks, and 8 tackles for loss. He blocked a field goal in the win over Brick Memorial and had four tackles for loss in the win over Jackson. Senior Da'Von Craft is a physical linebacker and senior Earnest Reevey leads the secondary.
The overall numbers for Long Branch don't jump off the page. The Green Wave have allowed 23.3 points per game and have a minus-39 point differential. You have to look deeper to understand Long Branch's roller coater season, however. Reevey looked great in a season-opening win over Piscataway but suffered a broken hand that required a hard cast on his throwing hand. Although he did return to play defense the following week, he couldn't throw a pass until the Week 9 game vs. Colts Neck. With Reevey back healthy, Long Branch's offense is operating how it was drawn up heading into the season. Reevey can make plays with his arm and legs and has a bruising back in Craft to hand the ball off to. After sitting out the first four games after transferring from Neptune, Craft has rushed for over 600 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He has rushed for over 100 yards in three of his last four games, including 112 yards and a score versus Brick Memorial. Senior Zaheem Brown is another back Long Branch can deploy either in the run game or as a receiving option out of the backfield.
They will try to crack a Winslow defense that has allowed just 12.7 points per game with two shutouts and has held eight of 11 opponents to 14 points or less. Senior defensive lineman Jalen McCain (52 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 TFL) and sophomore defensive lineman Rob Carstarphen (45 tackles, 4 sacks, 6 TFL) lead a disruptive front that also features junior Malachi Brown, who leads the team with nine tackles for loss. Freshman linebacker Ausar Heard is the team's leading tackler with 66 while Brown is right behind him with 65.
Long Branch is playing its best football of the season at the perfect time, but that might not be enough against a very talented Winslow Township team. To pull another upset, the Green Wave will need nearly everything to go their way. It's not impossible, but Winslow is certainly the heavy favorite.
The pick: Winslow 28, Long Branch 7