2023 NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 5 Football Championship Preview: Toms River North vs. Washington Twp.
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP 5 CHAMPIONSHIP
WHO: (2) Washington Township (9-2) at (1) Toms River North (9-2)
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 10, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Gernerd Field - 1245 Old Freehold Rd, Toms River, NJ 08753
WASHINGTON TWP’S ROAD TO THE FINAL: Defeated Atlantic City, 43-14, in the quarterfinals; defeated Rancocas Valley, 19-7, in the semifinals.
TOMS RIVER NORTH’S ROAD TO THE FINAL: Defeated Southern, 49-7, in the quarterfinals; defeated Freehold Township, 54-13, in the semifinals.
WASHINGTON TWP’S BEST WINS: 52-23 over Kingsway; 27-25 over Winslow Twp.; 29-22 over Shawnee.
TOMS RIVER NORTH’S BEST WINS: 14-7 over Millville; 42-21 over Rumson-FH; 21-7 over Middletown South.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Toms River North is the defending Group 5 champion after finishing 14-0 last season in the inaugural year of the NJSIAA Group finals. The Mariners have won seven sectional titles in nine appearances in the finals heading into their 10th appearance. They are 24-14 all time in the playoffs across 21 appearances in the postseason. This is their third straight appearance in a sectional final. Kingsway is the last public school to beat them, and that came in the 2021 South Jersey Group 5 championship game…Washington Township has 3 sectional titles in its history, with the most recent coming in 1995. Their most recent appearance in a sectional final was in 2004, when current head coach Mike Schatzman was a freshman on the team. This is their ninth appearance in the finals over 27 playoff appearances.
ANALYSIS: Toms River North has never won back-to-back state sectional titles, and the Mariners enter as the favorite to achieve that feat at the expense of the Minutemen. The defending Group 5 champions are at full power with Stanford-bound senior quarterback Micah Ford healthy again after a knee injury that kept him out of three games and limited snaps in others. He accounted for five touchdowns in a semifinal win over Freehold Township.
Washington Township had not had a playoff victory since 2011 before winning twice this season. The Minutemen are a perennial playoff team that has struggled to break through in the postseason.
These teams are familiar with one another, as Toms River North beat Washington Township 28-21 in last year’s season opener on a neutral field. The Minutemen have played a challenging schedule that includes undefeated South Jersey Group 4 finalist Mainland, Non-Public B semifinalist Holy Spirit and Central Jersey Group 4 finalist Winslow Township. It’s still not on the level of Toms River North’s schedule, which included a win over defending Group 4 champion Millville and close losses to two other top 10 teams in the state, Red Bank Catholic and Donovan Catholic.
Toms River North has won 23 in a row against public school opponents, and both sides of the ball have been dominant in that stretch. The defense has been particularly stingy, only allowing 6.8 points per game against public school opponents this season.
Washington Township is a run-heavy team led by the 1-2 punch of senior Jared Dzierzgowski, who has 694 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, and Giuliano Scavetta, who has a team-high 737 yards and 8 scores. Dzierzgowski was the Minutemen’s quarterback when North played them last year, but has switched to running back as a senior. They will occasionally line up Dzierzgowski at quarterback and just run downhill.
They can throw the ball behind sophomore Cole Aquino, who has 1,238 yards and 14 touchdowns passing. They pretty much throw to two main guys, Da’Shawn Long (33-422-8) and Logan Perez (49-714-4). Perez has exploded down the stretch with four straight 100-yard receiving games. Expect Toms River North's Tareq Council and Nasir Jackson, along with Jeremiah Pruitt and others, to be matched up with those two in the secondary.
Washington Township’s offense is capable of putting up big numbers, but it remains to be seen if they can hang in the game with its explosive counterpart on Toms River North. The Mariners have devastated public school opponents by jumping on them in the first half this year, including a 33-13 halftime lead last week against Freehold Township.
Ford takes snaps out of the shotgun and runs downhill behind a physical offensive line led by Power 5 FBS prospect Ja’elyne Matthews and senior Justin Kaye, and teams that don’t wrap up will be in a lot of trouble. Senior running back Josh Moore is another hard-nosed threat who can bounce it to the outside. Pruitt, Council and Camryn Thomas are all dangerous receivers who can turn a 6-yard out into a 60-yard touchdown.
Washington Township’s defense is more of the bend-but-don’t-break variety, so it will be all about Toms River North finishing drives.
Toms River North’s specialty on defense is negative plays. They knock teams back in the running game and force them into obvious passing downs. Junior linebacker Blaise Boland is the leader with 21.5 tackles for a loss and 7 sacks, Pruitt has 15.5 TFLs and three others have more than 10.
The Mariners have the speed advantage and will look to use it to put Washington Township in an early hole. Their main Achilles’ heel has been penalties, so it’s about the Mariners playing mistake-free and taking care of the ball.
Washington Township has not allowed more than 26 points to a public school opponent this season, while Toms River North has averaged 40.2 against public school teams.
The Minutemen have to slow down the run game and make Ford throw the ball 20-plus times to get Toms River North out of its comfort zone, which is much easier said than done. The stars on its defense have not seen Toms River North’s speed up close because they were either freshmen or in eighth grade last season when the two teams faced off. Sophomore linebacker Andrew Osborn has 10.5 tackles for a loss, and freshman defensive lineman Gabe Palaganas has 9.5, and they will need to get into the backfield.
The pick: Toms River North, 35-13.