2023 NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 5 Football Playoffs Preview
CENTRAL JERSEY GROUP 5
Last year’s champion: Edison (did not qualify for playoffs)
(8) Southern at (1) Toms River North
(5) Freehold Township at (4) North Brunswick
(6) Lenape at (3) Rancocas Valley
(7) Atlantic City at (2) Washington Township
The Favorite: Toms River North (7-2)
Not a whole lot to explain here. You know the resume and the names by this point. The star-studded Mariners, ranked No. 3 in the SSN Shore 16, are the defending overall Group 5 champions and have played a brutal schedule to get them ready for another run. Junior quarterback T.J. Valerio has shown he can be a playmaker if he needs to step in due to lingering injury issues for star senior Micah Ford. The Mariners just took Red Bank Catholic to the brink in a 35-28 overtime loss and have played three of the state’s top 10 teams this year. Toms River North has appeared all season to be on a collision course for a rematch with Passaic Tech in the Group 5 final after beating them last year. This is the first leg of the journey. Against the public schools on their schedule, they are averaging 37 points per game and giving up only 5.6 per game.
The Mariners’ first-round game is against a Shore Conference opponent in Southern (3-6). The Mariners beat the Rams 42-6 on Sept. 30, so that’s a huge gap for Southern to try to close.
Contenders: North Brunswick (8-0); Washington Township (7-2)
North Brunswick is a top-five team in the Big Central Conference but has played a relatively weak schedule. Their best win is 21-20 over Sayreville (7-2), which is a fringe top-15 team in their conference. Those 20 points were the most North Brunswick has given up in a game this season. They feature a balanced attack that has produced 1,500 yards rushing and 1,000 yards passing. Their primary playmaker is the versatile Samaad Hicks, who has 509 yards and 9 TDs rushing and 18 catches for 407 yards and 5 TDs receiving.
Toms River North is familiar with Washington Township if the sectional final comes down to that matchup. The Mariners beat the Minutemen 28-21 in last year’s season opener, and then Marlboro stunned them in the first round of last year’s playoffs. This season they have their most wins in 11 years, and they have an offensive attack that features a new threat in sophomore quarterback Cole Aquino. He has stepped in as the signal-caller this year and thrown for 928 yards and 11 touchdowns, while senior Jason Dzierzgowski has moved from quarterback to running back and rushed for 581 yards and 8 touchdowns. They were much more of a running team last year, but Aquino and junior receiver Dashawn Long (30-394-7) have given them a more balanced attack. They play in the tough West Jersey Football League so they have been tested by their schedule.
Dark Horse: Rancocas Valley (7-2)
The score that sticks out on Rancocas Valley’s schedule is them taking a tough Timber Creek team to the brink in a 21-18 loss. The downside is that Highland (5-4) is the only team with a winning record that the Red Devils have beaten. But if they are capable of pushing Timber Creek that hard, they could be a problem for Washington Township in the semifinals.
Shore Shot: Freehold Township (6-3)
The Patriots, ranked No. 13 in the SSN Shore 16, are the only Shore team on the other side of the bracket from Toms River North and Southern and only have one playoff win in program history. However, that lone playoff win is against … North Brunswick. The Patriots beat them in 2017 and will take their shot against an undefeated Raiders squad this week. The hope for Freehold Township is that its relentless spread passing attack featuring five productive options, led by junior quarterback Nick Cardone, will be tough for North Brunswick to prepare for in a short time. The Patriots have also played in a lot of fourth-quarter nailbiters this season, so if it’s close down the stretch, all the pressure will be on North Brunswick. A victory would set up a showdown with Toms River North, barring a stunning upset.
Non-Shore Player to Watch: Sah’nye Degraffenreidt, Jr., WR, Atlantic City
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound wideout is one of the top juniors in the state and has 12 FBS offers, including Michigan, Penn State, Duke and Maryland. The Vikings will try to stun Washington Township in the first round.
Badders' pick: Toms River North
Stump's pick: Toms River North