2023 NJSIAA Football Sectional Semifinal Preview
The right to play for a ring next week will be on the line for 11 Shore Conference public school teams in the NJSIAA sectional semifinals this weekend.
The Shore Conference is guaranteed finalists in Central Jersey Group 5, where Toms River North and Freehold Township square off, and Central Jersey Group 4, where undefeated Brick Memorial welcomes Long Branch.
Point Boro and Rumson-Fair Haven are also favorites to advance to their respective sectional finals, while the rest of the teams look to open some eyes around the state.
Here's what to watch for in each section:
Central Jersey Group 5
(5) Freehold Township at (1) Toms River North, 6 p.m.
Toms River North’s last final appearance: 2022.
Freehold Township’s last final appearance: Never.
Matchup to watch: Freehold Township’s offensive line vs. Toms River North’s front seven.
It’s a tall order to ask Freehold Township’s defense to dramatically slow down the Mariners’ explosive offense led by Stanford recruit Micah Ford at quarterback. That means the main way the Patriots (7-3) are most likely going to stay in the game is by hanging in a shootout.
Junior quarterback Nick Cardone leads the Shore Conference with 2,177 yards passing and has four receivers with 28 or more catches in the Patriots’ spread passing attack, led by GianPaul Cortes (29-636-8). The Patriots’ running backs have also combined for nearly 30 catches, so he essentially has five options.
Cardone is a mobile running threat, but the Patriots’ offensive line is going to have to keep the Mariners’ pass rush out of his face to have time to make plays.
Toms River North’s offense deservedly gets the spotlight with Ford, running back Josh Moore, the versatile Jeremy Pruitt, wideout Tareq Council and others, but its defense has only allowed 6 points per game against public school opponents this season. Group 2 contender Rumson-Fair Haven is the only public school program to score more than a single touchdown against them.
The Mariners (8-2) have 17.5 sacks this season, led by 5.5 from linebacker Blaise Boland. The defending Group 5 champions have one of the best linebacker groups in the Shore with Boland, Christian Oliveri (10.5 TFL), and Anthony Rodriguez (10.5 TFL). Pruitt is also all over the field on defense as a hybrid safety/linebacker, and safety Luke Oizerowitz has 66 tackles. Plus, junior Ja’elyne Matthews is a force on the defensive line.
They also have some top cover corners in Nasir Jackson and Tareq Council, who will be tested against a team that loves to throw the ball.
Red Bank Catholic showed that teams can throw the ball on Toms River North, but not every team has Frankie Williams and Emanuel Ross. If Freehold Township is going to have any shot of slaying Goliath, it has to keep the Mariners’ linebackers out of the backfield and give Cardone time to throw. Easier said than done.
On the other side of the bracket: Washington Township is looking to ride the wave against Rancocas Valley. The Minutemen are coming off their first playoff win in 11 years and average 40 points per game. They had a heart-stopping Hail Mary win over a loaded Winslow Township team during the regular season, so they’ve had some magic this year. Toms River North beat them in the season opener last year, so we could possibly have a rematch with a state sectional title on the line next week.
South Jersey Group 5
(3) Marlboro at (2) Hillsborough, 7 p.m.
Marlboro’s last final appearance: 1994
Hillsborough’s last final appearance: 2021
Matchup to watch: Marlboro’s running game vs. Hillsborough’s front seven.
This has all the makings of a low-scoring slugfest between two staunch defenses and offenses that like to run the ball. Marlboro’s ability to break through with senior Matt Cassidy running the ball could be the difference in the game. If they can get even two touchdowns off a defense that shut out Howell in the first round, that could be enough.
Hillsborough has not allowed more than 13 points in a game since losing 28-7 to Ridge on Sept. 13, so defense is what got the Raiders (8-2) this far. Cassidy enters with 993 yards rushing, but it’s really the Mustangs’ offensive line that will swing this game. If they can control the clock and get the hard yards to move the chains while setting up some play-action shots from Brayden Klein, that is where they want to be.
They need to get to the second level to get a body on senior linebacker Jonathan Lobelo, a star who has 105 tackles and 20 tackles for a loss this season. Junior defensive lineman Xander Borowski is another who needs to be accounted for with 11 tackles for a loss.
This is as favorable a matchup as Marlboro (7-2) could ask for because the two teams that beat them this year (Rumson-FH and Middletown North) did so by primarily attacking through the air. Hillsborough is a running team led by junior Jackson Jankowicz, who ran for 191 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries in the win over Howell. Marlboro relishes the chance to stop the run behind Cassidy and Anthony Tropeano at linebacker. If they get Hillsborough into obvious passing downs, they can unleash defensive end Mike Consolazio, who has 11 sacks.
On the other side of the bracket: Cherokee most likely awaits. The Chiefs play a Kingsway team they already beat 34-7 in the regular season. Marlboro would be gunning for just its second state title in school history and first in 29 years if it reaches the final.
Central Jersey Group 4
(6) Long Branch at (2) Brick Memorial, 6 p.m.
Long Branch’s last final appearance: 2018
Brick Memorial’s last final appearance: 2015
Matchup to watch: Brick Memorial quarterback Connor Dietz vs. Long Branch’s linebackers.
Long Branch (5-4) is coming off its first shutout in two years after beating Jackson Memorial 13-0, but Brick Memorial is a different animal thanks to the prolific Dietz. His dual threat skills were on full display in the first round with 202 yards passing and a touchdown and 188 yards and three touchdowns rushing in a 41-7 win over Moorestown.
Long Branch linebacker Joseph Corley had four tackles for a loss in the win over Jackson Memorial, a one-dimensional running team led by sophomore star running back Jonah Glenn. Brick Memorial is much more versatile. Corley and fellow linebackers Havier Gonzalez and Nehemiah Lambert, plus safety Earnest Reevey, are going to have to play sideline to sideline and stay disciplined in order to have a shot to slow down Dietz.
With Dietz, who is Brick Memorial’s all-time leading rusher and passer, it all starts with the run game. If he can get to the edge or find creases in the middle out of Brick Memorial’s spread attack, it’s going to be a long night for the Green Wave. If Brick Memorial is consistently in second-and-5 and can open the playbook to the run and pass, they are borderline unstoppable. Also, if pass rushers run too far up the field at Dietz, it creates running lanes that he will exploit.
Long Branch’s defense is going to have to frustrate the undefeated Mustangs (10-0) and try to come up with turnovers because their offense has been up and down all season. They need to stop the run to at least make Brick Memorial more one-dimensional. Long Branch (19.2 ppg) has only had two games where it cracked 30 points this season, while Brick Memorial averages 37.6 points per game. On paper at least, Long Branch is not built to win a shootout with Brick Memorial.
The recipe for success for Long Branch is getting a few stops and then chewing the clock with the power running of Da’Von Craft and speed outside with Zaheem Brown to shorten the game. For Brick Memorial, a fast start in which they jump out by multiple touchdowns and force Long Branch out of its comfort zone to throw the ball 15-plus times would put the Mustangs in the driver’s seat.
On the other side of the bracket: Winslow Township is the favorite to win it all and faces Hammonton (5-5) in the semifinals. They are loaded with FBS talent. However, one wrinkle is that starting quarterback Jalen Parker is out for the season with an injury, so junior backup Deante Ruffin has stepped in. All he did last year was throw for more than 2,000 yards for Camden before transferring to Winslow and being benched in favor of Parker. He combined for 182 yards and four touchdowns between rushing and passing in a win over Pennsauken in the first round.
South Jersey Group 4
(3) Colts Neck at (2) Mainland, 6 p.m.
Colts Neck’s last final appearance: 2013
Mainland’s last final appearance: 2022
Matchup to watch: Colts Neck’s front seven vs. Mainland’s run game.
Unless star running back Chris Scully is going to run for 300 yards, Colts Neck’s defense is going to have to find a way to get some stops against a team that averages 42.2 points per game and has only been held under 30 twice all season.
The Mustangs (10-0) beat Manalapan 56-20 in the first round and have a running game that’s put up almost 2,500 yards this season. Senior Stephen Ordille is their version of Scully with 1,086 yards and 20 touchdowns on an average of 8.4 yards per carry. They also have two backs with 300-plus yards and a quarterback, sophomore John Franchini, who tossed three touchdowns in the win over Manalapan.
Colts Neck is going to need to come up with a turnover or two from a defense anchored by senior Eric Loureiro up front and linebackers John Sherrod and James Bertan, who have combined for 142 tackles.
Mainland jumped all over Manalapan in the first half, so it’s imperative for the Cougars to come out and get some early stops so the Mustangs don’t get the avalanche rolling down the hill. Scully could also act as a great defense by draining the clock on offense with physical runs to also allow Dom Beninato to catch Mainland cheating forward for a deep play-action shot.
The Cougars’ offense has shown it’s capable of exploding with a school-record 57 points in a win over Long Branch during the regular season, but getting into an all-out shootout with a Mainland team featuring multiple weapons is not the type of game they want to play.
On the other side of the bracket: Millville plays Shawnee, and looms as the favorite to win the title. Colts Neck will be trying to disrupt a Millville-Mainland collision course that has felt inevitable all season. Millville’s only loss is to Toms River North. The Thunderbolts are the defending overall Group 4 champions and ranked in the top 10 in the state.
Central Jersey Group 3
(3) Camden at (2) Holmdel, 7 p.m.
Camden’s last final appearance: 2022
Holmdel’s last final appearance: 1991
Matchup to watch: Holmdel’s offensive line vs. Camden’s front seven
Yes, Holmdel’s defense gets all the accolades, and deservedly so. The Hornets have only allowed 27 points in the entire season. But in a game against the best offense they have faced this season, the Hornets (9-0) will need their own offense to step up.
The Hornets have a balanced running game featuring multiple backs (A.J. Todisco, Anthony Setteducate, Matt Iulo, Gary Collyer) in their split-back veer offense and a quarterback, sophomore Jack Cannon, who is a dual threat. An offensive line with four seniors led by Nick Bachmann needs to get off the ball against a Camden defense that has not allowed more than 7 points in any game against in-state competition this year.
Richard James Jr., who has multiple FBS offers, leads the Camden defensive line, and their secondary is also strong. Holmdel needs to use the deception of the veer to its advantage to get the Panthers (8-1) off balance and sustain long drives. A big X-factor is the health of Cannon, who left a 21-7 win over Matawan in the first round with an injury. If he can’t go, they become almost a completely one-dimensional running team, which works to Camden’s advantage.
This is an especially interesting matchup because neither team has faced a true powerhouse on its schedule this year, so their full potential is unknown. Plus, Camden is a defending sectional champion with a long history, while Holmdel has never won a sectional title and only reached one title game in its history. Something will have to give at Bob Roggy Memorial Field on Friday night.
On the other side of the bracket: Undefeated Timber Creek is the favorite to reach the final in a showdown of Creeks against Cedar Creek. If Holmdel is going to win its first state title, it’s going to have to do it the hard way by going through a pair of powers.
South Jersey Group 3
(4) Manasquan at (1) Delsea, 7 p.m.
Delsea’s last final appearance: 2022
Manasquan’s last final appearance: 2018
Matchup to watch: Manasquan’s linebackers vs. Delsea’s running backs.
There’s no deception in what Delsea (8-1) wants to do. They are an old-school, line up and come right at you team under legendary coach Sal Marchese. They have run for 2,336 yards and 40 touchdowns out of their Wing-T offense this season.
Junior Dan Russo is the star of the group with 1,227 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns on an average of 8 yards per carry. They have two others, running back Wayne Adair and quarterback Zach Maxwell, who have combined for more than 1,000 yards rushing.
If Manasquan’s defensive line can get a stalemate, it’s up to linebackers Noah Mammeri (56 tackles) and Will Burns (42 tackles) to wrap up and try to put Delsea in third-and-long. Mammeri is coming off a game in which he had two tackles for loss, an interception and a forced fumble in a 14-13 win over Somerville in the first round.
The troubling trend for the Warriors is that explosive run teams Point Boro and Brick Memorial, plus a methodical, downhill team in Holmdel, beat them by a combined 99-7 this year.
But this is Manasquan, a program known for rising to the occasion in the playoffs against long odds, so they should not be counted out. The hope is to steal a low-scoring, slug-it-out game against the team favored to win the bracket.
On the other side of the bracket: Seneca is the favorite to make the final after a big shakeup this week. Camden Eastside, which won last week, was bounced from the playoffs by the NJSIAA for using an ineligible player. That means Highland, which got beat in the first round by Camden Eastside, now has a second life in a game against Seneca. Either way, Delsea is considered the favorite overall, so if Manasquan stuns them, that will mean the Warriors have a golden opportunity to win a Shore Conference-record 13th state title.
Central Jersey Group 2
(5) Cinnaminson at (1) Point Boro, 7 p.m.
Point Boro’s last final appearance: 2021
Cinnaminson’s last final appearance: 1991
Matchup to watch: Point Boro’s running game vs. Cinnaminson’s front.
I know this is kind of a “duh, of course” one, but Cinnaminson has played a Group I-heavy schedule and struggled to score much at all against quality teams this year, so if Point Boro does its usual thing, Cinnaminson won’t be able to keep up. They are coming off a 14-0 win over New Providence in the first round.
If senior quarterback Matt Oliphant and senior fullback Jake Croce come out and hit big plays right off the bat against the Cinnaminson defense, this one might be over early.
Point Boro (8-1) averages 42.4 points per game and just steamrolled an 8-win Spotswood team 55-7 in the first round. The Panthers thrive on momentum, especially at Al Saner Field, and when they get on top of you early, the dam usually breaks and it’s like 40-0 when you look up at halftime.
Cinnaminson has five shutouts and has only allowed 43 points all season, so if Point Boro can dent them with big plays early that might puncture their confidence. Cinnaminson’s best approach will be trying to kill the clock with their own balanced running game featuring three backs with 500 or more yards.
Point Boro also can’t get caught looking ahead to a potential rematch with Willingboro and overlook Cinnaminson. They will look to throw an early knockout punch. The Shore Conference has had the upper hand in semifinals against Cinnaminson, as Manasquan eliminated them in 2018 and Rumson-Fair Haven sent them home in 2014.
On the other side of the bracket: Defending champion Willingboro has no gimme in the semifinals against a Pleasantville team that has won eight straight. But the Willingboro offense led by sophomore quarterback Lamar Best should be too much for the Greyhounds. Point Boro is looking for payback after losing 50-30 to the Chimeras in last year’s semifinals.
South Jersey Group 2
(5) Haddon Heights at (1) Rumson-Fair Haven, 7 p.m.
Rumson-Fair Haven’s last final appearance: 2022
Haddon Heights’ last final appearance: 1985.
Matchup to watch: Rumson’s receivers vs. Haddon Heights’ secondary.
The passing game has gotten back into gear for the Bulldogs, and this is their time of year. Junior Owen O’Toole threw for a season-high 231 yards and three touchdowns in a 47-13 romp over Delaware Valley in the first round.
Wide receivers Jackson Gallagher, Nick Rigby and Nick Thomas have combined for 61 catches, 813 yards and 8 touchdowns to lead a deep receiving corps. Gallagher is coming off a 100-yard receiving game with a pair of touchdowns in the win over Delaware Valley.
In Haddon Heights’ one tough test of the season, the Garnets lost 41-0 to Group 3 contender Camden and the Panthers’ quarterback, Makhi Brunson, threw for 245 yards and four touchdowns, so the secondary is vulnerable. This is the perfect game for O’Toole and the receivers to build more momentum as the Bulldogs chase a return to the overall Group 2 final.
They don’t get after the quarterback too much with only 11 sacks, but Haddon Heights does have 8 interceptions as a team, led by Damier Outterbridge-Ali with three, and two by Drew Harris, who is also their quarterback.
Plus, Haddon Heights (7-2) has not been in this spot too often. Rumson (5-4) basically plays in a sectional final almost every year at this point, while Haddon Heights has not been to one since 1985 and has never won a title. They will be in a loud atmosphere far from home at Borden Stadium with the Bulldogs looking to jump on them from the opening whistle. Also, Rumson’s schedule is light years ahead of the one Haddon Heights played.
On the other side of the bracket: Haddonfield is a perennial contender and takes on Gloucester City. Haddonfield won a sectional title two years ago and is a tough defensive team. We could have a Bulldogs vs. Bulldawgs final between two great programs.
Central Jersey Group 1
(4) Shore at (1) Schalick, 7 p.m.
Shore’s last final appearance: 2015
Schalick’s last final appearance: 2004.
Matchup to watch: Schalick QB Kenai Simmons vs. Shore’s linebackers
Simmons is a dual threat with 761 yards and 7 touchdowns passing, plus 445 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground. Schalick (10-0) also has Reggie Allen (705, 12 TDs) in the backfield, but Simmons is the engine of the offense. Shore needs to try to put Schalick in obvious passing downs by stuffing the run on early downs.
The Blue Devils (6-3) shut out Clayton 14-0 in the first round behind junior linebacker Tommy Schroeder, who had 11 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the win. He and linebacker Lucas White and defensive lineman Jackson Whitacre will need to play big to give Shore a shot in a low-scoring brawl because Shore’s offense has been up and down most of the season. They are going to ride the defense as far as it takes them.
Shore has faced a physical team on both sides of the ball in unbeaten Central Jersey Group 3 semifinalist Holmdel, so this is not anything they haven’t seen before. It just comes down to execution and winning the brute strength battle up front. The Blue Devils have played a tougher schedule than Schalick, so we’ll see if that makes a difference with a trip to the final on the line.
On the other side of the bracket: Glassboro is probably the slight favorite over South Hunterdon after rolling over Keyport 28-0 in the first round. It’s somewhat of a toss-up, as all four of the remaining teams are fairly even on paper.