2023 NJSIAA South Jersey Group 5 Football Championship Preview: Marlboro vs. Cherokee
SOUTH JERSEY GROUP 5 CHAMPIONSHIP
WHO: (3) Marlboro (8-2) at (1) Cherokee (8-2)
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 10, 6 p.m.
WHERE: William H. Foltz Field - 120 Tomlinson Mill Road, Marlton, NJ 08053
MARLBORO'S ROAD TO THE FINAL: Defeated South Brunswick, 26-16, in the quarterfinals; defeated Hillsborough, 12-0, in the semifinals.
CHEROKEE'S ROAD TO THE FINAL: Defeated West Windsor-Plainsboro, 44-7, in the quarterfinals; defeated Kingsway, 28-21, in the semifinals.
MARLBORO'S BEST WINS: 28-14 over Freehold Township; 11-2 over Jackson Memorial; 12-0 over Hillsborough.
CHEROKEE'S BEST WINS: 22-19 over Central Jersey Group 4 finalist Winslow; 23-0 over Shawnee; 47-7 over Hammonton; 34-7 and 28-21 over Kingsway.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Marlboro is making its second playoff appearance in a row but just its third in program history. The Mustangs' first and only sectional championship came in 1994 when they went 10-1 and captured the Central Jersey Group 4 title. Three of their five postseason wins have come in the last two seasons. They defeated Washington Township in the first round last season before losing to eventual Group 5 champion Toms River North...Cherokee has a long and storied tradition of football championships with 11 sectional titles, the last of which came in 2019. The Chiefs are an annual sectional title contender and have won five titles since 2009.
Analysis: Marlboro is in the midst of one of the best seasons in program history and is one win from its first sectional title since 1994. After years mired in either mediocrity or at the bottom of their division, the Mustangs have risen to become a top-10 team in the Shore led by a rugged defense and a ground game spearheaded by senior Matt Cassidy. To win the program's second sectional championship, Marlboro must get through one of South Jersey's storied football programs that has routinely been in this position.
Marlboro's defense has been the catalyst in a season where the Mustangs won their first division title since 1994 and produced a third consecutive winning season for the first time in program history. They have allowed just 10.5 points per game with two shutouts and have held six of 10 opponents to seven points or less. They forced six turnovers in a 12-0 semifinal win over Hillsborough. Marlboro's bread and butter is stopping the run and forcing turnovers with a front seven that is headlined by linebackers Cassidy (97 tackles, 5 TFL) and fellow seniors Mike Consolazio (12 sacks, 21 TFL) and Anthony Tropeano (72 tackles, 9 TFL). Defensive linemen Robert Kenyon and Viacheslav Kostenko have combined for 6.5 sacks. Their secondary has thrived when the opposition has been forced into obvious passing downs and has totaled 12 interceptions on the season. Junior Luke Houston grabbed three picks vs. Hillsborough and has six on the season, while senior Nick Scaff has three, and junior Brayden Bradley has two.
It will be strength on strength versus a Cherokee offense that is powered by its rushing attack. Junior Murad Campfield has rushed for 1,133 yards and 14 touchdowns and is coming off a season-high 195 yards with two touchdowns in the semifinal win over Kingsway. When the Chiefs hand the ball off it's almost always to Campfield, but senior quarterback Ryan Bender can also provide some punch in the run game and has rushed for 605 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has also thrown for 573 yards and six touchdowns with five interceptions and has spread the ball evenly. Senior Tommy Pajic is the only player with more than 10 receptions. Pajic is also a standout kicker with five field goals in six attempts with longs of 38 and 35 yards.
The statistics say Marlboro will need to limit Cherokee to two touchdowns or less to win the game. The Mustangs average just 18.5 points per game and in the two games they've allowed more than 16 points, they've lost (24-3 to Rumson-Fair Haven and 28-21 to Middletown North). Marlboro leans heavily on its running game with Cassidy as the lead back, rushing for 1,033 yards and 12 touchdowns heading into the title game. The passing game has been opportunistic and shown the ability to connect for touchdowns in clutch situations, but Marlboro is not built to air it out. They average around nine pass attempts per game with senior quarterback Brayden Klein having completed 44 of 76 passes for 543 yards and six touchdowns. Senior Sam Hirch is the leading receiver (13 rec. for 246 yards and 3 TDs) with Houston (15-117-1) and Consolazio (11-105-2) as the second and third options, respectively.
Senior linebacker Austin Lenart (94 tackles, 3 sacks, 9 TFL) leads a Chiefs defense that has been lights out pretty much all season. They've held seven of 10 opponents to seven points or less with three shutouts and the teams that found the end zone more than once on their defense are Central Jersey Group 4 finalist Winslow (22-19 win), South Jersey Group 4 finalist Winslow (41-17 loss), and Kingsway (28-21 win) in last week's semifinal game. Cherokee allows just 86 yards rushing per game and has yielded just four rushing touchdowns all season. Senior defensive linemen Leo Bluestein (7 sacks, 18.5 TFL) and Brodyn Wolfert (4.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss) have been stalwarts up front.
The matchup seems pretty simple on paper. Whichever team can control the line of scrimmage and get their running game going will likely hoist the hardware. Most of Cherokee's wins are of the lopsided variety with just two victories (Winslow, 22-19 and Kingsway, 28-21) decided by seven points or less. Marlboro has played tight games all season and has thrived in those situations with five wins by 13 points or less. They have a knack for finding a way to get a key stop and/or a late score to come away with a win. The Mustangs also have a reliable kicker in senior Luke Rubin, who has converted 7 of 9 field goal attempts with longs of 39 and 37 yards. They'll need more of that formula on Friday night to complete the program's turnaround and bring home their first sectional championship in 29 years.
The pick: Cherokee 17, Marlboro 10