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Christian Rodriguez accepted the invitation to play in the All-Shore Gridiron Classic to compete, even if it’s against his own Monmouth County teammates.

In practice, he was laying on hits that might have been a little harder than some of his teammates and coaches would have preferred to feel or see at an all-star practice. On Monday, he scooped up two game jerseys while deciding which number he wanted and when Manalapan running back Elijah Marquez told him he wanted the No. 2 jersey, a playful game of tug-o-war ensued.

Rodriguez lost that battle against his very sturdy running back, but that is one battle he was willing to concede, especially if he and his teammates meet the primary objective.

“As long as we win, I’ll wear whatever number they want me to,” Rodriguez said. “If I get MVP and we win, at the end of the day, it’s all fine.”

Rather than ruffle feathers, Rodriguez’s spirit and skill has endeared the Long Branch graduate to the Monmouth County coaching staff and the rest of his teammates on the all-star roster.

Ray Rich Photography
Long Branch quarterback Christian Rodriguez. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

“It’s nothing unusual for me,” Rodriguez said of being a vocal leader on the practice field and in the huddle. “I’m used to it. I’m just trying to be a team leader as much as I can: get everybody to play hard, help everybody make plays. I’m really going for the win. That’s the thing. Whatever I’ve got to do, I’ll do it: blocking, playing (defensive) tackle. Anything.”

Rodriguez will not have to worry about blocking or playing tackle since his coach – Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci – knows his skillset all too well. As a junior in 2020, Rodriguez led Long Branch into Middletown South on opening night and helped the Green Wave pull out a 14-10 victory over the Eagles.

“Us and Long Branch is an annual thing and he has been an integral part of those games,” Antonucci said. “Whether he is playing corner or quarterback, he is just a solid player.”

This past fall, Rodriguez ended his high school football career with a flourish, leading Long Branch to a 10-2 record while earning a spot on the Shore Sports Network All-Shore Second Team. Rodriguez impacted his team in a multitude of ways, passing for 1,464 yards, running for 406, combing for 24 touchdowns (19 passing, five rushing) and hauling in three interceptions on defense.

Rodriguez and Antonucci expect the two-way standout to flash that same impact in Wednesday’s night’s All-Shore Classic at Brick Township High School, where Rodriguez will be in the mix to start – and finish -the game at quarterback while also doubling as a safety on the other side of the ball.

“He is going to play a lot,” Antonucci said. “He is going to be on both sides of the ball and even some special teams. He is a kid that, in a game like this, I have him as the MVP favorite. I think he is that kind of kid. He’ll have a big impact on the game. If we have the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win, I would feel really good about that kid having the ball in his hands.”

“I love being on the field as much as I can,” Rodriguez said. “I try not to come out. If I have to, I’ll drink a lot of water before the game so I’m never dehydrated, so any excuse to try to come off, I try not to deal with it.”

Rodriguez is one of a host of playmakers on the Monmouth County side and while he may or may not be Monmouth’s frontrunner to be the MVP heading into Wednesday night, he will have plenty of competition from his own team.

Monmouth is not starved for talent at quarterback, with Howell’s Stephen Jardim, Manalapan’s Mike Heckel and Raritan’s Ben Hutchins joining Rodriguez as options at signal-caller for Antonucci. Three of those quarterbacks will have a chance to throw to teammates, with the Long Branch duo of Ka’Jion Thorne and Jayden Farmer, Manalapan’s Tyler Walker and Howell’s Nick Vecchiarelli all in the fold at receiver.

Middletown South’s Ryan St. Clair and Red Bank Catholic’s Corbett Cimini are also part of the receiving corps and have worked well with the Monmouth County quarterback quartet.

“We have a great group of playmakers, especially coming from Long Branch, where we have a great group of playmakers as well,” Rodriguez said. “It’s even better here, because we have 11 guys who were pretty much the best players on their teams.”

The pool of running backs, meanwhile, may not be deep, but it is dangerous. Marquez is a multi-faceted running back with the most power of anyone in the group, Holmdel’s Jaden Gallo is coming off a record-setting season and All-Shore First-Team selection with the Hornets, and Marlboro’s Zach Mendes has a chance to shine among the Shore’s best like he did for his Mustangs this season.

10/01/2021 - Manalapan / Southern Regional
Manalapan running back Elijah Marquez. (Photo: Richard O'Donnell Photography)

Asbury Park’s Knasir Alston and St. John Vianney’s Peter Pezzullo are primarily set to be featured on defense but are both capable of carrying the ball out of the backfield as well.

Antonucci has also been encouraged by what he has seen from both lines, especially under the instruction of former Middletown South and Raritan head coach Bob Generelli.

“I like what I see up front,” Antonucci said. “They’re here every day, working hard. Coach Generelli is the best in the business. We feel good about that too. I don’t know that we have a true center, but again, these guys are all-stars. You ask a kid to snap the ball, it’s not a hard thing to do.”

On the defensive side, Antonucci named Manasquan linebacker Ryan Burns as a player who has made his presence felt at practice. As a friend and Manasquan teammate of Antonucci’s son, Mike, Burns has also made his presence felt at the Antonucci household over the years.

“He is a very vocal kid,” Antonucci said of Burns. “The guys like being around him and playing with him because he’s just got an energy about him.”

There will be lots of contributors on both teams Wednesday night and if his coach’s vote of confidence is any indication, Rodriguez could be the last one standing with a chance to win the game and an MVP trophy. Still, we won’t know until Wednesday night at Brick.

“We’re going to do the best we can to rotate guys in, but the bottom line is, when the game is on the line, we’re going to go with the guy,” Antonucci said. “If it ends up being Christian, if it ends up being one of the other guys, you go with the hot hand and the guy who is having a good night. We won’t know that until the game gets going and we see them all out there, so we’re looking forward to it.”


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