Back in Black: Toms River East downs Middletown North for first playoff win in 10 years
TOMS RIVER – It was bitterly cold at Dvorak Field on Friday night, but Toms River East’s players could not have cared less. They would have played in Antarctica or on the moon if it meant getting a home playoff game.
The last decade of Toms River East football has been..difficult, to put it mildly, but the 2019 season has been an incredible resurgence which has already included a division championship. The Raiders want more and, as they chanted in their postgame talk, they are not done yet.
Senior quarterback Mike Goodall ran for 119 yards, Gino Gallo and Yusuf Ahmed scored touchdowns, Nick Costa converted a field goal and the defense allowed just one score as third-seeded Toms River East churned out a 17-7 victory over sixth-seeded Middletown North in the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA Central, Group 4 playoffs on an ice-cold night in Toms River.
Toms River East is now heading to the sectional semifinals, which is a massive jump from where the program has been. Friday night’s win was the program’s first playoff appearance and victory since 2009. In the five prior seasons, Toms River East had just seven wins. At one point they lost 27 straight regular-season games. Now, the Raiders are 9-1 and two wins away from a state championship.
“I don’t even have words for it,” Goodall said. “Coach is doing a great job leading us and we’re just going out and playing as hard as we can.”
“This feeling is unbelievable,” said senior Alex Smith. “To come from nothing to winning a playoff game, it feels really, really good.”
When head coach Kyle Sandberg took over the program in 2016 it looked a lot different from when he starred as a defensive back for the Raiders 15 years ago. Toms River East went a combined 18-3 during Sandberg’s junior and senior seasons in 2003 and 2004, but in the two seasons prior to Sandberg becoming head coach, East was 2-18. The Raiders went 0-9 in Sandberg’s first season. Rock bottom. Then came a 2-8 season in 2017 and a 3-6 season in 2018. It was progress, albeit in small increments.
Then came this season where a senior class joined with Sandberg at the hip put its hands on the carousel and spun in 180 degrees.
“We just won a playoff game and not many teams (at East) can say they’ve done that before,” Sandberg said. “Especially where we were when I took over. We were at ground zero, we were at dust. These seniors stuck together, figured out a way to become a unit and a team and they got it done.”
Toms River East’s offense once again went almost entirely through its running game – the Raiders attempted only one pass on the night – and after a scoreless first quarter, the Raiders broke through. Goodall and junior running back Yusuf Ahmed led the ground attack on a 12-play, 60-yard scoring drive that ended with Gallo taking a wingback handoff across the goal line for a 4-yard touchdown. Costa’s extra point gave East a 7-0 lead with 2:27 left in the first half and the Raiders held that lead into the break.
Middletown North received the second-half kickoff and moved down to the Toms River East 24-yard line when junior wide receiver Quentin Soler took a screen pass for 32 yards. A 9-yard completion from senior quarterback Nick Ferreira to senior wideout Matt Spencer gave the Lions a first down at the Toms River East 13-yard line, but Ferreira was hurt on the play and had to leave the game.
Spencer took over at quarterback and the Lions immediately went backward on a delay of game penalty followed by a false start penalty. On first-and-20 from the 23-yard line, Middletown North tried another screen pass, but this time the Raiders were ready. The pass tipped off the hands of the intended receiver, deflected once more off the hands of Toms River East defensive lineman Christian Peins and into the hands of Smith, a senior defensive back. Smith snared the ball out of the air and returned it 39 yards to the Middletown North 38-yard line.
“My eyes were as wide as anything,” Smith said. “I saw it get tipped by Christian Peins and I just ran for it. I didn’t want it to drop.”
“That play was everything,” Goodall said. “They were driving, the wide receiver tipped it up and Smith made a great heads-up play and took it back to put us in good position.”
The Raiders used the short field to extend their lead to 14-0. Consecutive 20-yard runs by Goodall put the ball at the 1-yard line where Ahmed polished off the drive with a short plunge. Goodall’s back-to-back runs whipped the Raiders sideline into a frenzy, especially the first one on a third-and-one where he ran over a would-be tackler to finish the gain.
“That hyped us all up,” Smith said. “We love it when he gets his hands dirty.”
“Mike is special,” Sandberg said. “He’s a kid you look in his eyes and you see a winner. You know you’re going to get his best effort. All these seniors, these kids have that factor. They don’t quit and Mike is an example of that.”
With Ferreira still out of the game, Middletown North turned to its rushing attack to get right back in the game. On the first play of the next drive, sophomore running back Brian Haddow ripped off a 41-yard run down to the Toms River East 20-yard line. Seven plays later, Haddow took a handoff on a jet sweep and scored from two yards out on fourth-and-goal to cut Toms River East’s lead to 14-7 just seconds into the fourth quarter.
Toms River East responded immediately to recoup its two-score lead with a nine-play, 60-yard drive. After moving into Middletown North territory, Goodall broke a 17-yard run down to the 20-yard line. Three plays later, Costa split the uprights for a 31-yard field goal that gave the Raiders a 17-7 cushion with 5:42 to play.
Middletown North got Ferreira back on the next series and drove to the Toms River East 29-yard line, but the Raiders forced a turnover on downs with 2:15 left before taking over and running out the clock.
“It’s amazing,” Goodall said. “Everyone battled hard, everyone, and we got it done in the end.”
“These kids have been through the lows and seen the struggles but we had to rise above it,” Sandberg said. “We don’t quit here at East. We’re tough, we’re gritty. We’re savages.”
Now it’s onto Jackson Memorial on Friday, Nov. 15 with a trip to a sectional championship game on the line. Nobody outside the program would have believed the Raiders could be in this position when the season began.
“Coach said from the beginning we can do something special and we’re not giving up until the last play,” Goodall said.
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