Backs Against the Wall: Clutch Plays in All Three Phases Lead Manalapan Past No. 6 Southern
STAFFORD TOWNSHIP – Clutch third-down conversions, impactful special teams plays, huge defensive stands, and timely turnovers. It was exactly the kind of three-phase performance Manalapan knew it needed in order to pull off a critical road victory over one of the best teams in the Shore Conference.
A 1-yard touchdown run by senior running back Elijah Marquez with 5:00 left in the fourth quarter gave the Braves a double-digit lead and an interception by senior defensive back Paul Wojciechowski with 1:27 on the clock sealed the deal as the Braves went down to Manahawkin and knocked off No. 6 Southern, 21-15, in a Shore Conference Colonial Division game on Friday night.
Marquez’s touchdown run gave Manalapan a 21-9 lead, but that cushion did not stand for long as Southern scored in just two plays to cut the Braves’ advantage to 21-15. Over the final 4:27, Manalapan’s offense chewed some clock before turning to its defense for one final stop. Wojciechowski’s interception came on the first play of Southern’s final drive and was the third interception and the fourth turnover forced by the Braves’ defense.
Manalapan’s special teams have long been among the best in the Shore and that was again the case on Friday night. Junior kicker Michael Calton connected on a pair of field goals and sophomore Anthony Macchio returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
It all added up to a gritty win in a physical game that changes the complexion of Manalapan’s season.
“Southern is a great team, we’re a great team, they were undefeated; we had a tough game against Middletown South last week and we came in battle-tested,” said senior linebacker Mario Chierchia. “It wasn’t easy and we knew we were going to be tested this game, but we came up and made more plays.”
“It’s been like this for four weeks now,” said Manalapan head coach Dom Lepore. “The way the ADs in the Shore Conference made the divisions, it’s just been so competitive every week. You live for that. The 35-0 blowouts at halftime, meh. I love these types of games and the kids do, too. We felt like we were battle-tested from the first game. We’ve been in some really good football games and the kids were ready to play.”
Heckel was efficient under center, completing 11 of 15 passes for 119 yards and throwing a 2-point conversion pass to junior tight end Preston Birnie. Marquez ran for 81 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries and junior wide receiver Alex Dille caught four passes for 54 yards. On the defensive side, Tyler Walker, Dille, and Wojciechowski had interceptions and Macchio also recovered a fumble to go along with his kick return touchdown.
Check back for a photo gallery by Richard O'Donnell
Manalapan’s defense had its hands full with Southern senior running back Jaiden Brown, who rushed for a game-high 165 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. Brown also threw a touchdown pass to senior wideout Jaden Anthony in the fourth quarter to pull Southern to within six points and was active on defense with multiple tackles, including a thunderous tackle for loss late in the game that helped the Rams get the ball back.
While Brown had some huge runs, Manalapan was able to bottle him up when it mattered most. Southern had the ball inside the Braves’ 6-yard line twice in the first half but came away with zero points. They forced a turnover on downs on Soutnern’s second offensive series and on the Rams’ next drive, Macchio recovered a fumble at the 9-yard line after Southern had a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line. In total, Southern was inside Manalapan’s 10-yard line four times in the game and came away with just nine points.
“We’ve been doing that all year,” Lepore said. “When our backs are against the wall we've been playing our best defense. We’ve had breakdowns at times between the 20s but when the ball has been down near the goal line we’ve stepped up all year. We take a lot of pride in that.”
“We practice those situations and we made some big plays down at the goal line,” Chierchia said. “We have heart and we do what we have to do at every level on every play.”
Manalapan entered Friday night’s game with a 2-1 record after last week’s heartbreaking 13-7 overtime loss to No. 5 Middletown South. Southern, ranked No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, entered at 3-0. It’s only one game, but 3-1 vs. 2-2 is a big difference with just two weeks left in the regular season. Manalapan also now has an outside shot at claiming a share of the division title. Ironically, the Braves will now turn around and root for Southern next week when the Rams host Middletown South. If Southern wins and Manalapan beats Jackson Memorial, there will be a three-way tie for the Colonial Division championship.
Southern’s defense forced a three-and-out on the game’s first series with senior cornerback Nick Devane breaking up a pass on third down. Southern started at its own 18-yard line but on second down Nolan Schubiger’s pass was intercepted by Walker and returned 29 yards to the 11-yard line. Southern’s defense held firm, however, and forced Manalapan to settle for a field goal. Calton is the Braves’ latest standout kicker and he easily converted a 26-yard attempt to stake Manalapan to an early 3-0 lead.
Southern moved all the way to Manalapan’s 7-yard line on the next drive, fueled by runs of 17 and 24 yards by Brown and an 18-yard reception by senior fullback Nate Committee, but Manalapan’s defense did not yield. Marquez batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage on third-and-goal from the 7-yard line and Manalapan forced an incompletion when Southern went for it on fourth down.
After a Manalapan punt, Southern began with great field position at the 40-yard line and quickly moved to the Braves’ 5-yard line. But on first-and-goal, Manalapan jarred the ball loose on a carry by Brown and Macchio pounced on it at the 9-yard line.
Manalapan was able to put together a 9-play, 58-yard drive at the end of the first half that ended with Calton kicking a 32-yard field goal to give the Braves a 6-0 halftime lead.
Southern finally converted a red zone opportunity on its first drive of the second half, going 80 yards in 10 plays to tie the score. Senior tight end Tristan Arthur had a 17-yard reception, Brown had a 13-yard run and Devane had a 26-yard reception down to the 1-yard line to set up Brown for a 1-yard touchdown run. The extra point was blocked by Manalapan senior Michael Bimonte, however, leaving the score tied 6-6.
But not for long.
On the ensuing kickoff, Macchio found a lane and took the kick all the way back for a 90-yard touchdown. Heckel then found Birnie for the 2-point conversion and a 14-6 lead.
“Macchio takes that to the house, everybody’s jumping, and it changed the whole mood on the sideline,” Heckel said.
“That’s something else we take so much pride in, our special teams,” Lepore said. “We feel every Friday night when we step on the field our special teams are going to be the best out there.”
Southern connected on a big play on its next drive when Schubiger hit Devane for a 41-yard gain, but three plays later, Schubiger’s deep shot toward the end zone was picked off by Dille.
Southern put points on the board early in the fourth quarter but again left more on the table. Brown fumbled for a 28-yard gain down to the 1-yard line, but was stuffed for losses on first and second down. And on third-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Schubiger was sacked by Chierchia and Birnie for a 7-yard loss. That forced the field goal unit onto the field and Anthony converted a 29-yard kick to make the score 14-9.
Manalapan then put together an important scoring drive to take a two-score lead, going 69 yards in seven plays to go up 21-9 on Marquez’s touchdown run. It was his 25-yard run combined with a late-hit penalty on Southern that put the ball at the 7-yard line.
Southern, however, answered right away by going 80 yards in just two plays. Kole Levy hauled in a 48-yard pass and then Brown found Anthony for a 37-yard score on a halfback option pass.
Naturally, it wasn’t easy, but that is what Manalapan expected. The mistakes made a week ago in the overtime loss to Middletown South were corrected. This time, it was the Braves forcing turnovers and making the clutch plays. That’s the formula.
“We talk about these three things: protect the ball, turn them over, and play great special teams,” Lepore said. “That’ what we did tonight.”
Southern Regional vs. Manalapan Football
Manalapan 21, No. 6 Southern 15
|Manalapan (3-1, 2-1)
|Southern (3-1, 2-1)
M – Michael Calton 26-yard field goal
M – Michael Calton 32-yard field goal
S – Jaiden Brown 1-yard run (kick blocked)
M – Anthony Macchio 90-yard kickoff return (Mike Heckel to Preston Birnie)
S – Jaden Anthony 29-yard field goal
M – Elijah Marquez 1-yard run (Michael Calton kick)
S – Jaiden Brown 37-yard pass to Jaden Anthony (kick failed)
RUSHING – M: Elijah Marquez 17-81, Mike Heckek 5-9, Alex Dille 2-(-4); S: Jaiden Brown 27-165, Nate Committee 1-0, Nolan Schubiger 2-(-4).
PASSING – M: Mike Heckel 11-15-0 119; S: Nolan Schubiger 9-16-3 197, Jaiden Brown 1-1-0 37.
RECEIVING – M: Alex Dille 4-53, Elijah Marquez 3-24, Preston Birnie 2-21, Michael Bimonte 1-18, Tyler Walker 1-3; S: Nick Devane 2-67, Kole Levy 1-48, Nate Committee 4-45, Jaden Anthony 1-37, Tristan Arthur 1-17, Max Dipietro 1-10.
INTERCEPTIONS – M: Tyler Walker 1-29, Alex Dille 1-20, Paul Wojciechowski 1-0.