Birthday Bash: Pruitt’s two pick-sixes leads Toms River North back to the Group 5 state championship game
EVESHAM TOWNSHIP – Toms River North has one of the most powerful offenses in New Jersey, and with it, a ferocious defense to match. The Mariners are a complete team, that much should be obvious by now. And if it isn’t, the Mariners hammered home the point on Friday night with another dominant defensive performance in the NJSIAA playoffs.
Senior Jeremiah Pruitt celebrated his birthday by returning two interceptions for touchdowns to highlight a defensive haymaker that included a safety, four sacks, and just 26 rushing yards allowed as the Mariners rolled into Marlton and emerged with a 33-6 victory over Cherokee in the Group 5 semifinals.
Pruitt had a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter when Toms River North (11-2) opened a quick 14-0 lead and he sealed a return trip to the Group 5 state final with a 45-yard pick-6 in the final minute of the game. Senior quarterback Micah Ford ran for 211 yards and a touchdown and also threw a touchdown pass to senior running back Josh Moore, while senior kicker Yianni Papanikolas connected on a 33-yard field goal.
For the second straight season, Toms River North will play Passaic Tech in the NJSIAA Group 5 state championship game. PCIT defeated Union, 14-0, in the other semifinal game. The championship game will be played at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium on a date and time yet to be announced. The Mariners won last year’s title with a 28-7 victory.
Toms River North’s defense suffocated a Cherokee offense led by the two-man rushing attack of junior running back Murad Campfield and senior quarterback Ryan Bender. Campfield entered the game with 1,250 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns but was held to just 34 yards on 15 carries. Bender was sacked four times, intercepted twice, and held to minus-8 rushing yards. The Mariners yielded just 123 yards of offense to the Chiefs, who gained nearly as many yards via penalty (95) as they did from actual offensive plays.
“We know we have one of the best defenses in the state,” Pruitt said. “(Cherokee) could throw it but we knew they wanted to run the ball first and we shut that down pretty much all game.”
“I think it’s the part that probably gets overlooked because the past two seasons our offense has been so good,” Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz said of his defense. “They played maybe their best game of the season tonight against a two-head monster rushing attack. We kind of eliminated it right away and it became a matter of if could they break one in the pass game.”
Cherokee did find the end zone in the latter stages of the game when a penalty-aided drive set up a superb 29-yard touchdown catch by senior wide receiver Tommy Pajic, but it was little more than window dressing to avoid being shut out. The Mariners stifled Cherokee’s run game and set up shop in the backfield with four sacks and seven additional tackles for loss. The unit of linebackers featuring seniors Anthony Rodriguez and Christian Olivieri and juniors Blaise Boland and Eddie Slosky was a constant presence in Cherokee’s backfield.
“We watch film before every practice, the coaches put together a great gameplan, and we come out on Fridays and do what we do,” Rodriguez said.
“I thought we rushed the passer really well and forced some throws that weren’t accurate,” Oizerowitz said. “We graduated two great edge players and three of our four linebackers from last season but these guys have stepped into those shoes and blossomed over the course of the season. Watching Cherokee on film, they break a lot of tackles in space, and I thought we tackled really well tonight.”
It didn’t take the Mariners long to set the tone and establish a quick lead on Friday night at William H. Foltz Field. Cherokee gained 23 yards on a swing pass to Leo Bluestein on the second play of the game, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a tackle for loss by Boland put the Chiefs into third and long. A punt followed, and three plays later Toms River North was in the end zone on a 48-yard touchdown run by Ford for a 7-0 advantage.
Three plays into Cherokee’s next offensive series, Pruitt expertly dissected Bender’s pass to the right flat and turned it into six more points with a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown that put Toms River North ahead, 14-0, six minutes into the game.
“I saw the quarterback take a pre-snap read looking at his outside receiver, so I was waiting for a hitch or a slant – that was their go-to route on the outside,” Pruitt said. “I dropped back, got underneath the slant, and just took it.”
“This team has the ability to deliver harder knockout blows early in the game than last year’s team,” Oizerowitz said. “Last year we grinded teams into wilting in the third quarter. This team is more mature, offensively, with our weapons and the ability on defense to create turnovers and score. That’s the biggest difference now.”
Toms River North looked to add to its lead in the second quarter after Ford broke a 53-yard run from his own 17-yard line down to the Cherokee 30, but the Chiefs held enough to force a field goal attempt that Papanikolas converted from 33 yards out for a 17-0 lead with 5:38 left in the first half.
Cherokee’s front seven didn’t make it easy for Toms River North by routinely clogging up the interior and creating their share of negative plays, but the Mariners were able to slowly tack onto their lead in the second half while their defense continued to stall Cherokee’s offense. A great 37-yard throw and catch from Ford to junior wideout Nasir Jackson on third and nine led to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Ford to senior running back Josh Moore, giving North a 24-0 lead with 4:29 left in the third quarter.
Cherokee had the ball back at its own 17-yard line early in the fourth quarter but Toms River North’s defense went back to work to create more points. A sack on first down by Rodriguez moved the ball back to the 9-yard line, a tackle for loss on second down followed, and on third down junior defensive lineman Jaelyne Matthews was held while chasing Bender in the end zone, and the ensuing penalty flag resulted in a safety and grew Toms River North’s lead to 26-0.
Later in the fourth quarter, a penalty on North for a horse-collar tackle was followed by a defensive holding call that negated a sack, moving the ball to Toms River North’s 33-yard line. Two plays later, Pajic went up and made a great contested catch for a 29-yard touchdown. The extra point attempt was low and missed the mark. Cherokee was on the board, but Toms River North would have the final say.
With Cherokee trying to push the ball down the field late in the game, Pruitt was in the right place at the right time to turn an errant throw into a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown with 46 seconds on the clock, pushing the Mariners’ lead to 33-6.
“I think it was a double hitch and he just overthrew it and I was right there,” Pruitt said.
Fittingly, the game ended when Slosky dropped Campfield for a three-yard loss as time winded down, registering Toms River North’s 13th defensive stop that resulted in either a turnover or a negative play.
Now, there’s one more game left to cement a legacy as the greatest class in Toms River North history and one of the best two-year runs in Shore Conference history. The motivation is obvious, and it’s even more pressing for players like Olivieri, who missed last year’s playoff run with an ACL injury.
“I tore my ACL against Middletown North in the last regular season game, so I haven’t been to the state finals before,” Olivieri said. “After my surgery I was 100 percent determined to get back here. I’m ecstatic.”
After going 14-0 last season and winning the inaugural Group 5 state title, the Mariners have a chance to polish off another historic season in round two with Passaic Tech. They all understand what is at stake.
“Cherokee is a great program, but this was a business trip for us,” Oizerowitz said. “We want to get back to Rutgers and finish the job. I think that’s the goal to start the year when you have a team you think can make a run. We did and we’re here, but we’re not satisfied. I thought Passaic Tech was by far the best team we played last year and there as good as any team we’ll play this year.”
“We all know this is our last game together and we have to make it a good one,” Pruitt said. “We’re going to come in ready.”
Toms River North 33, Cherokee 6
|Toms River North||Cherokee|
TRN – Micah Ford 48-yard run (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
TRN – Jeremiah Pruitt 20-yard interception return (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
TRN – Yianni Papanikolas 33-yard field goal
TRN – Josh Moore 25-yard pass from Micah Ford (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
TRN – Safety, Cherokee flagged for holding in the end zone
CHE – Tommy Pajic 29-yard pass from Ryan Bender (kick failed)
TRN – Jeremiah Pruitt 45-yard interception return (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
RUSHING – TRN: Micah Ford 32-211, Josh Moore 4-(-2); CHE: Murad Campfield 15-34, Ryan Bender 11-(-8).
PASSING – TRN: Micah Ford 5-10-0, 88; CHE: Ryan Bender 6-16-2, 96.
RECEIVING – TRN: Nasir Jackson 1-37, Jeremiah Pruitt 3-26, Josh Moore 1-25; CHE: Tommy Pajic 1-29, Leo Bluestein 1-23, Louis Galasso 2-22, Murad Campfield 1-12, Luke Brown 1-10.
INTERCEPTIONS – TRN: Jeremiah Pruitt, 2-65.