Bitter Pill: Manalapan Falls to Hunterdon Central in CJ-V Title Game
PISCATAWAY – Manalapan made no secret about its intentions for the 2013 season. After falling in the sectional final in each of the past two seasons, it was state title or bust for the Braves, who looked every bit like a championship team through 11 games. The flip side of great expectations, however, is usually devastating disappointment.
The Braves were denied their first sectional title in program history on Sunday night, as Hunterdon Central dominated from start to finish for a 21-0 victory in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V title game at Rutgers' High Point Solutions Stadium. Red Devils senior running back Jason Cabinda ran for a game-high 182 yards and two touchdowns while the defense shut down Manalapan's offense in limiting the Braves to 75 total yards. Hunterdon Central captured its sixth state championship in program history while handing the Braves their third straight loss in a state title game.
“I guess it's not meant to happen,” said Manalapan senior linebacker Chris Noesges. “We were very well-prepared, but you can be as prepared as you want. You have to execute.”
An offense that entered averaging 39 points per game behind a powerful running attack was held to 27 rushing yards on 31 attempts. Hunterdon Central out-gained top-seeded Manalapan 317-75 and became the first team to shut out the Braves since Toms River North beat them 19-0 in 2009.
“You keep asking yourself, 'Did I work hard enough?'” said Rutgers-bound senior wide receiver Saeed Blacknall. “This is my third time here, third time losing. I can't even explain the feeling to you right now.”
Stephen Barr kicked a pair of field goals in the first half to stake seventh-seeded Hunterdon Central (8-4) to a 6-0 lead at halftime. Despite struggling mightily over the first two quarters, Manalapan was still very much in the game. The Braves needed one play to break out and get untracked on offense, and they still had an entire half to make up a small deficit. But that play never came. When Cabinda scored on a two-yard run early in the fourth quarter to give Hunterdon Central a 14-0 lead, it was the beginning of the end for Manalapan.
“They knew everything we were going to throw at them,” Blacknall said. “Our defense held up to about the mid-third quarter, but after that, it's all about momentum in this game. Once they got going it was too late. We were playing catch-up.”
The Braves also couldn't get their passing game going. Shutting down the run allowed Hunterdon Central to pin its ears back any time Manalapan quarterback Dan Anerella dropped back to throw. The Red Devils sacked Anerella five times, intercepted him once and blanketed his No. 1 receiver, Blacknall, with double and triple coverage. One problem contributed to the other, and vice versa.
“(Hunterdon Central) played a seven-man box, which means we should have run the ball,” said Manalapan head coach Eddie Gurrieri. “I think early in the game we tried to force the issue throwing the ball just to get them off of us a little bit. In the second half, we wanted to establish the run. We couldn't get any rhythm tonight at all. They outplayed us. They just outplayed us.”
“It's his first year as a starter as a junior, and to lead us on this big stage for a state championship, it's a lot for the kid,” Blacknall said of Anerella. “I told him that you got to keep your head in the game and everything's going to be OK, but it's a lot to ask for this kid. He did a tremendous job all year leading us here. I love the kid to death. He led us here, and we just couldn't finish it.”
Conversely, Hunterdon Central was able to pick its spots when taking shots downfield on play-action thanks to the consistent power running of Cabinda. Red Devils quarterback Michael Knight threw for 182 yards, regrouping after an early interception by Noesges and again after Chris Cruz picked him off early in the fourth quarter. A 30-yard pass to Max Miller set up Barr's 24-yard field goal in the first quarter, and a 34-yard gain by Miller led to Barr's 20-yard field goal in the final minute of the first half.
Cabinda had a 70-yard touchdown run called back because of a holding penalty early in the fourth quarter, but his run loosened up Manalapan's defense enough to allow Knight to hit Ryan Dunleavy on the very next play for a 65-yard gain. That set up Cabinda's two-yard touchdown run, and then Daniel Scassera made a diving catch on the two-point conversion try to give Hunterdon Central a commanding 14-0 lead with just over eight minutes left in the game.
“They didn't show it a lot, but when they did show it, I thought our safeties were going to be able to cover the guys and we just had some breakdowns,” Noesges said. “We hung in there as long as we could, but it just wasn't meant to be.”
“They executed real well because our defense was doing a real good job for a long time shutting Cabinda down,” Gurrieri said. “And they took their shots and they hit a few of them, which changed the whole complexion of the game. Those shots got us off him a little bit, and at the end of the game we're stunting, trying to do things we shouldn't be doing.”
Trailing by 14 with 4:20 left in the game, Manalapan went for it on fourth-and-24 from its own 42-yard line. When Anerella's pass for Anthony Barone fell incomplete it gave the Red Devils great field position, and on second down Cabinda broke free for a 39-yard touchdown run and a 21-0 lead. With just 3:47 left, the game was effectively over.
Hunterdon Central was a deceiving No. 7 seed because it played several games without Knight (broken leg) and Cabinda (appendectomy). With both players in the lineup, the Red Devils were undefeated.
Manalapan accomplished a great deal over the last three seasons, including winning three straight Shore Conference Class A North division titles while going 32-4 over that span.
“I know it hurts right now, but they'll look back on what they did here, and 11-1 is nothing to hang your head on,” Gurrieri said. “They left their mark. Unfortunately we didn't get the big one, but I'm proud of every one of them.”
It's been a remarkable stretch for the Shore's premier public school program, but they left Rutgers Sunday night without the storybook ending they'd dreamed about. These wounds need time to heal.
“I have great memories, and I love being a Brave,” Noesges said. “I will come back to cheer them on, but I'd rather be 24-0 than 22-2. I'm going to miss it a lot.”
Blacknall will continue his college career where his high school career concluded. He's hoping he'll make some new memories on a field that hasn't been kind to him.
“Obviously I'm going to move to college football and play on this field with a different team, but this is just one of those things I'll never get over,” he said.
NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V Final
(7) Hunterdon Central 21, (1) Manalapan 0
Hunterdon Central (8-4) 3 3 0 15 – 21
Manalapan (11-1) 0 0 0 0 – 0
Stephen Barr 24-yard field goal
Stephen Barr 20-yard field goal
Jason Cabinda 2-yard run (Mike Knight pass to Daniel Scassera)
Jason Cabinda 39-yard run (Stephen Barr kick)
Rushing – HC: Jason Cabinda 35-182, Mike Knight 2-(-30), team 2-(-17); M: Tyler Leonetti 19-58, Charles Lombana 3-13, Saeed Blacknall 1-(-2), Imamu Mayfield 2-(-4), Dan Anerella 6-(-38).
Passing – HC: Mike Knight 8-15-2 182; M: Dan Anerella 5-18-1 28, Charles Lombana 2-2-0 20, Mike Caggiano 0-1-0 0.
Receiving – HC: Max Miller 3-73, Ryan Dunleavy 2-70, Daniel Scassera 2-32, James Mania 1-7; M: Saeed Blacknall 4-39, Imamu Mayfield 1-10, Tyler Leonetti 1-1, R.J. Krause 1-(-2).
Interceptions – HC: Kevin Wachter 1-0; M: Chris Noesges 1-19, Chris Cruz 1-0.