MIDDLETOWN -- In the week leading up to Toms River North’s biggest game of the season, a showdown on the road against No. 1 Middletown South, a lot was said and written about the Mariners’ defense.

None of it was positive.

One of the biggest question marks ahead of the No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash on Friday night was could Toms River North’s maligned defense make a stop, any stop, when it needed to. The Mariners’ offense entered averaging 49.5 points per game, but the unit had no choice but to put up big numbers because the defense was allowing nearly 30 points a game over the last four weeks. Middletown South looked like the team that could finally make Toms River North pay for its lackluster defensive performances.

High school teams usually don’t elect to receive after winning the coin toss, especially a team like Middletown South that is built around its defense. Yet that is exactly what the Eagles did. Their plan cleary was to get the ball and go right down the field and score, exposing Toms River North’s glaring weakness.

“We knew what that meant,” said Toms River North senior linebacker Pete LaQuaglia. “And that really fired us up.”

The Mariners had allowed 30 or more points in three of their previous four games, but the first drive of the game was the start of a major turnaround. They forced the Eagles to go three-and-out, with junior outside linebacker Ian Briggs getting a key sack on third down. Toms River North got the ball back, took just two plays to score and was on its way to a 41-21 win that cemented its status as the top team in the Shore Conference.

Even one of the NFL's all-time greatest linebackers took notice.

The numbers in the box score won’t blow you away. Middletown South did score 21 points and put up 353 yards of offense, but when it mattered most Toms River North’s defense was outstanding. The first drive of the game against the unit resulted in negative yardage. The second ended when senior Bryce Watts, who was sensational at wide receiver with three touchdowns, knocked down a pass on fourth down. The third drive ended with a Mickey Maldonado interception that led to Toms River North’s third touchdown and a 21-0 lead. People questioned whether Toms River North’s defense could make even one or two stops. The Mariners made three in a row to start the game and their offense did the rest to put the game out of reach in the first 12 minutes.

Daryn Blackwell (43), Pete LaQuaglia (56), Billy Dowd (77) and the rest of the Toms River North defense played its best in the biggest game of the year. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

“When we stopped them on that first drive something snapped,” said senior nose guard Joe Nardoza. “We had a message to send. There were a lot of people saying we (stink). We heard it from the fans here. We were like, ‘ok we’re going to come out and punch you in the mouth. You can punch back, but we’ll punch harder’.”

The biggest difference from the first six weeks was the Mariners’ defense did the little things correctly. They also forced three turnovers with Maldonado and Watts securing interceptions and Briggs recovering a fumble.

“I know you don’t see it on the scoreboard, but as a defensive staff - coach Roonan, coach Mo, coach Zaza and coach Oz - we really believed we weren’t that far away,” said Toms River North defensive coordinator Rich Malek. “Part of the problem was just lining up and tackling. I thought we tackled better today, and we raised our level of play. We rose to the moment.”

“We’ve really put in a lot of work over the last few weeks just fixing fundamentals,” said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. “We weren’t getting knocked off the ball, so it wasn’t that we weren’t tough or physical. We weren’t setting edges, weren’t aligning properly and we weren’t tackling chest-to-chest.”

“Our week of practice, we looked great. We went ones vs. ones the last two weeks to sharpen the blade a little bit, and our defense was getting the better of it. At that point we knew we’d be better against the run. The question was would we tackle. Could we tackle the tailback and tackle in space? For the most part we did an excellent job.”

In addition to cleaning up the Xs and Os portion of their play, Toms River North’s players knew if they didn’t get the job done against Middletown South, its offense might not be able to bail them out. Quarterback Mike Husni and company put up 441 yards to make that a moot point, but the Eagles were an opponent that got the attention of the defense in a hurry.

“I told them it’s not going to be easy, that we had to be physical and wrap up,” LaQuaglia said. “We came in focused. We knew this was a big game for us and we had to take it to another level.”

“A lot of the senior leadership between Nardoza, Cole LaBatch and Pete LaQuaglia did a good job keeping our guys together,” Malek said. “We have five or six kids that have played a lot of football and played in big games. Our kids don’t shy away from the big moment. They were looking forward to this game for quite a while.”

The Mariners’ offense has been unstoppable because of its array of talent at multiple positions. They get contributions from everybody and make opponents pick who to focus on, then beat you elsewhere. The defense had similar contributions from multiple players that keyed the turnaround. The interior line of Nardoza, LaBatch and Billy Dowd clogged the middle and allowed linebackers Daryn Blackwell, LaQuaglia, Maldonado and Briggs to run free. Cornerbacks Dante Shenkin and Janaire Bradley prevented any big plays over the first three quarters in a secondary that didn’t have the regular services of senior Darrion Carrington, who played only offense.

The play of Briggs, in particular, was incredible given the situation. Regular starting outside linebacker Erik Kelly was bizarrely injured while jumping up and down during the pregame excitement. The Mariners had to turn to Briggs, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior, who barely sees the field in practice let alone game situations. He had a sack and a fumble recovery and was as big a part of the win as any defender.

“It’s a credit to him because he gets very few snaps in practice,” Malek said. “But he’s a tough kid. As coaches you always look at a player’s size and he probably gets underrated because he’s not a big kid, but he plays his butt off. He played great today.”

“That is one of the most miraculous things about tonight,” Oizerowitz said. “I’m in shock. He’s a kid we feel like can be a really good player by next year, but we did not know in the biggest game of the year he would play that well. We found a player tonight.”

Having scored over 40 points in all seven games this season, it’s safe to say Toms River North’s offense is a juggernaut that won’t be stopped by any team on its schedule. Slowed down, maybe, but not stopped. The answer to the question of how to beat the Mariners was to attack their suspect defense, get one or two stops or turnovers and win a shootout. If Friday’s performance was the click of the switch going off for the defense, just as it did last season, then the answer of how to beat Toms River North is now radically different.

You don’t.


Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.