Dealing Punishment: Southern ends Toms River East’s Playoff Hopes
TOMS RIVER — When Southern got the news that it had been eliminated from playoff contention, it was a tough blow to a team that hoped to return to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group V final. Then the Rams, without several injured starters, had to square off against a Toms River East team that had a shot to qualify for the postseason with a victory on Saturday. On paper, Southern had nothing to play for while East had its season hanging in the balance.
“Actually, we had everything to play for,” said senior defensive lineman/linebacker Mason Fazekas. “For our last three games we want to punish everyone we play and make them remember what kind of program Southern Regional is.”
Playing without starting quarterback/safety Logan Sheehan, offensive lineman/linebacker Bailey Bellissimo and receiver/defensive back Zach Halliday, the Rams turned in a gritty performance to upend the Raiders, 17-14, in a Shore Conference Class A South game at Dvorak Field. Senior Grant Bissey ran for a touchdown, senior quarterback Dan Uccellini threw a touchdown pass with seven seconds left in the first half and Rob Yaiser connected on a 27-yard field goal to get the Rams back to .500 (4-4, 3-4) and keep the Raiders (2-6, 1-5) from qualifying for the South Jersey Group IV playoffs.
“Our program, we’re fighters,” said senior wide receiver Mike Gesicki, who finished with five catches for 70 yards. “We’ve faced a lot of obstacles this year, but now we’re back to .500 and we’re going to end the season strong.”
Senior running back Matt Gudzak ran for a game-high 195 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries and junior Jeff Wood added 119 yards for the Raiders. If Toms River East would have won it would have qualified for the playoffs as the No. 7 seed and faced rival Toms River South in the first round.
Toms River East moved the ball effectively on the ground all game and finished with 292 yards. The Raiders got the ball back down by three with 3:04 left in the game and moved to the Southern 38 after a facemask penalty. But after an incompletion and consecutive penalties, the Rams’ defense went to work. On second-and-24, Raiders quarterback Paul Aliseo was dropped by the combination of Pat Walker, Ryan Winkler and Pat Ferraro for an 8-yard loss. On third down, Fazekas got to Aliseo and sacked him for a 14-yard loss. That brought up fourth-and-42 for Toms River East, and Southern stopped any hopes for a miracle ending to secure the victory.
“We got to them with the rush,” said Rams head coach Chuck Donohue Sr. “We aren’t the biggest team, but we’re quick and we have good ability to get to the quarterback.”
Southern got on the board late in the first quarter when Bissey plowed in from two yards out to cap a five-play, 16-yard scoring drive. Southern started the drive deep in Toms River East territory after recovering a fumble on a punt.
The Raiders bounced back quickly, however, and gave a glimpse to what their running game could accomplish. It was all Gudzak on a two-play, 77-yard drive as the senior broke a 49-yard run and followed it with a 28-yard touchdown run to tie the game 7-7 with 1:09 left in the first quarter.
The running of Gudzak and Wood moved the Raiders down to the Rams’ 9-yard line, but on third-and-goal Yaiser intercepted Aliseo in the end zone to end the threat.
That was the precursor of a massive 15-play, 80-yard scoring drove Southern would use to take the lead at halftime. Uccellini made some key throws on the drive for first downs, including an 18-yard play to Gesicki on third-and-8 from the Southern 22 and an eight-yard pass to Gesicki on fourth-and-1 from midfield. An 11-yard run by Bissey moved the ball inside the 25-yard line, but the drive hit a roadblock that eventually brought up a fourth-and-1 from the 16. On fourth down, Uccellini faked a handoff and lofted a pass to a wide-open Justin Ruppert, who hauled it in for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead with seven seconds left in the half.
“That was huge for him,” Gesicki said. “He never got his shot, but today he was able to lead us to victory.”
“It’s a great story, that’s what high school football is all about,” Donohue said. “A kid getting his one moment in the sun, he’ll remember that for the rest of his life.”
Southern started the third quarter with a 14-play, 70-yard drive to take a 17-7 lead on Yaiser’s 27-yard field goal, which was the first of his career.
Toms River East would again respond quickly, scoring on Gudzak’s three-yard run to cap a 7-play, 80-yard drive. Wood busted a 40-yard run to get the ball across midfield, and Gudzak set up his short run with a 19-yard burst up the middle.
With the game on the line and its opponents’ playoff hopes on life support, however, Southern came up with a defensive stand to close out its fourth victory of the season and give itself a chance to end the season 6-4.
“This was a big program win,” Donohue said. “These kids battled, and now they have a chance for a winning season.”
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Southern 17, Toms River East 14
|Southern||Toms River East|
Southern (4-4, 3-4) 7 7 3 0 – 17
TR East (2-6, 1-5) 7 0 7 0 – 14
S – Grant Bissey 2-yard run (Rob Yaiser kick)
T – Matt Gudzak 28-yard run (Jerry Caporale kick)
S – Dan Uccellini 16-yard pass to Justin Ruppert (Rob Yaiser kick)
S – Rob Yaiser 27-yard field goal
T – Matt Gudzak 3-yard run (Jerry Caporale kick)
Rushing – S: Grant Bissey 22-79, Ryan Winkler 15-45, Rob Yaiser 4-4, Mike Gesicki 1-(-1), Dan Uccellini 1-(-10); TRE: Matt Gudzak 17-195, Jeff Wood 9-119, Ryan Wasilick 2-5, Paul Aliseo 7-(-27).
Passing – S: Dan Uccellini 8-17-0 105; TRE: Paul Aliseo 3-5-1 40, Jerry Caporale 0-1-0 0.
Receiving – S: Mike Gesicki 5-70, Justin Ruppert 2-21, Grant Bissey 1-14; TRE: Jerry Caporale 2-43, Matt Gudzak 1-(-4), Corey Reynolds 0-1.
Interceptions – S: Rob Yaiser 1-0.