Escape from Manahawkin: No. 5 Toms River North avoids upset bid by Southern
STAFFORD TOWNSHIP – Friday the 13th was a night of horror for more than one team around the Shore Conference, so for Toms River North there was no denying the feeling it was fortunate to escape Ron Emmert Field with a victory on Friday night.
A second-quarter touchdown run by senior Matt Spalletta held up as the game-winning points and Toms River North’s defense came up with two fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter to emerge with a topsy-turvy 17-12 win over Southern Regional in a Shore Conference nondivisional game.
Toms River North, ranked No. 5 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, fell behind early when Southern blocked a punt and scored on the next play, but the Mariners rebounded with 17 straight points to take a two-score lead into halftime. Southern scored early in the third quarter to draw within five points, setting the stage for a nail-biting final 22 minutes where the Mariners did just enough to avoid the upset and improve to 2-0.
“It’s a team effort and when you get down you can’t just sit there crying about it,” said senior linebacker Vinny Palmieri. “You have to pick your head up and pull out the win.”
“We won and we’re fortunate, but we didn’t necessarily deserve it,” said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. “If you take a positive out of it, when we were down 6-0 you could feel the air go out of us but we dug deep and scratched it to 17-6. After we let them back in it our defense was in a fight and we held them.”
Junior quarterback Jake Kazanowsky completed 6 of 12 passes for 165 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Senior wide receiver Dominick Jacob caught three passes for 135 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. Senior running back Jarrod Pruitt added 99 yards on 27 carries. Senior Justin Burkert connected on a 41-yard field goal and Spalletta scored on a 5-yard run in the second quarter.
Defensively, Toms River North made 11 plays behind the line of scrimmage and yielded just 211 yards of offense to Southern. Burkert had a team-high four tackles for loss, including a big stop on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter. Spalletta had two tackles for loss, half a sack and also blocked a punt, Palmieri had three tackles for loss and senior Sergio Borda pulled down an interception.
Sophomore running back Jaiden Brown ran for 102 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries and senior quarterback Cole Robinson ran for 62 yards on 12 carries for Southern. Senior Will Devane blocked a punt on the first series of the game, which set up a 21-yard touchdown run by Brown on the Rams’ first offensive play. Brown added a 59-yard touchdown run on the second play of the third quarter, but that was as close as Southern would get. The Rams had a few near-misses in the second half, unable to connect on two deep passes where the receivers had uncovered while also having a back-breaking holding penalty wipe out what would have been a 45-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass from Robinson to Devane.
The Mariners narrowly avoided being taken down by an unranked opponent, and it happened on an evening when three teams in the SSN Top 10 suffered defeats. No. 9 Wall beat No. 2 Rumson-Fair Haven, 14-3, Middletown North shocked No. 3 Long Branch, 20-14, and St. John Vianney walloped No. 10 Middletown South, 35-7. Like Toms River North, No. 6 Manalapan won a tight game with a 14-7 victory over Howell.
Toms River North looked like it would get off to a fast start when Kazanowsky found junior wideout Zach Browne for 21 yards on the second play of the game, but a tackle for a loss of six yards by junior linebacker Steve Langton put the Mariners behind the sticks and forced them to punt from their own 34-yard line. Toms River North shifted its alignment before the snap and Burkert rolled to his right before attempting the punt, but Southern had caved in that side of the line and Devane was able to block the kick.
The Rams now had the ball at the 21-yard line, and on the first play, Brown found room on the left side and sprinted into the end zone to give Southern a 6-0 lead. The extra point was not attempted when there was a problem getting the hold down.
The teams traded punts before Toms River North got the ball back at its own 20-yard line with 2:12 left in the first quarter. On first down, Kazanowsky found a streaking Jacob, who beat his defender and then outraced the rest of the defense for an 80-yard touchdown. When Burkert added the extra point it gave the Mariners the lead for good.
Keyed by a 43-yard run by Robinson, Southern drove to Toms River North’s 30-yard line on its next possession but was stonewalled on fourth-and-6 to turn the ball over on downs. A 45-yard catch by Jacob put Toms River North in Southern territory and they came away with points when Burkert booted a 41-yard field goal with 7:56 left in the first half.
Toms River North quickly made it an 11-point lead when a combined sack by Spalletta and John O’Donnell forced Southern to punt from its 20-yard line. Spalletta knifed through the protection and blocked the kick, giving the Mariners prime field position at the Southern 17-yard line. After four runs by Pruitt put the ball at the 5-yard line, Spalletta lined up at quarterback and took a keeper in for the score for a 17-6 lead.
Southern was driving late in the half and converted a fourth-and-2 from its own 43-yard line, but a holding penalty negated the gain and forced the Rams to punt.
It took just two plays in the third quarter for Southern to get back on the board and pull within one score. Robinson ran for 11 yards on first down and then Brown broke free down the home sideline for a 59-yard touchdown run. The Rams went for the 2-point conversion but Brown was stopped short.
Toms River North’s offense struggled mightily in the second half, but its defense bailed it out on several occasions. Borda’s interception came on a fourth-and-11 from the Mariners 36-yard line and denied Southern another scoring opportunity inside Toms River North territory.
Southern took the ball right back, however, when junior Kwamere Holland intercepted Kazanowsky at the 41-yard line. Southern again had the opportunity to pull ahead, but a holding penalty on a 45-yard touchdown to Devane not only erased the score, it moved the Rams all the way back to their own 36-yard line. JP Ricciardi ran for 19 yards on second-and-33 and Robinson scrambled for 13 yards on third-and-14. On fourth-and-1, however, Burkert darted through the line and stuffed Ricciardi for a loss to end the threat.
“It’s a dog mentality,” Palmieri said. “We always want to bring the anchor down and stop them. Those are game-defining moments. If you can tough it out in moments like that you’re going to win a lot of games.”
Southern would not cross midfield on its final two drives. Given the way the game played out, it ended in fitting when Southern stopped Toms River North on third and short and was set to get the ball back with under a minute left to play. The Mariners quickly got their punt unit on the field, however, and Southern was unable to get all its players off the field in time. The too-man-men-on-the-field penalty gave Toms River North a first down and enabled it to run out the clock.
“It was a weird moment in a very weird game, but I’m not going to complain,” Palmieri said. “I’ll take it.”
No. 5 Toms River North 17, Southern 5
|Toms River North||Southern|
|Toms River North (2-0)||7||10||0||0||17|
S – Jaiden Brown 21-yard run (run failed)
TRN – Dominick Jacob 80-yard pass from Jake Kazanowsky (Justin Burkert kick)
TRN – Justin Burkert 41-yard field goal
TRN – Matt Spalletta 5-yard run (Justin Burkert kick)
S – Jaiden Brown 59-yard run (run failed).
RUSHING – TRN: Jarrod Pruitt 27-99, Matt Spalletta 2-0; S: Jaiden Brown 12-102, 12-62, JP Ricciardi 5-33, Will Devane 1-(-5).
PASSING – TRN: Jake Kazanowsky 6-12-1 165; S: Cole Robinson 4-11-1 33.
RECEIVING – TRN: Dominick Jacob 3-135, Zach Browne 1-21, Zach Goodale 1-10, Jaiden Fraser 1-(-1); S: Will Devane 3-22, Kieran Lang 1-11.
INTERCEPTIONS – TRN: Sergio Borda 1-20; S: Kwamere Brown 1-0.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.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.