Face of the Franchise: Manalapan football
When a Shore Conference football program is mentioned there are certain people that always come to mind. For some, it’s unanimous no matter what era you are from. For others, it’s a fun debate comparing all-time greats from different eras whether they roamed the sidelines as coaches or broke records between the lines.
That got us at the Shore Sports Network wondering: when you think of Shore Conference football, who are the most prominent figures in each program’s history? And if there was a mountain nearby and we knew a sculptor, whose faces should be carved on its side to be forever honored?
With that in mind, we came up with a football feature that will run throughout this summer, and it’s called Face of the Franchise.
We reached out to all 43 football programs in the Shore Conference and in conjunction came up with five to six nominees for each school. The five names and their accomplishments will be listed and fans will have a chance to cast their votes to select who they feel is the Face of the Franchise for each program. Our SSN football crew of Bob Badders, Kevin Williams, Ed Sarluca and Matt Harmon will also put their heads together to make a selection. The polls will run for one week each.
At the end of the summer when the Face of the Franchise has been determined for all 43 programs, we’ll run one final poll to see who the fans think should go on top of the mountain; five legends to represent the history of Shore Conference football.
A 1989 graduate, Rubin was an All-Shore player who starred at both quarterback and free safety for the Braves. His play helped Manalapan go 9-1in 1987 for a then-school-record for wins in a season and also win the Class A North division title, the first division title in program history. Manalapan went 17-3 during his junior and senior seasons.
Rubin went on to play at Penn State University where he was a three-year starter. A free safety known for his ferocious hits, Rubin played in 34 games and intercepted eight passes, including five as a sophomore. He was a team captain as a senior and in his final game was named defensive MVP of the Citrus Bowl when the Nittany Lions upset Tennessee, 31-13.
A two-time first-team All-Shore selection, an Ivy League standout and a current NFL tight end, Firkser is unquestionably among the greatest players in program history. A standout wide receiver for the Braves, Firkser was a three-year starter who set program career records with 110 receptions for 2,119 yards plus 20 touchdowns during his career. He caught 49 catches for 717 yards and 8 touchdowns as a junior and as a senior caught 43 passes for 996 yard and 9 touchdowns. During Firkser’s time at Manalapan, the Braves won three straight Class A North division titles, reached back-to-back sectional title games and went 29-6.
Firkser was also a standout basketball player for Manalapan, scoring 1,362 points and being named Shore Conference Co-Player of the Year as a senior.
Firkser played collegiately at Harvard University where he was a three-year standout at tight end, catching 99 passes for 1,559 yards and 14 touchdowns. As a sophomore, Firkser caught 32 passes for 485 yard and 4 touchdowns and was a second-team All-Ivy League selection. During his junior season, Firkser caught 22 passes for 372 yards and 3 touchdowns to again be named to the All-Ivy second team. He had a huge senior season with 45 receptions for 702 yard and 7 touchdowns and was a first-team All-Ivy League selection. Firkser concluded his college career ranked 12th all-time in school history in receptions, ninth in receiving yards and sixth in touchdown receptions.
Following college, Firkser signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent but never played in a regular-season game. He was then signed to the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad where he remained until April of 2018. Two weeks later he signed with the Tennessee Titans where his career took off. Firkser has played in 27 games with one start over the past two seasons, catching 33 passes for 429 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, he caught three passes for 45 yards and 2 touchdowns during the Titans’ run to the AFC Championship game, including a clutch touchdown catch in his first playoff game when the Titans’ knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, 20-13. He also caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the AFC title game. He is the first player from Harvard to score a touchdown in an NFL postseason game.
In February, Firkser signed a one-year extension with the Titans.
A two-time first-team All-Shore and a two-time All-State selection, Blacknall was one of the most dynamic wide receivers in the New Jersey during his high school career from 2011-2013. As a junior, Blacknall caught 40 passes for 743 yards and 11 touchdowns to help the Braves go 10-2, win the Class A North division title and reach the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 4 title game. During his senior year, Blacknall caught 52 passes for 707 yards and set a school single-season record with 15 touchdowns as Manalapan went 11-1, repeated as Class A North champions and reached the Central Jersey Group 5 championship game. Blacknall finished his career with 105 receptions for 1,605 yards and a school-record 26 touchdowns.
Blacknall was one of New Jersey’s most sought-after recruits and was rated as a four-star recruit by all four major recruiting services (ESPN, Rivals, Scout and 247Sports). He was among the top 150 recruits in the nation and a top-five recruit in New Jersey. After initially committing to Rutgers, Blacknall ended up signing with Penn State.
As a member of the Nittany Lions, Blacknall appeared in 48 games with 15 starts, catching 50 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns. He was also a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection. Blacknall had a career-high 347 yards and 3 touchdowns on 15 receptions as a junior and caught 17 passes for 289 yards and 2 touchdowns as a senior. Blacknall’s signature game came in the 2016 Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin when he caught five passes for a Big Ten Championship Game-record 155 yards along with touchdown receptions of 40 and 70 yards.
After going undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft, Blacknall signed with the Oakland Raiders and spent the majority of the 2018 season on the practice squad. After being waived by the Raiders he was claimed by the Miami Dolphins but was waved with an injury designation and later placed on injury reserve. He was briefly signed to the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad late in the 2019 season after being drafted by the Los Angeles Wildcats in the 2020 XFL Supplemental Draft. He scored his first pro touchdown with a 42-yard catch against the New York Guardians and added another touchdown catch against the Tampa Bay Vipers. His contract was terminated, however, when the XFL suspended operations in April. Three days later, Blacknall signed with the Pittsburg Steelers where he hopes to make the active roster in 2020.
The greatest running back in Manalapan history, Mayfield broke school and state records during an illustrious career wearing red and white. As a junior and in his first year as the Braves’ starting tailback, Mayfield rushed for 1,785 yards and 23 touchdowns on an average of nine yards as Manalapan won the Class A North division title and reached the Central Jersey Group 5 state final. But it was during his senior year in 2017 when Mayfield earned legendary status with a season for the ages.
The 2017 Shore Sports Network Offensive Player of the Year, Mayfield produced the greatest statistical season by a running back in Shore Conference history to go down as one of the Shore’s all-time greats. He ran for 2,681 yards and 46 touchdowns on an astounding average of 13.2 yards per carry and also returned two kicks for touchdowns to finish with the most single-season touchdowns (rushing and overall) in Shore Conference and state history. His 282 points set the New Jersey single-season scoring record, breaking the old mark of 272 set by Shawnee’s Chris LaPierre in 2007. The Shore Conference record for touchdowns was 40 set by Middletown South’s Knowshon Moreno.
Mayfield also finished 2017 with the second most single-season rushing yards in Shore Conference history and the third-best total in state history. With 135 yards against South Brunswick in the Central Jersey Group V championship game, Mayfield passed Long Branch’s Dahmiere Willis and his 2,589 yards rushing set in 2014 to become the single-season record-holder, but that mark was surpassed an hour later when Freehold quarterback Ashante Worthy set the Shore and state record with 2,860 yards. During his senior season, Mayfield ran for over 135 yards in all 12 of Manalapan’s games, went over 200 yards six times, bested 250 yards five times and had one 300-yard game.
Mayfield concluded his high school career with a school-record 4,628 yards rushing on an average of 10.9 yards per carry. He scored a school-record 79 total touchdowns and 474 points, including 73 rushing touchdowns.
Mayfield is currently a junior running back at Fordham University. In his first two seasons, he has totaled 332 yards rushing and two touchdowns plus eight receptions for 71 yards. He has also seen time in the defensive backfield along with returning kicks and punts. Fordham is a member of the Patriot League, which suspended its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so it remains to be seen whether Mayfield will continue his career in the spring or next year when the season resumes.
One of the best kickers in Shore Conference history, Caggiano was a two-time first-team All-Shore selection who set multiple records during his time at Manalapan. He finished second all-time in New Jersey history in points by a kicker with 237, including a state-record 195 extra points. He finished his career with 14 field goals and 75 touchbacks. As a senior, he kicked a 39-yard field goal, booted 26 touchbacks and went 52-for-55 on extra points. Caggiano was also a standout punter who averaged 34.3 yards per punt and 15 punts downed inside the 20-yard line during his career. On a team filled with standouts, Caggiano was a big reason Manalapan played in four straight NJSIAA sectional championship games and in 2014 went 11-1 and won the program’s first sectional title.
Caggiano was the rare kicker to receive a full scholarship, as many often join FBS teams as preferred walk-ons and will then try to earn a scholarship by winning the starting job. Caggiano had offers from the University of Hawaii and Stony Brook but ultimately signed with the University of Massachusetts. At UMass, Caggiano converted 51 of 54 extra points attempts and three of six field goals.
The winningest coach in Manalapan history, Gurrieri guided the braves during the greatest era in program history.
Gurrieri was Manalapan’s head coach for a total of 13 years across two stints, including 10 straight years from 2010 to this past season when he resigned. His teams never had a losing season and only went 5-5 once, which came during his first year as head coach in 2004. He posted a 109-35 career record with the Braves, good for a .757 winning percentage. The Braves posted double-digit wins in six seasons, including four straight from 2011 to 2014, and won five Shore Conference Class A North division titles, including five in a row from 2010 to 2014.
Manalapan reached six NJSIAA state sectional championship games under Gurrieri, including four in a row from 2011 to 2014. The Braves finally reached the summit in 2014 when they defeated playoff nemesis South Brunswick, 21-7 at Rutgers University, to claim the Central Jersey Group 5 championship and give the program its first sectional title.
In 2011, Gurrieri was selected as the conference Coach of the Year by the Shore Conference Football Coaches Association, and in 2014 was selected as Central Jersey Coach of the Year by the New Jersey Football Coaches Association.
Before becoming Manalapan’s head coach, Gurrieri was the Braves’ defensive coordinator from 1997 to 2003. In that seven-year period, Manalapan made five playoff appearances and reached the 2003 Central Jersey Group 4 championship game.
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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.