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The debate raged on for weeks. Who was the No. 1 high school football team in the Shore Conference?

Three suitors emerged throughout the season but neither stood head and shoulders above the others thanks to a triangle between the three powerhouses. Separating the trio was not nearly as simple as looking at head-to-head results. Each team had a legitimate argument to be ranked No. 1.

In the end, one team made a case too strong to overlook.

The team that finishes the 2021 season atop the rankings and as the Shore Sports Network Team of the Year is Red Bank Catholic.

Following a Week 9 loss to Donovan Catholic, the Caseys rebounded by winning the NJSIAA Non-Public B state championship with a 13-8 victory over DePaul. The victory secured a state title, gave RBC an 11-1 season record, and delivered the final point of reference that pushed the Caseys over the top.

This was not an easy decision until RBC traveled to MetLife Stadium and defeated a team that was ranked No. 3 in New Jersey entering the game. Donovan Catholic had risen to No. 1 thanks to its 28-7 victory over RBC during a Week 9 nor'easter. That created a triangle between Donovan, RBC, and Rumson-Fair Haven. In Week 2, Rumson defeated Donovan, 14-0. Then, in Week 7, RBC beat Rumson 21-14.

The Caseys needed a special postseason to overtake the Griffins and that is exactly what they produced, beating Morris Catholic and St. Joseph Academy (Hammonton) in the first two rounds before the resounding win over a superb DePaul team in a great championship game.

The difficult decisions didn't end with No. 1, either. Rumson owns a win over Donovan Catholic but with the Griffins being the No. 1 team up until this final ranking it didn't seem right to use only the head-to-head victory from Week 2 as the barometer. The Griffins had a great season on the field with a 9-2 record (they were officially 6-5 because of three forfeits for using an ineligible player), losing to Rumson and then to Bergen Catholic, 28-7, in the Non-Public A quarterfinals. Bergen Catholic went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the state and completed an undefeated season by winning the Non-Public A championship.

That is how we came to our decision on the final top 10. Not everyone will agree with it, but such is the nature of trying to rank the 10 best teams in a 42-team conference.

We would like to thank everyone for following our coverage throughout the season. Congratulations to all the division winners, South Jersey Group 2 sectional champion Point Boro, Non-Public B state champion Red Bank Catholic, and every team that attacked their goals right up until the final whistle.

 

Photo by Tom Smith.
Photo by Tom Smith.
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1. Red Bank Catholic (11-1)

The Caseys defeated DePaul, 13-8, to capture the NJSIAA Non-Public B state championship and finish 11-1, earning the program's fourth state title and its third since 2014. RBC also won the Constitution Division title, which included a victory over No. 7 Manasquan. The Caseys also defeated No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven, No. 5 Wall, No. 10 Manalapan, and Central Jersey Group 2 finalist Raritan. RBC had several standouts put together banner seasons. Senior Alex Bauman, the SSN MVP, was a two-way force at tight end and defensive end, senior quarterback Alex Brown, the SSN Offensive Player of the Year, had a phenomenal season with just under 2,400 combined yards and 32 combined touchdowns, and junior Sabino Portella had a breakout year as a running back and defensive back to lead the way. RBC had the No. 2 scoring defense (32.7 ppg) and the No. 3 scoring defense (11.4 ppg) in the Shore.

A great senior class that includes Bauman, Brown, offensive linemen Vince Carpenter, Ashton Mejias and Michael Conneely, running back/linebacker Rajahn Cooper, defensive end Ryan McPherson, defensive backs Joe Diorio and Corbett Cimini, wide receiver Jaidin Hayes, and defensive lineman Connor Wanagiel will graduate but the Caseys have a very strong group of juniors and sophomores returning led by Sabino Portella, linebacker Davin Brewton, wide receivers Najiah Rahman and Emanuel Ross, offensive linemen Lorenzo Portella and Tyler Burnham, running back/linebacker Torin Harmon, linebacker Michael Palmieri, defensive lineman Aidan Donohue, wide receiver/defensive backs Robert Stolfa and Christian Ungemah.

 

2. Donovan Catholic (6-5, 9-2 on the field)

Donovan was overtaken by Red Bank Catholic in the final ranking, but that wasn't any fault of the Griffins. Donovan beat RBC in Week 9 before its season came to an end two weeks later at the hands of state No. 1 Bergen Catholic. A cloud hung over Donovan's program for a bit after the NJSIAA ruled the team had used an ineligible player and changed their first three wins to forfeit losses, but the Griffins' players soldiered on and delivered another great season on the field. Donovan earned wins over No. 1 RBC, No. 5 Wall, No. 6 Toms River North, won by at least three touchdowns in all nine of its victories, and allowed a touchdown or less in seven of 11 games. Their nine wins this season tied a program record set in 1992 and equaled in 2019. This is the Griffins' fourth straight year with seven or more wins, the longest such streak in program history.

The Griffins' offense was third in the Shore averaging 32.6 points per game and led by senior quarterback Jalin Butler, senior running back Nunes Bukula IV, senior wide receiver Kyree Drake, and a punishing offensive line led by seniors Caron McNair, Nico Ippolito, Aaron Crooms, and Rob Madison. The Griffins' defense was No. 4 in the Shore allowing 11.5 points per game. Senior linebacker Nat Iannello recorded a state-leading 172 tackles, junior linebacker Dante Vernieri had 132 tackles and five interceptions, senior defensive end Levi Wilkins recorded six sacks, and senior defensive back Mysun Rush-Esdaile had a strong season in the secondary. A ton of talent will leave the program as Butler, Iannello, Bukula, Drake, Wilkins, Rush-Esdaile, McNair, Ippolito, Madison, Crooms, and linebacker Connor Farrell are set to graduate, but the Griffins have several key returns with Vernieri, freshman wideout Michael Thomas III, sophomore linebacker/tight end Hunter Johnson, sophomore defensive back Ethan Mathieu, freshman lineman Louis Dibiase, sophomore running back/defensive lineman Zaeir Day back next season.

 

3. Rumson-Fair Haven (9-2)

The Bulldogs had another successful season near the top of the Shore Conference even if it ended without a sectional title, which has become the program's standard over the past decade. Rumson won the American Division title with wins over No. 2 Donovan Catholic, No. 5 Wall, and No. 6 Toms River North and also defeated No. 4 Middletown South and No. 9 Long Branch. The Bulldogs' defeats came to No. 1 Red Bank Catholic and to Woodrow Wilson in the Central Jersey Group 3 sectional final. Rumson's defense was fantastic and finished No. 1 in the Shore Conference allowing just 6.8 points per game with four shutouts. Senior linebacker John Lista was excellent with 136 tackles and 10 sacks to earn SSN Defensive Player of the Year honors, senior defensive end Aiden Moriarty had 102 tackles and nine sacks, and senior linebacker Ryan McKay made 126 tackles to lead the way. Offensively, Rumson was led by senior quarterback Geoff Schroeder (1,085 yards rushing and 14 TDs) and senior quarterback Colin Kennedy (889 yards passing, 444 yards rushing, 21 total TDs), and an offensive line featuring seniors Charlie Pearson, Christian Smith, Patrick Malpass, George Clough, Dan Gredel, and Griffin Volk.

Rumson loses a ton to graduation but has proven it can reload on the fly and remain a championship contender. Defensive backs Beau Kemler and Ryan Kalman, wide receivers Nick Rigby and Markus Brown, defensive end Julien Devlin, and defensive tackles Marshall Halfacre and Cooper Bunnell lead the group of underclassmen who will be back in 2022.

 

4. Middletown South (9-2)

The Eagles won the Colonial Division championship, reached the NJSIAA North 2, Group 4 sectional final, and won nine games for the 12th time since Steve Antonucci became head coach in 1998. Middletown South posted victories over No. 7 Manasquan and No. 10 Manalapan to highlight its schedule while its losses came to No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven and to Irvington in the sectional championship game. Defense was yet again the calling card for Middletown South. The Eagles were No. 2 in the Shore in scoring defense at 10.1 points per game and were led by senior defensive end Jack Latore, senior linebacker Jack Willi, sophomore linebacker Colin Gallagher, senior defensive tackle Jake Williamson, senior defensive backs Tom Schork and Matt Grab, and sophomore defensive back Jake Czwakiel. The unit posted two shutouts and allowed 14 points or less in nine of 11 games. Offensively, senior running back Dan Primiano ran for 1,027 yards and 10 touchdowns and Schork totaled 1,255 yards and 11 touchdowns between passing and rushing.

Middletown South will graduate an impactful senior class that includes Schork, Primiano, Grab, Latore, Williamson, Willi, lineman Dante Miranda, linebacker Tyler Carey, wide receiver/defensive back Ryan St. Clair, and wide receiver Anthony Brasco. Key returns for next season include Gallagher, sophomore Czwakiel, sophomore running back Donovan Summey, junior lineman Tyler Addonisio, and junior defensive back wide receiver/defensive back Logan Colleran.

 

5. Wall (6-4)

Wall's season started with two straight losses and ended abruptly when a still-ongoing investigation into hazing involving members of the football team forced the cancelation of a playoff game and the team's Thanksgiving game. It was a somber end for a fantastic senior class that led Wall to two straight No. 1 finishes in the SSN Top 10, including a sectional title in 2019 and a mythical Shore Conference championship in 2020. The Crimson Knights had won six of seven games when their season was cut short before the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals and their on-field losses came to No. 1 Red Bank Catholic, No. 2 Donovan Catholic, and No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven. Wall earned wins over No. 6 Toms River North, Colts Neck, Lenape, Middletown North, St John Vianney, and Hopewell Valley.

The future of Wall's football program is very uncertain at the moment given who graduates and the fact that members of the coaching staff are currently on administrative leave. A large and impactful senior class includes linebackers Charlie Sasso and Colin Riley, defensive end Blake Rezk, quarterback/defensive back Jake Davis, running back/defensive back Matt Dollive, wide receiver Jackson Coan, linebacker Lou Pilla, and linemen Brian Byrne, Max Oakley, and Joe Sommers.

 

6. Toms River North (7-4)

A young and inexperienced Mariners squad lost their first four games in the rough-and-tumble American Division but found its way down the stretch to make a run to the South Jersey Group 5 championship game. After falling to Colts Neck, No. 2 Donovan Catholic, No. 5 Wall, and No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven in consecutive games (the Donovan loss was later changed to a forfeit victory), Toms River North rattled off six straight wins to reach the sectional final where it ultimately fell to Kingsway, 21-14, in the final minute. Sophomore quarterback Micah Ford emerged as one of the Shore's best with 1,451 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns plus 944 yards passing and eight touchdowns. Fellow sophomores, wide receivers Tareq Council and Jeremiah Pruitt, and running back Josh Moore, also burst onto the scene and established themselves as dangerous playmakers. On defense, junior linebackers Ty Kazanowsky and Ty Boland anchored the unit.

Senior two-way lineman Mike Dowd was one of just a few senior starters for the Mariners, who have a very bright future with several juniors, sophomores, and even a freshman coming back next year after starting this season.

 

7. Manasquan (8-3)

It was another winning season on Broad Street for one of the Shore's most storied programs. A change in offensive philosophy designed to better suit its personnel paid dividends as the Warriors won eight games and reached the semifinals of the Central Jersey Group 3 playoffs. Manasquan posted signature wins over No. 8 Point Boro, which went on to win the South Jersey Group 2 sectional title, as well as Central Jersey Group 2 finalist Raritan. All three of Manasquan's losses came to top teams; No. 1 Red Bank Catholic, No. 4 Middletown South (15-12) and Central Jersey Group 3 champion Woodrow Wilson. Junior quarterback Brett Patten and senior wide receiver Cole Kozlowski formed the Shore's most productive duo with Patten throwing for 1,594 yards and 25 touchdowns and Kozlowski catching 42 passes for 750 yards and 10 touchdowns. Junior running back Jhamir Howard, senior wide receiver Robert Pendergist, and senior running back Patrick Woodford were also key contributors for an offense that was tied for fifth in the Shore averaging 27.7 points per game. Seniors Ryan Burns and JJ Cavanagh led the way for a defense that was 11th in the Shore in scoring average.

Manasquan was a senior-heavy team but have Patten and Howard leading the group of returners along with junior wide receiver/kicker Jack Dettlinger, and junior linebacker Cael Driscoll.

 

8. Point Boro (10-2)

After three consecutive sub.-500 seasons, the Panthers returned to championship form by going 10-2, winning the Patriot Division title, and taking home the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 2 sectional title, the program's fourth overall and first since 2005. Along the way, Point Boro scored wins over South Jersey Group 1 semifinalist Shore Regional, National Division champion Monmouth Regional (twice), Middletown North, and Willingboro. The Panthers' losses were to No. 8 Manasquan (35-0) and Haddonfield (28-27) in a Group 2 regional championship game.

Point Boro's flexbone triple-option offense had the No. 1 scoring unit in the Shore at 35.5 points per game with four standouts in the backfield and a physical offensive line. Sophomore fullback Jake Croce ran for 1,101 yards and 10 touchdowns, senior quarterback Charlie Vitale ran for 961 yards and 16 touchdowns and threw for 512 yards and 7 touchdowns, junior slotback Connor Cilento ran for 623 yards and seven touchdowns on an average of 11.9 yards per carry, and sophomore slotback Matt Oliphant ran for 515 yards and 11 touchdowns. Up front, seniors Luke Wilson, Mike Meccia, and Justin Tuzzolino, junior Cole Skinner, and sophomore Charles Davison paved the way for Point Boro to rush for 3,682 yards on an average of 7.2 yards per carry. The Panthers also played tough defense, finishing sixth in the Shore at 13.7 points per game. Linebackers Connor Reynolds, Tyler Gordon, JJ Bennett, Aiden Ward, Sam Muraglia, and Thomas Welch helped lead the way. Only a handful of senior staters graduate so Point Boro should be a title contender again in 2022.

 

9. Long Branch (8-2)

The final season for longtime head coach Danny George was a successful one as the Green Wave went 8-2, won the Freedom Division title, and advanced to the semifinals of the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs. The Green Wave had a pair of wins over Freehold and also defeated St. John Vianney to highlight their schedule. Long Branch's losses came to No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven and to an undefeated Ocean City team in the sectional semifinals. Senior quarterback Christian Rodriguez threw for 1,464 yards and 19 touchdowns and ran for 406 yards and five touchdowns to lead an offense that tied for fifth in the Shore averaging 27.7 points per game. Seniors Jayden Farmer, Jyshon Presley, and Deiondre McCullers, and juniors Sekou Kamau, Michael Hall, Ka'Jion Thorne, Shamar Williams, Josh Duval, and Luke Tracey were key contributors on both sides of the ball as the Green Wave had the No, 10 scoring defense (16.9 ppg) in the Shore.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Long Branch's football program now that George has retired from his post. The Green Wave will be looking for a new head coach for the first time since 1999 but have several key players coming back next year.

 

10. Manalapan (6-3)

The Braves shook off a rare losing season to return to the top 10, finishing 6-3 and earning notable wins over Southern Regional, Freehold, and Central Regional along the way. Manalapan's losses came to No. 4 Middletown South, No. 1 Red Bank Catholic, and to Edison in the state playoffs. A balanced offense was led by senior quarterback Mike Heckel, senior running back Elijah Marquez, junior wide receiver Alex Dille, and senior wideouts Tyler Walker and Michael Bimonte. The Braves had the No. scoring defense in the Shore at 16.1 points per game and were led by senior defensive lineman Mario Chierchia, senior linebacker Jordan Gravesande in the front seven along with Dille, Walker, and senior Paul Wojciechowski in the secondary.

Manalapan will graduate a large senior class but is a program that more often than not finds a way to contend regardless. Dille, juniors Preston Birnie and Thomas Clark, and sophomore Anthony Macchio are among the top returners for next season.

 

Honorable Mention

Colts Neck (6-4)

Raritan (6-5)

Lacey (5-4)

Central (6-4)

Shore (7-4)

 

 

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