Football – Monmouth Gridiron Notes: Long Branch Influence; Howell and MDP Duos; Who Looks Good?
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Even before Dan George decided his Long Branch team would go for a two-point conversion in overtime to win the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship, his senior class had authored a season its members and their head coach would never forget.
When senior quarterback Juwan Wilkins hit classmate Eli Sherin for the two-pointer that gave the Green Wave a 43-42 win over Freehold Boro, it ensured that no one in the Long Branch community would forget them.
“We’re definitely getting a lot of love in the city,” Sherin said. “The community, the board members and other towns are even in on it. I can walk into the barber shop and get a free haircut just because we won a state championship.”
Just in case anyone within and outside of Long Branch needs their memory jogged, Long Branch’s senior core will be well-represented in Thursday’s All-Shore Gridiron Classic at Brick Memorial, as will its coaching staff. Six Green Wave graduates will suit up for a Monmouth County squad coached by Long Branch head coach Dan George and his staff.
“It’s the same coaches, the same stuff and the same coaching style,” wide receiver and Monmouth University signee T.J. Fosque. “They’re not letting up. They are going just as hard on the other guys as they do on (the Long Branch guys).”
Sherin, defensive back Kevin Porch and defensive lineman Kyle Smith will represent Long Branch on the defensive side while quarterback Juwan Wilkins and receivers Fosque and Pasa Fields will be among Monmouth’s many weapons on offense. Thursday’s game marks one final opportunity for the teammates to compete with one another on a high school field.
“We still work out every weekend over at Manahasset Park and we throw for two hours each day,” Wilkins said. “We always have to stay in touch somehow and we’ll always have football.
“This is a really big deal (to play in this game). I love playing with these guys. I always want to play with the best talent out there. I’m glad to be here.”
What makes Thursday so special for the six Long Branch players is how far they came during their four years in high school. As sophomores and juniors in 2015 and 2016, the outgoing senior class went a combined 5-15 – a long way from the sectional championship level it reached this past fall.
“That year made us,” Fosque said of the 2017 season. “That’s just who we are now. That hard work and that drive carried us. The leadership carried us and look where we are now.”
Thursday will be particularly meaningful for George, who is coaching the game for the first time in his two decades at the helm with the Green Wave.
“Myself, my staff, the school and the community owe so much to this senior class,” George said. “They brought the tradition back after we were down for a couple of years. They have such a special place in my heart and in a lot of people’s hearts because of what they have done mentally as well as physically over their careers.
“Just to get to be around them for five more days – they are awesome kids and they practice hard and play for each other – it’s fun.”
Thomas Olausen and Kyle Devaney were witnesses to Mater Dei’s football resurgence as freshmen, but even they could not have predicted everything that was about to happen over the next three years at a burgeoning powerhouse.
Olausen and Devanney jumped into the starting lineup as sophomores – Olausen on the offensive line after learning from his older brother, Liam, and Devaney at quarterback after playing understudy to record-setting All-Shore quarterback Christian Palmer. They were tasked with building on a trip to the sectional semifinals with a young team that also featured a star receiver in Eddie Lewis.
One year later, Mater Dei was flooded with talent with the arrival of high-profile coach Dino Mangiero and Olausen and Devaney suddenly found themselves competing for time.
What might have been a jarring experience for many players turned out to be the best thing for the two four-year Seraphs, as well as the Mater Dei program.
“The thing about competition is it pushes you to do your best every play,” Olausen said. “With their philosophy, they will start a freshman over a senior – it just depends on who’s competing well. It pushes us all to keep going hard at each other, keep getting on each other. We like to compete and it gave us that sense of competition that we should have on game day.”
Olausen fulfilled his promise as one of the Shore’s top linemen by anchoring the Seraphs up front. Devaney, meanwhile, competed at quarterback with transfer George Pearson before making the position switch to slot receiver. Not only did Devaney serve his team by learning a new position – he thrived in it.
“L.C. (George Pearson) came and I realized it would be better for me to transition to receiver,” Devanney said. “I still battled with him in practice like we were competing for the job because I knew it would make both of us better, but the best thing for the team was for me to become the best receiver I could.”
With Olausen and Devaney as program players, Mater Dei went on to win the Non-Public Group II championship in 2016 and lost in the championship game this past season. Devaney was part of the play that won the Seraphs the championship in 2016, catching a pass from Pearson and flipping it to Lewis for the go-ahead touchdown on a hook-and-ladder play with three seconds left to beat Holy Spirit, 26-20.
“The last two years with coach Mangiero were really great years,” Devaney said. “We won a state championship our junior year and senior year, we made it to the championship game and we lost. You win some, you lose some, but it was a great four years at Mater Dei. The best four years of my life.”
Not only did Devaney play a key role in a state championship at his high school, but he grew up playing with members of another state championship team. Devaney played Pop Warner in Long Branch during his younger days with many of the players who led Long Branch to its Central Jersey Group IV title.
“I played with them for six years before I went over to Middletown,” Devaney said. “I knew eventually they would get over that hump and start winning and they got that state championship. I was very happy to see them win it.”
Devaney and Olausen have stuck at Mater Dei through think-and-thin. Mater Dei was set to close its doors for good following their freshmen year but the community raised more than $1 million to keep the school open for 2015-16. Mangiero was hired one year later.
“That was my home for four years and I want it to be someone else’s home for four years,” Olausen said.
Brothers Until the End
Thursday will mark the last time that Howell standouts Eddie Morales and Nasiem Brantley will suit up on the same football team, but the last seven years have made them virtual brothers for life.
According to Morales, Brantley has been living in his home for seven years, including the entirety of the last three since Brantley moved back to Howell after spending a year in Georgia. The shared space and all that time together have made the quarterback-receiver duo closer than most and it has shown over the past two seasons in one of the Shore’s most dynamic offenses.
“He’s been living with me for the past seven years so he’s more like a brother than a friend,” Morales said. “It’s going to be tough, just like when siblings go to separate colleges, but we’re going to keep in touch and root for each other, unless we play each other. Other than that, we’ll always be in each other’s corner.”
This past season, Morales led the Shore Conference with 2,156 passing yards and 24 touchdowns through the air, all while completing 141-of-202 attempts (69.8 percent completion percentage). Brantley was his favorite target, hauling in 48 receptions for 785 yards and 13 touchdowns – the third-highest receiving yardage in the Shore Conference and tied for the most touchdown receptions with Lakewood’s Jyheir Jones.
Morales and Brantley are two of four players representing Howell, with receiver Ryan Mazik and defensive end Matt Mazaukas also making the squad after helping Howell reach the South Jersey Group IV semifinals for a second straight season.
“We didn’t win a ring, but two semifinal appearances in one of the toughest sections in the state – I feel like we accomplished a lot,” Morales said. “Howell hadn’t been at the top for the last few years, so to bring it back and enjoy a few more postseason games was a good thing. Of course, (the Gridiron Classic) just tops everything off. Being able to play one more game together and represent Howell.”
Brantley is part of a loaded crop of wide receivers, a group in which Morales might even find himself at some point in the game. While the versatile Monmouth University recruit is listed as a defensive back for the game and will primarily play cornerback, head coach Dan George full plans to deploy Morales on offense in some capacity.
After playing the quarterback position as well as anyone at the Shore this past season and earning a spot on the Monmouth squad as a defensive back, Morales played wide receiver in the Phil Simms North-South Game two weeks ago and caught a 35-yard touchdown pass.
“It’s not really anything too big for me because I’ve been a skill player my whole life,” Morales said. “I have played quarterback, but I can always jump in at receiver or corner and be able to be an athlete and fly around.”
While Morales could find himself on the other end of a pass from on of Monmouth’s quarterbacks – Freehold’s Ashante Worthy, Long Branch’s Juwan Wilkins, and Keansburg’s Dan Vital – he and his roommate hope to connect on the field one last time before they go their separate ways – Morales to Monmouth and Brantley to Sacred Heart.
“It means a lot to me because this is possibly the last time we’re going to play on the same team together,” Brantley said. “We’ve been playing together since we were seven years old and I’m truly going to miss him. One last time: the dynamic duo.”
Culture Change Lands Guarino in Gridiron Game
Anthony Guarino had heard the promises before and even spread them in his first few high school seasons at Monmouth Regional.
“This is the year Monmouth turns it around,” the players would tell themselves, as well as anyone in the school who would listen.
Those promises were short-lived during Guarino’s first three high school seasons and heading into his senior year with a promising-but-unproven core, the promises were the same and were met with understandable skepticism from outside the program.
“We had people saying at the beginning of the season it was going to be just another Monmouth year,” Guarino recalled. “They’ll go 2-8 and be at the bottom again. We were just like, ‘No, it’s different.’ We were telling kids in school to come to the games because it’s going to be different. Once we won that first one, everybody was like, ‘Wow, this team is something special.’”
This was, however, the year Monmouth Regional football planted itself back on the Shore Conference football map, reaching the postseason for the first time in more than a decade and advancing all the way to the Central Jersey Group III semifinals en route to a 7-4 finish.
After his team enjoyed a turnaround season and was just minutes away from reaching a sectional final, Guarino will carry the Falcons flag as their lone representative in the All-Shore Gridiron Classic.
The transfer of dynamic quarterback-slash-running-back Ian Fitzgerald from Red Bank Regional was a major component in Monmouth’s breakout season, but there were also a number of other factors. New coach Larry Nikola helped change the direction of the culture and brought in longtime Toms River East coach Charlie Diskin to coordinate the defense.
“It was tough at first getting a whole new coaching staff, but we bought in, they put the pieces together and we had a good season,” Guarino said.
Another key was a set of versatile, team-first players led by players like Guarino, Dayshawn Porter, Ricky Voss and Devon Johnson. Guarino made his mark as a wing back on offense and at linebacker on defense, where he will play for the Monmouth squad on Thursday.
Guarino hopes to have left a legacy of winning at Monmouth and will try to carry that over to Thursday’s game for a Monmouth defense that is out to prove it is every bit as good as its imposing offense.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Guarino said. “To do what we did in football, to go through a baseball season where we did some good things and to be able to come out and experience this game with so many great players is really special. It’s a really good group of kids and everyone here is a great athlete. It’s going to be fun.”
Ask anyone at Monmouth County’s team which player stood out during the last week of practice and the most common name was not necessarily the one you might think.
On a team that boasts record-setting quarterback Ashante Worthy and a host of dynamic offensive players, Red Bank Catholic running back Zack Bair was all the rage this week thanks to his intense practice habits.
“Zack Bair from RBC practices fast,” Worthy said when asked who has impressed him. “He makes great cuts. I can’t wait to ball out with him.”
“Zack Bair…whoa!,” Monmouth coach Dan George said. “He is one special individual. I knew because we played against him. I saw what he did to us up at Rutgers, but he’s back and he looks great.”
Bair injured himself in a late-season game against St. John Vianney and missed Red Bank Catholic’s final three games but is fully healed and primed to make one more impression on the Shore Conference before heading to Dartmouth in the fall.
Despite missing the final three-and-a-half games of the season, Bair still finished among the Shore’s top-20 rushers with 1,087 yards and 15 touchdowns and doing so on only 79 carries.
Don’t Forget About the ‘D’
Juwan Wilkins has been catching a lot of his Monmouth teammates up on the offense in the week leading up to the game, but he still wants to see the other side of the ball shine on Thursday night.
“I want to walk off with the dub and a shutout in the All-Shore game,” Wilkins said. “My defense is ready. They want to knock heads off. The bad thing is you can’t blitz, but we’re still going to knock some heads off, that I can tell you for sure.”
Monmouth’s defense doesn’t boast the record-setting talent that its offense does, but it has had plenty of standouts during the week of practice battling against that very explosive offense.
St. John Vianney’s Nick Densieski and Asbury Park’s Jaylen Paige were active on the line during the week and Holmdel’s Johnny O’Beirne impressed at linebacker along with other versatile defenders Matt Ansell of Red Bank Catholic and Connor Walsh of Middletown North.
Throw in Long Branch’s Kevin Porch and Eli Sherin playing in the secondary and running their defense, and Monmouth’s defense starts to look very good in its own right.
“Offensively, we’re looking very solid,” Sherin said. “They are making some top-notch plays. They’ve got some big boys and we’ve got some big boys on the defensive side, so we just have to balance it out and finish out the game. At the end of the day, both sides of the ball are going to matter.”