Football State Playoff Preview: Non-Public
With 24 Shore Conference teams all dreaming of making it to that first weekend in December for the NJSIAA sectional championships, do-or-die time begins this weekend.
The Shore has teams in 10 different state playoff brackets, and here is a look at the match-ups in the two Non-Public brackets involving Shore Conference teams. Check here for a preview of the five Central Jersey brackets and check here for a preview on the South Jersey brackets.
Shore teams: (2) Red Bank Catholic; (4) St. John Vianney
Breakdown: Two of the Shore's top three teams will compete in a bracket that has been ruled by three-time defending champion St. Joseph's-Montvale, which is once again the favorite despite being the No. 3 seed.
Red Bank Catholic is coming off its first loss to a Shore Conference team since 2010, a stretch of 40 games, after falling 33-27 in overtime to Jackson Memorial last week. The Caseys (8-1) will look to regroup against seventh-seeded Bishop Eustace at Count Basie Field on Friday. They were originally supposed to play Bishop Ahr, but the Trojans elected not to participate in the state playoffs, so it will be the Crusaders (5-3) instead. RBC is seeking its first trip to a state final since 1980 and its first title since 1976.
RBC's offense is averaging 43.5 points per game and is led by junior quarterback Eddie Hahn, one of the most explosive dual threat signal-callers in the Shore. He has 1,098 yards and 16 touchdowns passing and also has run for 427 yards and 11 touchdowns. His ability to improvise and extend the play to move the chains on third down has been crucial and will be needed to make a serious run in this bracket. His top receivers are seniors Trevor Cowley (21-344-6) and Nick Lubischer (12-245-4).
RBC's running game has not been at the level it has been at in the past few seasons in that it hasn't found one running back to really lead the way. Seniors Mike Cordova (483 yards, 8 TD) and Tommy Spernal (491 yards, 7 TD) have been the most productive, but teams will big front lines on defense like Jackson Memorial have made it difficult to move the ball with the power run game, making the passing game much more important than it has been in recent seasons.
Bishop Eustace has lost three straight after a 5-0 start while scoring 17 or less in all of the losses. Senior quarterback Ryan Lange, who is the rare linebacker-quarterback combo, has 775 yards and 8 touchdowns on only 40 percent accuracy with 12 interceptions, so the RBC secondary led by Hahn, Cordova, Lubischer and senior Mike DeMonte will have a chance to make some plays if the Caseys can put them in obvious passing downs.
The Crusaders do have a big-play threat in the passing game, however, in the form of senior wideout Vinny Papale, who has 21 catches for 430 yards and six touchdowns. Old-school Philadelphia Eagles fans may recognize that name. Yes, it's the son of the old Eagles receiver and special teams dynamo Vince Papale, who made the Eagles off the street on a tryout in 1976 at 30 years old despite not having played college football. His story inspired the 2006 Mark Wahlberg movie "Invincible," which the younger Papale had a quick cameo in as an 8-year-old.
A Caseys defense led by Miami recruit Jamie Gordinier (90 tackles, 4 TFL) and senior Nick Lagrippo (92 tackles) at linebacker along with senior defensive end Doug Zockoll (11 sacks) will look to bounce back after giving up over 250 yards rushing to the Jaguars last week. Bishop Eustace's leading rusher is senior Roy Hansen with 516 yards, so this will be more about Zockoll and Co. getting to Lange with the pass rush.
A win by RBC means a meeting with St. Joe's (6-2) in the semifinals at Count Basie Field. RBC has lost up in Montvale in the semifinals in each of the past two seasons. The Green Knights just waxed the No. 1 team in New Jersey and the No. 4 team in the country, Paramus Catholic, in a 27-0 win last week to remind everyone they are still one of the top teams in the state despite an earlier loss to Bergen Catholic.
St. Joe's is led by senior quarterback Jack Walsh, who has thrown for 1,390 yards on 65 percent accuracy with 19 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. As always, there are a plethora of skill players for the Green Knights, including Joe Giles-Harris, who is mainly known as a star outside linebacker but also has 16 catches for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns at tight end. Committed to Duke, he also leads the team with 67 tackles and has 10 tackles for a loss. His brother, JT Giles-Harris, is committed to Duke for lacrosse and is another target as well as a standout defensive back.
Walsh's top target is 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior Ugo Ezemma, who has 26 catches for 613 yards and 13 touchdowns for an average of 23.6 yards per catch.
The Green Knights haven't had the overpowering run game they have had in the past, as leading rusher Brian Kearns (591 yards) is only averaging 4.5 yards per carry, but they have a very fast and athletic offensive line. The leader of that unit is one of the state's top recruits, 280-pound senior guard Tommy Hatton, a four-star recruit committed to North Carolina. Senior 305-pound tackle Benson Israel is another standout who is committed to Temple.
The defense obviously showed its capability in the win over Paramus Catholic. Sophomore Louis Acceus also has been a standout with 75 tackles, including 14 for a loss. Senior safety Troy Gethers boasts offers from UConn, Coastal Carolina and Charlotte. RBC will have to find a way to consistently move the ball, as it has struggled offensively in both losses, which led to St. Joe's pulling away in the second half because the defense was worn down from being on the field for long stretches. If RBC can't score 14 or more points against the Green Knights, it probably has no shot.
On the other side of the bracket, St. John Vianney (9-0) is enjoying its best season since winning a school-record 10 games in 1980 when it won its only state title. The Lancers have not won a state playoff game since 1981. They just wrapped up their first division title since 1982, so this has been a big year in their first season under new coach Mark Ciccotelli, who has three state titles on his resume from stints at Freehold Boro and Neptune.
The match-up with Pope John (5-4) should be an aerial free-for-all between St. John Vianney junior quarterback Anthony Brown and Lions junior quarterback Sonny Abramson. Brown leads the Shore Conference in passing yards (2,004) and touchdown passes (21) and also has run for 613 yards and six touchdowns in a breakout season that has already netted him a New Hampshire offer and is now generating FBS interest. Abramson has nine FBS offers under his belt and has thrown for 1,658 yards and 20 touchdowns this season after a huge sophomore year.
Brown engineers an offense averaging 43 points per game and his top target is senior Dan Calabro, who has a Shore Conference-best 10 touchdown catches out of his 34 catches for 593 yards. Senior wideout P.J. Braccia and junior Khalil Haskins are two other primary targets. Senior Aaron Mora leads the ground attack with 664 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns while also serving as a receiving threat, and junior Jeff Sheard is another playmaker on offense.
Seniors Drew Daniel (24-428) and Austin Bailey (24-414) are Abramson's top targets. Pope John's record is a little deceiving because it played a much harder schedule than St. John Vianney with games against state powers like Paramus Catholic and Depaul as well as Sparta (8-1), although the Lions did lose to a 5-4 Vernon team in their last game.
St. John Vianney has not faced a team with a winning record that puts it in the air as much as Pope John, so this will be the biggest test of the season for a secondary led by Haskins, who leads the Shore with five interceptions. Calabro and sophomore linebacker Tyler Tedeschi are the top tacklers and junior Calvin Beaty has been outstanding at linebacker as well. The Lancers like to bring pressure from the edge in their 3-3-5 scheme, so it will be up to its blitzers to get some hits on Abramson to throw him off his rhythm.
A win over the Lions means a trip up to Morristown to face Delbarton (8-1), the No. 1 seed. Delbarton averages 31 points per game and features 5-foot-8 junior dynamo Andrew Sanders at running back, where he has rushed for 997 yards and 8 touchdowns. The Green Wave have good balance offensively, as senior quarterback John Chiarolanzio has thrown for 959 yards and 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
The common wisdom in this bracket is that St. Joe's will beat Delbarton in the final. RBC has to close a big gap with the Green Knights, while St. John Vianney is in territory it hasn't been in for 30-plus years, so if either makes it to the final, that will get the attention of the whole state.
Shore team: (5) Mater Dei Prep.
Breakdown: Mater Dei Prep has followed up last year's breakthrough campaign with a 7-2 season and will now look to win playoff games in back-to-back years by beating the same team it beat in last year's first round, fourth-seeded Morristown-Beard (6-3).
The Seraphs have one of the Shore's most prolific offenses at 39 points per game thanks to the best season of any quarterback in Mater Dei Prep history by senior Christian Palmer. He has thrown for 1,511 yards and 20 touchdowns on an average of 23 yards per completion and also has run for 1,044 yards and 15 touchdowns on an average of 11.5 yards per carry.
His top target has been sophomore wideout Eddie Lewis, who has 36 catches for 707 yards and nine touchdowns, which puts him among the Shore Conference leaders in all three categories. Senior Tysaun White also has been a playmaker with 16 catches for 392 yards and 5 touchdowns while also running for 400 yards and 8 touchdowns on 10.5 yards per carry. Yet another weapon is senior running back Tyson Stamper, who has a combined 629 yards and six touchdowns between rushing and receiving.
Morristown-Beard enters averaging 28.7 points and is led by senior running back Matt McFadden, who has rushed for 1,092 yards and 13 touchdowns on an impressive 11 yards per carry, and senior Nick Rella, who has 897 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns as the Crimson have piled up 2,355 yards on the ground. Senior quarterback Colin Waters has also thrown for 761 yards and 7 touchdowns, with senior tight end Dean Grogg being his primary target with 304 yards receiving.
The Crimson also had gaudy offensive stats going into last year's playoff showdown with the Seraphs only for Mater Dei to shut them down in a 12-7 win. Linebacker John Lubintus leads the Seraphs with 72 tackles and Vin Mezzacappa has 52 tackles along with three interceptions. Defensive lineman Artis Hemingway leads the pass rush with eight sacks.
Grogg is also a standout for Morristown-Beard at defensive end with 54 tackles, including 11 sacks, so keeping him off Palmer will be crucial. Senior linebacker Matt Reilly leads the Crimson with 81 tackles, and McFadden has 64 tackles and two picks.
The way Mater Dei's offense has been playing, you have to like its chances to advance to the semifinals, but that's where the run will come to an end. The winner has to go to No. 1 St. Joseph's-Hammonton, which has won this bracket four straight times and has 23 state titles in its history.
The Wildcats are simply on a whole other level from other small-school non-public programs. They feature junior twins Salaam and A'Laam Horne, a pair of FBS prospects who are explosive threats at quarterback and running back, respectively. Salaam has thrown for 793 yards and 11 touchdowns on 22 yards per completion, while A'Laam has run for 930 yards and 17 touchdowns on a ridiculous 14.3 yards per carry.
Another star is senior running back/linebacker C.J. LaFragola, an FCS prospect, and having a huge year is senior linebacker Zach McGuckin, who has 80 tackles, including 14 for a loss. The list goes on and on.
Non-Shore players to watch: Other than the ones I've already listed, the main other one is St. Mary's-Rutherford running back Keon Banks, who has 1,500 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns. The 5-foot-6 playmaker makes St. Mary's a good bet to come out of the other side of the bracket. St. Mary has made the finals six straight years and gone 0-6, including four straight losses to St. Joe's. It's probably going to be five this year, unless third-seeded St. Anthony beats them and reaches the final.