FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP - As the tears rolled down the faces of his senior-laden team after a heart-breaking, 23-21 loss to visiting South Brunswick in Central Jersey Group V on Friday night, Freehold Township head coach Cory Davies made sure to remind them that they still turned in one of the best seasons in school history.

"I think they accomplished a whole lot and they've got to remember that,'' Davies said. "It hurts because of the way it ended."

Head coach Cory Davies reminded his team of all the positives from a record-setting season after a two-point loss to South Brunswick brought it to an end. (Photo by Scott Stump)

It was a small consolation to a Patriots team that was on the verge of picking up the program's first state playoff victory in history after rallying from a 21-7 hole to tie the game heading into the fourth quarter.

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The Vikings (7-2), who are the defending sectional champion, pulled it out in unorthodox fashion by picking up a safety on a sack in the end zone with 6:38 left in the game to snap a 21-21 tie and then running out the remainder of the clock with four first downs.

"At the end there, to lose a game on a safety, that's kind of crazy, but that's how it happens,'' Davies said.

The fifth-seeded Vikings advance to face top-seeded Manalapan in next week's semifinals, with the unbeaten Braves looking for some payback after a last-second loss to South Brunswick in last year's playoffs. They had to fend off a fourth-seeded Patriots (7-3) team that tied the school record for wins, became the first team to ever make back-to-back playoff appearances, and had a school-best 6-0 start to the season before dropping three of their last four.

The night started promisingly when the Patriots mounted a 9-play, 68-yard drive on the opening possession of the game. They took a 7-0 lead when senior quarterback Charles Sabbagh, who threw for 174 yards in his final game after entering as the Shore Conference leader with 2,002 passing yards, found senior wideout Tyrique Hall for a 10-yard touchdown on third down.

South Brunswick answered immediately with an 8-play, 40-yard drive capped by a 1-yard plunge by senior quarterback Josh Liao to tie it up with 5:08 left in the first quarter.

Mistakes then put the home team into a two-touchdown hole after the teams traded possessions. A pass by Sabbagh that was tipped near the line of scrimmage was snatched up by South Brunswick linebacker Marcus Cerminaro, who returned it 65 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead with 10:07 left in the second quarter.

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The lead grew to 21-7 when junior safety Justin Shorter, a Penn State recruit, grabbed a pass that Sabbagh threw into triple coverage and returned it 76 yards to Freehold Township's 4-yard line. One play later, Liao found the end zone for the second time for a two-score lead with 9:03 left in the half.

That appeared to be the way the half would end before the Patriots' defense made a big play by recovering a fumble by Liao at South Brunswick's 28-yard line with 1:57 remaining. Two plays later, Sabbagh lofted an 18-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Adrian Rybaltowski to trim the lead to 21-14 at the half.

Freehold Township had the early momentum in the second half when senior D'Andre Sanders picked off Liao on the opening possession. The Patriots then gave it right back when a pass by Sabbagh went just over the hands of an open Anthony Lotti inside the 10-yard line and into the arms of Vikings defensive back Thomas Joe-Kamara.

The Patriots' defense kept South Brunswick pinned deep in its own territory, setting up an eventual three-play scoring drive that began at the Vikings' 35-yard line after a 15-yard punt. Sabbagh found Hall for an 18-yard touchdown that drew a roar from the home crowd and tied it up at 21 with 5:36 left in the third quarter after senior kicker Tyler Schulman's third extra point of the night.

That would be the extent of Freehold Township's offense in the second half, as the Vikings held them to 17 total yards and three first downs after halftime.

The decisive play came midway through the fourth quarter when a holding penalty backed up Freehold Township 14 yards to their own 6-yard line. On the next play, senior noseguard Andre Eldridge led the charge to drop Sabbagh in the end zone for a safety with 6:38 remaining. It was the sixth sack of the night for the Vikings.

Freehold Township would not see the ball again, as the Vikings picked up four first downs to drain the clock as the Patriots burned their timeouts. It ended the Patriots' best season in 15 years and one of their best in history in their second year under Davies.

"The expectations were that we would be able to do something pretty quickly,'' Davies said about taking over the program last year. "One fortunate thing is we have some pretty good players."

The bad news is that they now graduate 17 seniors who made up the bulk of their lineup.

"No other team really accomplished what they accomplished,'' Davies said. "They are going to be tough to replace."

Box score

South Brunswick 23, Freehold Twp. 21

.                                    F                     S

First downs               13                     14

Rushes-yards          17-13              47-184

Passing                    16-30-3             4-12-1

Passing yards            174                    29

Fumbles-lost              0-0                   3-1

Penalties                    6-41                 7-80

South Brunswick (7-2)  7  14  0  2 - 23

Freehold Twp. (7-3)     7    7   7  0 - 21

Scoring summary

F: Hall 10-yard pass from Sabbagh (Schulman kick).

S: Liao 1-yard run (Fisher kick).

S: Cerminaro 65-yard INT return (Fisher kick).

S: Liao 4-yard run (Fisher kick).

F: Rybaltowski 18-yard pass from Sabbagh (Schulman kick).

F: Hall 18-yard pass from Sabbagh (Schulman kick).

S: Sabbagh tackled in end zone for a safety.

Individual statistics

Rushing - F: Nowak 3-1, Sabbagh 6-(-26), Lotti 6-39, Rybaltowski 1-2, Hall 1-(-3). S: Liao 22-67, Palmer 13-41, Quinones 1-7, Blakey 1-(-6), Kriz 10-69.

Passing - F: Sabbagh 16-29-3 174, Lotti 0-1-0 0. S: Liao 4-12-1 29.

Receiving - F: Hall 4-47, Lotti 5-31, Nowak 2-29, Rybaltowski 5-67. S: Shorter 3-23, Blakey 1-6.

Interceptions - F: Sanders 1-5. S: Cerminaro 1-65, Shorter 1-76, Kamara 1-10.

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