Heavyweight Showdown: Manalapan-RBC Preview
A game between two Shore Conference heavyweights that fans have anticipated for two-plus years is finally here.
On Friday, Manalapan, ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, will head to Count Basie Field in Red Bank to face No. 1 Red Bank Catholic in a monster showdown. The Caseys enter with a 38-game winning streak against Shore Conference competition dating back to 2010, while the Braves arrive with a 30-game winning streak of their own against Shore teams, so something will have to give. There will be no division title at stake, as the teams are in separate divisions, but bragging rights, an argument for Shore supremacy, and a host of power points for playoff seeding will be on the line.
RBC has been the No. 1 team in the Shore since 2011, with Manalapan often right behind the Caseys in the rankings thanks to four straight division titles and three straight state final appearances.
“It’s not hard to get our kids’ attention in a week like this,’’ Manalapan head coach Ed Gurrieri said. “We love to play in big games. This is what you work so hard for.”
“I can appreciate people being excited about a game like this,’’ Red Bank Catholic head coach Jim Portela said. “From the looks of things, it’s going to be a lot of fun, and because it is No. 1 vs. No. 2, that adds more to it.”
While Red Bank Catholic ultimately has its eyes on its elusive first state title since 1976 in the always-rugged Non-Public Group III bracket, and Manalapan has the primary goal of getting over the top in Central Jersey Group V after losing three straight state finals, this is finally a chance to see how two top programs stack up against one another on the field.
Here’s a breakdown of what to watch for in the game:
The two teams are similar offensively, employing power running games in pro-style systems featuring standout tailbacks. Manalapan enters averaging 45.8 points per game, while RBC is the Shore’s highest-scoring unit at 47.3 points per game. Again, the teams are 1-2.
Manalapan is led by senior Imamu Mayfield, who leads the Shore Conference with 21 touchdowns to go with his 934 yards rushing on 8.2 yards per carry.
“I’m definitely excited for the game,” Mayfield said. “It’s another statement game. It’s a good game to see if we’re getting better or not. They are a good measuring stick.”
Red Bank Catholic features two dynamic seniors in Tommy Spernal and Mike Cordova, who have combined for 686 yards rushing on an average of 9.1 yards per carry. Junior Dylan Murphy also has come on in recent weeks as another weapon at fullback.
“We're kind of mirror images of each other as far as that's concerned,’’ Gurrieri said.
However, RBC also has a major weapon in junior quarterback Eddie Hahn, one of the most explosive players in the Shore. He has thrown for 660 yards and 11 touchdowns on 67 percent accuracy, averaging 17.8 yards per completion.
Unlike past years, where teams could try to load up everything against the RBC run game, Hahn can bury teams who don’t respect the pass. Seniors Trevor Cowley and Nick Lubischer have combined for 23 catches, 399 yards and 7 touchdowns, and senior Nick Cella also has a pair of touchdown catches.
“Coach Ahearn (offensive coordinator Matt Ahearn) has been really effective calling the pass game,’’ Hahn said. “Getting the timing down at practice is important, and it’s been translating to the games.”
A dual threat, Hahn also has run for 265 yards and 7 touchdowns on an average of 11 yards per carry. His ability to run zone read plays out of the shotgun adds an extra wrinkle to defend out of the Caseys’ usual pro-style attack from under center with bread-and-butter plays like power, counter and dive.
“I am very impressed with him,’’ Gurrieri said. “I would think that he's probably the best all-around player in the Shore. He eats up five yards in two strides, which is the definition of explosive.”
“Our offensive line has done a good job giving me a pocket and time to throw,’’ Hahn said. “Because of how well we are running the ball, it definitely helps our pass game. (Cordova, Spernal and Murphy) would be starting on any team they played for if they went to their hometown teams.”
Manalapan has a veteran leader at quarterback in senior Dan Anerella, who has thrown for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns on 59 percent accuracy and is an efficient playmaker who hits throws off play-action. Senior wideout Gerard Hodge-Rocourt leads the team with 14 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns, senior Tyson Plummer is another threat split wide, and senior tight end Kyle Mullen has 6 catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
As always, the Caseys have one of the Shore Conference’s best offensive lines, although they have experienced some injuries up front. Fordham recruit Ryan Kroeger, a 285-pound senior guard, is a leader on a unit that also features FBS prospect Liam Smith, a 270-pound junior tackle, as well as 265-pound senior center Nick Roy, 265-pound junior guard Ryan Oneidas and 300-pound senior tackle Neil Horenburg, who was recently offered by St. Francis (Pa.). Plus they have two physical tight ends in seniors Jamie Gordinier and Doug Zockoll.
Manalapan has its own imposing offensive line. When you look at the All-Shore teams at the end of the year, you can always bet on some RBC and Manalapan linemen populating the list, so the action in the trenches should be some of the best in any regular-season game in the Shore this year. The Braves are led by junior guard Joe Sellmeyer, who was a second-team All-Shore pick as a sophomore. He looks to be matched up against Kroeger, who is also a defensive line standout, so that is a great match-up to watch. Manalapan’s line only features one senior, guard Pete Williams. Junior tackles Reily Radosevich and Jake Levine are others to watch, as Gurrieri said Sellmeyer, Radosevich and Levine are all getting Ivy League and Patriot League interest as juniors because they are also all 4.0 students.
“It’s going to be exciting,’’ Sellmeyer said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
“Offensively, they're putting up 50 points every week, so they have a tremendous offense,’’ Portela said. “They’re very well-coached, and their scheme is outstanding. Their running back obviously is outstanding, but they have a lot of weapons. They have two good wide receivers, two good tight ends, and other backs who can hurt you.”
Red Bank Catholic enters having allowed only 23 total points in six games, with only one team cracking double-digits on them, and that was a 42-10 win over St. Joseph’s-Metuchen. Manalapan is coming off a stellar performance in a 21-3 win over Middletown South and is allowing 13.2 points per game.
The Caseys employ a physical 4-3 scheme led by Gordinier, a linebacker who has verbally committed to the University of Miami and is tied with fellow senior linebacker Nick Lagrippo for the team lead with 64 tackles. Gordinier is a versatile player who can stuff the run but also is very dangerous coming off the edge as a rusher in certain blitz packages.
Murphy is also a standout linebacker with 48 tackles. The defensive front is led by Kroeger in the interior and Zockoll at defensive end, where he is a quarterback assassin with seven sacks to go with 35 tackles.
“They have a very good front seven,’’ Gurrieri said. “Their four down linemen are big and physical. It will be the best front seven that we go against. You know where they're going to be. They’re not going to draw it up in the dirt. They're a 4-3, Cover 2 team, so you know where everybody's going to be, but they’re well-coached. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Their secondary is also experienced and athletic with Hahn and Cordova at safety, FCS prospect Mike DeMonte at cornerback, and Lubischer at the other corner spot. The Caseys have registered eight interceptions in six games.
Manalapan runs a 3-4 scheme and has plenty of stars in its own right among its front seven. Mullen, a defensive end, and senior linebacker Joe Mendez are both FCS prospects having strong years with a combined 88 tackles and 9 sacks, including a team-high 57 tackles by Mullen. Senior defensive end Ben Sieczkowski also has been a force with 43 tackles and 5 sacks, and senior linebacker Simon Bublis is coming off a game in which he made a huge fumble return to set up a touchdown in the win over Middletown South. Senior Carlos Teixiera is another talented linebacker who is third on the team with 42 tackles.
“They’re No. 1, we’re No. 2, and it’s been that way for a while, but we never had a chance to prove anything,” Mullen said. “Now we get a chance to see who’s the best.”
“They're definitely a well-coached defense,” Hahn said. “They have a couple kids that are very talented, and they all fly to the ball.”
The secondary is a senior-laden group featuring safeties Charles Lombana and Marc Goldstein as well as senior cornerback Dan Debner, with junior Anthony Bassani manning the other cornerback spot. Plummer also sees time in the secondary and has two interceptions this season out of the six for the team.
Manalapan has one of the best special teams weapons in the state in senior Mike Caggiano, who has carved out a career as one of the great kickers in Shore Conference history. With three extra points in the win over Middletown South, he became the Shore’s all-time leader in points by a kicker with 215 for his four-year varsity career. In addition, he has 16 touchbacks this season, so he doesn’t give many teams a chance to make plays in the return game, and he has already hit a 39-yard field goal this year. Caggiano also is an outstanding punter capable of pinning teams deep in their own territory. Rutgers, Maryland and Penn State have all shown interest in him.
The Braves also have a lethal return team on kickoffs and punts led by Debner, Bassani, Goldstein and senior John Cheung. Bassani and Cheung have each returned punts for touchdowns this season, and the Braves average 12 yards per punt return.
“What strikes you more than anything is that they can beat you any way you can beat a team - offense, defense, and special teams,’’ Portela said. “They are a challenge in every facet of the game. They are the type of team we play in the second round of the playoffs.”
Red Bank Catholic’s special teams have also been strong in its undefeated start. Senior kicker Vince Gallo came out from the soccer team and has gone 36-for-38 on extra points and 2-for-2 on field goal attempts. Lubischer has been a force in the return game, taking one punt to the house and averaging 27.5 yards per punt return. Cowley has averaged 17 yards per return on six punt returns, so he is another factor.
It all adds up to a whale of a match-up for Shore Conference fans under the lights at Count Basie Field, and the players have sharpened their focus amidst the hype.
“So far everything is in place for the week,’’ Gurrieri said. “We’re all ready to go. The kids are being very attentive to detail. (RBC) is going to be one of the better teams, if not the best, team we play this year.”
“Coach Portela does a great job telling us to stay away from that, to stay away from Twitter and all that,’’ Hahn said. “We’ll have great practices, get better each day and then be able to ball out on Friday night.”
**The last Shore team to beat RBC was the Freehold Boro team that went on to win the Central Jersey Group III title in 2010, coached by Mark Ciccotelli. RBC's closest call during the streak was a double-overtime win on a touchdown run by Chris Donald against Neptune, also coached by Ciccotelli, in 2011. The Scarlet Fliers went on to win the Central Jersey Group III title. There is a chance the Caseys could again see a Ciccotelli-coached team this year, as St. John Vianney is currently 6-0 and ranked third, one spot behind the Caseys, in power points in the Non-Public Group III bracket.
**Despite the success of the two programs locally, they have only one state championship combined in their history, and that came when RBC won Parochial South A in 1976. Manalapan has been to three straight state finals but come up short. RBC has not reached a state final since 1980.
**Five of the players in this game are former teammates. RBC quarterback Eddie Hahn, Caseys lineman Liam Smith, running back/linebacker Dylan Murphy, wide receiver Liam McArdle and Manalapan offensive lineman Joe Sellmeyer were all part of the Jersey Shore American Youth Football all-star team that won a national championship in 2011 when they were in eighth grade.
That team also included standouts like Ocean running back Tyler Thompson, Brick Memorial quarterback Tim Santiago, St. John Vianney quarterback Anthony Brown and slotback/defensive back Khalil Haskins, Matawan wideout Shawn Ramcheran and linebacker Aliem Shaw, Middletown North tailback Chad Freshnock, Middletown South wideout Spencer Pereless, quarterback/kicker Matt Mosquera and brothers Dylan and Cole Rogers, Red Bank Regional wideout Sadiq Palmer, Asbury Park wideout Jaedon Stephens, Raritan linebacker Sean Ennis, Toms River South linebacker Jaden Kosh and Toms River North linebacker Christian Lynch.
Showdown by the Numbers
38: RBC's winning streak vs. Shore competition
Last loss to a Shore team: 26-25 in overtime vs. Freehold Boro, 10/9/10
Closest call during the streak: 20-14 win over Neptune in double overtime in 2011
30: Manalapan's winning streak vs. Shore competition
Last loss to a Shore team: 12-7 to Jackson Memorial in the 2011 season opener
Closest call during the streak: 14-13 win over Brick Memorial in the 2013 Central Jersey Group V quarterfinals on a touchdown on the final play of regulation.
RBC's overall record during the streak: 41-4
Manalapan's overall record during the streak: 38-3