MANALAPAN – Playing in a grueling division with many of the best teams in the Shore Conference has given Manalapan great perspective. The Braves know not to overreact to any situation, and that approach was key to earning a crucial division win on Friday night.

A 70-yard touchdown run by senior running back Andre Johnson in the third quarter gave the Braves the lead and the defense did the rest as the Braves, ranked No. 7 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, rallied for a 20-14 Shore Conference American Division victory over No. 5 Red Bank Catholic.

“It was an all-over-the-place game but the main thing was keeping focus, not getting too high or too low and controlling what we can control,” said senior tight end/linebacker Matt Benedetti.

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Manalapan has seen it all this season, at least that’s what the Braves thought until the events of the final minute of the game. A 22-yard field by junior Vin Rea had capped a 14-play drive that chewed nearly eight minutes off the clock, giving the Braves a six-point lead. With no timeouts remaining and needing a touchdown, RBC quickly moved across midfield on a 16-yard catch by senior tight end Kevin Bauman. On the next play, quarterback Ryan Edgerly hit Jack Pollackov for 30 yards down to the 19-yard line. There was still over a minute left in the game and RBC was just 19 yards from tying the game.

Then, the unthinkable happened. The Caseys raced to the line of scrimmage to execute a spike play to stop the clock, but the center-quarterback exchange went awry. Manalapan linebacker Jake Freedman knew right away it was a fumble and pounced on the loose ball. After a brief conference by the officials, it was confirmed Manalapan had recovered. The Braves took a knee to run out the clock and win the game.

“I thought he fumbled immediately and the first thing that came to my mind was that I have to jump on this right now,” Freedman said. “I didn’t think he got the snap so when I didn’t hear a whistle I jumped on it.”

“That was probably one of the craziest endings I’ve ever seen,” Benedetti said.

The bizarre ending will define this game in the short term, but the substance was Manalapan rallying from a 14-0 deficit in the first quarter. Momentum was squarely on RBC’s side after a 44-yard touchdown run by Elijah Jules and then an 85-yard touchdown run by Billy Guidetti. The Caseys’ offense, which has now scored more than 20 points just twice this season, looked on its way to a breakout game.

If the Braves were a bit deflated, that feeling didn’t last for long.

Following Guidetti’s long touchdown run, Manalapan junior Ethan Rodriguez flipped the momentum by returning the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to get Manalapan right back into the game. Gonzalez is a first-year football player who previously concentrated solely on baseball. Many of his friends are on the football team and the convinced him to come out for the team this year.

“Everyone was hyped for me, it was one of the best moments of my life,” Gonzalez said. “It’s my first year playing and I just wanted to come out and help the team the best I can.”

“He’s a very good athlete with good hands and good instincts and he’s only scratching the surface of what he can be down the road,” said Manalapan head coach Ed Gurrieri.

From that point on, Manalapan’s defense allowed just five first downs the rest of the game. One came via a penalty and two came on the final RBC series. Senior linebacker Hayden Hess had a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss, as did Freedman. Benedetti also had a tackle for loss.

We have a defense we really trust,” Benedetti said. “We felt those two (touchdowns) were just broken plays and us not finishing tackles. Outside of those we had them shut down on defense.”

“As long as our defense plays like this we’ll have a chance to win every game we play,” Gurrieri said.

Hess’ fumble recovery came late in the first half when RBC tried a hook and ladder but put the ball on the ground on the pitch. Hess recovered at the RBC 12-yard line. The Caseys’ defense kept Manalapan out of the end zone, but Rea’s 18-yard field goal on the final play of the first half cut Manalapan’s deficit to 14-10. Manalapan had fourth-and-1 from the 3-yard line but Gurrieri decided to take the points instead of going for it on fourth down.

“I didn’t want to take a chance and break the momentum,” Gurrieri said. “We were getting the ball to start the second half and we have a great kicker, so we just wanted to take the points and keep it rolling.”

A defensive stand by Manalapan’s defense midway through the third quarter led to the go-ahead touchdown. A 31-yard run by Jules put the ball at Manalapan’s 28-yard line, but the Braves pushed them back with two tackles for loss, and a penalty eventually brought up fourth-and-12. The Braves forced an incomplete pass to take over on downs.

On the first play of the next offensive series, Johnson hit the hole and zoomed toward the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown, giving Manalapan a 17-14 lead, its first of the game.

“I just saw the hole and no one there, I just had to book it and keep going,” said Johnson, who ran for a game-high 157 yards.

After two more strong defensive series, Manalapan got the ball back with 10:14 on the clock and holding a 17-14 lead. The Braves’ ground game went to work to move the ball from their own 23-yard line down to the RBC 5-yard line where Rea kicked a 22-yard field goal to give Manalapan a 20-14 lead. The Braves converted three key third downs, first on a 10-yard scramble by quarterback Sean Kehley on third-and-7. Johnson then had a 25-yard run on third-and-11 and added a 22-yard run on third-and-3.

“We made a point to the O-line: if we win the line of scrimmage we will win this game,” Benedetti said. “If we can get the run going we can tenderize them and get them to flip.”

“Our offensive line struggled a little bit early on; RBC is a big, proud, physical team, a good team, but we just kept at it and I think we leaned on them a little bit,” Gurrieri said. “It started getting better for us and we hit some big runs at the end.”

With Middletown South defeating No. 2 Rumson-Fair Haven on Friday night, Manalapan is in position to grab a share of the American Division title should Long Branch upset No. 6 Toms River North on Saturday afternoon. That would be nice, but for the Braves it’s all about getting ready for the playoffs.

“When you talk about being hardened and being big-game ready, we have that, absolutely,” Gurrieri said. “The key is to be healthy at the end and we’re getting there.”

  

Box Score

No. 7 Manalapan 20, No. 5 Red Bank Catholic 14 

 RBCManalapan
First downs87
Rushes-yards23-20429-175
Passing6-11-05-9-2
Passing yards6225
Fumbles-lost2-11-0
Penalties-yards9-788-70

 

 1234F
Red Bank Catholic (3-3, 2-3)1400014
Manalapan (4-2, 3-2)737320

 

Scoring summary

RBC – Elijah Jules 44-yard run (Mike O’Connor kick)

RBC – Billy Guidetti 85-yard run (Mike O’Connor kick)

M – Ethan Gonzalez 90-yard kickoff return (Vin Rea kick)

M – Vin Rea 18-yard field goal

M – Andre Johnson 70-yard run (Vin Rea kick)

M – Vin Rea 22-yard field goal

 

Individual statistics

RUSHING – RBC: Billy Guidetti 5-93, Elijah Jules 13-92, Kyle Harms 2-10, Anthony Borriello 2-6, Kevin Degnan 1-3; M: Andre Johnson 17-157, Ethan Rodriguez 1-13, Raymond Vender 1-9, Sean Kehley 7-2, Anthony Matrone 1-2, Justin Reilly, 2-(-3), Team 2-(-5).

PASSING – RBC: Ryan Edgerly 6-10-0 62, Anthony Borriello 0-1-0 0; M: Sean Kehley 5-9-2 25.

RECEIVING – RBC: Jack Pollackov 1-30, Kevin Bauman 1-16, Kevin Degnan 1-14, Elijah Jules 2-2, Sean Rossback 1-0; M: Matt Benedetti 3-22, Andre Johnson 2-3.

INTERCEPTIONS – RBC: Sean Rossback 1-7, Anthony Borriello 1-0.

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.

 

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