Lasting Legacy: Toms River North defeats Passaic Tech to repeat as Group 5 state champions
PISCATAWAY -- Behind a once-in-a-generation senior class chasing another championship, Toms River North closed out the NJSIAA football public school state finals with a historic victory.
Senior quarterback Micah Ford ran for 199 yards and a touchdown and threw a touchdown to senior Jeremiah Pruitt, senior Yianni Papanikolas kicked a 37-yard field goal, and senior linebacker Anthony Rodriguez returned an interception for a touchdown as the Mariners repeated as Group 5 state champions with a 23-13 win over Passaic Tech on Monday night at Rutgers University's SHI Stadium.
Toms River North is the first public school to win consecutive state titles. This is the second season public schools in New Jersey have played down to true state champions. The Mariners defeated Passaic Tech 28-7 in last season's title game.
"It just shows that everything pays off," Ford said. "No matter all the adversity we faced we just fought to the end. We prepared for this moment and we got it done."
"There's no other feeling like it," Pruitt said. "We put our head down at the beginning of the summer and went to work. We had a hard game right away and we beat Millville, but we knew we had to get better. We put our noses down and grinded every week."
Ford tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Pruitt on Toms River North's opening possession but Passaic Tech (13-1) responded immediately with a 76-yard touchdown run by senior Trashon Dye. The defenses took over from there until Toms River North took a 10-7 lead into halftime on Papanikolas's 37-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
The Mariners' lead grew to 17-7 midway through the third quarter when a 40-yard run by Ford down to the 1-yard line set up his own 1-yard touchdown run. Toms River North's defense continued to dig in and produce negative plays to force punts. Then, in the fourth quarter, Rodriguez stepped in front of a pass by Passaic Tech quarterback Ma'Kao Taylor and returned the interception 43 yards for a touchdown to give the Mariners a commanding 23-7 lead. Passaic Tech went right down the field and scored on a 3-yard run by Dye but could not convert the 2-point conversion to make it a one-score game.
From there, Ford led the charge as the Mariners gained three first downs and ran the final 4:37 off the clock to complete a tremendous two-year run that saw them go 26-2 and win the first two NJSIAA Group 5 state championships.
"This year was different," said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. "Last year was more of a fun ride because it was unexpected in some ways and it was uncharted waters with the first state championship games. This year, from the beginning, we knew we needed to really work on some things to be in a position to do what we did tonight. We got better as the season went along. The team that played Millville early in the year and the team that played the first third of the year wasn't a championship team, and we knew that. We needed to go back and work on some things, and we were able to do that."
The Mariners' offense had to grind it out vs. a physical Passaic Tech defense. Ford had a season-high 41 carries for 199 yards and senior running back Josh Moore ran for 35 yards on seven carries. Ford completed 6 of 11 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown but was picked off twice, once on a tipped ball on a screen pass and another on a jump ball at the Passaic Tech 2-yard line.
"This was a rock fight, a different game than last year," Oizerowitz said. "They had life and a confidence tonight that they didn't have a year ago. We had to fight them back, and we did."
"We knew it was going to be a dog fight," Ford said. "They wanted to come back after we beat them pretty bad last year and their defense is so good."
Toms River North's defense rose up once again to deliver an exceptional performance. Dye finished with 118 yards on 13 attempts but gained just 42 yards on 12 carries following his long touchdown run. Taylor completed 7 of 16 passes for 92 yards and was intercepted twice, including an acrobatic interception by Pruitt and Rodriguez's pick-6. Junior linebacker Eddie Slosky had two sacks, junior linebacker Blaise Boland had two tackles for loss, and Ford and junior defensive tackle Jaelyne Matthews each had one tackle for loss.
"When you look at this football team the offense is the area that gets most of the publicity, and rightfully so, but defensively this is one of the best defenses we've ever had. We played some really good offenses and we were able to shut them down."
"We knew our offense was going to eventually drive down and punch it in and our defense was lights out tonight," Pruitt said. "They had that one big play in the first quarter but that was it."
Toms River North received the game's opening kickoff and a short kick set up the Mariners with great field position at their own 40-yard line. North called eight straight running plays with Ford taking seven of the carries to move the ball to the Passaic Tech 8-yard line. After a tackle for loss pushed North back to the 10, Ford connected with Pruitt in the left flat for a touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead.
"They ran like a gut-kick play," Rodriguez said. "We filled it but they cut it all the way back."
The defenses took over from there, although Toms River North had success moving the ball before a pair of interceptions off deflections. Ford had a screen pass tipped and picked off by Jordan Alston at the Passaic Tech 21-yard line on the Mariners' second drive and a jump ball for junior wideout Camryn Thomas was deflected and intercepted by Jovan Tyrell. at the Passaic Tech 5-yard line.
In between, Toms River North produced a turnover of its own with an incredible interception by Pruitt. The Passaic Tech receiver was about 10 yards behind him as Taylor scrambled out of the pocket and hurled a deep pass down the right sideline, but Pruitt turned, raced back, and made a leaping interception to thwart a potential game-changing play. "
Their quarterback is a pretty good scrambler and I was hedging just in case he wanted to run," Pruitt said. "I saw him launch it and I read it perfectly and was able to track it down."
"That might have been the best play of the game," Oizerowitz said. "It's 7-7 and he might score there and it's a different game. There were so many plays that we made that we probably won't know how important they were until we go back and look at the film. We have playmakers and kids who are not scared of the biggest moments of the game."
The teams traded punts following the second PCTI interception until Toms River North took possession at its own 20-yard line with 3:56 left in the first half. Ford and Moore led the way on the ground and Pruitt had a fantastic 32-yard catch and run down to the Passaic Tech 34-yard line.
The Mariners then converted a fourth and one at the PCTI 13-yard line and raced to the line to spike the ball and kill the clock with 11 seconds left. A holding penalty on the next play pushed Toms River North to the 20-yard line but Papanikolas came on and drilled a 37-yard field goal to give the Mariners a 10-7 halftime lead.
Passaic Tech picked up one first down on the opening drive of the third quarter but was forced to punt after a tackle for loss by Boland on second down and a delay of game penalty on third down. The Mariners took over at their own 34-yard line and drove 66 yards to the end zone to open a 10-point advantage. Pruitt had a 15-yard catch to the PCTI 41-yard line and Ford broke off a 40-yard run down to the 1-yard line. On the next play, Ford dove head over heels into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown run and a 17-7 Toms River North lead.
With the Mariners now up by double digits midway through the third quarter, Passaic Tech had to move away from their running game and take more chances down the field. That played right into the strength of Toms River North's gameplan.
"I felt like we were able to get our legs a little bit (in the second quarter) and our M.O. is that we don't really give up much on first and second down and then you have to throw it into our athletic secondary," Oizerowitz said. "That was starting to happen so we felt like when we got it to 17-7 they were in a little bit of trouble. We started to bring pressure a little bit and at that point, it was titled in our favor. They're not used to that. They play ahead of everybody and their defense is awesome and they squish you like a fice. They were never able to get in that position."
A sack by Slosky forced PCTI to punt on its next series and another sack by Slosky squashed a Bulldogs drive early in the fourth quarter. The defense made one final huge play with 8:05 left in the game when Rodriguez read Taylor and jumped his pass at the 43-yard line, returning it all the way for a touchdown and a 23-7 Toms River North lead after the extra point was wide right. It stood as Toms River North's sixth interception return for a touchdown in the last four games and came on Rodriguez's 18th birthday.
"I saw the outside guy run a dig and the quarterback long-armed it, so I just jumped in front of it," Rodriguez said. "Amazing. Best birthday present I could have asked for."
Passaic Tech continued to fight and moved down the field quickly to score on a 6-yard run by Dye to cap a 9-play, 64-yard drive in 3:21. Toms River North had built enough of a cushion to withstand that score, however. The game was in the Mariners' hands now with 4:37 left and they closed out a historic state championship with eight straight running plays that picked up two first downs and ran the remaining time off the clock.
When Ford took the final snap of his incredible high school career and kneeled down in victory formation, it cemented the legacy of one of the best senior classes in Shore Conference football history.
Starters Micah Ford, Jeremiah Pruitt, Tareq Council, Josh Moore, Anthony Rodriguez, Christian Oliveri, Luke Oizerowitz, Justin Kaye, CJ Valenti, and Matt Shea, and reserves John Tucker, Trey Rinella, Ryan Warner, Gavin Workman, and Anthony Mastrengeli led the Mariners to unprecedented success with the first two NJSIAA Group 5 state titles.
"It's really special," Pruitt said. "I've been playing with most of these kids since I was in AYF and mighty mites. It's great to get it done with your family. It's been an amazing two years."
"This week it hit me that we're never going to coach this group of seniors again," Oizerowitz said. "The last two senior groups have been as good a group of kids you could ever coach, not just football players but really quality people off the field. It takes a special group of young men to be able to accomplish what this team's done."
This year's championship was their ultimate test. They battled through the brutal Shore Conference American Division that also featured Group 2 runner-up Rumson-Fair Haven, Non-Public B champion Red Bank Catholic, and Non-Public A semifinalist Donovan Catholic. They endured an injury to Ford that forced him to miss four games yet somehow became a stronger team during his absence. When he returned late in the regular season the Mariners had morphed into the championship-caliber team Oizerowitz knew they were.
"There was a burden on the back of this team, you could feel it," Oizerowitz said. "They practice really well and we went to a different level these last four or five weeks, just the attention to detail. This wasn't guaranteed but we knew it was possible. As a coach, it's very gratifying to see them accomplish what they're capable of because sometimes potential is left unfulfilled."
Not this time. On a frigid Monday night under the bright lights at Rutgers, the Mariners cemented their legacy as an all-time championship team.
Toms River North 23, Passaic Tech 13
|Time of Possession
|Passaic Tech (13-1)
|Toms River North (12-2)
TRN – Jeremiah Pruitt 10-yard pass from Micah Ford (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
PCTI – Trashon Dye 76-yard run (Efrain Sanchez kick)
TRN – Yianni Papanikolas 37-yard field goal
TRN – Micah Ford 1-yard run (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
TRN – Anthony Rodriguez 43-yard interception return (kick failed)
PCTI – Trashon Dye 6-yard run (run failed)
RUSHING – PCTI: Trashon Dye 13-118, Cashmere Jones 2-2, Ma’Kao Taylor 6-(-25); TRN: Micah Ford 41-199, Josh Moore 7-35, Team 1-(-2).
PASSING – PCTI: Ma’Kao Taylor 7-16-2, 92; TRN: Micah Ford 6-11-2, 72.
RECEIVING – PCTI: Cashmere Jones 3-50, Damian Rosario 1-12, Owen Juskiewicz 1-11, Jovan Tyrell 1-10, Joel Perez 1-9; TRN: Jeremiah Pruitt 4-64, Camryn Thomas 2-8.
INTERCEPTIONS – PCTI: Jordan Alston 1-0, Jovan Tyrell 1-0; TRN: Anthony Rodriguez 1-43, Jeremiah Pruitt 1-0.
SACKS – PCTI: Kaiden Rex 1.5, Travon Dye 1, Jordan Alston 0.5; TRN: Eddie Slosky 2.
TACKLES FOR LOSS – PCTI: Kaiden Rex 2.5, Cashmere Jones 1, Travon Dye 1, Aaron Mendoza 1, Jordan Alston 0.5; TRN: Blaise Boland 2, Eddie Slosky 2, Micah Ford 1, Jaelyne Matthews 1.
TACKLE LEADERS – PCTI: Trashon Dye 11.5, Cashmere Jones 9, Victor Echavarria 7; TRN: Micah Ford 5, Josh Moore 3.5, Blaise Boland 3.5.