Long Branch Tops Brick to Win First Back-to-Back State Titles in School History
LONG BRANCH - In the 44-year history of the NJSIAA playoffs, no Long Branch team had ever been able to utter the statement the Green Wave made after Friday night's victory.
"We're still the champs,'' senior linebacker Luke Arnold said. "Back-to-back feels so good."
Top-seeded Long Branch won consecutive sectional titles for the first time in the playoff era by retaining its Central Jersey Group IV crown with a nail-biting, 21-14 win over third-seeded Brick in front of a capacity crowd at Bresett Stadium.
"The feeling is indescribable,'' senior quarterback/defensive back Marc Dennis said. "We wanted this so bad. I can't even put it into words."
The victory also means the Green Wave (10-1) made another bit of history as the first Shore Conference team to punch its ticket to one of the new NJSIAA bowl games that were implemented ahead of this season. Long Branch will play South Jersey Group IV winner Shawnee, which also repeated as champs, at MetLife Stadium on the first weekend of December.
Beating Brick (8-3) to deny them their first state title since 2014 made it even sweeter for a Long Branch senior class looking to send a message. The two teams played each other for the first time in 45 years after nearly tangling in last year's championship game.
"(Brick) called us out in the beginning of the year, and we gave them what they wanted,'' Arnold said. "They said they could beat us, and we showed them."
"Before the season, they told us they feel like we stole their championship last
year,'' Dennis said. "This is what we wanted. We felt like they were the second-best team in our group, and tonight showed that if we played them last year we would've won, too."
A resilient defensive effort that kept Brick off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter brought home the fourth overall state title in Long Branch's history on Friday night. The Green Dragons, ranked No. 5 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, had one last shot to tie it, but the No. 3 Green Wave forced an incompletion on fourth down from their own 40-yard line with five seconds remaining to set off the celebration.
"(Brick) thought they could come here and beat us on our home field, and that would never happen,'' said senior defensive back Devyn Blount. "They're a tough team, they had a couple big plays, but we shut it down in the end."
Dennis and junior tailback Jermaine Corbett led the way offensively by combining for all 227 of Long Branch's rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns, but were held to 72 total yards on the ground in the second half.
Meanwhile, the defense limited Brick's vaunted running game to 2.9 yards per carry on 37 attempts and harassed its multiple quarterbacks into a combined 10-for-33 passing performance with a pair of interceptions.
The defense also came up with a crucial touchdown when 6-foot-3, 285-pound senior defensive tackle Kevin Cerruti returned an interception three yards to give Long Branch a 14-7 lead on the first series of the third quarter.
Senior defensive tackle Imir Durant, who had three tackles for a loss or no gain in the win, tipped a screen pass by Brick quarterback Anthony Prato into the air, and Cerruti snatched it and rumbled into the end zone.
Cerruti, who is a star wrestler in addition to being an All-Shore lineman, was mobbed by his teammates on the sideline while he waved his arms to pump up a roaring crowd.
"I just saw the ball in the passing lane and I just tried to swat it down,'' Durant said. "I saw Kevin Cerruti take it for a touchdown and the crowd just went really wild."
"He scored a touchdown and I thought he was gonna run and jump into the bleachers,'' Dennis said. "I've never seen Kevin Cerruti get that happy."
The night began auspiciously for the home team, as Corbett ripped off a 77-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage for a 7-0 lead. The Shore Conference's leading rusher finished with 125 yards on 14 carries to give him 1,787 yards and a conference-leading 28 touchdowns.
Brick answered in the second quarter with a six-play, 48-yard drive that ended with a 24-yard touchdown toss from Prato to senior wideout Cole Groschel, who had 5 catches for 84 yards in the loss.
The score remained deadlocked at the half thanks to Brick senior Jimmy Leblo. He became the first player to pick off a pass in 109 attempts by Dennis this season when he registered his seventh interception of the year at Brick's 2-yard line to end the half.
Cerruti's fireworks to start the third quarter then got the crowd charged up and gave the Green Wave a 14-7 lead they would not relinquish.
The Green Wave defense followed by forcing a three-and-out thanks to a tackle for loss on third down by Arnold. That set up a six-play, 52-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard quarterback keeper by Dennis for a 21-7 advantage with 6:14 left in the third quarter.
With Brick's defense zeroing in on Corbett, Long Branch added more designed quarterback runs in the second half for Dennis, who finished with 102 yards rushing on 19 carries.
On the third-quarter drive that produced what proved to be the game-winning points, he had a 21-yard run and a clutch 14-yard pass to senior wideout Matt Clarke on third-and-7. Corbett's 13-yard burst then set up Dennis' one-yard plunge.
"(Dennis running) is something we've had, but we haven't had to go to really until tonight,'' said Long Branch coach Dan George. "He can run it and throw it."
A senior-laden Brick team was not going down without a fight. Prato recovered a fumble by Corbett at Long Branch's 40-yard line and the Green Dragons took full advantage to tighten the margin.
Senior running back Joey Carchio took the ball on a jet sweep and then stopped and unloaded a 35-yard pass that Groschel leaped over two defenders to grab. Two plays later, Leblo plowed in from three yards out to make it a one-score game with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
"That's Brick football,'' Green Dragons coach Len Zdanowicz said. "We're never gonna quit. Our kids are gonna play their hearts out every minute of the game."
"They have incredible playmakers,'' Dennis said. "Leblo, Cole, they're ridiculous. On the sideline after they scored and made it 21-14, I brought all the defensive backs in, and I told them, 'This is our house. We're not letting no one come back on us like this.'''
That was as close as Long Branch's defense would allow, as the Green Wave bent but never broke in the final quarter. They thwarted a 12-play drive that started at Brick's 9-yard line by forcing an incompletion on fourth down at their own 42 with 2:37 remaining, and then got the final stop on downs in the waning seconds to seal it.
"I feel like I let them down,'' Zdanowicz said about his team. "I feel like I got outcoached today. We didn't do our job and get them prepared to win the game. There was plenty of opportunities, and I feel like I let them down."
The cohesiveness that characterized this Long Branch team was never more evident then when an offense that averages 32.6 points per game sputtered to only 25 total yards in the fourth quarter. The Green Wave could've been rattled, but they never blinked.
"We normally drive that ball in the fourth quarter, put them in the rearview mirror and game over, but we struggled a little bit,'' George said. "Our defense didn't worry about it. They just kept chopping. Great teams have to have that chemistry, and these guys have it."
It added up to Long Branch's first back-to-back sectional titles since winning Central Jersey Group III in 1955-56, back when the NJSIAA used to award sectional championships based on opinion because there was no playoff system.
The Green Wave made the transition from the hunters of last year, who went from 2-8 in 2016 to state champions, to the hunted of this year as the defending champs.
"We were ready for this,'' Durant said. "We knew what we could do."
Now they can debate whether they have surpassed the 1986 Long Branch team that went 11-0 in the argument for the best Green Wave squad of all time at a program that began in 1923.
They still have their Thanksgiving game against old rival Red Bank (7-2), which is ranked No. 6 in the SSN Top 10, as well as the bowl game against Shawnee to drive home their point and become the first team to win 12 games in program history.
Although if you ask them, winning back-to-back titles means the case is already closed.
"This is the best Long Branch team ever,'' Durant said. "No doubt."
Long Branch 21, Brick 14
. L B
First downs 9 17
Rushes-yards 33-227 37-107
Passing 5-10-1 10-33-2
Passing yards 31 134
Fumbles-lost 1-1 1-0
Penalties 6-53 4-30
Brick (8-3) 0 7 7 0 - 14
Long Branch (10-1) 7 0 14 0 - 21
L: Corbett 77-yard run (Mazza kick).
B: Groschel 24-yard pass from Prato (Wynkoop kick).
L: Cerruti 3-yard INT return (Mazza kick).
L: M. Dennis 1-yard run (Mazza kick).
B: Leblo 3-yard run (Wynkoop kick).
Rushing - L: Corbett 14-125, M. Dennis 19-102. B: Carchio 11-25, Leblo 10-15, Groschel 2-1, Prato 13-55, Grigorian 1-11.
Passing - L: M. Dennis 5-10-1 31. B: Prato 7-29-2 78, Leblo 2-3-0 21, Carchio 1-1-0 35.
Receiving - L: Corbett 1-5, Clarke 3-27, Farrar 1-(-1). B: Groschel 5-84, Leblo 3-28, Grigorian 1-11, Prato 1-11.
Interceptions - L: Cerruti 1-3, M. Dennis 1-0. B: Leblo 1-29.