Manalapan Column: Among the Elite
PISCATAWAY - During this preseason, a rival Shore Conference coach gave a skeptical look to me when the subject of Manalapan's local dominance was raised.
"How can you truly say you're an elite program in the Shore when you've never won it all once?" the coach said to me. "Elite means you've made it to the finish line and closed the deal."
For all their success in recent years, including five straight Class A North titles and only one loss to a Shore Conference team since 2011, people still loved to pick the scab that the Braves had never won a state championship despite having made five championship games since 2003, including four straight heading into Saturday's Central Jersey Group V final.
"We never dwelled on it,'' said Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri. "This isn't the NFL, where you have the same guys every year. This is high school, where you have new kids every year, and we've sustained our success. We've been right here every year, and we don't look back on what's happened in the past years. These kids stuck together, and they got it done today."
To finally silence the critics and finish the job, Manalapan essentially had to do to previously unbeaten South Brunswick what other teams, including the Vikings in 2012, had done to the Braves the past three seasons. They needed to make big plays in the red zone on defense, they needed to stifle the opposing team's star, and they needed to close the game out by having the offensive line smash people up front.
Done, done, and done.
Just like Manalapan had its headaches in opposing red zones the past three years, the Braves made the Vikings feel the same thing. The Braves forced a field goal that was no good after South Brunswick drove inside their five-yard line in the second quarter, came up with a huge stop on fourth-and-inches at their 18-yard line in the third quarter, and killed a drive with an interception by senior defensive back Dan Debner after the Vikings reached their 23-yard line in the fourth quarter.
"We took out a lot of that frustration from the past (three) years and used that to fuel us today,'' Debner said.
In the past three finals, current Penn State freshman Jason Cabinda (Hunterdon Central), South Brunswick fullback Dahrae Ford, and current Rutgers defensive back Delon Stephenson (Sayreville) all had huge games in wins over the Braves. On Saturday at HighPoint Solutions Stadium, Dontae Strickland, a senior headed to Syracuse, was held to 19 yards rushing on nine carries and had two catches for 13 yards. His longest play from scrimmage was eight yards.
"We obviously wanted to stop Strickland and we never let him get room to run,'' said senior defensive lineman Ben Sieczkowski, who had a sack and a tackle for a loss. "We just played disciplined and did our assignments."
Finally, with Manalapan leading 14-7 with the ball with seven minutes left in the game after an interception by Debner, the offensive line went to work. In a 33-22 loss to South Brunswick in the 2012 final, Manalapan could not stop the jackhammering Ford and the Vikings' offensive line as South Brunswick closed out the win five yards at a time in the fourth quarter. On Saturday, the roles were reversed, as Manalapan senior tailback Imamu Mayfield ran the ball eight straight times for 31 yards during a nine-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Dan Anerella to senior tight end Kyle Mullen that put the game away.
For three straight years, Manalapan had been unable to execute the game plan that had worked for the first 11 games - running the ball, stopping the run, and throwing it over the opponent's head on play-action. On Saturday, the Braves executed their formula to perfection and it resulted in school history.
"That was our type of game,'' Mayfield said. "We did what got us here to get the win."
"That's the way we wanted it to be (on the final drive),'' said junior offensive lineman Joe Sellmeyer. "I wouldn't say the offensive line stepped up. I would say we did what we've done all year."
Unlike past years, Manalapan entered this game as an underdog to the unbeaten Vikings, so the pressure was on the opposing sideline. This Manalapan team did not have a major FBS stud like current Penn State freshman receiver Saeed Blacknall. This wasn't a Braves team that was a slam dunk to make it back to the final given the graduation of a tremendous senior class, and all they did was stamp themselves as the best team in school history.
After hearing outsiders chirp that for all of their great accomplishments over the past three years, the Braves still hadn't won the big one, they rose up and silenced the naysayers by doing what championship teams do - exerting their will and executing their gameplan against a quality opponent in a pressure-packed atmosphere.
No more questions now. Manalapan is an elite program in the Shore Conference, by any measure.