It’s one of the most frustrating and powerless feelings in football, and Manalapan experienced it during the worst possible time last season.

The Braves were desperately trying to get the ball back in the second half in order to come from behind in last year’s NJSIAA Central Jersey Group V final against South Brunswick, but the Vikings’ punishing running game was bleeding the clock and moving the chains. Manalapan died a slow death, watching its second straight chance for its first state title in program history go up in smoke, four yards at a time. Each successive rumbling blast from 240-pound fullback Dahrae Ford, who ran for 130 yards on 21 carries, put an end to their hopes in an eventual 33-22 loss.

“The first loss (in a state final) against Sayreville (in 2011), I cried after we lost,’’ said senior linebacker Chris Noesges. “Last year I didn’t cry. I was just shocked.”

Senior linebacker Chris Noesges (#4) and Manalapan's defense are out to slam the door on the program's first state title after coming up short last season. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)
Senior linebacker Chris Noesges (#4) and Manalapan's defense are out to slam the door on the program's first state title after coming up short last season. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

South Brunswick had run the triple option all season, including the first half of the final, but with the championship on the line, the Vikings lined up in the I-formation for the first time all season and came straight at Manalapan. The Braves could not stop Ford and had to walk off the field in frustration as they surrendered 264 yards of offense after dominating defensively for most of the season. They did force multiple turnovers, but could not get stops with the game on the line.

“Looking back on it, we were not prepared very well,’’ Noesges said. “We went in overconfident. We watched all their games last season, and in the second half they would just take up all the time on the clock. We just didn’t make the right adjustments.”

Just like last year, the Braves are 11-0 and one win away from school history in the Central Jersey Group V final. This time it’s a formidable Hunterdon Central (7-4) team standing in their way at 7 p.m. on Sunday at Rutgers that features its own physical back in 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior Jason Cabinda, who is headed to Penn State. After the lesson of last year, an improved Manalapan defense is eager for the challenge.

“My defense is bigger and stronger and faster than last year,’’ said Manalapan head coach Eddie Gurrieri. “I’m hoping for a good performance.”

“This year we are immensely more prepared for this team,’’ Noesges said. “We’re already thinking three or four steps ahead of what they might do.”

What also helps is that the Braves are familiar with Cabinda and the Red Devils, having beaten them 17-7 in last year’s semifinals, holding Cabinda under 100 yards rushing in the process. Cabinda, who is also a star linebacker, has run for 1,083 yards and 15 touchdowns this year despite missing three games due to an appendectomy.

Manalapan already has bottled up a similarly physical rusher to Cabinda in Colts Neck’s Anthony Gargiulo, who it held to 87 yards in a 48-18 win over the Central Jersey Group IV finalists. It also swallowed up a potent Sayreville attack featuring two 1,000-yard rushers in a 34-7 win over the Bombers in the semifinals.

“We want to stop the run and make them throw when they don’t want to, just like we did with Gargiulo, (Sayreville’s Myles) Hartsfield, and (Deion) Miller,’’ Noesges said. “We want to take away the run game and put them in situations they don’t want to be in. We can’t let them run the ball on us. That cannot happen.”

The Braves returned 10 of 11 starters on defense from last year’s final, led by Noesges, a Shore Conference Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 112 tackles, including 14 tackles for a loss. Senior R.J. Krause (7 sacks) is a force who is hard to move at noseguard in the middle of their 3-4 alignment, and they have two defensive ends and a trio of outside linebackers who can all run in Nick Douglas, Kyle Mullen, Mike D’Angelo, Will Meany and Joe Mendez. Senior standout Matt McCann mans the other inside linebacker spot with Noesges to fill the holes against physical running games. Cornerbacks Chris Cruz and Dan Debner and safeties Anthony Barone and Vinnie D’Angelo patrol the back.

Their strength has been their speed to cut off runs to the perimeter and get after the quarterback.

“They have had another year in the weight room, and they’re just better players with maturity and film study,’’ Gurrieri said. “They could basically be coaches, they know our system so well.’’

“We trust in each other, and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,’’ Noesges said. “We’re a fast, strong and very smart defense.”

The Braves enter the final allowing 8 points per game under defensive coordinator Justin Fumando and have only allowed more than 14 points once in a game all season, and that was in the 30-point win over Colts Neck. Hunterdon Central features the most balanced offense they have faced all season. Not only is Cabinda a problem but there also is senior quarterback Michael Knight, who has received FCS interest and has 1,018 yards passing and 11 touchdowns despite missing four games with a broken leg.

“The way I look at it, they’re an undefeated team because with the quarterback (Knight) and the running back (Cabinda), they haven’t lost a game,’’ Gurrieri said. “This is the best team that we’re going to play. Watching them on film, there’s no doubt about it. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think our guys are up for the task.”

As the undefeated No. 1 seed, the Braves are the ones expected to get it done in their third straight trip to the finals.

“I think that the first two games (in the finals), the other two teams were flat-out better than us,’’ Gurrieri said. “I think that this is the best team that we’ve ever had because it’s the most complete team. We play really well on offense, defense and special teams.”

The Braves also don’t plan on being caught flat-footed if Hunterdon Central throws a curveball at them like South Brunswick did last year in switching to the I-formation.

“This year we feel even if they are a little better than us, we have some things we can go to,’’ Gurrieri said. “It’s my job to help them out a little bit more.”

One year after standing in shock on the field at Rutgers, Manalapan is hoping to be the other team celebrating school history.

“We’re not taking the pressure from the outside,’’ Noesges said. “We’re putting the pressure on ourselves. This is our last chance. We have to win that first state championship in Manalapan history. It’s now or never.”


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