MANASQUAN – As Canyon Birch watched Greg Willis sprint 71 yards for the tying touchdown two plays after his fumble had given Cinnaminson the ball in the fourth quarter, all he could think about was getting a chance at redemption.

“When I fumbled and then saw that kid break it, it really hurt,” Birch said. “I came back out and told my offensive line I’ll give you everything I have, and if you do the same we’re going to come out with this win.”

Birch got his chance late in the fourth quarter, and this time he delivered in crunch time to send Manasquan to a state sectional championship game. Birch scored on a 3-yard touchdown run with 2:12 left to play and the Warriors’ defense forced a pair of turnovers on downs the rest of the way to send second-seeded Manasquan to a hard-fought 14-7 victory over third-seeded Cinnaminson in the semifinals of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 2 playoffs on Saturday afternoon at Vic Kubu Warrior Field.

“He’s the type of kid you don’t have to say anything to,” said Manasquan head coach Jay Price. “As angry as anybody was, he was the angriest. You can’t put pressure on him he doesn’t already put on himself. He’s a great self-motivator.”

A defensive stop by Manasquan (8-2) forced Cinnaminson to punt from its own 2-yard line late in the game, which gave the Warriors possession at the Pirates’ 34-yard line. Birch ripped off a 31-yard run on a toss to set up the go-ahead score and put the Warriors in the 19th sectional final in program history. Manasquan will play at top-seeded Hillside in the championship game on Saturday, Nov. 17.

“I went back and said I want the ball,” Birch said. “I wanted to get it back after that fumble. I was beat up by it in my mind and I said to myself I’m not getting stopped here.”

“He made sure we were calling his number for that last touchdown,” Price said. “He ran to the goal line and came running right back to coach (Brian) Lee and said tell (offensive coordinator Lou) Certo I’m running this one in. He was ready to go.”

As usual, Birch heaped praise on his offensive line for paving the way for his 152 yards rushing on 34 carries. There weren’t many big plays to be had on the muddy field, but the stout unit up front was consistent and unrelenting.

“They were phenomenal; workhorses,” Birch said. “And (fullback) Rashid Tuddles, he’ll pound out the yardage and when he’s coming to deliver a block you better get out of the way because he’s coming big. Just having guys like that, having everyone willing to give everything for each other is what makes the difference.”

“It was a slick field and tough to play on, so you gotta give it up to the line sticking their feet in the ground and just driving,” said senior wide receiver/defensive back James Pendergist.

Pendergist gave Manasquan a 7-0 lead in the second quarter when he returned a punt 33 yards for a touchdown. The score capped a zany four-possession sequence that began with a bizarre play deep in Warriors territory.

Manasquan was back to punt from its own end zone into a fierce wind, and Pendergist’s punt was blown back by a sudden gust. The ball was about to carom into the end zone when Pendergist dove to bat it forward. The ball was still behind the original line of scrimmage so Birch picked it up and raced 18 yards for a first down on fourth and 14. The play initially stood, but the officials got together and determined Manasquan could not advance the ball. The Warriors were flagged for illegal touching and had to re-punt.

“That’s one of those plays no one plans for and you don’t study the rulebook on that kind of play,” Price said. “It rolled back behind our line of scrimmage and we tried to keep it from going back into the end zone. One of our kids picked it up and ran. First, they told me it was illegal touching after we batted it and then they said we could touch it but couldn’t advance it. It is what it is.”

Manasquan punted again and the result was barely better. Cinnaminson had the ball in excellent field position at the Manasquan 19-yard line and looked poised to open the scoring. Instead, Manasquan’s defense stuffed the Pirates on third-and-1 and then on fourth-and-2 from the 11-yard line to keep the game scoreless.

“That really hurt getting that first down and then having it called back but we knew we couldn’t let it dictate the way the game went,” Birch said.”

Manasquan then put together a 17-play drive but couldn’t come away with points when a 30-yard field attempt was no good. Manasquan’s defense came through again, however, when senior linebacker Jack Fabean made a tackle for a 4-yard loss on first down, senior defensive back Mike Page knocked down a pass on second down and Art Foreman sacked Shawn Ruffin on third down to force a punt form the 14-yard line. The line drive punt didn’t get caught up in the wind but it did allow Pendergist to field it on the fly and find room down the home sideline for a 33-yard touchdown with 4:24 left in the half.

“We were thinking about fair-catching it and taking the safe way out but the next thing you know I see a line driving coming right at me,” Pendergist said. “I’m like, ‘screw it, let’s take it to the end zone.’ Give credit to all the people blocking out there: Riley (Callahan), Matt Lyons, Christian Masonius, all of them.”

Outside of the 71-yard touchdown run by Willis early in the fourth quarter, Manasquan’s defense was outstanding. Cinnaminson running back Rashad Raymond entered the game with 1,160 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns but was held to just 18 yards on eight carries. Ruffin had thrown for 1,053 yards and 11 touchdowns but was just 5-for-25 for 69 yards with two interceptions.

“I have no complaints with these guys but I thought this was the best team effort we’ve had all year,” Price said. “Everybody from sideline to sideline had their head in the game and were flying to the ball. We made a couple mistakes and we’ll fix that, and we turned the ball over more than we should, but we battled when we had to, especially with our backs against the goal line.”

Now it’s onto face a Hillside team that is 10-0 and is the defending champion in the section. The Comets are averaging 39.6 points per game, allowing just 7.2 points per game and have defeated their opponents by an average of 32.6 points per game.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge but we’re all looking forward to it,” Birch said. “I’m ecstatic about it. All offseason we put in the work and it’s really translated to the field.”


Box Score

Manasquan 14, Cinnaminson 7

First downs713
Passing yards6979


Cinnaminson (7-3)00077
Manasquan (8-1)070714


Scoring summary

M – James Pendergist 33-yard punt return (James Pendergist kick)

C – Greg Willis 71-yard run (Brennan Mantia kick)

M – Canyon Birch 3-yard run (James Pendergist kick)


Individual statistics

RUSHING – C: Greg Willis 2-91, Shawn Ruffin 7-21, Rashad Raymond 8-18, John Meekins 1-5, Elijah Bryant 1-(-4), Team 1-(-6); M: Canyon Birch 34-152, Scooby Tuddles 11-38, Ryan O’Leary 4-(-1).

PASSING – C: Shawn Ruffin 5-25-2 69; M: Ryan O’Leary 3-9-1 79.

RECEIVING – C: John Meekins 2-40, Elijah Bryant 1-14, Chad Howard 1-12, Rashad Raymond 1-3; M: Riley Callahan 1-31, Scooby Tuddles 1-29, John Foreman 1-19.

INTERCEPTIONS – C: John Meekins 1-0; M: James Pendergist 1-0, Mike Page 1-0.


Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at 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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