Matt DeSarno, Logan Peters Lead Wall to Central Jersey Group 3 Final
WALL TOWNSHIP - It shows how high Wall has set the bar this season that it can have a frustrating, penalty-filled game while playing without its leading rusher in the second half and still win a state playoff semifinal by 17 points.
The No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 put away a pesky Lacey squad with a 35-18 win on Friday night to advance to next Friday's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III final behind 112 yards rushing and three total touchdowns by junior quarterback Logan Peters and a career-high 99 yards rushing and a pair of scores from senior running back Matt DeSarno.
The top-seeded Crimson Knights (10-0) will host defending champion Rumson-Fair Haven (6-4), which they defeated 14-3 in the regular season, in a bid to win their first state title since 2016 and their fifth overall in program history.
Lacey (7-4) made them earn it, taking an early lead and hanging around until the later stages of the game despite being a heavy underdog.
"We came out a little flat tonight,'' Peters said. "That's gonna happen sometimes. At halftime we knew we had to bounce back and come back and play our game. We're a good team in our mind, and we played our game in the second half."
The Shore Conference's last unbeaten team had eight penalties for 70 yards, including two personal fouls on one play that allowed Lacey to sneak in a touchdown at the end of the first half. Standout tailback Casey Larkin, who had 105 total yards in the first half, played only on defense in the second half for precautionary reasons after tweaking his left ankle in the second quarter.
"We have a ton of stuff to clean up,'' Wall coach Tony Grandinetti said. "That's not us. That's not the kind of football we like to play."
Despite some hiccups, the Crimson Knights still rolled up 360 total yards, including 255 on the ground. DeSarno stepped in for Larkin at tailback in the second half and rushed for 94 of his 99 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown run.
"When Casey went down, we were definitely a little worried,'' Peters said. "He's one of our main guys. When Matty came in, he filled his role better than I could've imagined. Matty was running hard every play. He got a lot of big first downs, had a big touchdown run. I couldn't ask for more."
"Casey's obviously our guy, but I just stepped up and ran the ball as hard as I could,'' DeSarno said.
A false start penalty on fourth-and-1 on Wall's opening drive of the game prompted a punt, and then the fifth-seeded Lions put the Crimson Knights in an early hole with an impressive drive. Lacey marched 71 yards in 12 plays, taking a 6-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by sophomore Scott Stevens with 40 seconds left in the first quarter.
Wall responded with a 71-yard drive of its own, keyed by a 27-yard pass from Peters to Larkin, to take a 7-6 lead. Peters capped the drive when he found sophomore tight end Blake Rezk for an 18-yard touchdown on second-and-goal with 7:47 left in the second quarter.
The defense then forced a punt that set up the Crimson Knights with good field position at their own 46-yard line. Peters promptly found Larkin over the middle for a 49-yard gain, and DeSarno polished off the drive two plays later with a 4-yard touchdown run for a 14-6 lead.
DeSarno's touchdown was the beginning of a wild sequence in which the teams combined for three touchdowns in the final 1:34 of the half.
Wall got the ball right back after DeSarno's score when sophomore linebacker Charlie Sasso, the team's leading tackler, picked off a tipped pass at Lacey's 35-yard line on the Lions' first play from scrimmage.
Two plays later, Peters found senior wideout Mike Galos, who has missed most of the season with an injury, for an 11-yard touchdown to push the lead to 21-6 with just 23 seconds remaining in the first half.
It appeared that would be the score going into the break, but Lacey capitalized on penalties by Wall to pull off some razzle dazzle and cut into the lead. The Lions had the ball at their own 48-yard line when the Crimson Knights got two personal foul penalties on the same play after a scuffle out of bounds on the Lacey sideline.
That brought the Lions to Wall's 22-yard line, where they ran a reverse pass on the final play of the half and executed it to perfection. Senior wideout Donovan Bacchetta took the handoff and lofted a touchdown pass to senior tight end Michael Kudlacik in the middle of the end zone to cut Wall's lead to 21-12 after Lacey failed to convert a 2-point try.
"That was real frustrating,'' Peters said. "That's a big play for them, that switched the momentum. Then they're going into halftime thinking they're in the game instead of thinking, 'We're down 15, it's going to be much harder to get back.'"
"Those penalties killed us and obviously Lacey was able to convert off those penalties, and we can't have that next week in the championship,'' DeSarno said. "That could be the end of our season."
Wall's defense forced a three-and-out to start the second half, but the Crimson Knights then stalled out at the Lacey 14-yard line. A pass break-up by Larkin on third down got them the ball back, and they quickly pushed the lead to 28-12 when DeSarno ripped off a 28-yard touchdown run with 2:21 left in the third quarter.
Lacey hung in the game by mounting a 10-play, 69-yard drive in which sophomore quarterback Noah Brunatti went 4-for-5 for 39 yards passing before Stevens polished it off with a 1-yard touchdown run. The Lions again failed on a two-point conversion attempt, keeping Wall ahead 28-18 with 10:10 left in the game.
The Crimson Knights answered with a 5-play, 65-yard drive keyed by a 27-yard run by Peters, who finished the drive with a 15-yard touchdown run to all but ice the game with 8:08 remaining. Peters then added an interception in the end zone on defense with 5:29 left to cap the win.
Now Wall faces second-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven, which is playing in its seventh straight state final.
The Bulldogs are gunning for their sixth state title in the last seven years, so the Crimson Knights will be trying to halt one of the greatest runs by any program in the history of the Shore Conference.
Rumson has become known for playing its best when the stakes are the highest. Somerville (2018), Red Bank (2015), Weequahic (2013) and Matawan (2010) were all undefeated until the Bulldogs beat them in a state championship game.
"I'm happy,'' Peters said about the match-up. "The game here earlier this year was a great game. Both teams have only gotten better, so it'll be a hell of a match-up. Can't wait for it."
In a wild season of parity in the Shore, Wall has stayed above the fray as the only remaining unbeaten team in the conference. They need three more wins to be the first Wall team to go undefeated since the 1983 squad that finished 11-0 and won its second straight state title.
"We've gotten used to being a target as No. 1 (in the Shore),'' DeSarno said. "We love it because we know that every team is going to come out and give us their best game possible. We just want to give them our best, too, and show the Shore and the state that we can play with anyone."
Wall 35, Lacey 18
. W L
First downs 16 15
Rushes-yards 37-255 17-32
Passing 4-7-0 20-29-2
Passing yards 105 191
Penalties 8-70 5-37
Lacey (7-4) 0 6 6 6 - 18
Wall (10-0) 0 21 7 7 - 35
L: Stevens 1-yard run (kick failed).
W: Rezk 18-yard pass from Peters (Oakley kick).
W: DeSarno (Oakley kick).
W: Galos 11-yard pass from Peters (Oakley kick).
L: Kudlacik 22-yard pass from Bacchetta (run failed).
W: DeSarno 28-yard run (Oakley kick).
L: Stevens 1-yard run (pass failed).
W: Peters 15-yard run (Oakley kick).
Rushing - W: Larkin 6-29, Peters 11-112, DeSarno 17-99, McNally 3-15. L: Kudlacik 6-28, Stevens 4-7, Jensen 6-1, Brunatti 1-(-4).
Passing - W: Peters 4-7-0 105. L: Brunatti 18-27-2 153, Jensen 1-1-0 16, Bacchetta 1-1-0 22.
Receiving - W: Larkin 2-76, Rezk 1-18, Galos 1-11. L: Bacchetta 6-55, Jensen 2-4, Evans 6-69, Kudlacik 4-56, Dodero 1-3, Kuligoski 1-4.
Interceptions - W: Sasso 1-0, Peters 1-0.