Monday Rewind: St. John Vianney, Manalapan, Mike Bickford Highlight Week Eight
First off, Happy Halloween to everyone out there. May your candy coma be everything you hoped it could be on what is always one of the more fun holidays of the year.
Now, on to the football.
A thrilling win by St. John Vianney in a top-five match-up, a comeback that stamped Manalapan as a state title favorite, and more monster performances by Central's Mike Bickford, Toms River North's Mike Husni, Jackson Memorial's Mike Gawlik and Freehold's Ashante Worthy highlighted Week Eight in Shore Conference football.
With just two weeks to go before the first round off the NJSIAA playoffs kick off, undefeated Manalapan (8-0) essentially declared itself the team to beat in Central Jersey Group V with a 21-10 win over Piscataway right in the Chiefs' backyard up at Rutgers on Saturday.
The Braves locked up the top seed as they seek their second title in three seasons and the second in school history. Piscataway has been viewed as the primary team in Manalapan's path, and one they could easily see again in the playoffs. The Braves rallied from a 10-0 second-half deficit, taking the lead for good on an eight-yard touchdown run by junior tailback Naim Mayfield, who had 174 yards rushing in the win.
Junior Luke Corcione also threw a crucial 8-yard touchdown pass to Chris Maksimik to get the rally started in the third quarter.
It's now 12-0 or bust for the Braves, who look to lock up the outright Class A North title when they take on Freehold Township (7-1), another CJ Group V contender, at home this week. An upset by the Patriots would give them a tie for the division crown. The game is the ninth for both teams, so the result will not count toward their power-point totals, as only the first eight games are used in the seeding.
I'm sure there will be some debate for the top spot in the final Shore Sports Network Top 10 if No. 2 Manalapan and No. 1 Toms River North both go unbeaten. St. John Vianney could also potentially make its own argument to leapfrog to the top if the Lancers can find a way to take down state power St. Joseph's-Montvale and win the Non-Public Group III bracket.
The tough part with assessing the Braves is that unless Freehold Township or Howell surprises in the postseason to gain a foothold in the final Top 10 rankings, Manalapan will not have a single win over a Top 10 Shore Conference team on its resume.
The Braves will have to be evaluated by their performance against top Greater Middlesex County teams like Piscataway and Old Bridge, the latter of whom they beat 41-0 earlier in the season. A Jackson Memorial team that entered the game below .500 at 3-4 just beat Old Bridge 27-13 this weekend, and the GMC overall looks to be having a down year.
That makes it tough for Manalapan to really get that signature win to argue for the No. 1 spot, although I'm guessing they wouldn't really be worrying too much about it if they added another state title trophy to the case. Plus the Braves have never had a 12-0 season, so that would be another nice piece of program history for them.
Of course, that's all down the line for now. Anything can happen in the playoffs, so the Shore's top teams have to finish the job first before we can start really arguing about the final No. 1 spot.
Making a Stand
Speaking of St. John Vianney, the Lancers pulled out the most thrilling win of the weekend when they held off Middletown South, 23-20, at "The Swamp" in a game that came down to a goal-line stand inside the final three minutes.
The Lancers came up with three straight stops from inside the five-yard line to force a game-tying field goal attempt by the Eagles that was no good. You don't see too many teams stop a squad like Middletown South on the road inside the 5-yard line like that, so it's a credit to the playmakers on St. John Vianney's defense.
They also were very poised given that the crowd was going nuts after Middletown South's Maxx Imsho had returned an interception 41 yards to the 4-yard line. The Lancers quickly composed themselves and got into the backfield thanks to a surge in the middle of the defensive line by Rutgers recruits Micah Clark and Jamaal Beaty that allowed linebacker Johnny Buchanan and safety Chris Chukwuneke to run free and get hits for a loss.
The Lancers persevered despite four turnovers, and the defense only allowed one sustained drive in the entire game. Middletown South's other points came when wideout Jeremy Joyce grabbed a tipped pass and scored a 56-yard touchdown and when Samson Dube returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown.
The win also showed that the Villanova-bound Chukwuneke is one of the more versatile playmakers in the Shore. He can hurt you on the ground, as a receiver out of the backfield and on defense at safety.
The Lancers, who can wrap up their third straight outright Class A Central title this week with a win over Monmouth (2-6), are now focused on winning their first state title since 1981 after falling short against DePaul in last year's Non-Public Group III final. Afterward head coach Derek Sininsky told me that his team didn't even consider games against Rumson or Middletown South "big games" that would cause any nervousness because everything has been geared toward finishing the job in the postseason.
The win also was an emotional one for Clark, who tearfully thanked his teammates after the game for keeping his spirits up. His mother, Lorraine Beaty, was in the hospital undergoing her fourth back surgery and could not make it to the game. Sininsky said the team is giving her the game ball from a night that was one to remember for the black-and-gold.
As for making a case to be the Shore's No. 1 team, that will have to come in the state playoffs for St. John Vianney. The Lancers held on for dear life to beat the Eagles, whereas No. 1 Toms River North impressively dispatched of the defending state champions, 41-21, a week earlier.
As for Middletown South, its schedule from hell continues this week with yet another Top 10 match-up against Wall in a huge Class B North game. The Eagles can clinch at least a tie for the title with a victory, while a loss would create a three-way tie for first with Wall and Manasquan, although Manasquan has a tough divisional game of its own against Red Bank Catholic.
If Middletown South wins and Manasquan loses, the Eagles would clinch the outright Class B North title.
Making the Best of It
You have to admire a Central team that did not let its season get completely derailed after being ruled ineligible for the NJSIAA playoffs by rule after having three players ejected in a win over Toms River East in their second game of the season.
The Golden Eagles lost to Wall the week the ruling was handed down, and they haven't lost since. A big reason has been senior running back Mike Bickford, who was at it again with 288 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a 21-7 takedown of No. 9 Brick in Class A South.
The win sets up a showdown with No. 1 Toms River North for the Class A South title this week, so while Central won't get a chance to go for a state championship, it will play for a championship this season under first-year head coach Justin Fumando.
“Tonight was our state semifinal game,” Bickford told SSN's Bob Badders. “And next week will be our state final.”
Bickford also passed Kalyph Hardy to become Central's all-time leading rusher in the win over the Green Dragons. He now has 1,628 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns this season.
In addition to Bickford, the Central defense deserves a shoutout for limiting Brick to 140 total yards. Senior Jared Giamo had two tackles for a loss, Bickford had an interception and a fumble recovery, junior defensive back Jonathan Banks had two pass breakups and junior linebacker Ryan Emmetts had a sack to lead the way.
Making it more impressive is that Central moved up from Class B South this season, going from competing against Group II and III schools to IV and V opponents, and has more than held its own.
Husni Makes History
In further cementing himself as an all-time Shore Conference great, Toms River North senior quarterback Mike Husni has become the first Shore player in history to register three straight seasons of at least 1,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing.
His 80 yards rushing in a 55-13 win over Toms River South in "The Civil War" put him over 1,000 for the year. He already was well over 1,000 passing and added another 195 yards and two touchdowns in the air in the win. Rutgers recruit Bryce Watts was his main target with 4 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.
His 20 touchdown passes for the season are a Toms River North record, passing Anthony Penna, who was the signal-caller on the undefeated 2007 team and is now Husni's quarterback coach for the Mariners. Husni also now has 97 career touchdowns between rushing and passing, which also is a Mariners record.
---Another week, another huge day for Freehold Boro junior Ashante Worthy. He turned in his third 300-yard rushing game of the season, a rare feat in Shore Conference history, with 301 yards rushing and four touchdowns as well as 106 yards passing in a 31-10 win over Edison. He now has 1,301 yards rushing for the season and has accounted for 21 touchdowns in Freehold's current four-game winning streak. The win also most likely cemented a playoff spot in Central Jersey Group IV for the Colonials.
---Right behind Worthy in the 300-yard rushing game department this season is Jackson Memorial senior Mike Gawlik, who went over the mark for the second time this season with 312 yards and three touchdowns on a school-record 41 carries in a 27-13 win over Old Bridge that was huge for the Jaguars' playoff hopes. Gawlik is the first player in school history with two 300-yard rushing games, and his 1,604 yards rushing is right in striking distance of the school record of 1,685 set by Will Clayton in 2003, according to Jackson historian Jim Colbert. Gawlik's 20 touchdowns are also only two shy of the single-season school record of 22 set by Nick Castellano in 2001. The two-time defending Central Jersey Group IV champions solidified a spot in the field and once again hope to make an underdog run to the crown like last year to become the first Jackson Memorial team to ever win three straight state titles.
---Ocean showed just how strong Class B North is with a 41-7 win over previously unbeaten Point Boro. Pittsburgh-bound senior quarterback Kenny Pickett accounted for four touchdowns in the win and Ocean's defense held Point Boro to 72 yards rushing. The Spartans are a middle-of-the-pack team in the division and entered at 3-4, yet blew out the Class B South champion to keep their playoff hopes alive in Central Jersey Group III. They are currently tied for eighth in power points with defending champion Rumson-Fair Haven, although the Bulldogs still have one more game that will count toward the seeding whereas Ocean has played eight games.
---Freehold Township clinched back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in program history thanks to a 36-14 win over East Brunswick. It also marks just the third state playoff appearance overall in school history. The Patriots now have a huge game this week against undefeated Manalapan for a piece of the Class A North title.
---Southern got back to the .500 mark after an 0-3 start and appears to have solidified a spot in the South Jersey Group V playoffs with a 25-20 win over Lacey. John Dolphin had a pair of touchdowns to help power the victory.
---Raritan beat Spotswood 42-6 in a must-win game for the playoff hopes of the defending Central Jersey Group II champions. Senior quarterback Marc Carnivale threw three touchdown passes to help the Rockets move into the ninth spot in power points with one more game to go against Group III Red Bank (3-4) that will be another must-win this week.
---Red Bank Catholic and its plague of injured quarterbacks got some great news this week as sophomore Steve Lubischer returned from a shoulder injury to power a 35-0 win over Red Bank. RBC was down to its fourth quarterback before Lubischer made his return. Lubischer, who was injured in a season-opening loss to Middletown South, threw for 184 yards and a career-high three touchdowns in the win. Freshman tight end Kevin Bauman had touchdown catches of 22 and 72 yards for a team that appears to have a bright future without almost everyone coming back next year.
---Pinelands recorded its first shutout since 2009 in a 21-0 win over Jackson Liberty. The Wildcats' four-game winning streak is their longest since winning four in a row in 2004, which was the last time they finished with a winning record at 6-5.
---Sophomore Connor Robbins looks like the next playmaker in the pipeline for a senior-laden Middletown North team. He had a career-high 153 yards rushing and a touchdown on 36 carries in a 38-34 win over Long Branch. The Lions now have a big match-up with Ocean this week to secure a top-three seed and a first-round home game in the North II Group IV bracket.
---Rumson-Fair Haven quarterback Mike O'Connor made his return after missing two games with turf toe, accounting for three touchdowns in a 42-0 win over Monmouth. The Bulldogs, who are shooting for their fourth straight state title, now have a must-win game against playoff contender Carteret to ensure their spot in the Central Jersey Group III field.
---Marlboro senior standout Cameron Caorsi returned at tailback after missing three games due to injury and went over the 100-yard mark along with fellow senior Jonny Helff in a 42-21 win over Toms River East.
---Lakewood ended a two-game skid and picked up a crucial win for its playoff hopes in South Jersey Group III with a 24-17 win over Barnegat. The Piners also kept their hopes alive for a share of the Class B South title. If they can beat Pinelands this week and Barnegat can upset first-place Point Boro, the Piners would tie the Panthers for the title. The two teams shared last year's division crown.
---Keyport has won five straight after knocking off rival Keansburg thanks to a pair of touchdowns by Greg Robinson. The winning streak is their longest since 2012, and their seven wins are the most since the Red Raiders went 8-3 in 2010.