No. 4 Donovan Catholic shuts down No. 1 Toms River North to end Mariners’ 17-game winning streak
TOMS RIVER – If a team was going to beat Toms River North this season it would have to be with a high-scoring offense winning a shootout, right? It was unreasonable to expect a team to shut down a Mariners’ offense that set a state-record for points scored last season and featured the reigning New Jersey Player of the Year at quarterback.
Slow them down? Sure. Outright stopping them cold? Unlikely.
Except that’s exactly what Donovan Catholic did on Friday night.
In one of the biggest games in program history, the Griffins, ranked No. 4 in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16, delivered an epic defensive performance to bottle up No. 1 Toms River North and produce a stunning 21-7 Shore Conference American Division victory that snapped the Mariners’ 17-game winning streak. A 3-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Najee Calhoun with 6:36 left in the fourth quarter broke a 7-7 tie and stood up as the game-winning score.
The victory itself wasn’t shocking even though it was an upset. Donovan Catholic is a very talented team led by a head coach and an offensive coordinator who have won multiple championships throughout their careers. The shock comes from the manner in which the Griffins took down the No. 1 team in the Shore. Their defense held the Mariners’ to a paltry 163 yards of offense, including just 42 yards in the second half. Toms River North senior quarterback Micah Ford ran for 104 yards on 14 carries but was held to completing just 4 of 12 passes for 51 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. The seven points scored were Toms River North’s fewest since Week 4 of the 2021 season.
Senior cornerback Najee Morgan and senior linebacker Roman Moyers both intercepted Ford with each turnover occurring inside the Donovan 25-yard line. Moyers and senior linebacker JJ Correa had one sack each and senior defensive linemen Sam Rock III and Zaeir Day shared a sack and forced a fumble late in the game. The main front seven of Day, Rock, and junior Lou DiBiase along the line and Correa, Moyers, senior Hunter Johnson, and junior Joe Czerwinski at linebacker won the battle against a physically imposing Toms River North offensive line.
“We’ve been training and working all offseason for this,” Rock said. “We have great guys and we just keep working and getting better every day.”
“I think we played really good team defense,” said Donovan Catholic head coach Dan Curcione, who also runs the Griffins’ defense. “It was guys taking on blocks and refusing to get pushed off the ball. Our front did a really nice job against their line not getting pushed into the second level. We did a couple different things we don’t normally do and the kids struggled with it at times during practice; I almost had a heart attack on Thursday because we didn’t look sharp. But we came out and really executed as a group. It was a great group effort.”
“I’m a defensive guy at heart so I didn’t want this to be a shootout, I wanted this to be a ball-control, we-win-the-time-of-possession game. If we didn’t play good defense in that type of game we weren’t going to win. Did I imagine it would be seven points? I don’t think like that. I just worry about it play-to-play.”
That formula worked on the offensive side of the ball, as well. Sophomore running back Najee Calhoun finished with 158 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 23 carries in a workmanlike performance that was punctuated with a game-clinching 59-yard touchdown run with 1:19 left in the game. Big plays were hard to come by against both defenses but the Griffins produced another one of them when senior quarterback Todd Lambertson tossed a 49-yard touchdown pass to wide-open Emanuel Gerena in the second quarter. Outside of those two chunk plays it was a lot of three-, four-, and five-yard runs that served as body blows in a slugfest for time of possession.
“It really just came down to who wanted it more and it showed on the field and on the scoreboard,” said senior offensive tackle Adam Yevchak. “We’ve been working for this since the bye week started, ever since the offseason we’ve had this game circled on our calendar. It’s honestly surreal. The environment here was great and we fed off the crowd the whole night.”
“This is a moment to remember,” Calhoun said. The fans were excellent the whole time and I felt like I had infinite energy. We had a bye week and some extra time for preparation and we executed the whole time.”
Donovan Catholic stopped Toms River North on the game’s opening series when Ford scrambled and lofted a pass downfield but Morgan raced over for an interception at the 2-yard line. The Mariners’ defense forced a three-and-out and took over at midfield, but Donovan had made the champ bleed with that turnover. The Griffins’ confidence was growing.
However, Toms River North struck first to take a 7-0 lead when Ford connected with senior wideout Jeremiah Pruitt for a 36-yard touchdown pass midway through the first quarter. Usually that signals the Mariners’ are about to take off, but in this game, it was the only time the Mariners would find the end zone.
“As soon as they scored it gave us extra energy,” Calhoun said. “Some teams get down but we’re different. We knew we had to go out and execute after that.”
The Griffins responded immediately to tie the game 7-7, moving 76 yards in seven plays and scoring on Gerena’s 49-yard touchdown reception. A 14-yard catch by Calhoun moved the chains on third-and-10 and two plays later a busted coverage left Gerena wide open for an easy pitch and catch from Lambertson with 33 seconds left in the first quarter.
The pace of the game slowed considerably from there thanks to the combination of great defense from both teams and a slew of penalties that negated several big plays. Toms River North finished with nine penalties for 82 yards and Donovan was flagged nine times for 65 yards. The Mariners nearly scored in the second quarter but one of Ford’s passes to the end zone went through the hands of a receiver. Two players earlier, a penalty wiped out a 25-yard pass from Ford to Nasir Jackson that would have converted a second-and-20.
A scoreless second quarter sent the game to halftime tied 7-7 and the defenses continued to dominate through the third quarter. Donovan had a promising drive to start the third quarter but a holding penalty put it behind the sticks and the drive short-circuited at midfield. Ford broke a 20-yard run on the Mariners’ next series, but a sack by Moyers for a 10-yard loss was followed by Moyers’ interception on the next play.
Donovan fumbled on its next possession with Pruitt recovering at midfield. A holding penalty on first down made it first-and-20 for Toms River North and Donovan’s defense yielded nothing on the next three plays to force a punt. Correa nearly blocked the punt and his presence on the rush forced a short kick that traveled just 20 yards to the DC 39-yard line.
Donovan took possession with 9:52 on the clock and the game tied 7-7. After a false start on first down, the Griffins’ ground game went to work with an 8-yard gain by Lambertson, a 9-yard gain by junior receiver Michael Thomas III, and a 17-yard gain by Calhoun down to the Toms River North 28-yard line. After a five-yard gain by Calhoun on first down and a stop for no gain on second down, Lambertson looked to the end zone for Gerena on third down and picked up a pass interference penalty that moved the ball to the Mariners’ 12-yard line. An 11-yard catch by Gerena on third-and-12 brought up a fourth-and-1 from the 3-yard line and a decision to make for Curcione. To kick, or not to kick?
“I did think about the field goal but I didn’t like the angle of it being on the right hash and being that close,” Curcione said. “We also felt we’ve been doing a good job defensively and if we didn’t get it they’d have to go 98 yards. And we had confidence in the offensive line that we would get it. We went with Najee, and he’s a special player.”
On fourth down, Calhoun took a handoff and found room off the right side, scoring from three yards out to give the Griffins a 14-7 advantage with 6:36 left in the game.
A squib kick by Donovan and a solid return by senior Josh Moore gave Toms River North good field position at its own 43-yard line with 6:29 on the clock. Ford rushed for seven yards on first down, then gained 18 more to quickly advance the ball to the DC 32-yard line. On first down Toms River North looked like it was going to tie the game but Ford’s pass to a wide-open receiver was dropped. On the next play, Ford was stopped for no gain and stayed down after the play. Trainers came out and were seen working on his right leg, and he limped off the field and did not return. TJ Valerio entered at quarterback and scrambled for a 1-yard gain on third down and was sacked by Correa on fourth down to turn the ball over.
Donovan was feeling it now with a chance to close out the game. A holding penalty on first down erased a 60-yard touchdown run by Thomas but that only delayed the celebration. Three plays later, Calhoun turned the corner around the left side and raced down the home sideline for a 59-yard touchdown run and a 21-7 lead with 1:19 on the clock.
It was appropriate that Donovan’s defense had the final say. With Toms River North desperately trying to get something going in the final minute, Day and Rock combined to sack Valerio and force a fumble that DiBiase recovered near midfield. Lambertson took a knee to run out the clock and complete a massive early-season statement victory for the Griffins.
“This shows us we can do anything we put our minds to,” Yevchak said. “They’re a really good team and we’re going to face more really good teams down the road. This gives us a great confidence boost.”
“It shows us that if we do what we are capable of doing we can be a great team,” Calhoun said.
“I said it from the get-go, I like my team,” Curcione said. “They are really fun to coach and they love playing football. We don’t have a huge roster and everybody’s a part of it. Down to the freshmen, it’s a total football team.”
Curcione wasn’t ready to proclaim this victory as a program-defining moment or anything of that nature. That’s just not his style. While he understood his team was the underdog entering Friday night, it was not by the margin many assumed.
“We’re 3-0 and we have Wall next week,” Curcione said when asked about the game’s impact moving forward. “It was a big win and the kids believed or else we wouldn’t have come out and played like we did. No one gave us a fighting shot and you know what, we thought we had a good opportunity to win this game.”
No. 4 Donovan Catholic 21, No. 1 Toms River North 7
|Toms River North||Donovan Catholic|
|TRN (3-1, 1-1)||7||0||0||0||7|
|Donovan (3-0, 1-1)||7||0||0||14||21|
TRN – Jeremiah Pruitt 36-yard pass from Micah Ford (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
DC – Emanuel Gerena 49-yard pass from Todd Lambertson (Dante Priolo kick)
DC – Najee Calhoun 3-yard run (Dante Priolo kick)
DC – Najee Calhoun 59-yard run (Dante Priolo kick)
RUSHING – TRN: Micah Ford 14-104, Josh Moore 5-12, TJ Valerio 3-(-11); DC: Najee Calhoun 23-158, Michael Thomas III 7-35, Todd Lambertson 5-28, Zach LaBarca 1-0.
PASSING – TRN: Micah Ford 4-12-2, 51; TJ Valerio 1-1-0, 7; DC: Todd Lambertson 6-11-0, 93.
RECEIVING – TRN: Jeremiah Pruitt 1-36, Tareq Council 3-15, Camryn Thomas 1-7; DC: Emanuel Gerena 2-60, Najee Calhoun 3-24, Hunter Johnson 1-9.
INTERCEPTIONS – DC: Najee Morgan 1-0, Roman Moyers 1-0.