MANALAPAN - When Manalapan barely escaped a monumental upset by Brick Memorial in the first round of the state playoffs last week, Braves head coach Ed Gurrieri had a particular concern.

"I went out of my way to talk to all the leaders on the team to see if we hit a wall and were just worn out and tired,'' Gurrieri said. "Now I know that we've got a lot left in the tank. We proved that tonight."

Gurrieri and the rest of those wondering whether last week's heart-stopping win over the Mustangs was a last gasp or a blip on the radar got a clear answer on Friday night when top-seeded Manalapan took it to three-time defending sectional champion Sayreville in a 34-7 victory in the Central Jersey Group V semifinals. The Braves (10-0) advanced to their third straight state final and will play seventh-seeded Hunterdon Central on the weekend of Dec. 7-8, most likely at Rutgers Stadium, in search of the program's first state championship.

Tyler Leonetti, Dan Anerella and Manalapan celebrated after punching their third straight ticket to a state final with a dominating 34-7 win over Sayreville in the Central Jersey Group V semifinals. (Photo by Scott Stump)
Tyler Leonetti, Dan Anerella and Manalapan celebrated after punching their third straight ticket to a state final with a dominating 34-7 win over Sayreville in the Central Jersey Group V semifinals. (Photo by Scott Stump)

"Everybody knows Sayreville is a big team with three straight state championships,'' said senior defensive end Nick Douglas. "We had to show everybody that Manalapan is not the team that showed up last week."

Manalapan's defense was suffocating, holding the explosive Bombers' offense to 121 total yards, 52 of which came on a garbage-time run in the final minutes. The Bombers (8-3) had knocked Manalapan out of the playoffs twice in the last four seasons, including the 2011 Central Jersey Group IV final, and the Braves became the first Shore Conference team in 17 games dating back to 2009 to beat Sayreville.

"Sayreville has crushed our dreams a couple of these years, so we had to do it for everyone - the fans and all those former players who got let down against them,'' said senior tailback Tyler Leonetti. "We had to come prove a point. We don't lose on this field. We had to show that we're ready to finish it this year."

Unlike last week's 14-13 comeback win, on Friday night it was all Manalapan from beginning to end. The offense set the tone early, and the defense swallowed up a running game that was averaging 358 yards per game featuring FBS prospect Myles Hartsfield and senior Deion Miller, a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. The Braves held the Bombers to 75 yards rushing on 27 attempts, 52 of which came on a run by Hartsfield with Sayreville trailing 34-0 in the final minutes.

"This is probably the fastest defense in Manalapan history, and we knew we could run with these guys,'' Douglas said.

The Braves were particularly outstanding in containing the perimeter. Douglas and junior defensive end Kyle Mullen, along with the outside linebacker rotation of Chris Noesges, Mike D'Angelo and Will Meany, would not let Hartsfield and Miller get outside. Noesges, one of the Shore's top linebackers, was particularly dominant with 13 tackles. Gurrieri likened the match-up to Stanford-Oregon, with the Braves wanting to run downhill, and the Bombers wanting to get to the perimeter.

"We set the wall outside and sent (Hartsfield) back inside and had the safeties fill,'' Douglas said. "I think we really set the wall well outside with the outside linebackers and the corners."

"We shut it down completely,'' Gurrieri said. "This defense is not the defenses of the past. This is the fastest defense we've ever had, and to contain two 1,000-yard rushers like we did tonight, I think it was tremendous."

Also, in past playoff losses against Sayreville, Manalapan fell in an early hole and was pushed out of its comfort zone of running the ball. On Friday night, the Braves jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and never looked back, which also forced Sayreville to have to throw the ball more than it wanted.

After the defense forced a three-and-out to open the game, Manalpaan went 49 yards in four plays, scoring when junior quarterback Dan Anerella hit senior wideout Saeed Blacknall, a Rutgers recruit, for a 35-yard touchdown and Blacknall's 13th touchdown catch of the season.

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"That was a great momentum play by Saeed,'' Leonetti said. "Right away they bit on my fake and when they came up, Saeed was wide open."

"It was all about just attacking them fast and jumping on them really quickly,'' Blacknall said. "Last week definitely a wake-up call. We just had to come out and show them that that wasn't us last week."

The Braves took the 7-0 lead into the second quarter, then drove 39 yards in six plays, helping by a roughing-the-passer penalty that kept the drive alive. Leonetti burst up the middle for a 14-yard score and a 14-0 lead with 9:57 left in the period on his way to 138 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 23 carries.

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A sack by Douglas on third down forced another Sayreville three-and-out, which led to a five-play, 50-yard drive as the defense continued to put the offense in great field position. Leonetti ran for an eight-yard touchdown and a 21-0 lead with 5:40 left in the half as Manalapan showed it meant business after the question marks following last week's game.

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"We kept the momentum and never lost it,'' Douglas said.

The Braves took a 21-0 lead into the locker room after holding Sayreville to 45 total yards and three first downs in the first half. They all but put the game away with an eight-play, 87-yard drive to start the third quarter. The march was keyed by a 53-yard run by Leonetti and finished off with a 7-yard touchdown run by junior tailback Imamu Mayfield for a 28-0 advantage with 7:36 left in the quarter.

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"When we hit like this on all cylinders, I think we're really good,'' Gurrieri said.

Manalapan's defense forced four straight three-and-outs by Sayreville from the start of the second half, holding the Bombers to 12 total yards in that span before putting the cherry on top of one of their most satisfying wins in program history. Leonetti returned a punt 55 yards to Sayreville's 5-yard line, and senior fullback Nelson Rivera plowed in from the 1-yard line three plays later for a 34-0 lead with 7:23 left in the game after the extra point was blocked.

Sayreville avoided the shutout thanks to a 12-yard touchdown catch by sophomore Linwood Crump, but the Braves had already made their statement against one of the most respected public school programs in New Jersey.

"That's a great program,'' Gurrieri said. "They're three-time defending champions and they were on a roll, but I just think our guys are determined to finish this season."

The Braves can lock up their fourth straight outright Class A North title with a win over Marlboro (2-7) in their rivalry game on Wednesday, and then can turn their focus to Hunterdon Central, whom they beat in last year's semifinals. After starting 11-0 last season only to come up short against South Brunswick in the final, the Braves are looking to fill in that final gap in their resume.

"This is the time,'' Douglas said. "We have to get it done this time. It's now or never."

Box score

Manalapan 34, Sayreville 7

.                                     M            S

First downs                13            8

Rushes-yards          39-189      27-75

Passing                    5-10-0       8-22-0

Passing yards           108            46

Fumbles-lost              0-0           0-0

Penalties                   2-10          1-15

Sayreville (8-3)          0 0 0 7 - 7

Manalapan (10-0)      7 14 7 6 - 34

Scoring summary

M: Blacknall 35-yard pass from Anerella (Caggiano kick).

M: Leonetti 14-yard run (Caggiano kick).

M: Leonetti 8-yard run (Caggiano kick).

M: Mayfield 7-yard run (Caggiano kick).

M: Rivera 1-yard run (kick blocked).

S: Crump 12-yard pass from Pressley (Lapinski kick).

Individual statistics

Rushing - M: Leonetti 23-138, Rivera 6-26, Anerella 4-8, Mayfield 5-24, Lombana 1-(-7). S: Hartsfield 7-64, Miller 11-20, Pressley 8-(-4), Davis 1-(-5).

Passing - M: Anerella 5-10-0 108. S: Pressley 8-22-0 46.

Receiving - M: Blacknall 2-47, Leonetti 1-10, Krause 2-51. S: Hartsfield 4-14, Crump 4-32.


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