Players to Watch and the Storylines to Follow as the NJSIAA Playoffs Get Underway
All those preseason previews, all that guesswork about who might be the last teams standing, and now we're here: It's playoff time.
These are the games that get talked about at reunions 20 years from now and turn All-Shore players into all-time legends. This year there are 25 Shore Conference teams in the hunt across 10 different brackets, so it's wall-to-wall football until championship weekend in December.
Bob Badders has you covered as far as a bracket-by-bracket breakdown of what to watch for when the NJSIAA Tournament kicks off this weekend. This is an overall look at the storylines, players to watch and more from across the Shore as the conference seeks to break its own record of six state champions in one season that it has set the past two years.
Most Exciting Offense
If you haven't been to the Shore Conference's Greatest Show on Turf yet, you should get to Gernerd Field in Toms River to check out the Mariners as Toms River North guns for its second straight South Jersey Group V title. They open up with Atlantic City on Friday night, where the offense that averages a Shore-best 49 points per game will give you some of this....
And for the Rutgers fans especially, some of this....
And some of that....
And then finish it off with this.
It all adds up to potentially the greatest Shore Conference offense of all time if the Mariners can stay at that level throughout the postseason and become the first back-to-back state champions in school history.
Given the teams unbeaten St. John Vianney has faced this season, including a pair of No. 1 seeds in Middletown South and Brick, three-time defending state champion Rumson-Fair Haven, defending state champion Raritan and perennial contender Red Bank Catholic, it's pretty impressive that they are third in the Shore in allowing just 9.9 points per game.
Brick scored both of its touchdowns off fumble recoveries deep in St. John Vianney territory, Middletown South only had one sustained drive and was stuffed at the goal line with the game on the line, and Rumson was held to a field goal. Raritan was limited to a pair of touchdowns in a 28-point win by the Lancers, and RBC only managed a pair of touchdowns against the Lancers starters.
A big reason is because of players like linebacker Johnny Buchanan, Rutgers-bound two-way lineman Micah Clark, two-way star Chris Chukwuneke, ballhawk A.J. Calabro (4 INTs) and quarterback assassin Nick Densieski.
This season has been all about finishing the job for the Lancers. They went 11-1 last year and lost to DePaul and unstoppable running back Kareem Walker, who's now at Michigan.
The Lancers had a high-octane offense last year but couldn't get stops in the final in a 40-17 loss. Once again, they have a high-scoring offense this year (32 ppg), but it will be the defense that decides whether they will win their first state title since 1981 by taking the crown in Non-Public Group III.
They will have to go through a tougher gauntlet than any of the 25 Shore Conference playoff teams to do it. They have undefeated Camden Catholic on the road on Saturday and then would most likely have the state's No. 1 team, perennial power St. Joseph's-Montvale, on the road in the semifinals just to get to the championship game.
Best First-Round Game
(8) Raritan (5-3) at (1) Lincoln (5-4), Saturday at 4 p.m.
I know it's not a showdown of undefeated squads like St. John Vianney-Camden Catholic, which should also be a good one, but this is a rematch of last year's Central Jersey Group II final. A Raritan team that entered the playoffs with a 3-5 record shocked the undefeated Lions 28-26 on an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Marc Carnivale to wideout Nick Pasquin with 10 seconds left in the game for a moment that has been played on a loop in Hazlet for a year.
Pasquin is now at Susquehanna, but Carnivale is back as a senior to try to work the magic once again beside leading rusher Vito Aleo. Lincoln basically got the No. 1 seed over unbeaten Roselle because of the ridiculous change to the power-point system this year by the NJSIAA that awarded teams more points for playing the non-public juggernauts from the North Jersey Super Football Conference United Red and White Division. So Lincoln's inspiring 47-6 loss to St. Peter's Prep netted them more points than many teams got for multiple wins.
Anyway, it at least gave us this first-round showdown. The atmosphere at last year's game was so charged that multiple fights broke out after the game at Kean University, resulting in four people from Jersey City being arrested. I don't want that to happen again by any means, but it shows that this is going to be a game where emotions run high.
The Rockets have won five straight coming in, while Lincoln has lost two straight. Raritan has never won back-to-back state titles, so it's going to have to do it the hard way on the road if it wants to make school history.
Best Potential Semifinal Game
(4) Rumson-Fair Haven at (1) Somerville
Obviously both teams have to take care of business in the first round before we get here, but this one could be a doozy in Central Jersey Group III.
The Bulldogs have won three straight state titles and are shooting for Shore Conference immortality as just the third program to ever win four in a row. The backbone of their program is the defense under head coach Jerry Schulte, which has allowed 7 points per game this year, ranked second in the Shore, behind UMass-bound linebacker Mike Ruane. They have two shutouts in a row in the state finals.
Meanwhile, Somerville has been the state's most prolific offensive team at 50.4 points per game. I still think it's pretty wild that their coach is the former owner of the New Jersey Devils, Jeff Vanderbeek. You don't see too many millionaires conquer the pro sports world and then decide to coach high school football, but obviously it's working out.
So you have the state's most explosive offense against a shutdown defense. Doesn't get much more fun than that.
The Heaviest Favorite
Considering the Braves already beat prime Central Jersey Group V contenders Piscataway and Old Bridge, which both have wins against potential semifinal opponent South Brunswick, it would be a big letdown if Manalapan doesn't polish off its first 12-0 season in school history.
The Braves also just beat another potential semifinal opponent, Freehold Township, 35-0 last week to win the Class A North title. With quarterback Luke Corcione and his army of receivers plus 1,000-yard rusher Naim Mayfield and a defense led by linebacker Tommy Pearce, Manalapan is arguably the strongest favorite of any Shore Conference team to win a title.
Obviously, No. 1 Toms River North is a heavy favorite as well, but South Jersey Group V is traditionally a tough bracket, plus the Mariners haven't already beaten the strongest contenders in the field like Manalapan. Regardless, people will still be pretty stunned if the Mariners don't finish unbeaten.
Don't Sleep On...
Mater Dei Prep
The Seraphs have marauded their way through their schedule without anybody giving them a competitive game. They already have a school-record nine wins and the program's first division title, but now comes the part where they can announce their arrival to the entire state.
Mater Dei Prep has never won a state title, last reaching the finals in 1999, but this is a talented team that certainly has the weapons. They have an FBS-caliber quarterback in junior George Pearson throwing to an FBS-level receiver in Eddie Lewis plus playmaker Kyle Devaney, they have a rugged linebacker and running back (and yes, FBS prospect) in Marvin Pierre, plus plenty of other talent.
Now the question is whether they can take that step to where they can knock off a program the caliber of St. Joseph's-Hammonton. Mater Dei faces St. Anthony in the first round of Non-Public Group II in a game it should handle, and then would face the Wildcats in the semifinals barring an upset.
That would be one of the biggest home games in Mater Dei history. This isn't a vintage St. Joe's team as they are 6-3, but their schedule was much more challenging than the Seraphs' slate. They have won 25 (!) sectional titles under Hall of Fame coach Paul Sacco, but Mater Dei has a coach who's been through the wars up at Brooklyn's Poly Prep in Dino Mangiero.
The biggest question is whether Mater Dei can take it up several notches against the Wildcats after blowing out a schedule that didn't feature any Shore Sports Network Top 10 teams. If they can knock them off and finish the job in a bracket that also features perennially tough Holy Spirit, they will announce their arrival to the state as the new sheriff in town, not to mention polish off the school's first undefeated season.
Ready for a Repeat
In addition to the aforementioned Raritan, Toms River North and Rumson, there are three other teams defending state titles from last year, and all of them have a legitimate shot to retain their championships.
In Central Jersey Group IV, Jackson Memorial enters on a similar trajectory as last year. They had some mid-season hiccups before barreling their way to a second straight CJ IV title by beating Brick Memorial in the final.
This year they enter at just 5-4, but they have won three straight as senior running back Mike Gawlik seems to set another school record every week. He leads the state with 1,803 yards rushing. He is easily in striking distance (for him) of the school's first 2,000-yard rushing season heading into this weekend's first-round game against Nottingham, and we've seen what Shore stars have done to some Mercer County teams over the years in the postseason.
It looks like for the third straight year the Jaguars could potentially collide with Brick in the postseason. That wouldn't happen until the final, as the Green Dragons are the No. 1 seed, and Jackson would have to beat Nottingham and most likely a tough Allentown team to get there first. In each of the past two years, Brick has beaten Jackson in the regular season, only for the Jaguars to turn the tables in the playoffs.
Brick has played a tough schedule, it's just been a problem keeping all of its stars like Ja'Sir Taylor and quarterback Anthony Costanza healthy. The Green Dragons are looking for their second title in the last four seasons.
Once again, the Green Dragons beat the Jaguars 29-6 this season, so we'll see how it turns out. No Jackson team has ever won three straight state titles.
Middletown South returns as the champ in North II, Group IV and nothing has changed as the Eagles are the No. 1 seed and once again the favorite. They played one of the most difficult schedules of any team in the state, so they are more than ready and won't see any teams on the level of their two losses to Toms River North and St. John Vianney.
Defense is the backbone for the Eagles, led by a tough front seven that includes linebackers Kevin Higgins and Maxx Imsho and defensive linemen Jake Krellin and Will Gulick. Their prime challenger could be No. 2 seed Middletown North, which has the Shore's second-leading passer in senior Donald Glenn and would love nothing more than to deny the Eagles their 11th sectional title by winning their first one in 20 years.
Both teams have some heavy lifting to do before they could potentially play each other on Thanksgiving and then again a week later for a state title. Middletown South could have Phillipsburg in the semis in a rematch of last year's final, while Summit is a strong program that could be a problem for Middletown North on the other side of the bracket.
Two-time defending champion Shore Regional is the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group I and certainly has a solid shot to make it three straight. Shore's two regular-season losses to fellow contenders Asbury Park and Keyport were by a combined 8 points, so the Blue Devils certainly have the ability to reverse those results. They have a Top 10 defense in the Shore that only allows 14 points per game, so it's all about whether they can muster enough offense to emerge from the scrum of B Central teams with the trophy.
Making Manasquan and Keyport Great Again
Two proud programs that have been among the most successful in Shore history are legitimate threats to win it all this year.
After two straight 3-7 seasons, Manasquan is back in its customary spot as a playoff contender as the No. 3 seed in Central Jersey Group II. Behind leading rusher Connor Morgan and a defense spearheaded by Adam Schreck, they are the blueprint of a successful Warriors team: pound the ball on the ground, go play-action when it's there, and play hard-nosed defense.
Manasquan hasn't won it all since 2008, its longest drought of state titles since the 1980s. They look to have their hands full with a tough Roselle team in the semifinals barring any upsets, but if they survive that game, they are capable of beating anyone from the other side of the bracket.
As for Keyport, the Red Raiders stamped themselves as the favorites in Central Jersey Group I after a 21-20 win over defending champion Shore last week. Keyport hasn't won a state title since the days of the late J.J. Bedle and the Shore's all-time leading rusher, Ken Cattouse, in 2002.
Keyport won six state titles and 11 division titles under retired Hall of Famer Mike Ciccotelli, and now his former assistant, Jay Graham, is looking to get the Red Raiders back to the promised land.
With a strong running attack led by 1,000-yard rusher Devin Wollner and a hard-nosed defense featuring Zack Frick, they have what it takes to be the last team standing and restore themselves to glory. A potential rematch with Point Beach in the semifinals won't be easy, especially on the road and given the fact that the Garnet Gulls battled them in a 10-7 game to open the season.
---History in the making?: Freehold Township is gunning for history against defending Central Jersey Group V champion South Brunswick. The Patriots have never won a state playoff game. With the Shore's leading passer, Charles Sabbagh, and wideouts Anthony Lotti and Adrian Rybaltowski, they certainly have a shot.
---Rebuilding the Wall: The top seed in South Jersey Group III may have dropped two of its last three, but if Wall can get its running attack back in gear behind Sean Larkin, the Crimson Knights can win their first title since 2002. They won't see a defense as good as the Middletown South one they faced last week, and their schedule should have them ready for the postseason gauntlet.
---Underdog to watch: Asbury Park. The Blue Bishops have a win over Shore and a 7-point loss to Keyport. They have been under the radar since early in the season but might soon be back in the spotlight with their first state title since 2011 by taking Central Jersey Group I.
---Something to prove: Point Boro is 8-1, yet I think people discounted their playoff chances after a 41-7 loss to non-playoff qualifier Ocean. The Panthers look to show it was wrong to write them off in Central Jersey Group II against a tough Bernards team.
---Drive for five: Lakewood has now made five straight playoff appearances after only having had five in its entire history before this streak.
---One-man wrecking crew: If Freehold is going to surprise in Central Jersey Group IV, it's going to be because Ashante Worthy is doing his thing. The junior quarterback has 2,078 combined yards and 28 total touchdowns, including three 300-yard rushing games.
---First-round upsets that would be the most impressive: I think if Howell takes out Vineland (7-1) or Southern beats Rancocas Valley (7-1) in South Jersey Group V, that would open some eyes around the state.
---A year away: Red Bank Catholic has taken some lumps this season but returns almost its entire lineup next year, including a talented group of freshmen and sophomores. The Caseys' trip up to Sparta to face Pope John XXIII is another chance for the youth brigade to face a quality team.
---Happy to be here: Keansburg and Neptune are both in the playoffs with only two wins, so they might as well play loose considering they snuck into the field.