Playoff Semifinal Preview and Picks
During the preseason, when every team still believed it had a shot, this is what all the players were talking about - the chance to play on that final weekend.
Fifteen Shore Conference teams still have the dream, and we'll see who is playing in December at Rutgers, The College of New Jersey and elsewhere. Here is a look at all the games.
Central Jersey Group V
(5) Sayreville (7-2) at (1) Manalapan (9-0), 7 p.m.
Both of these teams just got out alive in the first round, with Manalapan escaping Brick Memorial’s upset bid with a 14-13 win on a touchdown and extra point with no time remaining in regulation, and Sayreville pulling out a 35-34 win over Monroe. Sayreville is 16-0 against Shore Conference teams since losing to Brick Memorial in the 2008 Central Jersey Group IV final, a span that has included two wins over Manalapan, including the 2011 Central Jersey Group IV championship game.
The question is whether Manalapan got its letdown game out of its system against a hungry, underdog Brick Memorial team known for playoff upsets, or whether that was a sign that the Braves are in trouble against the explosive Bombers. Manalapan is looking to go 12-0 and win its first state title, and it will have to go through the gauntlet of Sayreville and potentially a rematch of last year’s CJ V final against South Brunswick to do it.
Manalapan’s keys to the game: The Braves are going to have to do a better job up front, as Brick Memorial was solid against their usual explosive rushing attack. Sayreville is always tough on the line, so this is a game for Manalapan’s offensive line to rise to the occasion and pave the way for tailbacks Tyler Leonetti, Imamu Mayfield and Co. This is not a vintage Sayreville defense, as the Bombers are allowing 18.2 points per game this year, so there should be some room to operate.
Manalapan needs to get an early lead because it often has fallen into a hole against Sayreville and had to get out of its comfort zone offensively. Just like he did last week, junior quarterback Dan Anerella is going to have to come up with some big throws to move the chains while avoiding mistakes because Sayreville has players in the secondary who can take interceptions back for touchdowns in the blink of an eye on a bad throw. The issues turnovers that Manalapan has gotten away with in other games will be magnified if they happen against Sayreville.
As always, wideout Saeed Blacknall can be a huge difference-maker by either loosening up the line of scrimmage for the run game or changing the game with one big play. A well-time deep shot to him could be the difference in a tight game. Tight end R.J. Krause also could be a sleeper in catching passes over the middle if the coverage rolls to Blacknall consistently. Sayreville has traditionally stood up to Manalapan’s potent run game and forced the quarterback to beat them, so Anerella will have his opportunities.
X-factor: Special teams. Manalapan’s top two returners, Dan Debner and John Cheung, have a combined seven touchdowns on kick and punt returns this season. Plus, junior kicker Mike Caggiano is 49-for-49 on extra points and has field goal range out to 50 yards. That unit could prove to be crucial in a game between two evenly-matched teams.
Player to stop: Myles Hartsfield, Jr., RB/DB. It used to be current Rutgers defensive back Delon Stephenson who tortured Manalapan with big plays in these playoff meetings, and now that player is Hartsfield. He ran for 114 yards last week against Monroe and had the game-sealing interception. He has to be accounted for on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Manalapan has to put Sayreville into obvious passing downs because if the Bombers are in second-and-5 all night and can start doing different things to get Hartsfield the ball in space, Manalapan is going to be in trouble. They have to force anyone but No. 23 to have a huge game to beat them.
The pick: Manalapan. I am going with the theory that the Braves had their wakeup call last week and now will play to their maximum capability to get that elusive state title. The Braves are hoping the third straight year in a state final will be the charm.
Central Jersey Group IV
(5) Burlington Township (6-3) at (1) Brick (7-3), 7 p.m.
This could be an all-out shootout given that Burlington Township is coming off a 52-45 win over Middletown South and Brick put up 35 on West Windsor North in its first-round game. This is another week for Brick junior quarterback Carmen Sclafani to get closer to 100 percent healthy with an injured shoulder, and the Green Dragons may need everything he’s got to keep up on the scoreboard. Brick is seeking its first trip to a state final since winning South Jersey Group III in 1994.
Brick keys to the game: It’s going to be all about execution. Middletown South ran all over Burlington Township last week, led by 163 yards from Jeremy Concepcion. If the tandem of Sclafani and junior running back Ray Fattaruso execute the spread option without any miscues, they have the potential to put up some big numbers. The better they run the ball from the outset, the more it opens things up for players like Mike Muratore, Joe Phillips and the rest of the receivers to have plenty of room to run after the catch with the defense crowding the line of scrimmage.
X-factor: Turnovers. Burlington Township is going to put the ball in the air a lot. If Brick can create fumbles with the pass rush or come up with interceptions in the secondary, that’s one less possession for the Falcons’ offense. Conversely, the Green Dragons need to take care of the ball in the run game, which has been an issue at times. Grind the clock, execute the offense, and force that Burlington Township offense to get frustrated while sitting on the sidelines.
Player to stop: Khalil Trotman, Jr., QB. Trotman lit up Middletown South for 294 yards passing and three touchdowns on 18-for-30 accuracy last week. He has thrown for 1,340 yards and 10 touchdowns this year, but also has thrown 11 picks. He also has run for a team-high 484 yards and six touchdowns, so Brick wants to keep him in the pocket. This is where blitzers like linebackers Ray Fattaruso and leading tackler James Juliano need to make sure they put Trotman on the ground and not let him get on the run and do damage. Burlington Township has five receivers with more than 100 yards receiving, so there isn’t one guy to particularly shut down. For what it’s worth, junior Sam Gillison had 5 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner, against Middletown South, but only had 116 yards receiving all season until that game. The key is pressuring Trotman and then jumping routes for turnovers.
The pick: Brick. I had the Green Dragons going to the final before the playoffs started, and I’m not backing off that now.
(3) Colts Neck (8-1) at (2) Nottingham (7-2), 1 p.m. on Saturday
This is a sectional champion from last year against a Colts Neck team looking to reach its first state final in program history. Nottingham escaped 35-33 last week against a Middletown North team that Colts Neck beat 42-0 during the regular season, although to be fair, the Lions are a much-improved team from what they were early in the fall. Nottingham is trying to become the first Mercer County team to ever win back-to-back state titles after winning Central Jersey Group III last year, while Colts Neck is looking to go where no Cougars team has ever gone. Something has to give.
Colts Neck keys to the game: Obviously, the biggest one is establishing the run. When Anthony Gargiulo goes over 100 yards rushing, this team is undefeated. The senior tailback just lit up Neptune for a career-high 275 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-14 win in the first round, and speedy junior Abdul Quddus tacked on another 150 yards and a score. If junior quarterback Christian Sanchez is asked to just do his job and hit throws or use his legs to move the chains and not throw the ball 20 times, it means the Cougars are in great shape. If Colts Neck is going to get its first state title, its offensive line has to lead the way. Plus, the longer the Cougars can sustain drives, the more it will frustrate Nottingham’s offense by being stuck on the sidelines and shorten the game.
X-factor: Dan Calabro. The Colts Neck junior wide receiver is a vertical threat with good size who can go over the top of smaller defenders for deep catches down the field. He is the type of player who can loosen up the line of scrimmage for Gargiulo with a big catch or two, although he could have Rutgers-bound defensive back Saquan Hampton glued to him. Quddus also is another to watch as far as making a play that can swing the game because of his breakaway speed.
Player to stop: Saquan Hampton. The senior wideout/defensive back/kick returner is an all-around dynamo who is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. He has 753 all-purpose yards and is a top cover corner. Senior wideout Jameel Bailey is another one to focus on in the passing game with 28 catches for 445 yards and 8 touchdowns from quarterback Stephen Adams, who has thrown for 999 yards and 10 touchdowns. The son of the head coach, Adams is a playoff-tested quarterback who made some big throws in the postseason last year, so senior defensive end Nick Volpe (10 sacks) needs to lead the charge to get in Adams’ face consistently.
The pick: Colts Neck. I picked the Cougars to win the whole thing, and I am staying with that.
Central Jersey Group III
(3) Hopewell Valley (8-1) at (2) Ocean (9-0), 7 p.m.
This is a playoff newcomer against a traditional power, as Hopewell Valley had never even made the postseason until this season and is coming off its first playoff victory ever, a 33-0 wipeout of Ewing. Ocean, meanwhile, has won three state titles in its history and been to the finals eight times. The Spartans have never gone 12-0, so they have a chance to add to their illustrious history if they can reach their first state final since winning this bracket in 2005.
Ocean keys to victory: Shorten the game by dominating up front on offense. Hopewell Valley has an explosive offense with a 1,700-yard passer and a 1,200-yard rusher, so the more Ocean can keep them standing on the sidelines in frustration and the less possessions the Spartans allow the Bulldogs, the better. That means Tyler Thompson all day, as the Spartans will look to feed the sophomore 1,000-yard rusher a steady diet of carries, with runs by quarterback Royal Moore and senior Cole Mehr mixed in. Ocean's offense has sputtered in a lot of big games this season. Can it rise to the occasion here?
On the other side, Ocean’s defense has been a shutdown unit all season, and this looks to be its biggest test. The Spartans need a consistent pass rush and need to tackle well in space because this is a dangerous offensive team.
X-factor: Cole Mehr. When teams have sold out on the run game, Mehr has a knack for getting behind the defense and hauling in deep throws from Royal Moore for game-swinging touchdowns. They made need him to do that here in order to loosen up the line of scrimmage. Senior Dan Loizos, better known for his work as a star linebacker, could also be crucial at fullback in keeping Nottingham star linebacker Ryan Malagrino off Thompson and clearing holes in the run game.
Player to stop: Take your pick. Hopewell Valley senior quarterback Austin Fellows, who is 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, has thrown for 1,760 yards and 18 touchdowns on 153 attempts in Hopewell's multiple-I attack, senior running back Andrew Yuska has 1,244 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns, and junior wideout Mike Gies has 33 catches for 922 yards and 12 touchdowns. Ocean wants to at least bottle up Yuska and force Hopewell Valley into obvious passing downs, where senior linebacker Dan Loizos, defensive end Mike Halawani and linebacker Frank Henry can focus on getting after Fellows. Those are some impressive numbers, but Ocean will force Hopewell Valley to prove they’re real and not compiled against weak competition.
The pick: Ocean. Again, this is my pick to win the whole bracket, and I am staying with it.
Central Jersey Group II
(4) Rahway (7-2) at (1) Rumson-FH (9-0), 7 p.m.
This is the stretch Rumson spent the preseason preparing itself for. The Bulldogs scrimmaged programs like Roxbury and Burlington Township in order to get used to seeing the speed they will see in this game and possibly against second-seeded Weequahic if the seedings hold true for the final. Rahway blitzed Spotswood 47-20 in the first round, while Rumson took care of Bordentown, 41-8. Kind of like the Hopewell Valley-Ocean match-up, this is a good showdown between a strong offensive team against a Rumson defense that has only given up more than one touchdown in a game once all season. No team has held Rahway under 20 points in a game all season.
The Bulldogs are looking to reach their fourth sectional final since 2007 and the third in the last four seasons. Their lone championship in school history came in 2010. Rahway has three state titles of its own and is a perennial contender, so this is two solid programs butting heads.
Rumson keys to victory: Offensively, it’s no secret. The Bulldogs want to shove the Shore Conference’s leading rusher, junior Charlie Volker (1,653 yards rushing, 19 TDs), right down Rahway’s throat to keep the Indians’ offense off the field and shorten the game. Quarterback Chase Caruso will then look to find senior wideout Sam Shaud and others when Rahway loads the box or cheats toward the line of scrimmage. The key is taking care of the ball. The Bulldogs don’t want long drives to end with nothing because of an interception or fumble that gives Rahway an extra possession. Rahway’s defense forced four turnovers against Spotswood, and the offense cashed in all four for touchdowns last week.
X-factor: Kevin Clayton. While Rutgers-bound defensive end Donald Bedell garnishes plenty of the attention, understandably so, Clayton quietly leads the team with 9.5 sacks from the other defensive end spot. He is the type of disruptive player who can throw a monkey wrench in Rahway’s gameplan and cause problems at the point of attack for the Indians.
Player to stop: Gabril Gross. The senior is the Indians’ feature back even though he is very small at 5-foot-3 and 155 pounds. The Bulldogs want to set the edge and force him to run between the tackles consistently. Senior quarterback Jeff Bost is also a running threat, so the more Rumson can put Rahway into third-and-7, the better.
The pick: Rumson-Fair Haven. Picked the Bulldogs to win this section, and at the very least, they should reach the final.
(6) Lakewood (6-3) at (2) Weequahic (9-0), 7 p.m.
Lakewood has only made one state final in its history, when it won its lone title in 1986. A 20-12 win on the road over Delran last week marked the Piners’ first playoff win since that same season. Weequahic is a playoff regular, but has only won one state title of its own. No team has held the Indians under 20 points all season, so this is a formidable obstacle for Lakewood.
Lakewood keys to victory: Like many of the Shore teams in the playoffs this weekend, the Piners have to run the ball effectively to keep the high-scoring offense on the other side off the field and limit possessions. Junior Chapelle Cook, who had 114 yards rushing and the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds against Delran, has to have another big game. Quarterback Naquese Joshua is also going to have to make some throws under pressure to David Patterson, Mike Randolph, Joey Keraitis and Co. to keep a swarming Weequahic defense honest.
A stout defensive front for Lakewood led by Ben Watson, Datrell Reed and Mo Diawara plus linebacker Amir Tyler has to focus on stopping Weequahic running back Alkadair Ports, who is averaging a ridiculous 17.6 yards per carry in rushing for 943 yards and 12 touchdowns. This team does not put the ball in the air a lot, so if Lakewood can get a lead and force them to throw, that is the recipe for the upset.
Player to stop: Sidney Gopre. The Rutgers recruit had 14 tackles and 2 sacks last week from his linebacker spot in a 45-0 demolition of Delaware Valley. For the season, he has 123 tackles, 11 sacks and 25 tackles for a loss. He is one of the top linebackers in the state, so if Lakewood is going to have any success running the ball, it has to get a body on Gopre and its offensive linemen have to get to the second level to knock him off course. He also plays running back, where he has 435 yards rushing and six touchdowns, but linebacker is where he can completely collapse an opposing gameplan.
The pick: Weequahic. It just seems like Rumson and Weequahic are on a collision course. This has been another great step forward in Lakewood’s resurgence this season, but getting this one is going to be tough.
Central Jersey Group I
(5) Asbury Park (7-2) at (1) Shore (8-1), 7 p.m.
This is Round Two between the old rivals, with Shore having won the first meeting, 10-0, in Class B Central. Shore reached last year’s final and won it in 2010, while Asbury Park won this bracket four times from 2007-2011. It’s a Shore team looking to finish the job after getting stopped on fourth-and-inches in overtime to lose to Florence last year, and an Asbury Park team looking to reclaim its place at the top.
Asbury Park keys to victory: This is a different team than the one that faced Shore the first time around, as the Blue Bishops have won five straight and have averaged 33 points per game after struggling to score early in the season. The addition of five players who became eligible after Asbury Park’s loss to Point Beach, including explosive sophomore running back Charles Sanders, have made this a more dynamic offense.
They want to get an early lead and put the pressure on a Shore offense that scored 10 points last week in a 10-7 win over Palmyra. If they can force the Blue Devils to have to throw frequently because they’re behind, that plays right into Asbury Park’s hands. If quarterback Robert Barksdale is able to sting Shore with deep shots to Jaedon Stephens and screen passes to dangerous backs like Sanders and Daquane Bland-Bennett, that should change the game.
The Blue Bishops also need to take care of the ball and not surrender field position or short scoring drives because of turnovers. It also needs to avoid the killer penalty that negates a long kickoff return or touchdown, which has been an issue at times. With a rugged defense led by linebacker William Wells and the Shore Conference’s sack leader, Tyquis Davis, Asbury Park wants to force Shore to prove it can mount 60- or 70-yard scoring drives consistently if it’s going to win.
Shore keys to victory: Dominate the line of scrimmage. If Shore wins up front and can gash the Blue Bishops four yards at a time with its Wing-T running game while keeping Asbury Park’s offense off the field, they will control the tempo, which is paramount in a game between two contrasting teams. If Brian Miller and Doug Goldsmith can consistently move the chains with downhill runs, that is the game Shore wants to play. Senior quarterback Matt Muh hasn’t been heavily called upon to win a game with some clutch throws, but that could be the case this week against a tough Asbury Park run defense that is going to force him to make plays to move the chains.
Defensively, it’s all about preventing the big play. The second you relax against this Asbury Park team, someone could take it the distance or Barksdale can throw it deep. They need to bracket Barksdale and make him into a pocket passer, while preventing Bland-Bennett, Davis and Sanders from getting to the perimeter and hurting them with big runs. The most important thing is creating turnovers to shorten the game and give more opportunities to the offense to bleed the clock.
X-factor. For Shore, it’s Jake Monteiro. For Asbury Park, it’s Charles Sanders. Monteiro crushed a career-long 47-yard field goal in the first meeting with Asbury Park and is one of the best kickers in the state. He could be the difference in a tight game.
Sanders is a late-season addition who has given the Blue Bishops an added weapon in the run game. He makes them harder to defend because he’s one more player Shore has to worry about popping a big run.
Player Asbury Park has to stop: Brian Miller. If he has 150-plus on the ground, that is bad news for the Blue Bishops. They need to swarm the ball and force someone else to beat them.
Player Shore has to stop: Robert Barksdale. When he plays well, particularly throwing the ball, it opens things up for Asbury Park’s group of running backs to make big plays.
The pick: Shore. I picked the Blue Devils to win this bracket, so I will stick with that, but admittedly I am leery of this pick. Asbury Park seems like it now has the offense to win this whole bracket after losing 10-7 to Point Beach and 10-0 to Shore in the regular season. We’ll see if Shore can hold them off a second time.
(7) Burlington City (6-3) at (3) Point Beach (8-1), 7 p.m.
The Garnet Gulls did a lot of the heavy lifting to reach their first state final since 1982 when they dethroned defending champion Florence, 21-7, in the first round. They now are the favorite in this game to reach their second state final in program history as they seek their first title. Burlington City has only been to a state final once in its history and has one championship. It upset second-seeded South Hunterdon last week, 20-17, to set up the meeting with Point Beach. In the Random Fact Department, Burlington City’s head coach is former Penn State quarterback Tony Sacca.
Point Beach keys to the game: The Garnet Gulls make no secret of what they want to do – pound teams with the run game in the Wing-T with fullback Joe Wegryzniak, try to bounce a big run outside with Mike Frauenheim, and occasionally go up top from quarterback Jake Fioretti to wideout Noah Yates. It has been a successful formula, so if Point Beach exerts its will up front offensively and takes care of the ball, it should be in good shape.
Defensively, this could be a game for Yates to pad his Shore Conference-leading nine interceptions because Burlington City is going to put the ball in the air a good amount and then try to hit big plays on the ground with Tamon Sykes off that. The pass rush will be key for Point Beach in this one, and Wegrzyniak, senior Billy Barry and senior Sean Struncius lead the way in that department with a combined 15 ½ sacks for Point Beach.
X-factor: Zach McCartney. The Garnet Gulls’ kicker is a converted soccer player who has been solid this season and has shown he is capable of clutch kicks late in the game. If Burlington hangs around, he may be called upon to put the game away.
Player to stop: Ryan Daniels. The Blue Devils’ junior quarterback is their primary weapon and a dual threat, so Point Beach will have to bottle him up. Wade Singletary is his primary target, so Yates will look to glue himself to him.
The pick: Point Beach. It’s going to be an all-Class B Central final.
South Jersey Group V
(3) Jackson Memorial (7-2) at (2) Cherokee, 7 p.m.
After winning their first playoff game in seven years, the Jaguars will now try to take down a top-five team in South Jersey to reach their first state championship game since going 12-0 in 2005. Cherokee is a perennial power that has won eight state titles, so this is business as usual for the Chiefs.
Jackson Memorial keys to the game: The Jaguars have to run the ball effectively or they are in trouble. Cherokee’s defense is only giving up 6.9 points per game, so Jackson Memorial’s offensive line is going to have to play its best game of the season to clear the way for 1,000-yard rusher Khani Glover as well as senior Ken Bradley. Junior quarterback Joe DeMaio is going to have to hit more throws than he is usually asked to make given the strength of Cherokee’s defense. The Chiefs have bottled up some excellent offensive teams like Washington Township, Eastern and Williamstown, so it’s going to take a tremendous effort by Jackson to put up enough points to get this win.
Jackson’s defense is going to have to rise to the occasion to keep this game close, and it has the ingredients with Bradley leading a stellar linebacking group. Cherokee senior quarterback Trevor Osler has thrown for 892 yards and 12 touchdowns. The tandem of junior Marc Woodard and senior Matt Stickney have combined for nearly 1,200 yards rushing, so the Chiefs have good offensive balance. Jackson Memorial came up with five interceptions last week against Rancocas Valley, so if it can get consistent pressure on Osler and slow down the run game to force obvious passing downs, there is the opportunity to make game-changing plays and give short fields to the offense.
X-factor: Marcus Ademilola. If Jackson Memorial is forced to regularly go to the air with the Cherokee defense stuffing the run, this is the time for the Jaguars’ senior to shine. He is a weapon who could make a big play to loosen up the line of scrimmage and get Cherokee’s defense on its heels. Sophomore kicker Jared Calhoun has made two game-winning kicks in two weeks, so he is another to keep an eye on if Jackson keeps it close to the end. Cherokee’s kicker, senior Kenneth Ravel, has eight field goals of his own with a long of 41 yards.
Player to stop: Trevor Osler. He has a 70 percent completion rate and has only thrown two interceptions all season, but Jackson is going to have to find a way to disrupt his timing and get him throwing on the run because he is strictly a pocket passer.
The pick: Cherokee. This has been a great bounceback season for Jackson Memorial, but this would really open some eyes if the Jaguars could pull it off.
South Jersey Group IV
(6) Shawnee (6-3) at (2) Toms River South (7-2), 1 p.m. on Saturday
Toms River South has not made a state final since 1998 and hasn’t won a state title since 1991, so it’s been a while for the resurgent Indians. Shawnee is a traditional South Jersey contender whose last title came in 2008 when it won South Jersey Group III.
Toms River South’s keys to victory: This is a great match-up of a high-octane Toms River South running attack led by junior quarterback Tymere Berry against a Shawnee defense that has four shutouts and upset third-seeded Hammonton 10-7 in the first round. Berry, punishing runner Otis Kearney, speed back Khaleel Greene, fullback Billy Kosh and wide receivers Russell Messler and Darrius Hart give Toms River South an array of weapons where it’s hard to key on one guy. Senior Patrick Blair leads Shawnee with 81 tackles and five sacks, so Toms River South will look to get a body on him at the second level.
If the Indians can get a two-score lead early on, that would be huge because it would dent the confidence of the Shawnee defense and force an offense that wants to drain the clock and play from in front to have to produce several scoring drives. The Renegades are almost exclusively a running team, so if the Indians force them to throw to come back, they will be in a good spot.
X-factor: Darrius Hart. His ability to change the game with a home run ball from Berry or a pick six on defense can be a backbreaker for opponents.
Player to stop: Anthony DiOrio. Shawnee’s senior running back has 792 yards and 13 touchdowns, so Toms River South will look to gang up on him and make anyone else beat them.
The pick: Toms River South. I had the Indians reaching the final and losing to Timber Creek before the playoffs, and I think they will take another big step back toward the Shore’s elite with a championship game appearance.
South Jersey Group III
(4) Delsea (8-2) at (1) Manasquan (7-2), 1 p.m. on Saturday
This is a fun match-up between two perennial public state powers. Delsea is the defending champion in this bracket and has won 10 state titles in its history. Manasquan is looking to make its first final since2009 and win its first title since 2008 to add to its Shore Conference-record 11 NJSIAA sectional titles. This could arguably be Manasquan’s toughest game. If the Warriors get this one, the team they would see in the final, Barnegat or Northern Burlington, would not be as formidable as Delsea.
Manasquan keys to victory: They are what they always have been at Manasquan – run the ball and stop the run. While senior quarterback Tucker Caccavale has shown he can single-handedly win games with his arm, the Warriors are at their best when they have a balance with Joe Murphy, Jack Bianco and James McAlary running the ball to set up throws to Joe Fittin, Tanner Cowley, etc., in the passing game. It all comes down to the offensive line playing one of its best games of the season. Getting an early lead is huge because the longer Manasquan is in front, the more it will force Delsea out of its comfort zone because the Crusaders rarely throw the ball.
Delsea looks to just pound teams with the run game out of its Wing-T set, averaging more than 300 yards rushing per game, led by the tandem of Isaiah Spencer and Rob Hooks, a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. A Manasquan defensive line led by Monte Sinisi and Matt Forst is going to have to stand up to Delsea’s physical front, and the linebackers, led by Blaine Birch and Cowley, will have to play sound assignment football against the misdirection.
X-factor: Joe Fittin. His ability to stretch the field could be huge if Caccavale can hit a deep shot or two early on to put Delsea in a hole.
The pick: Manasquan. The Warriors are always tough at Vic Kubu Warrior Field, and this one will be on their line on both sides of the game. It’s a physical, brute force showdown where it will come down to the last team standing.
(3) Barnegat (8-1) at (2) Northern Burlington (7-2), 7 p.m.
Barnegat is trying to reach its first state championship game in its seven-year history, while the Greyhounds have a pair of state titles in their history. The Bengals have already set a school record with eight wins, so a victory here would add another chapter to the best season in program history.
Barnegat keys to victory: Dominate up front. The Bengals shoved around Pemberton by rushing for 385 yards rushing in the first round and average 232 yards on the ground per game. With high-level FBS recruit Sam Madden and senior Zach Andrews as massive bodies up front on a veteran line, they look to jackhammer Northern Burlington with a succession of different backs. Junior Tyler McGuinness showed last week that he could be the workhorse Barnegat was looking for to replace star A.J. Opre, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. McGuinness ran for a career-high 223 yards on 24 carries against Pemberton.
Dual threat quarterback Cinjun Erskine is another playmaker in the run game, and sophomore Paul Wickwire adds an element of breakaway speed to the attack. When teams are forced to crowd the box, Erskine can go up top to junior Manny Bowen, who is averaging 21 yards per catch and has 7 TD grabs. It all starts with establishing the run game and minimizing turnovers so that time-consuming drives don’t come up empty.
X-factor: Ryan Ulrich. The Bengals’ senior kicker has a long field goal of 37 yards this season and could be a game-swinging weapon in a close game.
Player to stop: Kenyatta Greene. The Greyhounds’ senior running back detonated Highland for 228 yards rushing and five touchdowns last week and has 978 yards rushing for the season. He is bidding for his third straight 1,000-yard season and is averaging 108 yards per game. All eyes from Barnegat’s defense, led by senior defensive end Greg Moran and senior linebacker Mark Magoon, will be on Greene. Stop him, and Northern Burlington will be forced to search for Plan B.
The pick: Northern Burlington. This should be a really hard-fought game, and Barnegat certainly has the ingredients to pull it off. Greene is awfully tough and is coming off a big night. I would certainly love to see a Manasquan-Barnegat final, so hopefully I am wrong on this one.
Non-Public Group III
(4) Red Bank Catholic (9-0) at (1) St. Joseph’s-Montvale (9-0), 1 p.m. on Saturday
This is a rematch of last year’s semifinal, where St. Joe’s rolled 42-7 over the Caseys. Again, the Green Knights are the most formidable obstacle that any team in the state will face this weekend. They are No. 1 in New Jersey and a consensus top-five team in the nation. RBC is going from local Goliath to David on the road as it tries to find a way to shock the country and reach its first sectional title game since 1980. The defending champion Green Knights, meanwhile, have 16 state titles under the direction of legendary head coach Tony Karcich.
RBC keys to victory: Play the perfect game. That means no fumbles, no interceptions, no missed tackles and no mental errors while also forcing multiple turnovers by the Green Knights and capitalizing on them. The main question is going to be upfront. Last year, RBC’s offensive line bulldozed everyone all season until playing St. Joe’s and then couldn’t get any consistent push up front against a fast and physical group. We’ll see if things have changed in that area and if a line led by Notre Dame recruit Quenton Nelson can consistently give 1,000-yard rusher Larry Redaelli and running back Mike Cordova some room to operate.
Quarterbacks Pat Toomey and Eddie Hahn or going to have to make accurate throws under pressure or RBC has no shot. After last year’s loss, head coach Jim Portela said the Caseys had to improve their passing game to compete at St. Joe’s level, so we’ll see how far that area has come after rarely having to go to the pass during a dominant season thus far.
Defensively, the Caseys’ biggest issue last year was combating the elite speed of St. Joe’s. Every skill player is a threat to take it the distance on any play, and St. Joe’s was just playing at another speed from the Caseys last year. FBS prospect Jamie Gordinier, senior Ryan Schoer, defensive end Shawn McCord and the rest of RBC's defense will have to tackle well in the open field and play fast and smart. It starts with at least slowing down the running game and putting the Green Knights into obvious passing downs to limit their playbook, which is much easier said than done. This team averages 400 yards per game and is balanced, with 228 on the ground and 175 in the air.
X-factor: Turnovers. This area and special teams with kicker/punter Pat Toomey, kickoff returner Dylan Murphy and punt returner Mike Cordova are RBC’s best shot to help close some of the gap. The Caseys are going to have to find a way to limit St. Joe’s possessions and win the field position battle because the offense is so difficult to stop.
Player to stop: Mark Fossati. I could pretty much name St. Joe’s entire starting lineup, but Fossati was one of the most impressive ones I saw out of the cavalcade of stars last year. Fossati is an all-around force as one of the state’s top linebackers and a dynamic player offensively who is a rushing and receiving threat. There also is quarterback Spencer Aukamp, Rutgers recruit Kevin Wilkins on the offensive line, all-purpose back Sherman Alston, who is headed to Boston College, FBS recruit Kiy Hester at safety, and on and on.
The pick: St. Joseph’s-Montvale. The closest game the Green Knights have played against a loaded schedule all season was a 27-14 win over Paramus Catholic. If RBC gives them a game in that ballpark, I would think that would be the Caseys really acquitting themselves well.
Non-Public Group I
(7) Mater Dei Prep (6-4) at (2) St. Mary’s-Rutherford (8-2), 1 p.m. on Saturday
The Seraphs are having their best season and their first winning season since reaching their only sectional final in 1999. They upset second-seeded Morristown-Beard 12-7 in the first round for a huge step forward for their program. Like Lakewood, they have jumped from a perennial doormat to a legitimate threat and a winning team, so this season looks to be a major building block for the future. St. Mary’s reached last year’s final before getting wiped out 36-0 by the bracket’s 800-pound gorilla, St. Joseph-Hammonton, which is expected to roll through it again.
Mater Dei Prep keys to the game: The Seraphs run the triple option, so it’s all about establishing the run game and busting big plays on the perimeter with backs like Tysaun White, Derrick Lopez and Eddie Lewis, with quarterback Christian Palmer getting some tough yards up the middle. The Seraphs have a veteran offensive line that will need to play one of its best games, and Mater Dei has to play a clean game with limited turnovers. A grinding, clock-eating run game will also be needed to keep St. Mary’s offense off the field, as no team has held the Gaels under 28 points all season. That shouldn’t faze Mater Dei given that it just stopped a Morristown-Beard team that also had been lighting people up, but it’s still a formidable challenge.
X-factor: The passing game. Christian Palmer is averaging 17 yards per completion, and freshman Eddie Lewis is averaging 26.1 yards per catch. If they can hit a big one early to loosen up the defense, that could be big in pulling the upset.
Player to stop: Keon Banks. The junior running back is over 1,000 yards for the season and just put 200 on Immaculate Conception last week, so he is the guy circled on Mater Dei’s scouting report. Middle linebacker Sam Miles and safety Jalanie Mitchell lead a defense that will have to tackle well in the open field because of the big-play threat of Banks.
The pick: St. Mary’s-Rutherford. I almost feel bad picking against the Seraphs after their great turnaround season, but this St. Mary’s team is very good offensively. My pick should be a good thing for the Seraphs fans last week who gave me the business after the win over Morristown-Beard considering I picked against them last week and they won. So hopefully I am being lampooned for being a moron again by the end of the weekend and the Seraphs take another step in a breakout season.