Road Warriors: Long Branch shuts down unbeaten Brick Memorial to reach Central Jersey Group 4 final
BRICK TOWNSHIP – Throughout a regular season filled with adversity, Long Branch’s football team never wavered about its identity.
Physical toughness has long been a hallmark of the Green Wave’s best teams, and while this year’s group also boasts that quality, mental toughness might be their biggest asset. All along they knew what kind of team they were and what they could accomplish when finally whole. On Friday night, for the second straight playoff game, Long Branch went out and proved it.
Senior quarterback Earnest Reevey ran for a touchdown and threw a touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Miguel Maldonado, senior running back Da’Von Craft ran for 119 yards and a touchdown, and junior linebacker Joseph Corley blocked a field goal and led the way on defense as sixth-seeded Long Branch stunned No. 2 seed and previously undefeated Brick Memorial, 21-7, to advance to the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional championship game.
Reevey scored on a three-yard run with 1:25 left in the first half and Corley blocked a 27-yard field attempt by Brick Memorial on the final play of the half. Long Branch then opened the third quarter by driving 70 yards in six plays to take a 14-0 lead on Craft’s 2-yard touchdown run. After Brick Memorial scored to cut the lead in half, the Green Wave marched 85 yards and went ahead, 21-7, on Reevey’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Maldonado.
Those three touchdowns were more than enough thanks to a Long Branch defense that was exceptional against one of the highest-scoring teams in the Shore. Brick Memorial entered the game coming off a 42-7 win over Moorestown in the first round and was averaging 37.6 points per game. Mustangs senior quarterback Connor Dietz entered the game with 2,784 yards and 33 touchdowns combined between rushing and passing. The Green Wave kept him out of the end zone and held the Mustangs’ powerful offense to just seven points. Twice Long Branch stopped Brick Memorial inside the 5-yard line, halted another red-zone opportunity on Corley’s blocked field goal, and had a fourth-down stop at their own 32-yard line.
Long Branch will go on the road once again in the sectional final when it travels south to face top-seeded Winslow Township next Friday night. Winslow defeated Hammonton, 33-6, in the other semifinals.
“We talked about buy-in, and it’s an acronym for believing in yourself and believing in each other, and that’s what these guys did,” said Long Branch head coach Chad King. “We understand the lumps we took all season but adversity makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker, and these guys are pretty strong.”
A 4-4 regular season concluded with Long Branch on the wrong end of a 57-20 drubbing at the hands of Colts Neck, which is not exactly the way a team would prefer to head into the postseason. But in the week that followed, the Green Wave regrouped and completely changed their season with a defensive 180. Long Branch shut out Jackson Memorial, 13-0, in the first round of the playoffs and then held Brick Memorial’s dynamic offense to only one touchdown.
Offensively, having Reevey back at full strength has changed everything. The standout senior suffered a broken right hand in a season-opening win over Piscataway and, while he did return a few weeks later, it was with a hard cast on his throwing hand. The cast came off during the regular-season finale and over the last two weeks Reevey has become more comfortable airing it out. He had a touchdown pass and another key completion in the win over Jackson and on Friday night he completed 5 of 6 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. He added 53 yards rushing and a touchdown on 14 carries.
“This is what we thought we would have,” King said. “We can throw the ball now that Earnie’s more comfortable back there and we can still hand the ball off and play great defense. We’re just looking to play for 48 minutes with everybody healthy and give ourselves a chance.”
“We haven’t really thrown the ball a lot and teams have been sleeping on it,” Reevey said. “So we woke them up.”
On the defensive side, Long Branch forced a massive turnover, blocked a field goal, and stopped Brick Memorial on downs at the 5-yard line midway through the third quarter. Those were the standout plays, but what the Green Wave did consistently well was limit any chunk plays from Brick Memorial standout quarterback Connor Dietz and the rest of the Mustangs offense. Dietz ran for 128 yards but on 30 carries (4.2 yards per attempt) and his longest gain was 12 yards.
“That was our goal, to get 11 hats to the ball and make them earn everything they got,” King said. “They earned seven points but our kids did a great job keeping everything in front of them and running to the ball.”
“We knew they were dynamic and we had to have a mindset to stick together,” said Craft, who had a tackle for loss and a sack. “We came through and did what we had to do.”
Brick Memorial (10-1) appeared well on its way to taking an early lead when it started the game’s opening possession at its own 44-yard line and quickly moved into Long Branch territory on runs by Dietz and junior running back Kevin Andrews. But on second and goal from the 5-yard line, Dietz was stripped and junior linebacker Havier Gonzalez pounced on the loose ball to give Long Branch a game-changing turnover less than four minutes in.
“It changed the game,” Reevey said. “All the hype was on this team that’s 10-0 but that turnover showed us we could do it.”
“That changed the game a ton,” Corley said. “It gave us hope.”
“We talked about it and worked on stripping and tackling every single day this week, so when the opportunity came the kids got one,” King said. “That was huge for us.”
It was a defensive battle for much of the first half. Later in the first quarter, Long Branch stopped Brick Memorial on fourth and six at the Green Wave 32-yard line to force a turnover on downs. Brick Memorial returned the favor early in the second quarter by stuffing Craft for no gain on fourth and one at the Mustangs’ 15-yard line.
Long Branch broke through late in the first half by going 55 yards in nine plays to take a 7-0 lead. A holding penalty made it first and 20 but Craft rumbled for 16 yards on the next play and then carried for 13 yards to move the ball to the Brick Memorial 36-yard line. After an 11-yard run by Reevey, a 13-yard run by senior running back Zaheem Brown, and a 13-yard run by Reevey, the senior quarterback took it himself for a 3-yard touchdown run with 1:25 left in the half.
A penalty for a kickoff out of bounds moved Long Branch back five years and the extra space paid off for Brick Memorial when sophomore Ny’Zier Whittaker returned the kick to the Long Branch 31-yard line. Brick Memorial converted a fourth and three with a 5-yard run by Dietz and moved to the 10-yard line when Dietz found senior Jasaan Whittaker for 12 yards. A sack by Craft on second down with 15 seconds left forced Brick Memorial to use its final timeout of the half. A pass interference call against Long Branch on third down moved the ball up to the 9-yard line, but with just a few seconds on the clock, Brick Memorial sent out the field goal team for freshman Jack Marotta to attempt a 27-yard kick. Corley knifed through the protection and blocked the kick, also picking up the loose ball and nearly breaking free for a touchdown
Long Branch led 7-0 and was set to get the ball to begin the third quarter. The locker room was as focused as ever during the halftime break.
“We’ve had to learn how to last 48 minutes,” Corley said. “We were a first-half team and in the second half we would let up. Going into Jackson we knew they were big and physical and we had to pick it up, and we did it again tonight.”
“We felt great,” Reevey said. “The momentum was going our way and we were getting the ball back. We knew we had to do something with it.”
Long Branch did precisely that by opening the second half with a six-play, 70-yard scoring drive to take a 14-0 lead. The Green Wave went for it on fourth and one at their own 32-yard line and Reevey easily converted with a four-yard run on a quarterback sneak. On the next play, Brown got behind the Brick Memorial secondary and Reevey found him for a 55-yard gain down to the 2-yard line. On the next play, Craft bulldozed his way into the end zone to give Long Branch a two-touchdown advantage with 8:42 remaining in the third quarter.
“That was exactly what we talked about,” Craft said. “We’re up seven and if we go down and score it’s done, they won’t want to play us anymore.”
Brick Memorial responded, however, with a nine-play, 62-yard drive to cut Long Branch’s lead in half. A 16-yard reception by Jasaan Whittaker moved the ball into Long Branch territory and Dietz then had runs of 5, 9, and 10 yards to move the ball to the Green Wave 21-yard line. Dietz converted a third and three with a six-yard gain and Andrews scored from eight yards out on the next play to make it 14-7 with 4:39 left in the third quarter.
Long Branch showed its resolve when it came right back with an 85-yard scoring drive to re-establish its two-score lead. Craft broke free for a 32-yard gain to the Brick Memorial 40-yard line and an unnecessary roughness penalty for a hit to the head on the next play put the ball at the 25-yard line. Two plays later, Reevey connected with Maldonado for a 20-yard touchdown pass that extended Long Branch’s lead to 21-7 with 1:31 left in the third quarter.
The Mustangs then put together a long drive that began at their own 30-yard line and spanned 17 plays, but with Long Branch preventing any long gains, the drive took a ton of time off the clock. Brick Memorial had first and goal with around six minutes left in regulation and Dietz nearly scored before being stopped at the 1-yard line after a five-yard run. Corley then dropped Dietz for a 2-yard loss on first down and the Wave stopped him for another 2-yard loss on third down. On fourth and goal, Dietz swung a pass to Jasaan Whittaker in the flat but Long Branch’s Aulander Daniels and Nehemiah Lambert combined on a stop for a 3-yard gain that turned the ball over on downs.
Long Branch just needed a few first downs to ice the game and Craft and Reevey delivered with gains of 12, 11, and 15 to enable the Green Wave to take a knee and return to a sectional final for the first time since 2018.
“We wanted to give ourselves a chance,” King said. “At the beginning of the season you can’t predict what’s going to happen, but this is what we saw for ourselves if we just gave ourselves an opportunity.”
“Our coaches preach discipline over excitement and just getting better every day,” Reevey said. “Having our whole team together made everything click.”
The Green Wave are operating at full capacity at the perfect time of the season, and now they’ll try to go on the road one more time and bring home a sectional championship that seemed unlikely just two weeks ago. Long Branch will square off against a loaded Winslow Township team that is 9-2 and stocked with FBS-level talent. It will be a challenge, no doubt, but Long Branch won’t be fazed by the moment.
“As long as we play together and stay on the same page, we can get it done,” Reevey said.
(6) Long Branch 21, (2) Brick Memorial 7
|Long Branch||Brick Memorial|
|Long Branch (6-4)||0||7||14||0||21|
|Brick Memorial (10-1)||0||0||7||0||7|
LB – Earnest Reevey 3-yard run (Wesley Garcia kick)
LB – Da’Von Craft 2-yard run (Wesley Garcia kick)
BM – Kevin Andrews 8-yard run (Jack Marotta kick)
LB – Miguel Maldonado 20-yard pass from Earnest Reevey (Wesley Garcia kick)
RUSHING – LB: Da’Von Craft 18-119, Earnest Reevey 14-53, Zaheem Brown 4-19; BM: Connor Dietz 30-128, Kevin Andrews 9-40.
PASSING – LB: Earnest Reevey 5-6-0, 132; BM: Connor Dietz 8-11-0, 60.
RECEIVING – LB: Zaheem Brown 2-67, Da’Von Craft 1-36, Miguel Maldonado 1-20, Aulander Daniels 1-9; BM: Jasaan Whittaker 5-35, Trey Tallmadge 1-13, Johnny Poukish 1-8, Kevin Andrews 1-4.