Shore Stars Set to Shine in College Bowl Games
Over the next 10 days, almost any time you flip on ESPN, there's a good chance a former Shore Conference football star will be suiting up for a college bowl game.
It all leads up to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, when a Penn State team featuring five Shore alumni will try to cap a huge comeback season by beating USC in its backyard in Pasadena.
One Shore alumnus has already suited up for a bowl game as former Toms River South standout Otis Kearney, a defensive back at Central Michigan, had 8 tackles in a 55-10 loss to Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl.
There are also some players on rosters of bowl-bound teams who have either not seen action this season or are redshirting, like former St. John Vianney star quarterback Anthony Brown (Boston College) and former Barnegat offensive lineman Sam Madden (Georgia).
Also, while he won't be playing, Carey Neff will be on the field in the Orange Bowl when Michigan faces Florida State. Neff, a Red Bank Regional graduate, is Michigan's student manager and can often be seen standing right near head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Here's a look at the games involving Shore grads and what to watch for.
Friday, Dec. 23
Popeye's Bahamas Beach Bowl, 1 p.m. on ESPN
Eastern Michigan (7-5) will take on Old Dominion (9-3) in a game featuring two former Shore stars. First off, how great is it to be a part of this game? Eating Popeye's chicken while hanging out on a beach in the Bahamas in December? Sign me up.
Obviously Pat Toal, a former Raritan star, agrees with me.
Eastern Michigan, which is playing in its first bowl game since 1987, includes senior defensive back Ikie Calderon (Neptune), who is fifth on the team with 60 tackles. Calderon starred on the 2011 Scarlet Fliers team that won the Central Jersey Group III title and had multiple stops at prep school and junior college before landing an FBS scholarship at Eastern Michigan, so this is a nice reward for his perseverance.
Lining up on the other side is Toal, a redshirt sophomore defensive tackle for Old Dominion. Toal has played in 10 of 12 games and has 10 tackles, two for a loss, for the Monarchs, who are playing in their first bowl game in program history.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, 4:30 p.m. on ESPN
Louisiana Tech (8-5) faces off against No. 24 Navy (9-4), the latter of which features former Colts Neck star Anthony Gargiulo. The sophomore fullback has nine carries for 29 yards on the season and scored his first collegiate touchdown this year.
Tuesday, Dec. 27
Military Bowl, 3:30 p.m. on ESPN
It's been quite a season for Temple (10-3), which takes on Wake Forest (6-6) after the Demon Deacons' gameplan has been pleasure reading for opponents all season.
Temple head coach Matt Ruhle left to take the job at Baylor following back-to-back 10-win seasons for the Owls, who are this year's American Athletic Conference champions. Temple features four Shore Conference players, with more on the way like Manalapan wide receiver L.J. Holder and Brick wide receiver Ja'Sir Taylor.
The player making the biggest impact for Temple is Calderon's former Neptune basketball teammate, wide receiver Keith Kirkwood. The redshirt junior is second on the team with 36 catches for 567 yards and 4 touchdowns, including a last-second game-winner in a victory over Central Florida. Kirkwood, who began his career at Hawaii before transferring, also wrapped up his college degree already.
The Owls also include former Lakewood star Chapelle Russell, a redshirt freshman linebacker who has 25 tackles in 10 games. Russell's former Piners teammate, defensive back Amir Tyler, is redshirting in his first year at Temple. One other local member of the Owls is redshirt junior long-snapper Josh Lang, a Point Beach graduate.
Wednesday, Dec. 28
Pinstripe Bowl, 2 p.m. on ESPN
Pittsburgh (8-4) takes on Northwestern (6-6) up at Yankee Stadium in the final game for Wildcats' senior offensive lineman Shane Mertz. The former Raritan star, who is in his sixth season thanks to a redshirt year and a medical redshirt year, has missed most of this season with injuries. I will be up in the Bronx cheering on my alma mater, although it's a tall order given that Pittsburgh has wins over two of the top five teams in the country, Penn State and Clemson, and averages 42 points per game.
Pittsburgh is the future home of Ocean senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who recently re-affirmed his commitment to the Panthers.
Russell Athletic Bowl, 5:30 p.m. on ESPN
Right after the Pinstripe Bowl wraps up, this game will kick off featuring Miami (8-4) against No. 16 West Virginia (10-2). Miami has become a regular destination for Red Bank Catholic grads, which is no shock given that former coach Al Golden is an RBC graduate.
This is the final game for redshirt senior Frank Gabriel, who is Miami's long-snapper. Jamie Gordinier is a also redshirt freshman linebacker for the Hurricanes. Gordinier, a former SSN Defensive Player of the Year, is out for the season with a torn ACL suffered in the season opener.
Monday, Jan. 2
Rose Bowl, 5 p.m. on ESPN
It's been an unforgettable year for the Shore contingent at Penn State (11-2), which takes on USC (9-3) after winning the Big Ten title.
Two Shore grads earned second-team All-Big Ten honors this season for the Nittany Lions, starting with record-setting junior tight end Mike Gesicki. The Southern grad is second on the team with 47 catches and 668 yards, both of which are single-season team records for a tight end. He also has 4 touchdown catches.
On the other side of the ball, former Red Bank Regional star Garrett Sickels has been honored after tying for the team lead with six sacks at defensive end. He leads the team with 12.5 tackles for a loss and has 46 tackles overall. He also has been named the team's Defensive MVP.
This has also been a breakout season for sophomore linebacker Manny Bowen, a former Barnegat star who has started 12 of 13 games and is fifth on the team with 68 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss. Junior wide receiver Saeed Blacknall has also become a huge contributor after missing four games with an injury. The former Manalapan standout has 15 catches for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns and is coming off a monster game in the Big Ten championship in which he had a game-record six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Wisconsin.
Former Toms River North star Chris Gulla also has been a contributor as the holder on special teams for the Nittany Lions. Penn State lost 38-24 to USC in 2008 in its most recent Rose Bowl appearance and is gunning for its first Rose Bowl victory since the 1994 season.