South Jersey Semifinal Preview: Toms River North, Howell, Wall Gunning for the Finals
The Shore Conference is guaranteed a finalist in South Jersey Group V and has another strong favorite in South Jersey Group III, which could be part of an overall historic year given the amount of state title contenders from the Shore in Central Jersey, North Jersey and the Non-Public brackets.
Undefeated Toms River North, the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, is the defending champion in South Jersey Group V and faces a familiar foe in the semifinals. Meanwhile, top-seeded Wall in South Jersey Group III is searching for its first trip to the state finals since losing to Knowshon Moreno and Middletown South in 2004.
Here is a look at the semifinals.
SOUTH JERSEY GROUP V
(5) Howell (6-4) at (1) Toms River North (10-0), 7 p.m. on Friday
Winner plays the winner of (3) Millville at (2) Rancocas Valley in the final, date/site/time TBA
Game breakdown: This is a rematch of a regular-season game that Toms River North won in a real defensive struggle, 58-33, in a nondivisional match-up.
The scoreboard should once again need some extra light bulbs between these two prolific offenses. Toms River North leads the Shore at 45.4 points per game, while Howell is seventh at 29.5 points per game.
Under third-year head coach Luke Sinkhorn, Howell enters with momentum after going halfway to Maryland to take down Vineland in a 29-27 thriller last week for their first state playoff win in seven years. It came down to a Pat Handy 18-yard field goal with 21 seconds left for the game-winner.
Rebels' junior quarterback Eddie Morales is having a breakout season with 2,045 yards passing and 25 touchdowns and is coming off a 278-yard, 3-touchdown performance against Vineland.
Morales, who also is dangerous as a runner, has some outstanding targets led by Naz Brantley, who had 10 catches for 116 yards last week and has 11 touchdown grabs this year. Dan Cacciatore also had 100 yards receiving last week and is a top threat along with Ryan Mazik and running back Nick Chambers. This team likes to spread you out, get its playmakers in space and go to work.
Toms River North's defense has shown improvement after some early-season struggles. The Mariners have not allowed more than 21 points in any of their last four games and enter allowing 19.9, which ranks 21st in the Shore.
Senior linebacker Pete LaQuaglia is having another monster year with 147 tackles, including 10 tackles for a loss, and junior Mickey Maldonado has emerged as one of the Shore's top safeties with 90 tackles, eight for a loss. Junior linebacker Daryn Blackwell is another force with 57 tackles, 11 for a loss, and 4 sacks. The secondary will be tested by Howell's passing attack, which means star wide receivers Darrion Carrington and Bryce Watts will be needed on both sides of the ball as they also play in the defensive backfield.
However, the main crux of the game comes down to whether Howell can find a way to slow down one of the state's most lethal offensive units.
You can look at Toms River North's 27-20, last-minute win over eighth-seeded Atlantic City last week one of two ways. Either the Vikings gave a blueprint of how to keep the Mariners in check, or that was a wake-up call and Toms River North will come out guns blazing this week after being held under 30 points for the first time all season.
Howell struggled to contain Vinleland quarterback Isaih Pacheco, who ran for 218 yards and two touchdowns for the Fighting Clan, who rushed for 334 yards. That's a bad sign when they now have to face Toms River North senior Mike Husni, one of the best quarterbacks in Shore Conference history and the definition of a dual threat.
He has 1,770 yards and 22 touchdowns passing, and 1,360 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing. Husni is six touchdowns shy of tying the Shore Conference record for combined touchdowns (44) in a season set by Mater Dei Prep's Christian Palmer in 2014. In the first game against Howell, he ran for a touchdown and threw a touchdown pass as senior running back Parker Day did most of the damage with 200-plus yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Day has 1,210 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns, giving the Mariners a pair of 1,000-yard rushers behind their physical offensive line. Their top two receivers, Carrington and the Rutgers-bound Watts, are arguably the best wide receiver tandem in New Jersey. Watts has 695 yards and 7 touchdowns on 25.7 yards per catch, while Carrington has done him one better with 775 yards and 14 touchdowns on 26.7 yards per catch.
Brantley, who had an interception that set up a touchdown in the regular-season game, also patrols the secondary for Howell and has three picks this season. Defensive end Bobby Cavallero will also be key in setting the edge and helping to bracket Husni.
The Rebels are giving up 29.2 points per game, which ranks in the bottom eight in the Shore. So basically their m.o. has been to win shootouts, which is a tall order against an offense with the firepower of Toms River North.
They tried onside kicking in the previous game, and LaQuaglia returned one of them for a touchdown, so we'll see if that strategy comes back into play. Clearly, turnovers are crucial in a game like this to limit one team's possessions if it turns into a back-and-forth scoreboard explosion.
Howell is shooting for its first state final since the program's only championship in 2007. This is a Rebels team that could be right back in this spot again next year given that nearly its entire lineup returns from its best team since 2009.
Meanwhile, Toms River North is bidding for immortality under head coach Dave Oizerowitz. The Mariners are looking for their first 12-0 season since 2007 and have won 20 straight games.
No Toms River North team has ever won back-to-back state titles, and this team looks to leave its mark as one of the Shore's all-time great teams by becoming the rare squad to win consecutive titles in South Jersey's largest public school bracket. The last team to do it was another legendary Shore squad, the 2000-01 Jackson Memorial team that won South Jersey Group IV twice, which was before the creation of Group V.
SOUTH JERSEY GROUP III
(5) Hamilton West (6-3) at (1) Wall (7-2), 7 p.m. on Friday.
Winner plays the winner of (3) Delsea at (2) Burlington Twp. in final, time/date/site TBA
Game breakdown: Wall is looking for its first state final since 2004 and first state championship since 2002 to complete its resurgence under head coach Dan Curcione.
The Crimson Knights got their running game back on track in demolishing eighth-seeded Camden, 35-0, in the first round last week. Senior tailback Sean Larkin is back in form after missing time with injury, as he rolled up 229 yards and three touchdowns as part of a 402-yard rushing effort. He now has 957 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns in eight games.
Wall, which averages 28 points per game, can also hurt teams over the top in the passing game with junior Eddie Scott, who has 682 yards passing and 7 touchdowns while also running for 367 yards and 3 scores. The Crimson Knights' two home run hitters are senior wideout R.J. Janeczek, who has 407 yards and two touchdowns on 17.7 yards per catch, and junior Chevesse Covin, who averages 18 yards per reception as well as 9.2 yards per carry, mainly on jet sweeps.
That unit, which includes a veteran offensive line, faces a Hamilton defense that enters allowing 15.2 points per game after a 26-12 win over Lakewood in the first round. The Hornets' defense is led by 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior linebacker Reidgee Dimanche, a Stony Brook recruit who has 88 tackles. Defensive tackle James White leads their front line with 70 tackles. If Wall wins that battle up front, the Crimson Knights can punch their ticket to the finals.
Hamilton West's offense is averaging 21.9 points per game and has not cracked 30 points all season, so the Hornets are built to win low-scoring, defensive slugfests. Junior quarterback Hezekiah Patterson has thrown for 1,293 yards and 11 touchdowns, and they only average 3.9 yards per rush and don't have anyone with 500 yards rushing. Their big-play threat is 6-foot-3 junior Chris Charles, who has 34 catches for 479 yards and 3 touchdowns, and Dimanche is also a weapon in the passing game with 22 grabs for 384 yards and 3 scores.
Patterson threw three touchdowns against Lakewood, with Charles catching a 30-yard strike. Wall's defense, which has seen some strong offenses this year in Central, Middletown North and Middletown South, enters allowing just 14 points per game, good for sixth in the Shore.
Senior linebacker Kyle Dallicardillo is their leading tackler with junior Tim McKernan right behind him. Darryin Valme, Gene Scott and Mike Andrejco have combined for 11 sacks up front. The match-up bodes well for Wall given the strength of the Crimson Knights' secondary, which includes Janeczek, Larkin, Shane Richey and senior Mike Capra, who have combined for 8 interceptions.
If Wall establishes the run early, that should be a strong indicator of which way this game will go. Mercer County teams have not traditionally fared well against the Shore Conference, especially on the road, so Wall is in the driver's seat for its first final appearance in 12 years.