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TOMS RIVER -- What's a championship game without a little drama, especially when it comes in the fourth quarter with time winding down in a one-possession game.

Toms River North looked like it had forced overtime thanks to a touchdown catch by sophomore wide receiver Jeremiah Pruitt and a 2-point conversion run by sophomore quarterback Micah Ford with 57 seconds left in regulation, but Kingsway had other ideas.

The Dragons drove into Toms River North territory and then delivered the dagger on a 36-yard touchdown catch by Luke Van Brill to stun the Mariners, 21-14, to capture the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 5 sectional championship on Friday night at Gernerd Field.

Click here for a photo gallery by Ray Rich Photography

Ray Rich Photography
Ray Rich Photography

Kingsway stuck with its ground-and-pound run game from start to finish, wearing down the Toms River North defense en route to its first state sectional title since 2021.

It makes the hour-plus drive from Toms River back home to Woolwich Township a happy one.

"I'm just really proud of the way they showed resiliency. It's a back and forth ballgame, we made mistakes, they made mistakes but we made some big plays to pull ahead and probably none bigger than the one we hang in there to hit the tight end (Luke Van Brill) down the middle with limited time left in the game," Kingsway Head Coach Mark Hendricks told reporters after the game. "We just hang around man, we're better than you want us to be."

If you believe early momentum makes a difference in the overall outcome of a game, the Dragons would prove you right.

They deferred the opening coin toss giving the ball to the Mariners who ran the ball twice, threw for a short gain, and then punted on 4th down.

In response, the Dragons marched down the field the way they would most of the night -- a ground and pound attack with just enough gains on those runs to move the chains.

Their first drive lasted three minutes and they ran seven plays including a pair of carries each for junior quarterback Nate Maiers, who finished the night with 14 rushes for 54 yards rushing while throwing for 147 passing with 2 touchdowns and two interceptions, and Darrell Brown Jr., who finished the night with 28 rushes for 82 yards.

Then the drive finished up with sophomore wide receiver Luke Van Brill who snagged a pass from Maiers and ran 50-yards into the end zone to put the Dragons up 7-0 with 6:55 to go in the first quarter.

Following another Mariners 3 and out, the Dragons again moved their way down the field.

While it started out looking like the Dragons were going to go up two scores early, thanks to a 20-yard run by Brown Jr. and then a 12-yard reception, the drive came to an end when Maiers threw an interception into the leaping arms of Mariners' defensive back Tareq Council in the end zone.

The Mariners were then able to build off the momentum their defense just built up by driving down the field on 10 plays thanks in large part to Ford ,who ran for 38 yards, threw for 19, and scored on an 8-yard touchdown run with 7:06 in the second quarter to pull North to within 7-6, which is where the game remained after a missed PAT attempt.

Deep in their own territory on the ensuing possession, the Dragons' drive ended quickly when Maiers was intercepted by Pruitt.

The Mariners came away empty on the ensuing possession and the Dragons then missed a field goal attempt. Ford's heave on the final play of the first half was then intercepted by Kingsway.

The Dragons then led a long methodical drive of their own to begin the second half.

After a couple of runs by Brown Jr., Maiers went to the air and found Roman Kuzmick wide-open for a gain of 23 yards.

The rest of the drive was entirely on the ground, with carries split between Maiers and Brown Jr, who got the last three yards of the drive into the end zone putting Kingsway up 14-6 with 3:53 left in the third quarter.

Toms River North followed that drive with a three and out which was followed by Kingsway running the ball downfield aided by a couple of Mariners penalties, but they ultimately ended punting as well.

Down 14-6 with just over 2:00 left to go in the game, the Mariners had one last chance to tie the game up.

Ford, who finished the night going with 12 rushes for 73 yards on the ground and 106 yards through the air, threw two lasers to Ryan Dean and then to Pruitt and suddenly the Mariners went from deep within their own territory to the red zone.

Then, bedlam.

Pruitt made a great catch for a 30-yard touchdown reception with 57 seconds left and Ford ran in the 2-point conversion to tie the game at 14 with just under a minute on the clock.

Kingsway, however, had the last word.

This drive was the Nate Maiers show, as the Dragons relied on his arm and his poise to lead them to victory.

His 36-yard touchdown pass to Van Brill sealed it for Kingsway.

"One of the things that we were able to see in their coverage on the back end was just how they rotated to multiple receiver sets so we were able to hone in on a look that they were giving us and there was no doubt we were going to Luke on that last play," Hendricks said. "That was the first read, that guy right down the seam. We just felt that we had the right coverage to go against it."

It was the Dragons running game that helped tire out the Mariners' defense throughout the game with short, quick runs.

"One of the keys to success, we thought, going into it was we needed to keep #1 (Micah Ford) off the field" Hendrick's said. "He is strong, I mean he's a talented quarterback and the only way to keep him off the field was to meticulously go 3, 4, 5 yards and our hope was that eventually, we'd start to open up some of those gaps. They are just so big up front compared to what we are and we just found a way to move the sticks, especially on the first drive of the second half, that was key," Hendricks said.

Click here for a photo gallery by Ray Rich Photography

Toms River North vs. Kingsway Football


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