The Fifth Down: Midseason Report
With every team in the Shore Conference having played at least five games, this is the midway point for the majority of the teams other than the select few who will make it to the NJSIAA sectional finals on that first weekend in December.
With half the season in the books, here is a look around Shore Conference football at some of the high points, top performances and storylines thus far, as well as what is coming up.
Class A North
Manalapan looks to have one last hurdle on its way to its fifth straight Class A North title after knocking off Middletown South 21-3 last week. The Braves will travel to currently unbeaten Freehold Boro on Nov. 1 with a chance to clinch the championship. The Colonials will get their chance to cement their turnaround season when they have the 1-2 punch of Middletown South and Manalapan on Nov. 1 and Nov. 7, and they will win the division if they complete a tall order and win both games. Manalapan and RBC are trying to become the first Shore teams to win five straight division titles since Middletown South won seven in a row from 1999-2005.
Class A Central
St. John Vianney is in the driver's seat to win its first division title since 1982 in its first season under new coach Mark Ciccotelli. The Lancers are off to a 6-0 start and are making a push for a first-round home game in the Non-Public Group III playoffs.
Their best season ever came in 1980 when they went 10-1 and won the Parochial South A title, and this season looks to be their biggest one since then. Their last hurdle looks to be on the road on Nov. 8 at Manasquan, where the Warriors are always tough at home. I would hazard to guess that St. John Vianney has never beaten Manasquan at Vic Kubu Warrior Field, so the Lancers will have to make some history to get that first division title in 32 years.
Class A South
Brick holds its fate in its hands and has two more landmines to clear before it can lock down its first division title since 2008. The Green Dragons are at Toms River North on Halloween and home against Toms River South on Nov. 7. They only have a one-game lead on Jackson Memorial, so the margin for error is slim. They most likely will have to win both to claim the title outright. After the wakeup call of a stunning nondivisional loss to Wall (1-5), the Green Dragons won't be taking anyone lightly as they try to repeat as Central Jersey Group IV champions.
Class B North
This is a formality as Red Bank Catholic has crushed everyone in its path in this division. The Caseys have already clinched no worse than a tie for the title and can win it outright by beating Ocean (1-4) on Halloween for their fifth straight division championship. As far as the public title, Long Branch looks like the most likely candidate to take second behind the Caseys, which looks like it will come down to a game at Neptune on Nov. 1. The Green Wave also will have to take care of business on Thanksgiving against old rival Red Bank Regional.
Class B Central
No surprises here, as Shore Regional's 14-8 win over Mater Dei Prep last week means that for the third straight season, this division title will most likely come down to Shore's game against Point Beach. The Blue Devils host the Garnet Gulls on Halloween in what should be another slugfest. Shore beat Point Beach last year before the Garnet Gulls came back a week later and beat the Blue Devils for the Central Jersey Group I title. A year earlier, Point Beach beat Shore on Thanksgiving to win its first division title since 1997.
There is still a way it could be a three-way tie for the title if Point Beach knocks off Shore, and then Mater Dei Prep beats Point Beach on Nov. 8. Mater Dei has never won a division title in its history.
Class B South
It's a four-team race at this point, with defending champion Barnegat seeming to round into form down the stretch. The Bengals are tied for first along with Lakewood, Jackson Liberty and Central, so there are still plenty of big games left in this division, including Lakewood at Barnegat on Halloween, and Jackson Liberty at Point Boro the same night. Jackson Liberty's game at home against Central on Nov. 7 also looms large. This division will most likely end up as a shared title between two teams.
Here's a quick breakdown of what the state playoff scene looks like for Shore contenders:
Central Jersey Group V
Manalapan has been to three straight sectional finals and should make it four in this bracket. The team the Braves will most likely have to overcome to get their first NJSIAA title in program history is unbeaten South Brunswick, led by Syracuse recruit Dontae Strickland. Hillsborough (6-0) and Montgomery (5-1) also lurk out there as contenders, but Manalapan and South Brunswick appear to be on a collision course, two years after South Brunswick beat the Braves to win the 2012 Central Jersey Group V title for the Vikings' first state title.
Freehold Township also could make a piece of history in this bracket with its first state playoff appearance since 2001 and just the second one in school history. The Patriots have never won a state playoff game, but have a good shot at landing the No. 8 seed in the bracket.
Central Jersey Group IV
This is a great bracket that should produce some memorable games. Brick is the defending champion and is currently battling Jackson Memorial for the top seed. The Green Dragons beat the Jaguars 30-24 in an overtime classic earlier this season. Freehold Boro is also in line for a top-four seed and looks like the darkhorse to surprise some people in this bracket. It would be a big surprise if a Shore Conference team did not win this bracket.
Middletown South is still dangerous but has come up short in its two big games against South Brunswick and Manalapan, so the Eagles still have something to prove before labeling them a championship-level team. Jackson Liberty, Middletown North and Neptune are all vying for spots in the field and would all be underdogs if they got in, although Middletown North is starting to pick up steam with a potent offense.
Central Jersey Group III
Long Branch and the Shore's top rusher, senior Dahmiere Willis, have a good shot to win the Green Wave's first state title since 1999 by re-asserting the Shore's supremacy after two straight years of Mercer County champions. They are vying for the top seed with a Carteret team they already beat 31-6. Long Branch's game against Matawan, another team that will most likely make the field, is a huge one on Friday night as far as playoff position is concerned.
The main obstacle for Long Branch looks to be defending champion Hopewell Valley, although Hopewell may have just lost its starting quarterback to a knee injury. Raritan is also in the mix for its first state playoff berth since 2009, much of which will hinge on whether it can take home a win over Point Boro on Friday night.
Central Jersey Group II
Now back at full power with Charlie Volker in the lineup, defending champion Rumson-Fair Haven has a good shot to win back-to-back state titles for the first time in school history. The team they vanquished last year, Weequahic, has been realigned into another bracket, so Cinnaminson (5-1) appears to be the primary obstacle along with Roselle (4-2).
The Bulldogs have a huge game, power-point wise, on Friday night against Lakewood (4-1), which is right behind Rumson in fifth place in the power-point standings. The Piners won their first state playoff game since 1986 last year in this bracket, so we will find out on Friday if they have what it takes to potentially unseat Rumson as the champion. Point Boro is also vying for the eighth seed in this bracket and has a big game against Raritan for both teams' playoff hopes on Friday night.
Central Jersey Group I
The good news for the Shore contingent in this bracket is that Dunellen, which has wins over Shore Regional and Point Beach, got realigned into a North Jersey bracket this year. That means Middlesex (5-1), South Hunterdon (4-2) and Metuchen (5-1) are the main teams to worry about in a bracket where Point Beach is the defending champion. The winner of the Point Beach-Shore game on Halloween will stamp itself as a prime contender in this bracket. Metuchen just beat Middlesex 7-0, so the Bulldogs may be the team to beat right now. Still, there is not much separating these teams, and either Point Beach or Shore, or both, could get back to the championship game this year.
South Jersey Group V
This is usually an absolutely loaded bracket that is tough to win, but this year it's pretty wide open. Lenape and Rancocas Valley are both currently 5-0, so clearly they are the class of the pack, with Lenape coming off a 24-16 win over perennial contender Cherokee. Brick Memorial has a solid shot at a top-four seed in this bracket and a home game, so the Mustangs definitely have a chance in trying to win their first state title since 2008.
Toms River North and Southern also are in the mix to make the field and take their shot. They play each other this weekend, so that's a crucial swing game for each team's playoff hopes.
South Jersey Group IV
Toms River South is the Shore's only real shot to make the playoffs in this bracket, and it put itself in a tough spot with a last-second loss to Southern last week. Should the Indians get in, they will be a heavy underdog. Defending champion Shawnee, a loaded Timber Creek team, and undefeated Hammonton make this a brutal bracket at the top.
South Jersey Group III
Central is in line for a rare playoff home game if it can keep winning, but the Golden Eagles, along with Manasquan and Wall, are all underdogs to defending champion Delsea in this bracket. Allentown also has had a strong season and is another contender. Central has only won one playoff game in its entire history, and that was back in 1994, so if the Golden Eagles can get a high seed and get a first-round win, that's a really successful season given their history.
This bracket is obviously top-heavy, as Wall is 1-5 yet still sitting as the sixth seed right now. That shows how ridiculously watered-down the state playoffs have become. Making the postseason is no longer an accomplishment. The real mark of a successful season is making it to the playoffs and winning at least one game.
Manasquan has big games against Matawan and St. John Vianney coming up that will be important if the Warriors want to get a shot to at least play a first-round game on their home field.
South Jersey Group II
Barnegat is the Shore's best hope in this section, but this bracket is absolutely loaded. Defending champion Haddonfield, a pair of undefeated teams in Camden and Buena, perennial powers West Deptford and Glassboro, plus last year's runner-up, Woodstown, make this a tall order for Cinjun Erskine, Manny Bowen and Co. There aren't too many seedings where they can avoid those teams, so they're going to have to win three really tough games if they are going to capture their first state title in history.
Non-Public Group III
You know the drill in this one. St. Joseph's-Montvale rules until proven otherwise. The defending champions, winners of 17 state titles, have ended No. 1 Red Bank Catholic's season the past two years. RBC's test against Manalapan on Friday night should be a gauge of whether the Caseys have brought it up to the level where they finally might be able to take down the Green Knights. St. Joe's showed a little chink in the armor in a surprise loss to Bergen Catholic last week, but come playoff time, they are still as formidable an obstacle as any team in the state. Delbarton is also another dangerous contender.
RBC has not made a state final since 1980, so at least getting to the championship game would be a step in the right direction. The added intrigue this year is unbeaten St. John Vianney, which currently sits third in power points behind RBC. A Lancers-Caseys match-up would be one of the more buzzed-about playoff games involving Shore teams given the quick rise of St. John Vianney this year with its influx of new talent and the established dominance of RBC in the Shore. In the race for future talent, it would be a huge selling point for the winner.
Non-Public Group I
Best-case scenario for Mater Dei Prep in this bracket is to be the sacrificial lamb in the championship game to the overwhelming favorite, defending champion St. Joseph-Hammonton, which has won 23 state titles. The St. Mary's-Rutherford team that routed the Seraphs in last year's semifinals looks to once again be the main road block to receiving the honor of getting fed to St. Joe's.
Now on to some quick-hit items at the midway point
Just so many great plays back and forth, and some beyond clutch performances by Brick to pull it out.
I wasn't there, but you look at how many exciting plays and back-and-forth moments there were, and this was a classic edition of "The Civil War." More than a few old-timers said it was the best one in the history of the rivalry.
Maybe the biggest regular-season upset of the last 30 years in the Shore. It goes to show that anything can happen in high school football.
Yes, I know I'm mentioning Brick again but the crowd at this game on both sides was insane. Both student sections were at full roar the entire time even though Brick won in a 42-0 wipeout. The Toms River North-Toms River South Civil War game also deserves a mention.
I would think Friday's RBC-Manalapan game will more than give this game a run for its money in this department.
Best coaching jobs
The Coach of the Year award is usually decided when the smoke clears on state championship weekend in December, but here are some noteworthy jobs so far:
Dave Ellis, Freehold Boro: The Colonials are off to their best start since winning a state title in 2008. If they beat winless Toms River East this weekend, they will have as many wins (7) as their last three seasons combined.
Mark Ciccotelli, St. John Vianney: Yes, the roster was dramatically upgraded with talented transfers, but Ciccotelli still has this team on pace for its best season since 1982.
Dave Oizerowitz, Toms River North: After a 1-9 nightmare last year, the Mariners have come back strong at 4-2 with one of the fiercest rushing attacks in the Shore. Considering the majority of their star skill players are sophomores and juniors, they could be the favorite to win Class A South by next year.
Sean Henry, Point Boro: The Panthers have bounced back from a 1-9 season with a 3-3 start and are still in striking distance for a piece of the Class B South title.
Chuck Donohue Sr., Southern: After losing a ton to graduation, the Rams are still in the playoff hunt at 3-2 and have a win over a Toms River South team that entered the season with high expectations.
Willie Jacobs, Central: The Golden Eagles upset Barnegat in the early going after everyone figured the Bengals would roll to the Class B South title. Central now has a good shot at its first division title since 1994.
Mike D'Antonio, Freehold Township: The Patriots are in the hunt for just their second state playoff berth in program history thanks to a 3-3 start on the heels of a 1-9 season.
Keep an eye on: Red Bank Catholic's Jim Portela, Jackson Memorial's Walt Krystopik, Manalapan's Ed Gurrieri, Shore's Mark Costantino, Point Beach's John Wagner, Long Branch's Dan George, and Brick Memorial's Walt Currie. All of them have had their teams playing up to the level expected from the preseason, but their COY resume will be made or broken in the state playoffs. Same goes for Brick's Rob Dahl despite the tough loss to Wall, and Rumson's Bryan Batchler after two tough losses without Charlie Volker. Steve Antonucci is another darkhorse if Middletown South can put it together for a run in Central Jersey Group IV.
It didn't occur at a Shore Conference school, but it certainly has been the talk of the state. At the very least, you hope it makes players think twice about doing something dumb while also making schools evaluate their supervision procedures regarding athletes.
Between an influx of them at St. John Vianney and battles over high-profile ones like Jackson Memorial's Matt Castronuova and Neptune's Royal Moore, this is a pretty consistent topic of discussion that only intensifies by the year. Donovan Catholic was ruled by the NJSIAA to have used an ineligible transfer in its season opener against Pinelands, resulting in a forfeit.
Running backs going wild
Long Branch's Dahmiere Willis has a streak of five straight games of 200-plus yards, Central's Mike Bickford has done it three straight games, and those are just two of about 15-plus backs and quarterbacks who are on their way to 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
The resurgence of familiar names
Freehold Boro and Toms River North are two perennial contenders of the late 2000s who appear to be back on their feet after some struggles.
Dual threat quarterbacks
This was a big theme of our preseason preview, and it has held true. We may even have the rare occurrence, possibly unprecedented, of three quarterbacks who each finish with more than 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards passing in one season. Mater Dei Prep senior Christian Palmer, Brick senior Carmen Sclafani and Toms River North sophomore Mike Husni are all in striking distance. Then there's St. John Vianney's Anthony Brown and Red Bank Catholic's Eddie Hahn, who have been true dual threat maestros to make their teams a combined 12-0 heading into this weekend. Barnegat quarterback Cinjun Erskine is also having another strong season with the Bengals right in the hunt for another Class B South title.
Most Improved Player
Mike Husni, So., QB, Toms River North
He has taken a big leap forward in his second season as the starter and is on pace for a 1,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing season.
Runners-up: St. John Vianney QB Anthony Brown; Mater Dei Prep QB Christian Palmer.
Biggest surprise (team)
Raise your hand if you're not wearing blue and gray and in the preseason had Freehold Boro potentially being 7-0 going into its game against Manalapan on Nov. 1. That's what I thought.
Biggest surprise (player)
Mike Bickford, So., RB, Central
Bickford was a relative unknown coming into his first varsity season this fall and already has racked up 1,085 yards rushing in six games.
I know Long Branch's Dahmiere Willis is having a big year, but he is a three-year varsity starter who the coaches had projected as a star running back by his senior year. Same goes for St. John Vianney junior quarterback Anthony Brown, a promising player from the minute he stepped into St. John Vianney who now runs a system that suits his dual threat talents.
Runners-up: Justin Ferrara, Sr., WR, Matawan
He quietly has 22 catches for 479 yards (21.8 per catch) and 2 touchdowns for a team with a freshman quarterback that didn't throw the ball that frequently last year.
Derek Ernst, Jr., RB, Raritan
Ernst is on pace for a potential 1,000-yard rushing season despite not even being the starter at the beginning of the year. He took over for the injured Richie Salerno in the second half of the season opener and has rushed for at least 92 yards in every game since, with three games of 120-plus yards.
Most Exciting Player
This is obviously in the eye of the beholder, but there might not be a player with more eye openers this year than Toms River South senior quarterback Tymere Berry. Every game, you never know if you will see something that will have you out of your seat.
Also deserving mention: Long Branch's Dahmiere Willis, Freehold's Josh Dixon, Brick's Carmen Sclafani, Toms River North's Asante Moorer, Red Bank's Sadiq Palmer.
Offensive Player of the Year Watch
Imamu Mayfield, Sr., RB, Manalapan
Mayfield leads the Shore with 21 touchdowns and has 934 yards rushing. With games left against RBC and Freehold Boro plus the inevitable playoff run, he will have his chance to make a serious case.
Josh Dixon, Sr., RB, Freehold Boro
He has run for 932 yards and 13 touchdowns and been basically unstoppable so far. However, the real proving ground comes in games against Manalapan and Middletown South at the end of the regular season. If Dixon gets it done against teams like those and does well in the playoffs, that is a strong resume.
Anthony Brown, Jr., QB, St. John Vianney
Brown has thrown for 1,218 yards and run for 363 with a combined 15 touchdowns. He has been the engine of a potent offense on an undefeated team. If he lights up a team or two in the Non-Public Group III playoffs, you have to like his chances.
Charlie Volker, Sr., RB, Rumson-Fair Haven
Last year's Offensive Player of the Year has had a tough start with two missed games due to a high ankle sprain. With 557 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns in three games, he still has a shot if he continues to stay healthy and put up big numbers, and if Rumson runs the table and wins a second straight Central Jersey Group II title.
Carmen Sclafani, Sr., QB, Brick
He plays in the Shore Conference's hardest division and has already accounted for 20 total touchdowns in addition to posting more than 1,700 yards of total offense. A Class A South title and a second straight Central Jersey Group IV title would make him a clear front-runner.
Eddie Hahn, Jr., QB, Red Bank Catholic
A true dual threat on the Shore's No. 1 team, his stats are not as gaudy as some others because he rarely plays more than three quarters because the Caseys are blowing teams out. He has 925 yards and 18 touchdowns combined, but he is averaging 11 yards per carry and 17.6 yards per completion. With big games looming against Manalapan and Jackson Memorial as well as the gauntlet of Non-Public Group III, some big performances should put him front and center.
Dahmiere Willis, Sr., RB, Long Branch
The Shore Conference's leading rusher at 1,430 yards along with 15 touchdowns, Willis is right in the conversation. If Long Branch rides him to a Central Jersey Group III title, his candidacy will be tough to beat.
Mike Bickford, So., RB, Central
Bickford has rolled up 1,085 yards and 13 touchdowns and has been unstoppable in Class B South play. If Central can grab at least a share of the division title and make some noise in the playoffs, he has a shot.
Cinjun Erskine, Sr., QB, Barnegat
Erskine has put up 1,039 yards of total offense and 11 total touchdowns but will need some signature games down the stretch in Class B South as well as in the South Jersey Group II playoffs.
Christian Palmer, Sr., QB, Mater Dei Prep
Palmer has some crazy numbers with 1,647 total yards and 21 touchdowns combined between rushing and passing, but missed a golden opportunity for a signature game in a loss to Shore last week. With a big game against Point Beach and some strong playoff showings, he could get into the conversation.
Keep an eye on: Tymere Berry, Sr., QB, Toms River South; Chad Freshnock, Jr., RB, Middletown North; Cole Rogers, Jr., RB, Middletown South; Joe DeMaio, Sr., QB, Jackson Memorial; Mike Husni, So., QB, Toms River North; Asante Moorer, Jr., RB, Toms River North.
Defensive Player of the Year Watch
Jamie Gordinier, Sr., LB, Red Bank Catholic
The Miami recruit is tied for the team lead with 64 tackles and rarely plays the full game because RBC is so far ahead on the scoreboard. Blocked punts, sacks, tackles for a loss - he does it all. With some high-profile games coming up for the Caseys, the spotlight is his to cement his resume.
Kyle Mullen, Sr., DE, Manalapan
With a team-high 57 tackles and 7 sacks, Mullen has been a relentless force. Facing a formidable RBC offense this week, he will get a chance to show what he can do against the best.
Khalil Haskins, Jr., DB, St. John Vianney
Haskins leads the Shore with four interceptions and has been a playmaker all year with 32 tackles out of the secondary. There are several defensive standouts on St. John Vianney, so that might kind of split the vote for just one player from the Lancers.
Tanner Cowley, Sr., LB, Manasquan
While the Warriors have struggled team-wise, Cowley has been a constant force as the leading tackler and playmaker in his last season before heading off to the University of Virginia.
Zach Tetro, Sr., LB, Jackson Memorial
The leader of a rugged Jaguars' defense, he is the leading tackler and has had a signature moment with his fumble return for the game-winning touchdown against Brick Memorial.
Da'shon Copes, Jr., DT, Toms River North
A darkhorse given that the Mariners already have two losses, but Copes leads the team with 34 tackles and 4 sacks against a tough schedule.
Hunter Baillie, Sr., LB, Long Branch
Baillie is among the Shore Conference leaders in sacks with 7.5 and has been a top tackler on a Green Wave defense that has helped them win five straight.
James Bedell, Sr., LB, Shore Regional
If Shore can take home the B Central and Central Jersey Group I crowns, a big reason will be Bedell, a force at linebacker who also can rush off the edge. He also has two interceptions and helped hold the fort while fellow standout linebacker Doug Goldsmith was out injured.
Manny Bowen, Sr., LB, Barnegat
Despite missing two games, the Penn State recruit has 35 tackles, including 9 for a loss. His teammate, defensive lineman Xavier Young, also has been outstanding with 25 tackles, 12 for a loss, and three sacks. Barnegat will need to shut down a good team or two in the playoffs to really bolster Bowen's candidacy.
James Juliano, Sr., LB, Brick
With 75 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble, he is quietly putting together another great season for an underrated defense.
Datrell Reed, Sr., DL, Lakewood
Reed has been a consistent presence in opposing backfields. Now is his chance to show he can do it against a high level of competition when Lakewood takes on Rumson-Fair Haven this week and then Barnegat a week later.
Keep an eye on: Frank Henry, Sr., S, Ocean; Dylan Rogers, Jr., LB, Middletown South; Joe Wegrzyniak, Sr., LB, Point Beach; Dan Calabro, Sr., S, St. John Vianney; Tyler Tedeschi, So., LB, St. John Vianney; Aliem Shaw and Alex Pierce, both LB, Jr., Matawan; Amir Tyler, Jr., LB, Lakewood.