The Shore Football Report: A Titanic Showdown in Toms River
It’s a game we’ve been waiting to see for more than a year.
Red Bank Catholic and Toms River North did not play last season as the debate raged over the final No. 1 ranking in the Shore Conference. They were in separate divisions, but now they are American Division foes who will clash in a huge showdown of top-3 teams in Toms River on Friday night.
“We've been waiting for this since Game One and now it's finally here,” RBC senior two-way lineman Lorenzo Portella said.
Many of the Shore’s top players will be going head-to-head in a game that No. 2 RBC (6-1, 3-0) has to have if it wants a shot to repeat as outright American Division champs. No. 3 Toms River North (7-1, 3-1) will put itself in position to potentially claim part of the division title depending on how Donovan Catholic fares in its final two divisional games, the last of which is another monster clash with RBC next week. The Mariners also will most likely clinch a No. 1 seed in the state playoffs with a win.
A big development for Toms River North has been the return of last year’s state player of the year, senior quarterback Micah Ford, who played 15 snaps in a 49-0 win over Toms River South last week for the Mariners. The Stanford recruit missed three games with a lower-body injury before shaking off the rust in the win over the Indians. He has more than 1,100 yards between rushing and passing and 14 touchdowns despite missing all that time.
The Mariners weathered the storm without Ford, who was injured in the fourth quarter of their lone defeat, a 21-7 loss to Donovan Catholic. They went unbeaten with junior T.J. Valerio stepping in at quarterback in his absence, beating Middletown South, Southern, Wall and Toms River South by a combined 161-13.
“I believe we found out how to play as a team, not to rely on one person,” star junior two-way lineman Ja’elyne Matthews said. “I watched ‘Friday Night Lights’ a few nights ago, with (Permian) losing (star running back) Boobie Miles and all that, and coming together after he got hurt. This showed us it’s not about one player, it’s about the team.”
In a game packed with star talent at the skill positions, the squad that wins up front will most likely determine the outcome. Both teams are downhill, power rushing attacks with players who can break big runs at any time. Ford and Josh Moore lead the Mariners' explosive rushing attack, while the trio of Luke Wassef, Matt Lonczak, Jamie Gutridge and quarterback Frankie Williams are the threats for RBC's grinding running game.
No Shore team has effectively run the ball on RBC all season. The Caseys are allowing 11.6 points per game, but only 8.2 against Shore opponents. Toms River North is only allowing 7.75 points per game, and the only team that moved the ball on the ground against them is Donovan Catholic, which picked up most of its yards late in the fourth quarter.
A Red Bank Catholic offensive line led by FBS prospect Tyler Burnham and standout senior Lorenzo Portella will face a stout Toms River North defensive front led by Matthews, who has become a two-way force this season. The Caseys will try to get to the second level to get hands on the Mariners’ standout linebacking corps led by Christian Oliveri, Anthony Rodriguez and Blaise Boland, the last of whom has 16.5 tackles for a loss this season. Do-it-all talent Jeremiah Pruitt is another playmaker who lines up all over the field and needs to be accounted for.
“I feel like our five will be able to push their front four around,” Portella said.
Matthews, who at 6-foot-7 and 295 pounds is one of the most highly-recruited players in New Jersey, also is a key cog on a Mariners offensive line that includes plenty of size with Hathem Hooranyi (6-4, 275), Justin Kaye (6-7, 305), CJ Valenti (5-11, 275) and John Tucker (6-4, 275).
“They have some good linemen,” Matthews said. “Lorenzo Portella, he’s a really great athlete, and they have Tyler Burnham. We’re a ‘punch you in the mouth’ O-line. We’re going to be poised, and we’re going to kick some butt.”
RBC has plenty of talent of its own on its defensive line with the relentless Portella along with standout senior Logan Graham.
“That's why I went to RBC, to face good competition and test myself, which I think I'm going to do this week,” Portella said.
“It's definitely a lot of one-on-one,” Matthews said about RBC’s defensive line. “Portella likes to split double teams, so we're going to keep that in mind.”
The biggest X-factor is clearly whether Ford will play the full game or not.
“I'm hoping he is back,” Portella said. “I’d rather beat them and they have no excuse of why they lost because he wasn't in the game.”
The other marquee matchup will be Toms River North’s standout secondary led by Tareq Council and Nasir Jackson against RBC superstar and Ford's future Stanford teammate - wide receiver Emanuel Ross. If both teams are struggling to establish the run, a deep shot downfield could change the game.
The senior is coming off 6 catches for 120 yards and 3 touchdowns in a win over Howell and is one of the most dynamic pass-catchers in New Jersey. Meanwhile, Council and Jackson have blanketed opposing receivers this season and have the size to match up with Ross. He has 30 catches for 447 yards this season, and 7 of them have been for touchdowns, so about one in four times he catches the ball, he puts it in the end zone.
There also is a familiarity between the stars, as Matthews said he has known Ross and RBC star linebacker Davin Brewton since he was a young kid. Ross is verbally committed to Stanford and Brewton is committed to Pittsburgh, while Matthews has offers from just about every major program in America.
Matthews was verbally committed to Penn State before de-committing earlier this season. He said Penn State is “still in the running” and that he plans on taking a visit to Maryland on Nov. 4. He also recently took a visit to reigning national champion and top-ranked Georgia and said he has been talking with Florida State and Texas.
Howell had four losses by 10 points or less to start the season, but a 20-14 setback to Jackson Memorial that dropped the Rebels to 0-4 may have been the biggest gut punch of them all.
“I thought Jackson was our breaking point,” standout senior wide receiver Kevin Maloney said. “We were winning at halftime and let it slip away.”
With the season at a crossroads, Howell dug deep and knocked off Manalapan 30-27 to get into the win column by scoring their most points in any game this season. It also resurrected their state playoff hopes in a major way.
Even after their loss to No. 2 RBC last week dropped them to 2-5, they sit at No. 15 in the United Power Rankings in the South Group 5 region. (The top 16 teams qualify for the postseason).
A more settled offense has produced results, including a 28-0 win over Southern. Senior Egan Nelms is the full-time quarterback after previously rotating with Vin Meehan, who is now a running back. Junior Juan DeJesus has also turned in multiple 100-yard rushing games after replacing senior Brandon Wright after he suffered a season-ending injury.
“The O-line really stepped it up,” Maloney said. “These last couple games, we’ve finally found a rhythm offensively. Juan has been a beast, and now we have Vin Meehan there, too. Egan has been the full-time quarterback since the Jackson game, and that has helped because we’re not switching playcalls based on who’s in at quarterback. We know who our guys are, and mentality-wise, we know what to do.”
The Rebels have a chance to get to 3-5 and solidify their playoff spot when they face Lacey (2-6) on Friday.
“I really think it's just discipline and playing more as a team,” Maloney said. “Penalties have been the biggest thing hurting us, and they finally went down this past week. We realized we really could play with anybody if we just play our game and don't make the mistakes we usually make.”
Heading into the cutoff weekend for the state playoffs, 25 of the Shore's 42 teams are in the top 16 in their respective UPR rankings, which is where teams need to be in order to qualify for the postseason.
Raritan sits at No. 16 in South Group 2, just one spot ahead of Monmouth. The Rockets face a tough challenge this week in Point Boro (6-1), which needs to beat them to claim a share of a division title. There is the possibility that the teams could play twice in two weeks if Point Boro ends up as a No. 1 seed and the Rockets get a No. 8 seed. The Panthers currently sit at No. 1 in UPR in the region.
The Rockets' strength of schedule gives them the edge when it comes to nabbing that last spot, but if they lose it opens the door for Monmouth to potentially get in with a win over Pinelands. It also shows how much strength of schedule is a factor that Raritan could finish 2-6 in the regular season and Monmouth would be 6-3 if they beat Pinelands this weekend, but the Rockets could still possibly claim the postseason spot.
Monmouth could also have a shot if Raritan loses, No. 15 Delran (2-6) loses to Camden Eastside (4-3), and the Falcons beat Pinelands.
Matawan sits at No. 16 in South Group 3, one spot behind Ocean. Burlington Township (2-6) is right behind the Huskies, but faces a tough game against Willingboro (6-2) this weekend. Matawan (3-5) faces Freehold (2-5) in a bid to lock down its spot, while Ocean will look to solidify its spot by beating Manasquan.
In South Group 4, Brick sits at No. 19 and has to beat undefeated rival Brick Memorial and possibly get some help from other teams losing in order to qualify for the playoffs.
In South Group 5, Howell and Southern sit at No. 15 and 16, respectively. If Southern slips ahead of them, Howell has a head-to-head win over the Rams so the Rebels would be seeded ahead of them. Williamstown is at No. 17 behind Southern, but the Braves are 0-8 and any team with less than two wins is ineligible for the state playoffs by NJSIAA rule.
At this point, it's mainly just seeing how things shake out after the brackets are divided into Central and South Jersey following the cutoff.
Point Boro looks to be a No. 1 seed if it beats Raritan because the Panthers have a head-to-head win over No. 2 Rumson-Fair Haven. Holmdel could potentially grab a No. 1 seed in South 3 win a win over Shore by jumping Delsea to get the No. 2 spot.
Toms River North taking down RBC would most likely send the Mariners sailing to a No. 1 seed in Group 5, where they are currently behind Cherokee and Hillsborough. Toms River North is the defending overall Group 5 champion.
RBC can lock down the No. 1 seed in Non-Public B with a win over Toms River North. That would be huge because it would potentially mean defending champion DePaul would have to come to Count Basie Field for a semifinal depending on how the seedings ultimately shake out. The two teams have each won once after meeting in the last two Non-Public B finals.
Division title scenarios
Only one division title has been completely captured heading into the final week of the regular season. Keyport won its second straight division title and first outright crown since 2003 by beating Keansburg to retain the Bayshore Bell and take the Patriot Division title all for itself this past weekend.
In the American Division, Red Bank Catholic or Donovan Catholic could clinch no worse than a tie for the title if they win and the other team loses this week. The Griffins face Middletown South while the Caseys take on Toms River North. If they both win, it sets up a winner-take-all showdown for the division title and most likely the final No. 1 ranking in the Shore a week later on Oct. 27.
In the Colonial Division, if Point Boro beats Raritan, and Colts Neck beats Long Branch, those two would tie for the title. A loss by either would allow the other to win the title outright. Losses by both could create an absolutely wild situation in which potentially five teams (Pt. Boro, Colts Neck, Raritan, Manalapan, and Long Branch) could tie for the title with a 3-2 divisional record.
In the Constitution Division, Holmdel can claim the outright title with a win over Shore. If the Hornets get upset by the Blue Devils, that would open the door for Manasquan to tie them for the title by beating Ocean.
In the Freedom Division, Marlboro can nab the outright title by beating Middletown North. If the Lions upset the Mustangs, that would allow Jackson Memorial to tie Marlboro for the title by beating Southern.
In the Independence Division, Brick Memorial needs to go through rival Brick to claim the championship all to itself. A loss by the Mustangs would mean Freehold Township could tie them for the division crown by beating Barnegat. Freehold Township has never won a division title in program history.
In the Liberty Division, Toms River South gets the title all to itself if it beats Central. A loss by the Indians would allow Pinelands to tie for its first division title since 1987 by beating Monmouth, or Monmouth could tie Toms River South for the title by beating Pinelands.
Love for the newest Manchester fan
It was quite a week for Manchester head coach Tommy Farrell and his Hawks squad. Farrell's wife, Sophie, gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Keira, three days before Manchester's 27-22 win over Asbury Park.
The victory tied the school single-season record for wins (6) and had an emotional ending. Farrell presented running back Josh Love with the game ball after Love rolled up 254 yards and 3 touchdowns in the victory to cross the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season. Love then gave the ball to Farrell to give to Keira.
The Hawks can set a new school record for wins by beating Lakewood this week to go to 7-2.
Play of the week
Senior Da'Von Craft had the home crowd roaring at Long Branch with this 47-yard run in which he crushed an oncoming tackler and ran through more tacklers in a 31-2 win over Southern.
Alumni of the Week
Al Golden, defensive coordinator, Notre Dame
The unit under the direction of the former Red Bank Catholic star turned in a masterpiece in handing USC its first loss in a 48-20 victory. Notre Dame's defense intercepted reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams three times and returned a fumble for a touchdown. Safety Xavier Watts had a pair of picks that led to touchdowns and also had a scoop and score for the exclamation point on the win.
Jaden Shirden, Jr., RB, Monmouth
Shirden is technically from Connecticut, but he plays for the Shore's hometown team, so I'm counting it. I got a chance to see him last year against Fordham, and he is electrifying. I highly encourage a trip to West Long Branch to see him play. He earned Coastal Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Week honors after rushing for 276 yards and a career-high four touchdowns on only 16 carries in Monmouth’s 61-10 win over Hampton. His 276 yards are the most by an FCS player this season and the second-most in school history. He had TD runs of 72, 63, 25 and 9 yards in the game and added a 52-yard burst. Shirden leads the CAA and ranks 3rd in FCS in rushing (135.3 ypg) for the season.
Joe Carchio, Sr., DB, King's College
The former Brick star was named the Middle Atlantic Conference Defensive Player of the Week after a 35-21 win on the road at Lebanon Valley, upsetting the Flying Dutchmen on their homecoming. Carchio had 9 tackles, one tackle for a loss of 11 yards, a forced fumble, an interception, and a pass break up in the game.
Nunes Bukula IV, Fr., RB, Rowan University
For the second time this season, the former Donovan Catholic star has earned New Jersey Athletic Conference Offensive Rookie of the Week honors. Bukula ran for a career-best 123 yards on 28 carries and a touchdown in Rowan’s game against Christopher Newport. In three games this season, he is averaging 83.7 rushing yards per game.
---Holmdel has now registered a school-record five straight shutouts after a 35-0 win over Raritan. The school record for most overall shutouts in a season is six set in 1991. The Hornets take on Shore Regional this week. The longest shutout streak in the state this year belongs to Weequahic, a Group I power that had not allowed a point in its first six games this season until a safety in a 58-2 win last week.
---Colts Neck senior Chris Scully is in striking distance of becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher. He is 132 yards away from passing former star Anthony Gargiulo, a 2014 graduate who finished with 3,436 yards and went on to have a strong career as a fullback at Navy. The Cougars take on Long Branch at home on Saturday. Scully would be the second player to become his school's all-time leading rusher this season after Brick Memorial senior quarterback Connor Dietz did it earlier this fall.
---Speaking of Dietz, Brick Memorial is 8-0 for the first time in program history. They will try to push it to 9-0 against rival Brick, which has beaten the Mustangs in 10 of their last 11 meetings.