The Shore Football Report: Closing Time for Manalapan
Every week, Scott Stump will bring news, notes and observations from around the Shore in the Shore Football Report.
Listen to the Shore Football Report with Scott Stump and Bob Badders breaking down everything from Week Zero and looking ahead to Week One.
When Wall crept within eight points of Manalapan with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter in their Week Zero clash, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the Braves experienced a familiar feeling.
Here we go again.
Last year, five of their seven losses were by a touchdown or less. Almost all of them came down to the fourth quarter, where they gave up the lead or came up just short on a last-minute drive, including a seven-point loss to Wall.
That scenario looked like it was about to come into play again with Wall breathing down their neck, but this time the Braves owned the fourth quarter to win going away, 35-13, for a nondivisional victory.
“If this was last year, we would’ve lost this game,” Manalapan head coach Dom Lepore said. “But you could see the difference between last year and this year. (Seniors) Aidan Wilmot and Anthony Macchio were really vocal in that fourth quarter, telling the guys that this is a different team.”
After Wall closed it to 21-13, Manalapan responded with a 14-yard touchdown run by Jason Rodriguez and then an exclamation point when Vin DiFilippo recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.
Lepore cited new quarterback Ryan Dougherty as a crucial factor in the Braves reversing the result this year after losing a 14-7 heartbreaker to Wall last year. He threw for 122 yards and a touchdown as the Braves scored 35 points out of the gate after hitting that mark once last year.
“He makes plays with his feet and he’s kind of that Brett Favre-style gunslinger,” Lepore said about Dougherty. “He’s able to get to the perimeter running the ball. He’s the difference in our offense right now.”
The matchup with Wall is always an emotional one because the Crimson Knights are coached by Lepore’s good friend, former Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri, who built the Braves into a perennial contender. Adding some motivation for the Braves was a pregame ceremony honoring former Manalapan star Kyle Mullen, who died tragically during Navy SEAL training in California last year.
“We had a lot of guys back who played on those teams with Kyle,” Lepore said. “He is what Manalapan football is all about. I think it gave the kids a little extra juice.”
Next up is the challenge of an old rival, Jackson Memorial. It's the season opener for the Jaguars, and the Braves are looking to avenge another loss from last season after knocking off Wall. Jackson Memorial, which is ranked No. 7 in the SSN Shore 16, beat Manalapan in a 10-7 slugfest in the state playoffs last season.
Mariners play both sides
The Toms River North offense is usually the first thing that’s brought up when talking about the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16. After all, they have the reigning New Jersey Player of the Year, Micah Ford, at quarterback, and scored a state-record 660 points in going 14-0 last year.
However, the defense was quietly just as dominant in allowing a Shore-low 8.2 points per game. That group showed it remains a championship unit by leading the way in the season opener for a huge 14-7 nonconference win over fellow state power Millville at the Battle at the Beach in Ocean City.
In a game featuring some of the most explosive offensive players in New Jersey, it was the Mariners’ pass rush and secondary that came up with crucial plays to grind out a win.
The defending Group 5 champions got after Millville standout quarterback Jacob Zamot, sacking him five times. Junior linebacker Blaise Boland had two sacks and defensive lineman Jaelyne Matthews, one of the top offensive line recruits in New Jersey, shined on defense with a pair of sacks of his own. Cornerback Nasir Jackson came through with the biggest play of the game when he picked off Zamot with a minute remaining to clinch the win over the defending Group 4 champs.
“Coach (Dave Oizerwitz) prepared us all week and we knew (Millville) was fast, aggressive and big,” Boland said. “To hold a team like that to that low of a score showed everybody in the state who’s doubting us just how good our defense can be. Our defense has that grit to it that no one else has.”
The secondary held their own against a passing attack that features wideout Lotzeir Brooks, one of New Jersey’s top receiving recruits. He burned them when he took a screen 44 yards to the house for Millville’s lone touchdown, but otherwise was held to 6 catches for 31 yards.
Boland has stepped into the starting lineup at inside linebacker to replace his brother, graduated standout Ty Boland, and made an immediate impact in the pass rush.
“It was us winning a lot of one-on-ones (against Millville),” he said. “Our coaches have really been working on our hand placement in practice.”
The top-ranked Mariners will take their 15-game winning streak into a nondivisional matchup with rival Toms River East this week. Then they go forward into their daunting American Division schedule knowing that if their prolific offense struggles, they can take down a tough opponent with a shutdown defense.
“On that last drive (for Millville), we were definitely saying, ‘This is what we live for,’” Boland said. “Now we need to keep it going.”
Middletown North's offense gears up for the Mustangs
Middletown North didn’t score more than 28 points in a game all of last season and finished near the bottom of the Shore at 14.4 points per game.
Those struggles are why a 45-21 win over Freehold Township in Week Zero was a crucial confidence booster heading into a showdown with a high-scoring Brick Memorial team this week. It’s the most points Middletown North has scored in a game since hanging 51 on Howell in 2013.
They were tied at 21 with Freehold Township at the half before the Lions dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half to pull away behind the running game.
Both of their running backs, Neno Morgan-Acker and Shane Volante, went over 100 yards. Senior quarterback Luke Sheehan was an efficient 11-for-15 for 187 yards and two touchdowns. This was all behind an offensive line breaking in three new starters, including both starting guards.
Morgan-Acker didn’t play football in high school before Lions coach Steve Bush recruited him out of gym class to suit up for the team last year. He is a power back, compared to the 5-foot-2, 145-pound Volante, who is all speed on the edge.
“(Volante) hits the hole like no other running back,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan also looks to take a step forward in his second year as a starter.
“He’s very accurate, he has a strong arm, and he can get to his second and third progression,” Bush said. “A lot of guys can hit the first guy who’s open, but can you extend the play and get it to someone else?”
Sheehan found himself doing that when Freehold Township came out with a defensive package geared toward stopping standout Lions wideout Dylan Briggs.
“They were shadowing him the whole game,” Sheehan said. “If they want to do that, we’ll find other guys and we’ll run for 200 yards on you.”
Sheehan will be the other half of a buzzworthy quarterback showdown with Brick Memorial’s All-Shore star Connor Dietz on Friday. Dietz put up 398 yards of offense in a Week Zero rout of Allentown to earn SSN Offensive Player of the Week honors.
There might not be a whole lot of punting in the game, so Middletown North’s ability to control the clock with the running game could be crucial to its hopes of starting 2-0 for the first time in eight years.
“That’s what we’re looking for, to keep (Brick Memorial’s offense) off the field,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan has received interest from Patriot League and Colonial Athletic Association teams in the FCS, but no offers yet.
“I know he can play at that level,” Bush said. “Somebody just has to be the first to offer and more will follow.”
A Worthy change at Keyport
Heading into the season opener against Manville, Keyport head coach Jason Glezman decided to make a change at quarterback. It was similar to the one Freehold Boro coach Dave Ellis made a few years ago that unleashed one of the greatest offensive weapons in Shore Conference history.
Glezman said an injury to sophomore Darius Applewhite at quarterback prompted him to move All-Shore talent Naz Treadwell, a Holy Cross recruit who ran for 941 yards last season, to quarterback. The reasoning was to get the ball in Treadwell’s hands as much as possible.
He responded with five total touchdowns and more than 250 yards of offense in a 41-6 nonconference win over Manville.
“Naz had never really played quarterback, but he just said, ‘I got you, coach.’ That’s his mentality,” Glezman said.
The move mirrored the one Ellis made when he took a talented tailback, Ashante Worthy, and made him Freehold’s quarterback in 2016. Worthy erupted at the end of his junior year to set multiple Shore Conference single-game records for rushing and total yards, and then had the greatest statistical season in Shore Conference history as a senior.
While asking Treadwell to come close to what Worthy accomplished is unfair, the principle is the same. Let your best player make plays on every snap. Keyport has also added more read option out of the shotgun to accommodate Treadwell’s running ability and decision-making.
He also is capable of hurting teams by throwing the ball. He threw a rocket screen to Mike Ford for a 33-yard touchdown against Manville and heaved a bomb for an 80-yard touchdown to Ford that got called back by a penalty.
Teams also can’t gang up on Treadwell, either. Sophomore Mekai Henderson ripped off a 96-yard touchdown run against Manville and looks like the next star tailback for the Red Raiders. Junior Andrei Matthews also caught a touchdown pass.
“Being able to not lose talent at tailback while moving Naz to quarterback and then complement that with Ford and Matthews on the perimeter, if you want to take this away, we can go there,” Glezman said.
Keyport’s opponent this week is none other than Freehold, which heads to the Bayshore for a nondivisional matchup looking to snap a nine-game losing streak. Ellis might see Keyport’s offense and have a flashback.
New Egypt headed to the promised land
Speaking of Group I programs, the Shore Conference will be welcoming a new one for the 2024-25 scholastic season. New Egypt, which is in Ocean County, will join the conference after being voted in by the Shore Conference Executive Committee last week.
The Warriors' program is a good fit with the other Shore Group I squads, which often are struggling to schedule games against comparably-sized schools. They can slot in with Keyport, Keansburg, Point Beach, Shore Regional, and Asbury Park on the gridiron.
They actually just opened the season with a 26-6 victory over Point Beach in Week Zero.
Their eighth-year head coach, Steve Fence, also has plenty of Shore ties. He was an assistant at Manchester for 15 years and an assistant at Barnegat for two seasons before landing the head job at New Egypt. He lives with his family in Little Egg Harbor, and his son, Brady Fence, is a starting offensive lineman for Pinelands.
New Egypt currently competes in the gigantic, 94-team West Jersey Football League.
"The WJFL is so big, we play different competition every couple years," Fence said. "Being in the Shore gives us a chance to have some consistency with our opponents. Plus, with the Shore needing Group I teams for scheduling, it's just a perfect fit."
Fence knows that it will be a challenge facing off against the Shore's small schools, which are perennial playoff contenders in Group I.
"It's a step up in competition," he said. "We're going to have to be really good to go compete."
He also noted that the move to the Shore Conference, which is across all sports at New Egypt, offers a chance to play in more high-profile games. In many sports, he said they currently do not compete in any tournaments other than the state tournament. The move allows them the opportunity to qualify to play in the Shore Conference Tournament in various sports.
"It's brings a whole new aspect of exposure to our kids," he said.
---Middletown South QB/DB/K/P Jake Czwakiel is “a work in progress” who will be a game-time decision against Raritan on Thursday after leaving the Eagles’ season opener with an injury, according to Middletown South coach Steve Antonucci.
Czwakiel, a first-team All-Shore talent a year ago, broke off a 45-yard run in the first quarter of Middletown South’s 24-6 loss to Rumson-Fair Haven before limping off the field with an ankle injury. He did not return.
---Central tied its win total from all of last season’s injury-plagued year with a 36-12 victory over Hamilton West. The Golden Eagles have now won two straight after picking up a victory in their final game of last season.
---One of the coaches assisting with the offensive line at Red Bank Catholic this year is Craig Nelson. He previously coached at the youth level, and he also happened to tutor arguably the greatest offensive lineman in Shore Conference history. He is the father of RBC legend Quenton Nelson, who is a five-time Pro Bowl guard with the Indianapolis Colts. “Craig has been a great addition for us,” RBC head coach Mike Lange said. “The kids love him and he really works well with them.”
---Long Branch has three new starters on the offensive line (junior tackles Joseph Corley and Tyler Taylor and junior guard Carl Griffin), so it was a great sign for the Green Wave to see them come out and run the ball all over Piscataway in a 23-21 win. Returning starters Fernando Flores-Martinez and center Jayden Mercado also helped pave the way for senior QB Earnest Reevey to roll up 210 yards and three touchdowns on the ground and senior running back Zaheem Brown to put up 184 yards. They now face a formidable challenge in one of the Shore’s best defensive fronts when they take on Donovan Catholic on Friday.
---You know it’s Week Zero when the cramping has players dropping all over the field by the second half. There was a stretch of about six straight plays in the RBC-Bergen Catholic game in the second half where officials had to whistle for the clock to stop due to players being down on the field. It looked like a soccer game where whenever there was contact, someone was down on the ground clutching their leg before they came back in the game one play later.
---Manalapan head coach Dom Lepore wasn’t the only Dom Lepore in the house at the Braves’ game against Wall. The players shared a fun moment in the pregame with “Little Dom,” Lepore’s 3-year-old nephew. He is the son of Lepore’s younger brother Paul, who was part of a unique situation in Shore Conference football history. Paul was the quarterback at Freehold Township in the early 2000s when Dom was the head coach, making it the only time in recent memory that a head coach had his sibling playing for him.