The Shore Football Report: Matawan’s Resurgence, Toms River South’s Improvement and More
Sitting at 0-4 after a preseason filled with high expectations, Matawan was at a juncture where the season could have gone off the rails.
“We let the guys know, ‘This isn’t over,’” junior RB/LB Colin Palumbo said. “We’ve got to start changing the way things go in practice. It’s constantly going hard, constantly competing. Quitting was not an option.”
“When we got to 0-4, we kind of drew a line in the sand and said we're going to come in every day, put our heads down, work hard, and see where it goes,” Matawan coach Jay Graber said.
After losing to four teams that have a combined record of 16-7, the Huskies had to go through a pair of unbeaten teams if they wanted to rejuvenate their season. They topped Brick 18-13 to end a five-game losing streak, and then ripped off a 47-12 win over Pinelands last week to look much more like the Matawan team that started the season ranked No. 9 in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16.
Junior quarterback Am’ir Martinez ran for 157 yards and two touchdowns, and Palumbo had a 16-yard pick-six and ran for 56 yards and two touchdowns. The Huskies also had an incredible game on special teams, as Jaylen Williams blocked two punts, one of which he took back for a touchdown, and Erik Martinez blocked a third punt that Alexander Liss returned for a score.
“That’s the expectation we know we can play to,” Palumbo said. “We should be putting up 40 every game. There’s too much explosiveness on this field. Nobody can really stop us if we’re playing to our capabilities.”
The turnaround actually began in a loss, when the Huskies pushed undefeated Brick Memorial in a 34-24 defeat that came down to the fourth quarter.
“It gave us a light,” Palumbo said. “We knew this is an undefeated team and we’re going toe to toe with them.”
An offense that only averaged 12 points per game during the 0-4 start has started to come to life behind Martinez, Palumbo, senior wideouts Cameron Cooper and Kyeshaun Sylvester, sophomore wideout Welman Crooms and one of the Shore’s most highly-recruited linemen, junior Jayden Elijah.
“I’ve got to give credit to our quarterback,” Palumbo said. “He’s been dialed in. He hates losing. He said, ‘I’ve been letting ya’ll down,’ and he’s been working really hard at practice.”
“The offense is starting to play better,” Graber said. “The offensive linemen have been doing a good job and working hard.”
Graber said the Huskies didn’t make any wholesale changes offensively or defensively after their rough start. It was simply about playing better. The two victories pushed Matawan into the 17th spot in the United Power Rankings for the South Group 3 region, one spot behind Graber’s former team, Allentown. Teams must be in the top 16 to qualify for the playoffs.
Matawan faces Barnegat (1-5) this week with a shot to get to 3-4 before a huge nondivisional game against No. 4 Point Boro, an undefeated power that will be a true measuring stick ahead of a potential playoff berth. If the Huskies keep building steam, they could be a team no one wants to see as a low seed in the playoffs.
“We haven’t talked about the playoffs or anything like that,” Graber said. “We just take it one day at a time. We’re concerned about having a good practice that day, and that’s really it.”
“It's not over until it's over,” Palumbo said. “All we need is that spot at the table. The goal isn’t to be undefeated. The goal is to win a state championship.”
The South Rises
A crucial step in the building effort at Toms River South comes this Friday at Detwiler Stadium when the Indians (4-1, 3-0) welcome Pinelands (4-1, 3-0) in a Liberty Division showdown in which the winner clinches no worse than a tie for the division title.
For the Indians, it would be their first division crown since 2002, while the Wildcats are seeking their first division title since 1987, so there’s plenty on the line. Toms River South has won four straight since ending a 10-game losing streak, but senior quarterback James Alexander said a season-opening, 42-6 loss to unbeaten Holmdel may be their most important game so far.
The Indians won their season opener last year and then did not win a game the rest of the year.
“Last year we beat (Toms River) East in the first game of the season, and that boosted our ego a little bit too much," Alexander said. "Losing to Holmdel and then getting a bounceback win against a good team in Monmouth was really good for us.”
The Indians only scored 12 total points in their first two games, but have averaged 27 points in their last three games. They picked up a 35-13 win over Jackson Liberty last week with Alexander throwing a pair of touchdown passes to Cooper Greitz and junior running back Jake Henehan rushing for a pair of touchdowns.
“Now that the running game has been developing with Jake Henehan, our passing game has been getting going in the last couple of games,” Alexander said. “We’re really starting to hit our peak as an offense when it matters most in the season.”
While winning a division title for the first time in 21 years would be the headline, it also would have symbolic meaning. Toms River South has one of the oldest and proudest traditions in the Shore, so winning a championship would be another building block toward moving up to a higher division and gaining some spotlight in the Shore after a decade of up-and-down seasons.
This is Toms River South’s first four-game winning streak since the days of former star Tymere Berry in 2013.
“To win a division title for the first time since 2002, it's a really huge opportunity for us,” Alexander said. “I'm really excited that we're having a great season this year so far, but what I'm really looking forward to is we're going to leave a culture here at South that will hopefully live on for many years to come.
“It's been our motto throughout the year: ‘Big team, little me.’ That means the team comes first, not personal accolades. Whatever it takes to put the team first. I really think we are starting to buy into that.”
They face a Pinelands squad trying to do the same thing with its own program.
“Pinelands is kind of on a similar trajectory as us,” Alexander said. “They haven’t had great seasons in the past few years before last year, and they really put together a great team this year. They have their own culture building down there, and I respect them for that. It’s going to be a great game regardless.”
It also has important state playoff implications. Toms River South enters ranked 13th in South Group 4, while Pinelands is just outside the playoff picture at 19th in South Group 3.
Ocean Calls an Audible
After getting shut out in two straight games following a 2-0 start, Ocean decided to make some drastic changes on offense ahead of last week’s game against Raritan.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” Ocean coach Donnie Klein said.
In the course of a week, the Spartans (3-2) essentially scrapped their multiple spread offense and converted to the run-heavy Wing-T. They immediately went down the field and scored as Raritan scrambled to stop an offense it had not seen Ocean run at all on film.
The Spartans did enough to get a two-touchdown lead, and the defense did the rest for a bounceback, 14-7 win over the Rockets in a nondivisional game.
“We had really struggled to move the ball consistently, so we wanted to play to our strengths,” Klein said. “Distributing the ball, using misdirection stuff, changing formations – there was a fundamental change in our approach.”
Klein said some of the plays were similar to ones they had already been running, just with more backfield motions and window dressing on the formations. Most teams that try to attempt changing the offense mid-season do it during a bye week to have that extra time, but Ocean turned it around in a regular game week.
“The kids bought into what we were doing,” Klein said. “We talked to the personnel and told them this is the reason why we’re making the changes. We feel like we can have success if we’re able to sustain and finish drives.”
Freshman Alex Staten, who had played some wide receiver to start the season, moved to running back and ran for 45 yards and his first two varsity touchdowns on 6 carries.
“He’s definitely opened some eyes,” Klein said. “He did a really nice job late in the game against St. John Vianney, and you could tell there was burst there. We said, ‘We need to get you more involved,’ and he answered the bell."
Senior James Sobieski, a talented wideout, is now the team’s full-time quarterback, and he had a team-high 50 yards rushing on 8 carries. He was one of four players who ran for 30-plus yards in the win. Ocean was also able to make the abrupt switch because it has a veteran offensive line led by four-year starter Nick Caruso.
The victory put Ocean squarely in the playoff picture in South Group 3 in the 10th spot.
The new offense will get the ultimate test this week when the Spartans travel to Holmdel, which has registered three straight shutouts and has only allowed 20 points the entire season.
Play of the Week
It came in a loss, but Manalapan's Anthony Macchio returned an interception 103 yards for a touchdown to remember against Howell.
Alumni of the Week
Al Golden, defensive coordinator, Notre Dame
Golden starred as a tight end for Red Bank Catholic in the 1980s and then went on to play at Penn State and in the NFL. He has had a long college and NFL coaching career, including head coaching stints at Temple and the University of Miami. He is now the defensive coordinator for the No. 10 Fighting Irish, which held off then-No. 17 Duke in a 21-14 nail-biter.
Notre Dame's defense limited Duke star quarterback Riley Leonard to 12-for-27 passing and 134 yards and intercepted him once. They also came up with a sack and a fumble recovery to seal the win. The Irish rank No. 11 in the country in total defense.
Elijah McAllister, Sr., DL, Auburn
The former Rumson-Fair Haven star is playing a graduate season for Auburn after previously playing at Vanderbilt, where he was a two-time team captain. He was part of the defensive front as Auburn took No. 1 Georgia to the brink in a 27-20 loss.
He already has earned an undergrad degree and master's degree and is now working on a Ph.D. in the College of Education at Auburn. McAllister commands so much respect that he was named a team captain in his first season with the Tigers.
McAllister also has made an impact off the field, where he's started All41and1forAll, a non-profit organization that recently put on a back-to-school drive giving out backpacks, school supplies and T-shirts to kids in need. He funds the organization with the name, image and likeness (NIL) money that he makes at Auburn.
James Fara, Sr., RB, Rowan University
The former Point Boro star was named the New Jersey Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week after exploding for a career-high 203 yards rushing on 23 carries along with two touchdowns against Johns Hopkins. He leads the NJAC in rushing, averaging 110.0 yards per game.
---There are five unbeaten teams left in the Shore. Point Boro is 5-0 for the second straight season, Holmdel is 5-0 for the first time since 2007, Marlboro is 5-0 for the first time possibly ever or at least since 1994, Jackson Memorial is 5-0 for the first time since 2018, and Brick Memorial is 5-0 for the first time since 2005.
One is guaranteed to have its first loss this week when Jackson Memorial and Marlboro meet with the Freedom Division title on the line.
Also, Holmdel has posted three straight shutouts for the first time in 20 years and possibly ever, and the Hornets can clinch no worse than a tie for the Constitution Division title with a win over Ocean (3-2) this week. It would be Holmdel's first division title since 2018.
Brick Memorial can also clinch no worse than a tie for the Independence Division title with a win over Freehold (2-3) on Saturday. It would be their first division title since 2017.
---Red Bank, Barnegat and Howell each broke into the win column for the first time this season with victories in Week 5. The Rebels had lost their first four games by only a combined 19 points before being on the right side of a nail-biter to hand Manalapan a 30-27 loss. And in a strange coincidence, Red Bank beat Monmouth 19-0 for its first shutout since ... beating Monmouth 19-0 in 2018. Barnegat rolled to a 47-0 win over Point Beach.
---Point Boro has now won 15 straight games against Shore Conference competition after its impressive 42-28 win over Rumson-Fair Haven. The last Shore team to beat the Panthers was rival Manasquan in 2021. Point Boro has the longest active streak against Shore competition. Red Bank Catholic is second with 10 straight against the Shore.
---It was pick-six mania in Week 5 in the Shore. There were at least six interception returns for touchdowns over the weekend, led by Anthony Macchio's 103-yard pick-six for Manalapan.
---Lacey freshman Joey Davis has made an immediate impact. He had 72 yards rushing and a touchdown and also picked off a pass on defense in the Lions' 28-0 win over Central for their second win in three games after an 0-3 start. Davis is third on the team with 112 yards rushing.