Title Fight: Toms River North wins epic clash with Long Branch to secure American Division title
LONG BRANCH – The American Division, stacked with powerhouse Shore Conference programs, has been a glorious and unpredictable madhouse all season. Fittingly, the final division game of the season was the craziest of them all.
Toms River North and Long Branch traded uppercuts over the final three-and-a-half minutes of the game until the Mariners struck the final and decisive blow, a 10-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Jake Kazanowsky to senior wide receiver Dominick Jacob with 13 seconds left in regulation, for a 43-39 victory that clinched the outright American Division championship.
The lead changed four times in the final 3:32 of the game as each team scored twice in a wild standoff that was barely believable even to those who watched it live. It had everything – two kickoffs returned for touchdowns, a fumble return touchdown, long touchdown passes, clutch interceptions, a fumble at the 1-yard line, a blocked extra point, a safety. In the end, it was Toms River North, ranked No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, escaping with the victory and the maybe the most difficult division championship ever to be won in Shore Conference history.
“I’m excited, shocked; I mean, once they scored I knew we still had a chance and we went down there and gave it our all,” said senior Matt Spalletta. “This game was a dog fight and it’s been like that the whole year.”
“A minute left and we had to make it happen whether a field goal or win the game,” Kazanowsky said. “For a division championship, I couldn’t ask for a better way to end the game.”
A 29-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Kyle Davidson to junior wideout Jayon Farrar had given Long Branch a 39-36 lead with 60 seconds left in regulation. After the ensuing kickoff, the Mariners had 70 yards between them and victory and two timeouts to work with. On the first play of the drive, Kazanowsky connected with sophomore wide receiver Jaiden Fraser for 45 yards down to the Long Branch 25-yard line. With a reliable kicker in senior Justin Burkert, Toms River North appeared at least set up to be in field-goal range.
“We know what we’re capable of on offense and that our offense can score at any point,” Kazanowsky said. “We had 70 yards but that didn’t matter. We knew we were going to score and put it away.”
Settling for a field goal was the furthest thing on the Mariners’ minds, however. They had plans on ending this now. On first down, Kazanowsky went to Fraser again for eight yards, and on third-and-2 Kazanowsky hit Jacob for seven yards and a first down at the 10-yard line with 28 seconds left in the game. On first and goal, Kazanowsky slid to his right to avoid the rush and found Jacob dragging across the middle. Jacob caught the pass at the 5-yard line and galloped into the end zone with 13 seconds on the clock.
“I felt (the pressure) a little bit and saw DJ coming across and knew I had to find a way to get him the ball,” Kazanowsky said. “I knew if I did we were going to win the game.”
“We knew what was on the line (division title) and we were hungry, we wanted it,” Jacob said. “We knew we were going to score. We just don’t think anybody can play with us when we’re hungry.”
Long Branch had one final play from its 26-yard line with eight seconds left but Spalletta made sure a pass never hit the air when he sacked Davidson to end the game and deliver the Mariners a championship.
Spalletta, a linebacker, wildcat quarterback and special teams ace, was a superweapon with impact plays in all three phases of the game. He produced a 75-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a 1-yard touchdown run, an interception, a blocked extra point, two sacks and a key pass breakup in the end zone.
“The interception right before halftime was insane, he took it right away from the kid,” said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. “He’s guarding the kid man-to-man and he’s a rush guy. We ask him to do everything and he’s our jack of all trades. He’s as good a high school football player as I’ve coached here at Toms River North in 14 years. There’s nothing he can’t do and he’s a great leader. Just an awesome kid.”
Kazanowsky threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns and Jacob caught six passes for 66 yards and three touchdowns. Carlson had two catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, junior Zach Browne had six catches for 64 yards and Fraser had two receptions for 53 yards. Senior running back Jarrod Pruitt ran for 93 yards. Toms River North also scored on a safety when Long Branch snapped the ball through the end zone on a punt.
Davidson threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a touchdown for Long Branch. Junior wide receiver Basean Fraser caught four passes for 143 yards and Farrar caught four passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Jermaine Corbett returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown and returned a fumble 30 yards for a touchdown, while senior Jah’Kwan Gordon had a 32-yard touchdown run. Corbett, the reigning SSN Offensive Player of the Year who ran for a state-best 2,021 yards last season, came into the game nursing some injuries and had just three carries on offense.
Heading to the fourth quarter the game had already experienced a season’s worth of crazy. Then, over the final 12 minutes, all hell broke loose.
On the first play of the fourth quarter with Toms River North leading, 28-27, Spalletta appeared to have scored on a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal. The side judge signaled touchdown, but another official called it a fumble recovered by Long Branch. The latter decision stood and Long Branch took over at the 1-yard line. Toms River North’s defense held and forced a punt, which was short and downed at the 24-yard line. The Mariners once again looked poised to find the end zone, but Farrar intercepted Kazanowsky at the 1-yard line and returned it out to the 36.
The Green Wave drove to the TRN 9-yard line, but a pass breakup by Spalletta on third-and-8 denied a touchdown and Davidson’s pass on fourth down was incomplete to turn the ball over on downs. Toms River North went three-and-out, however, and punted the ball away to give Long Branch good field position at the 44-yard line.
North forced a fourth-and-6, but Long Branch came through with a clutch play when Davidson found a wide-open Farrar for a 40-yard touchdown and a 33-28 lead with 3:32 remaining in the fourth quarter. It was Long Branch’s first lead since a 6-0 advantage early in the game.
Toms River North responded to take a 36-33 lead on the next series. A personal foul penalty for unnecessary roughness on third-and-15 extended North’s drive and junior running back Jordan Grey converted a third-and-1 with a 1-yard run. On the next play, Kazanowsky found a streaking Ray Carlson behind the defense for a 50-yard touchdown. The pair hooked up on the 2-point conversion that followed to give Toms River North a three-point advantage with 2:36 left in the game.
At this point, it should be clear what happened next. Long drove 65 yards in seven plays to take the lead once more.
A 23-yard run by Gordon moved the ball to the TRN 42-yard line and a 9-yard run by junior Karon Laws brought up a second-and-1 at the 33-yard line, but a tackle for a 7-yard loss by junior linebacker John O’Donnell followed by a sack by junior lineman Gabe Rispoli brought up a fourth-and-13. Long Branch moved the chains, however, when Farrar went up and snared a 16-yard reception. On the next play, Davidson found Farrar over the middle for a 29-yard touchdown and a 39-33 lead. Toms River North stopped the 2-point conversion try to ensure a field goal would tie the game.
With one minute left on the clock, Toms River North drove for the winning score to secure the division title, its ninth in program history and first since winning Class A South in 2016.
“It’s pretty wild when you think about it,” Oizerowitz said. “Before the season we looked at it like, ‘Ok, we have to figure out how to win our first two games (Cherry Hill West and Southern) and compete with our sister schools (Toms River East and Toms River South) at the end, but those ones in the middle, we just wanted to win a few. We weren’t thinking about winning a division. You look at this division and you’re thinking about making sure you squeak into the playoffs.”
“It was like a prizefight, round one, round two…knowing the scores never made sense and you couldn’t compare them. So it was really a matter of a clash of styles for each team and who wanted to play the most that day. We’ve played in some wild ones this year and this took the cake.”
While the fourth quarter ended up being the defining stretch of the game, the prior 36 minutes were quite the spectacle.
Long Branch scored on its first drive when a 65-yard catch by Fraser set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Davidson on a quarterback sneak. The 2-point run failed and Long Branch led 6-0.
Toms River North responded immediately when Spalletta returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown and Burkert added the extra point to give the Mariners a 7-6 lead.
A Long Branch punt of just eight yards later in the quarter set up Toms River North for its second touchdown. Starting at the Long Branch 26-yard line, three runs by Pruitt followed by three runs by Spalletta resulted in a 1-yard touchdown for a 13-6 lead. A penalty on the extra point moved the ball to the 2-yard line so Toms River North decided to go for the 2-point conversion. Spalletta tried to cross the goal line off the right side, but Corbett dropped him with a big hit to deny the conversion.
Toms River North extended its lead to 19-6 early in the second quarter with a nine-play, 53-yard drive. The Mariners methodically moved down the field and capped the scoring series when Kazanowsky threaded a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jacob. The 2-point run failed after a botched snap/hold.
Just as Toms River North did earlier, Long Branch responded right away when Corbett returned the following kickoff 96-yards for a touchdown, trimming the Mariners’ lead to 19-13 with 8:31 left in the first half.
Toms River North would take a 21-13 lead into halftime thanks to a safety when Long Branch snapped the ball through the end zone on a punt from its 1-yard line. The Green Wave were also denied late in the half when Spalletta made a great interception when he stripped Farrar of the ball as he tried to come down with a catch.
Toms River North opened the third quarter with an eight-play, 72-yard scoring drive to take a 28-13 lead. A 31-yard run by Pruitt put the ball at the Long Branch 27-yard line and on fourth-and-3 Jacob made a tough catch in traffic over the middle before racing 20 yards for a touchdown.
Long Branch answered when Gordon scored on a 32-yard touchdown run to make it 28-19. Then, on the first play of Toms River North’s next offensive series, Corbett stripped Browne after a reception and returned the fumble 30 yards for a touchdown. Davidson connected with Fraser for the 2-point conversion to make it a one-point game at 28-27.
Then came the insanity that was the final 12 minutes of the game.
“Both teams showed a lot of resiliency and understanding that at any moment the next play could be the one that decides the game,” Oizerowitz said. “Literally every single second mattered in this game.”
No. 6 Toms River North 43, Long Branch 39
|Toms River North||Long Branch|
|TR North (6-1, 4-1)||13||8||7||15||43|
|Long Branch (2-5, 1-4)||6||7||14||12||39|
LB – Kyle Davidson 1-yard run (run failed)
TRN – Matt Spalletta 75-yard kickoff return (Justin Burkert kick)
TRN – Matt Spalletta 1-yard run (run failed)
TRN – Dominick Jacob 7-yard pass from Jake Kazanowsky (run failed)
LB – Jermaine Corbett 96-yard kick return (Christian Rodriguez kick)
TRN – Safety, ball snapped through the end zone on LB punt
TRN – Dominick Jacob 20-yard pass from Jake Kazanowsky (Justin Burkert kick)
LB – Jah’Kwan Gordon 32-yard run (kick blocked)
LB – Jermaine Corbett 30-yard fumble return (Kyle Davidson pass to Basean Fraser)
LB – Jayon Farrar 40-yard pass from Kyle Davidson (run failed)
TRN – Ray Carlson 50-yard pass from Jake Kazanowsky (Jake Kazanowsky pass to Ray Carlson)
LB – Jayon Farrar 29-yard pass from Kyle Davidson (run failed)
TRN – Dominick Jacob 10-yard pass from Jake Kazanowsky (Justin Burkert kick)
RUSHING – TRN: Jarrod Pruitt 21-93, Matt Spalletta 8-35, Jake Kazanowsky 7-3, Jordan Grey 2-2; LB: Jah’Kwan Gordon 12-75, Karon Laws 9-55, Jermaine Corbett 3-4, Kyle Davidson 5-(-28).
PASSING – TRN: Jake Kazanowsky 17-26-1 256; LB: Kyle Davidson 9-18-1 230.
RECEIVING – TRN: Dominick Jacob 6-66, Zach Browne 6-64, Ray Carlson 2-64, Jaiden Fraser 2-53, CJ Niedzielski 1-9; LB: Basean Fraser 4-143, Jayon Farrar 4-89, Karon Laws 1-(-2).
INTERCEPTIONS – TRN: Matt Spalletta 1-0; LB: Jayon Farrar 1-35.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.