Two of the Shore Conference’s banner programs will have the chance to add another championship to their storied histories on Saturday as Manasquan and Brick take the field at Kean University and Rutgers University in NJSIAA state sectional finals.

Manasquan, which has won a Shore Conference-record 11 state championships since the inception of the playoff system in 1974, will try to win title No. 12 when it takes on Bernards at 7 p.m. in the Central Jersey Group II final at Kean. Brick will play Allentown at 4 p.m. for the Central Jersey Group IV title at Rutgers. The Dragons are tied for third all time in Shore Conference history with seven sectional titles.

At these two legendary programs winning is second nature. The Dragons were a juggernaut under hall of fame coach Warren Wolf for 30 years, winning state titles in four of the first 10 years of the playoff system. Toward the end of Wolf’s incredible career as Brick’s first and only head coach, the Dragons hit a rough patch. After having just two losing seasons in 46 seasons, the Dragons finished .500 or worse seven times from 2004 to 2012.

The Dragons returned to the top in 2013 by winning the Central Jersey Group IV title, ending a 19-year title drought. Since then the Dragons have restocked the program with talent at every level and have gone 34-10 over the last four seasons.

Brick can win its eight sectional title and second in four years when it faces Allentown for the Central Jersey Group IV championship. (Photo by Bill Normile.)

Brick was bounced from the playoffs early in each of the last two seasons, both times by eventual champion Jackson Memorial. Now they’ll try to take down the team that eliminated the two-time defending champion Jaguars and bring an eighth state championship banner to Keller Memorial Field.

“It’s an awesome feeling to get the most out of our senior season,” said senior linebacker Dean Helstowski. “Playing 12 games, there’s nothing more to ask for. You get to spend another two weeks with your best friends and get that one final game as a senior.”

“We preach championships, and at Brick it’s all we know,” said do-it-all senior John Prato. “To be in the position to win one is amazing.”

When it comes to championship pedigree, the disparity between Brick and Allentown couldn’t be bigger. Saturday’s late afternoon championship game will be the 12th for Brick. The Redbirds will be appearing in a championship game for just the second time in program history and have never won a state championship.

There’s a reason Allentown is in the state final, however, and got there by trouncing Jackson Memorial, 41-15, in the semifinals. Under head coach Jay Graber the Redbirds are 9-2 with both losses coming to perennial South Jersey powers St. Joseph (Hammonton) and Shawnee. Their offense features dual-threat quarterback Jordan Winston and standout running back Joe Mannino, and the defense is led by ferocious linebacker Rick Mottram.

“They have a very well-balanced offense,” Helstowski said. “Against certain teams they feel they can spread the ball around they’ll do that, and they’ll also go with unbalanced sets and just try to run it at you. We’re preparing for everything they’ll throw at us.”

Winston has rushed for 1,135 yards and 11 touchdowns and thrown for 1,091 yards and 10 touchdowns. He and his 93 miles per hour fastball are committed to Oklahoma State for baseball. Mannino has 1,059 yards and 17 touchdowns after lighting up Jackson for 237 yards and four scores. Mottram, who is committed to Bucknell, has 135 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions, plus eight rushing touchdowns as a fullback.

“Winston is a lefty and he can roll out and throw and can also lower his shoulder and get yards,” Helstowski said. “We have to be ready for everything and that’s the challenge they’ll throw at us, but to win a state championship you have to rise up against good teams.”

For the Dragons, their offense is at its best when several players are getting touches. Senior Ja’Sir Taylor, who is committed to Temple, is their marquee playmaker whether lined up in the backfield or at wide receiver. Prato is mostly a wide receiver but has also played quarterback and carried the ball on sweeps. Senior running back Rashan McCall has had a strong second half to the season, sophomore Cole Groschel has contributed on the ground and through the air as a wide receiver, and senior quarterback Anthony Costanza has been steady in managing the entire operation.

“One thing about us is we’re a family and nobody gets jealous when other people get the ball,” Prato said. “We’re going to give it to the person who can make a play at that certain time. If Ja’Sir is having a great game but they’re keying on him we can spread the wealth and have success. We have good depth.”

An area where Brick feels it has the advantage is opponent diversity. The always-rugged Class A South schedule provides a physical test each week and this season included a 7-2 Central team and an undefeated Toms River North team with a historically good offense. Brick also played St. John Vianney, which has won 29 straight games against Shore Conference teams, and took the Lancers to overtime. They’ve seen arguably the state’s best quarterback in Toms River North’s Mike Husni, a 2,000-yard rusher in Jackson’s Mike Gawlik, FBS linemen in St. John Vianney’s Micah Clarke and Jamaal Beaty, plus Central standout running back Mike Bickford.

“I think playing in big games shows we’re battle-tested,” Helstowski said. “All these games we’ve played we’ve seen all kinds of offenses, so that’s gotten us ready.”

Brick is the No. 1 seed, but the growing sentiment statewide has favored second-seeded Allentown. If the Dragons are indeed the underdog, they know how to level the playing field.

“We’ve seen all the media has been picking against us and we’re kind of thriving on that,” Helstowski said. “We’re a Brick team, a scrappy team. We don’t have the biggest guys, just guys who love to play football. All the championships and tradition has shown we can win games because we’re tough kids and we know our assignments.”

“Every single one of the Brick teams that won in the past was a ‘Brick football team’,” Prato said. “That’s a hard-hitting team that plays four quarters and leaves their hearts out on the field.”

As the Brick-Allentown game comes to a close, Manasquan will be taking the field at Kean where it will try to complete a fantastic turnaround after two uncharacteristic losing seasons. The Warriors would love to do what Brick did in 2013 in ending a championship drought after a losing season. Manasquan’s last state title came in 2008.

From both within and outside the program, Manasquan is one of those programs that is expected to be in championship contention every season. But the Warriors were nowhere near the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, finishing a disappointing 3-7 in each campaign. Everyone is optimistic in the preseason, and Manasquan was no different this August. This time, however, head coach Jay Price felt a change coming.

“The first sign was the weight room participation,” Price said. “They lifted in packs, not two or three, but eight to 10, and that helped them bond. These seniors took ownership in what we were doing, not only in effort and participation but in really leading and buying in and demanding that from everyone else.”

Now the Warriors are 9-2 and playing for a state title for the first time since 2009. So what exactly keyed the turnaround?

“It’s tough to put a finger on it because it’s so many different things,” said senior linebacker Jack Mallett. “We had so much adversity to overcome to get this far. Everything we went through, we were ready to fight. We saw how the seniors before us had their careers end and how upset they were, and we didn’t want that. We wanted something better.”

Manasquan can cap an impressive turnaround by beating Bernards in the Central Jersey Group II final. (Photo by Ray Richardson).

Manasquan began the season 2-0 with wins over Long Branch and Woodbridge, but it was in defeat where everything started to come together. The Warriors took Middletown South to the brink in a 21-14 loss that ended with the Eagles needing a goal line stop on the final play to hold off Manasquan’s rally. Middletown South entered the game as the No. 1 team in the Shore and on a 14-game winning streak.

“I think even though we lost we realized how good we were,” said senior fullback/linebacker Tommy Meyer. “We were inches away from winning that game, and that’s when it clicked.”

“Middletown South was the reigning state champion and this crazy team, everyone thought we were going to get blown out,” Mallett said. “For us to play the way we did and give them a game that went down to the wire…there are no real moral victories but that was a turning point for all the guys on the team. We started to realize we could compete with anyone in the Shore.”

From there the Warriors ripped off seven straight wins, including a 31-21 win over North 2, Group IV finalist Middletown North and a 31-27 win over undefeated Roselle in the Central Jersey Group II semifinals. Their I-formation offense battered teams on the ground with junior running back Connor Morgan and the defense, led by Mallett and senior defensive end Adam Schreck, kept making big plays at crucial moments. And they did it in the Shore Conference’s toughest division, Class B North.

The brutal division slate certainly prepared the Warriors for the playoffs where they’ve had perhaps the toughest road to a state championship of any of the Shore Conference’s 10 finalists. They had to rally past A.L. Johnson, 33-29, in the quarterfinals before going on the road to take down a 9-0 Roselle team that was averaging the most points in the state.

“Going into those games we kept telling the kids, ‘are you going to have a tougher game than against Red Bank Catholic, Middletown South, Middletown North? Does it get any tougher than those?’ It seems like very week we were ramping up against a team we weren’t supposed to beat and finding ways to win.”

“In the past you go through your schedule and wonder if you’re prepared, if you’ve been tested. The kids have found a way to win when their backs have been against the wall, so this year we don’t have to answer that question. We’re as tested as we ever will be tested.”

The final challenge is a Bernards team that, like Brick with Allentown, is a polar opposite of Manasquan in terms of championship history. The Mountaineers have never won a state title and will be playing in a state final for just the second time.

Bernards runs a spread offense similar to Howell’s fast-paced, run-pass option offense. The Mountaineers have a game-breaking versatile player in 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior Matt Tantleff, who will line up all over the field. He is a wide receiver by base position, but is both the leading receiver and rusher for Bernards. He has 985 yards and 18 touchdowns on he ground and also has 41 receptions for 806 yards and seven touchdowns.  Quarterback Stephen Gribben has thrown for 1,818 yards and 18 touchdowns and running back Marc Murphy has 796 yards and eight touchdowns.

“They’ll move Tantleff around at (receiver) and put him him the backfield, so we have to know where he is at all times,” Price said. “They have a lot of motion in their offense so you have to be fundamental and communicate a lot.”

“They’ve been successful all year doing the things they do in throwing the ball around and getting the ball to Tantleff,” Mallett said. “He almost carries their team, and the teams that stop him win games and the teams that don’t lose to them.”

Mallett leads the team with 86 tackles while Meyer has 83. Both Mallett and Schreck have 18.5 tackles for a loss on the season with Schreck also posting 13.5 sacks as one of the Shore Conference’s top pass rushers. Senior defensive lineman Dylan Pacetti has also had a big year with seven sacks and 18 tackles for a loss. Senior Damaso Jaime has a team-high four interceptions in the defensive backfield.

Manasquan’s offense has Morgan with 1,349 yards rushing, senior quarterback Jerry Maher with 635 yards and nine touchdowns and Jaime with 434 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. Schreck is a valuable offensive player at tight end with four touchdowns and is also Manasquan’s kicker, and has field goals of 34 and 37 yards this season.

The road back has been long and arduous, but Manasquan is one win away from state title No. 12 and restoring the program’s championship tradition. It’s a scenario that seemed unlikely at this point last season.

“It’s an unreal feeling after the way things went the past two years,” Mallett said. “You grow up around here and you play football, it’s what you do. I’ve played with these kids since I was probably nine years old. I remember the first time strapping up the pads with them, and we would look up to the high school teams like they were giants. We just wanted to be like them. To finally be a part of it and get a chance to put our stamp on Manasquan football history means so much to everyone.”


Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.