When Manalapan walked out of High Point Solutions Stadium last season with a 23-11 loss to Sayreville in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV title game, it did so with the understanding that there was a ton of youth on the field and in turn, the prospects of getting back to Rutgers this season for another sectional final were strong.
The youth has turned to experience this fall during an 11-0 start to the Braves’ season. They have shown they can light up a scoreboard, both with the run and the pass, they can play defense, as evidenced by not giving up more than seven points in a game since Oct. 20, and they’re not scared of a dogfight coming down to the final few minutes, or even the final possession.
When Manalapan takes on first-time finalist South Brunswick (9-2) in today’s Central Jersey Group V final at 7 p.m., it has done enough this season to make it the favorite, something that was not the case in last year’s final.
“We were a young team aside from a couple real good players, and we started six sophomores on that team that played a lot for us,” Manalapan head coach Ed Gurrieri said. “Our kids got a taste of how big this game is last year. They loved the fact they were playing in a big game and that’s all they wanted to do again when this season started.”
Typically not mentioned in the same breath as traditional Shore Conference heavyweights, that is exactly what Manalapan has steadily become over the last few seasons. This season has been its best, with that mix of high-powered offense and stout defense. With plenty of hype and a target on their collective backs entering this season, the Braves have played the role of area powerhouse.
The Braves scored at least 30 points in each of their first five games, including a 35-31 win at one of those traditional Shore Conference heavyweights, Middletown South, on Sept. 28. That game featured a defensive stand inside the red zone in the final minute to preserve the win.
A narrow 24-21 win at upstart Colts Neck two weeks later again tested their mettle. Last week in a CJ V semifinal against Hunterdon Central, a strong defensive effort and enough plays on offense provided a 17-7 win and a trip back to Rutgers.
In short, there are few teams left standing in New Jersey that are as battle-tested as Manalapan, a factor that cannot be overlooked as it goes in search of its first sectional title in its third trip to the final (2003, 2011).
“They’ve been different types of games, one game was a shootout, last week was very close to the vest,” Gurrieri said. “When you look at those, down the stretch, we never shot ourselves in the foot. We’ve always done a good job of taking care of the football. I think there’s something about expecting and knowing and feeling like they’re gonna win. You’re gonna have to beat us, we wont beat ourselves.”
Gurrieri has never been one for discussing top 10 polls, statewide polls or what anyone outside the program thinks of his team. That is all well and good, but a win tonight will be a massive step forward for this program, which hasn’t had a losing season since 2001. A win tonight means Manalapan will finish No. 1 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10 for the first time in school history.
Gurrieri has never been one to care about how much respect outsiders have for the Braves, but a win tonight is sure to garner plenty of it.
“I guess the best thing over the last bunch of years is that we have been very consistent, you knew you would always get a good Manalapan team,” Gurrieri said. “We may not have enough talent all the time, but we’re always consistent. Right now, we’ve been picking up steam and I couldn’t be happier. These kids have made the program what it is. We ask a lot and they’ve all bought in.”