On a clear, unseasonably cool Friday morning in late August, Ed Gurrieri took a few minutes to talk about his football team before it engaged Toms River South in a preseason scrimmage.
Those were interesting days for the Manalapan head coach, whose Braves were coming off a 10-2 season and the program’s second trip to the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final, a 23-11 loss to Sayreville. Manalapan graduated 2,000-yard rusher John Sieczkowski, but planned to plug in promising junior Tyler Leonetti while also returning a pair of 6-foot-3 future Division I wide receivers in senior Anthony Firkser and junior Saeed Blacknall.
Eventually, the conversation turned to senior quarterback Mike Isabella, who quarterbacked the Braves back to High Point Solutions Stadium and the Central Jersey Group V final against South Brunswick on Saturday evening, a game which they dropped, 33-22.
Before we continue, it’s important to understand what Manalapan quarterbacks have been over the last seven or eight years.
From Nick Scardelli to Craig Peterson to Mike Bimonte, Braves quarterbacks are typically solid football players that are capable of not turning the ball over while managing the game. Their numbers have been more than adequate through the years and they have certainly had their share of big games, but rarely are they asked to carry the load for the simple fact that Manalapan has forever been a run-first, run-heavy outfit.
So here comes Isabella, checking in at all of 5-foot-11. He doesn’t have the cannon that Bimonte had, nor does he have the obvious grit that Scardelli displayed at times.
When Gurrieri began talking about Isabella on that Friday morning in late August, he couldn’t quite find the right words. After a few seconds of stammering and facial contortions, Gurrieri gathered himself and got serious.
“The one thing that needs to be made clear here is Isabella isn’t just along for the ride,” Gurrieri said. “We have playmakers on both sides of our quarterback and this kid is going to make plays.”
As the season unfolded and the Braves went to the air more so than in recent years with Firkser and Blacknall at their disposal, Gurrieri’s prediction for his quarterback came true. Entering Saturday night’s game, Isabella was 93-for-155 for 1,832 yards, 21 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.
You might be thinking Isabella is a product of not only having Firkser and Blacknall to work with, but also of Gurrieri and his staff not putting him in tough spots. Firkser is a two-sport Harvard recruit, while some say Blacknall has the goods to play on Sundays in a few years.
Yes, the argument about Isabella just being along for the ride could be made. However, just three interceptions in 155 attempts entering Saturday night should be able to shout that down at least a little bit.
Isabella got off to a rough start on Saturday against a swarming South Brunswick, but when he got untracked a bit with Manalapan down 13-0 and 20-6, he made key plays to keep Manalapan afloat.
His first completion after an 0-for-5 start saw him go deep for Firkser, who outworked two defenders for the ball, then walk into the end zone with 7:25 left in the second quarter to make it 13-6. Later in the quarter, Isabella hit Blacknall with a bubble screen as he outraced everyone for a 45-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 20-13 with 3:15 before halftime.
A 43-yard touchdown to Firkser and a failed 2-point conversion left Manalapan trailing just 27-22 with 7:23 to play in the game.
Despite the three touchdown passes, Isabella’s numbers Saturday (10-for-27 for 199 yards) didn’t represent his best day, but this game was not lost because of anything Isabella did or did not do.
The Vikings won their first sectional title because it controlled the line of scrimmage and bled the clock. In the third quarter alone, Manalapan only held the ball for approximately three minutes, had one possession and ran just six plays.
No matter what went on Saturday, history will show Isabella went 21-3 as the Manalapan starter with two trips to a sectional final, which is two more than any of his recent predecessors.
Aside from the numbers, at the end of the day, what he really did is make his head coach look like a smart man back on that Friday morning in late August.