Manalapan, Middletown South brace for showdown

Manalapan, Middletown South brace for showdown


Manalapan, Middletown South brace for showdown


It is not often a team does what Manalapan has done to Middletown South the last two seasons.

Not only did the Braves win both games, but they also physically beat the Eagles.

“We preached that all off-season,” Middletown South coach Steve Antonucci said. “One of our goals was to become more physical. They (Manalapan) set the standard in our conference (Shore Conference Class A North). They are probably the most physical team we’ve played both seasons.

Manalapan tailbacks had big games each of the last two seasons. In 2010, Josh Firkser ran for 224 yards and two TDs on his way to a 2,000-yard plus season. Last season, John Sieczkowski ran for 212 yards and a TD on his way to a 2,000-yard plus season.

“Anytime you have a running back run for over 2,000 yards, that’s pretty impressive,” Antonucci said.

Middletown South (2-0, 1-0), ranked No. 5 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10, gets another crack at Manalapan (3-0, 2-0), at Middletown South’s “The Swamp” in a game that will go a long way toward deciding the Class A North championship.

Manalapan, ranked No. 3, is the two-time defending Class A North champion. Middletown South, a program that is used to winning championships, has not won a championship of any kind since 2009.

“This is a huge football game for us. It is as big as it gets right now,” Antonucci said.

“I don’t try to look at each game individually, I try to look at the game in front of me, but we knew this was going to be a big game,” said Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri. “They’ve been pretty good every year and have a great tradition.”

Other key games this weekend, in which rain could play an important role, have No. 2 Neptune (3-0, 2-0) at Matawan (3-0, 2-0) tonight in a game where the winner will be in sole possession of first place in Class B North; Barnegat (1-2, 1-1) at Jackson Liberty (3-0, 2-0) in Class B South.

Barnegat at Jackson Liberty is the Asbury Park Press Game of the Week with video highlights available on late tonight.

The Jackson Memorial at Toms River North game will be broadcast live on 105.7 FM tonight beginning with the pre-game show at 6:45 p.m.

Manalapan appears to be a different type of team than the last two seasons in that there is a heavy reliance on big-play receivers Anthony Firkser and Saeed Blacknall.

Firkser, a deceptively quick 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior, has 13 receptions for 352 yards and 3 TDs. All his TDs have come plays of 50 yards or more. Blacknall, a speedy, 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior who has garnered the attention of NCAA Division I schools, has 12 receptions for 246 yards and three TDs receiving. He also has a TD rushing and had a 99-yard kickoff return last week against Middletown North — a game in which he also had TD receptions of 82 and 5 and 5 yards.

Senior quarterback Mike Isabella, in his second season as the starter, has shown marked improvement from a year ago.

“The previous years they would pound you and take a shot. Now, they take a shot and pound you,”Antonucci said.

Manalapan’s run game has gradually improved. Junior Tyler Leonetti rushed for 99 yards, including a 59-yard TD run in the first half last week.

“I want to get the ground game back to where it was (the last two seasons),” Gurrieri said.

Middletown South, which has outscored its first two opponents by a combined 63-7, has shown the ability to run the ball out of the spread formation. The Eagles have become a predominant spread formation team after being a predominantly flexbone team for years. Senior running back Jake Ripnick has run for 293 yards and four TDs.

The Neptune-Matawan meeting, the first time the two teams have met in many years, will bring back memories of the memorable 1992 NJSIAA Central Group III championship meeting, won by Matawan, 29-28, in overtime.

Neptune, seeking its first overall first place in a division since 1999, enters the game as the favorite because Matawan has just seven seniors on its roster.

“We have a lot of guys playing varsity football for the first time,” said John Kaye, who is in his first season as Matawan’s head coach. We’re starting to grow, but we’ve got a long way to grow.”

Neptune, which has the Shore’s longest current winning streak at 13, recorded a 27-14 win over Long Branch last week on the strength of three touchdowns in the first 6:30 of the game. Two of those TDs were on interception returns by Kyle Lewis and Myle Martin, and the first TD was set up by an 87-yard kickoff return by Keyshawn Rice.

However, the Scarlet Fliers do have the potential for a potent offense, led by senior quarterback Ajee Patterson, wide receivers Geoff Fairbanks and Keith Kirkwood and running backs Martin and Rice. Neptune showed how explosive it can be in its 41-13 win over Raritan in the season-opener on Sept. 7.

“I really don’t think we’re off by a lot,” said Neptune coach Mark Ciccotelli.

“They are a little more athletic than we are,” Kaye said. “We’re not that fast. They have unbelievable speed. Their athleticism is maybe tops in the Shore.”

Matawan, which rallied from a 13-0 deficit to record a 27-13 win over Ocean last week and had to rally in the final minute of regulation to record a dramatic 21-14 overtime win over Freehold on Sept. 14, has received key plays from junior quarterback Kashaun Barnes and senior running backs John Alston and Glenn Cross.

“Like always, they are athletic and play very hard,” Ciccotelli said. “There is a lot of tradition over there and they are used to winning.”

More USA TODAY High School Sports