Considering how far his Manasquan team progressed on the football field, and considering what his players went through off it, head coach Jay Price wasn’t about to hang his head over a tough playoff loss.
“I’ve never been prouder to be associated with kids in my life,” Price said after second-seeded Nottingham rallied for a 21-14 win over the sixth-seeded Warriors in an NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III first-round playoff game Saturday. “And it has nothing to do with football.”
Much of it has to do with how the players suffered their own losses and yet still helped victims of Hurricane Sandy in the midst of trying to prepare for a state game.
“They’re great men of character,” Price said. “Football, they found out, is a little secondary. There’s bigger things outside the gridiron for them.”
On the gridiron, Manasquan (4-5) made an amazing run to reach the playoffs by winning three straight games after a 1-4 start.
The Warriors carried that momentum to Nottingham by scoring on their first two possessions on impressive drives.
But the Northstars (8-1), in winning their first playoff game since 2005, rallied for 21 second-half points to give Mercer County a rare win over the Shore Conference. Josh Lajeunesse scored the game-winning touchdown on a 15-yard run with 4:50 remaining.
“You have to give coach (Jon) Adams and his staff a lot of credit,” Price said. “They came out and executed in the second half and we couldn’t make plays when we had to make plays.”
Manasquan made them early and utilized lineman Matt Forst on a 2-yard touchdown run to cap an 11-play, 60-yard drive and make it 7-0.
On Nottingham’s next possession, Chris Miller intercepted a pass and had a touchdown return nullified by a clip. But Manasquan grinded out a 12-play, 62-yard drive that ended with Connor Grogan’s 8-yard TD run on a well designed reverse.
At halftime, Nottingham had just 10 yards of offense and minus-12 rushing yards.
Manasquan had effectively stopped the Northstars outside speed, which Nottingham felt was a key to winning.
The ‘Stars changed tactics after intermission and began going up the middle with Wroway Williams, who didn’t have a carry in the first half but rushed for 52 yards on eight carries in the second.
Williams tallied on a 4-yard run and Nottingham had life. The score remained 14-7 into the final quarter and the Northstars got a spark when Saquaan Hampton returned a punt straight up the middle for an 80-yard touchdown return.
“It was a huge emotional lift,” Price said. “They got a huge feed off it, those kids got fired up. It was a big momentum thing.
“But to me what really set the drive and the tempo was their first drive of the second half. It caused us to scratch our heads a little and we played on our heels a little bit.”
Especially offensively, as Manasquan finished with just 155 yards of total offense. Continuing to play Warrior-type football, the Northstars took the lead on their next possession on the TD by Lajeunesse, who led Nottingham with 68 yards.
Manasquan’s Joe Murphy led all rushers with 98 yards, but neither he or his teammates could generate much on the Warriors final two possessions as Nottingham finished the game with its sixth sack.
“They wanted to win today and they wanted to move on,” Price said. “But you know what – these kids are going to move on to bigger things in life.”
They have actually come up pretty big already, in several ways.