Injuries and illness could have made it convenient for Kyle Puza and teammates on Manville High School’s football team to throw in their blue and gold towels. The Mustangs had been eager for 2013, seasoned ability with senior quarterback Anthony Zuhone and receiver Max Miller reflected promise, but forces outside their control weren’t kind.
The Mustangs stuck together through it all though, coming up with a slogan, just missing an upset a week ago Friday against Brearley as the Bears scored with 15 seconds left to escape with a 22-18 victory. Manville’s effort reminded everybody just what could be and it arrived this past Friday night at Ned Panfile Stadium.
The Mustangs (1-8) blanked Dayton 20-0 for their first win behind Puza, this week’s Courier News Player of the Week. Puza rushed for 160 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, threw a 39-yard touchdown pass off a fake punt, and caught two passes for 26 yards. He also had half a sack.
“Our line really picked it up during the week in practice, we had to have a better running game,” said Puza, who scored on a short run behind Chris Garcia’s blocking in the second quarter. “The run game made it happen. We kept the tempo, we kept pushing. Our guys pushed them all through during the game.”
Senior center Nick Harenza, junior linemen Andrew Sutton, Tommy Fasano, Jared Matisak and senior Scott Caswell made it possible for Manville to rush for 235 yards and pass for 169. Many contributed. Zuhone, who ran for 75 yards on 10 carries, passed for 130 yards and a touchdown to Miller.
Zuhone led with 13 tackles and had an interception. Miller had three tackles and a sack and Fasano had five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
“We stayed together like a family, we picked each other up, we told each other we’d get through this,” said Puza.
Those words sum up the leader and player Puza has grown into, defining roles he’ll be expanding next season after Miller and Zuhone are gone.
“Kyle is a passionate player, who has matured tremendously this season,” coach Pat Gorbatuk said. “He is our workhorse and is one of those old throwback players that every coach desires to have.”
Puza, the team’s leading rusher with 496 yards and four touchdowns on 115 carries, is also one of four captains – the only junior along with seniors Zuhone, Miller, Harenza and linebacker/tight end Zack Horensky.
“Kyle has a high football IQ and it’s like having another coach on the staff,” he said.
That brainpower was vital as the Mustangs pulled off a fake punt for their final touchdown in the fourth quarter not long after Zuhone had connected with Miller on a touchdown pass. With Miller poised to punt, Harenza snapped it instead to up man Puza, who threw the pass to freshman TJ Caswell, who scored his first touchdown.
“We noticed Dayton liked to load the box on their punt return which left them vulnerable to a fake,” said Gorbatuk, a punter in his college days at Kean. “Kyle has been our personal protector for two years now and we practiced that fake all week long. The timing of the play couldn’t have been better, it was great to put the game away on a special teams play.”
Alex Boyd, Governor Livingston: Boyd scored a touchdown, made 10 tackles and picked off a pass in the Highlanders 35-13 victory at Bernards Friday night. The win earned them a North 2, Group III playoff berth.
Chandler Vanderbeek, Immaculata: The senior followed up last week’s 311-yard rushing performance in a 60-28 win at Montgomery by rushing for 157 yards and three touchdowns Saturday afternoon to lead the Spartans to a 31-28 double-overtime win over previously unbeaten Phillipsburg (7-1).
Eugene Rawles, Westfield: The senior rushed for 113 yards and four TDs on 17 carries and caught two passes for 114 yards as Westfield sealed a North 2 Group V playoff berth with a 41-28 win over Scotch Plains-Fanwood. Rawles as scored 13 of his 18 touchdowns in Westfield’s current three-game streak.