It is a situation Central Regional has not been in often in recent seasons.
But tonight, when the Golden Eagles (3-1, 3-0) play at Barnegat (4-0, 3-0), ranked No. 8 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10, they will be in a “Big Game.” The game is for first place in Class B South.
“We, as a staff, know it’s a big game and the kids know it’s a big game. We’re not dowplaying it,” said Central’s first-year head coach Willie Jacobs.
Central was in a pair of big games two seasons ago when it was 5-1, played at rival Lacey and was tied for first place in Class B South. It also played at Woodrow Wilson in an NJSIAA South Group III playoff game. The Golden Eagles lost both those games and finished 5-5.
It has been 12 seasons since Central finished with a winning record, when it went 6-4 in 2001 when current Monsignor Donovan head coach Dan Duddy was the Golden Eagles’ head coach.
Central has not won a divisional championship since 1994, when a team coached by Duddy and led by quarterback John Tice won Class B South and advanced to the South Group III championship game where it was defeated by Brick, 28-24, in a dramatic game Brick won on a touchdown pass in the final seconds.
“This type of atmosphere is awesome,” said Jacobs, a former running back/linebacker at Central, whose touchdown gave the Golden Eagles a win over South Group III champion Lacey and the Class B South championship in 1988. “We’re in the spotlight. Now we’ve got to go out and make something happen.”
Barnegat, which is 4-0 for the first time in its history, has grown accustomed to being in big games. The Bengals won the Class B South championship in 2011 and have been in the NJSIAA playoffs the last three seasons and four of their first seven seasons. They already have a win this season over defending Class B South champion Monsignor Donovan.
“The town is excited and the community is excited,” said Barnegat coach Rob Davis.
Other key games this weekend have: Southern (2-2, 1-2) at No. 3 Lacey (5-0, 3-0) on Saturday in Class A South; Jackson Memorial (3-1, 3-0) at Toms River South (2-2, 1-2) on Saturday night in Class A South; and St. John Vianney (1-3) at No. 6 and unscored upon Colts Neck (4-0) on Saturday in a nondivisional game.
In the Lacey-Southern game, Lacey will be trying to give head coach Lou Vircillo, the only coach the Lions have ever had, career win No. 264, which would enable Vircillo to pass the late, legendary Vic Kubu for No. 2 on the Shore Conference’s all-time list. Former Brick and Lakewood coach Warren Wolf is the Shore’s all-time winningiest coach and No. 2 all-time in the state with 364 wins.
Also, tonight, Monsignor Donovan will be trying to give Duddy career win No. 100 with a victory over Pinelands.
The Central at Barnegat game is the Game of the Week with video highlights available on APP.com early Saturday morning. The Central at Barnegat game will also be broadcast live on 105.7 FM beginning with the pregame show at 6:50 p.m.
Central has won three straight since a 41-27 loss to then ranked Toms River South in the opener. Its start has not caught either Jacobs or Davis by surprise.
“I knew we could beat the teams we were playing (after Toms River South) and I knew we could lose to them.,” Jacobs said.
“They have athletes,” Davis said. “They looked really good in their scrimmages. They are explosive.”
Central does have big-play ability with senior quarterback Marquis Drumright, senior receiver Isiah Akers and senior running back Javon Hardy. The Golden Eagles are averaging 29.5 points a game.
“We (the Central coaching staff) all knew we had to throw the ball if we wanted to win games,” Jacobs said. “The good thing is the running attack is starting to come together.”
“They’re very balanced in what they can do. They don’t need the other one (either the run or the pass) to help the other,” Davis said.
However, the key to the game will likely be how the Central defense, which was hurt by the big play in the loss to Toms River South, fares against the Barnegat offense, especially against the Bengals’ running game.
Barnegat has the ability to wear teams down with running back A.J. Opre, quarterback Cinjun Erskine and a big offensive line led by Division IA recruit Sam Madden and Zach Andrews. Both Madden and Andrews weigh more than 300 pounds. Erskine, who is also a Division I recruit, also can throw the ball well.
“You look at it on paper and they’re the best team (in Class B South),” Jacobs said. “They can run the ball and they can throw the ball. You stop something and they’re other things they can do just as well. It’s like pick your poison.”
Southern, which lost to Williamstown last year in the South Group V, needs a win to strengthen its chances of qualifying this season. The Rams are currently ninth in the South V power rankings.
“For us, it’s a gigantic game,” said Southern coach Chuck Donohue Sr.
The bye week probably came at a right time for the Rams. It enabled them to get some players who have been saddled with nagging injuries healthy.
“I just feel our best football is ahead of us. I feel we’re a better football team than we’ve have played the first four weeks. Going against Lacey should bring the best out of us,” Donohue said.
Southern will need to slow down Lacey’s high-powered offense. Senior quarterback Tom Kelly, who did not play last week in the Lions’ last-minute 21-14 win at Manchester because of a concussion, will return to the lineup. That will mean junior quarterback Conor Davies, who did a more than adequate job replacing Kelly the last 1¾ games, will move back to slot receiver.
Lacey senior receiver Christian Tutela is one of the Shore’s best playmakers.
“It’s not going to be a low-scoring game. We have to score points,” Donohue said.
Southern does have big-play capability, especially with 6-foot-5½, 235-pound senior receiver Mike Gesicki, who will announce today whether he is going to play college football at Ohio State or Penn State.