The saying, “Every game counts” is one of the oldest cliches in sports.
However, that saying rang true this weekend for several teams when it came to determining whether they qualified for the NJSIAA Football Playoffs.
This was especially true in South Group III, when it came to determining which two teams earned the final two spots in that section.
Wall (3-5), which has lost five straight games, earned the eighth and final seed over Manchester (3-5), which has won its last three games, because of a game in which neither team was directly involved.
Point Pleasant Boro’s victory over Lakewood was the reason Wall has unofficially qualified over Manchester, according to tabulations by the Asbury Park Press and other newspapers around the state. Point Boro had been winless going into that game. Lakewood had already qualified for the Central Group II playoffs.
If Lakewood (5-3) had won that game, Manchester would have finished one point ahead of Wall in the final power rankings. Because Point Boro won, Wall and Manchester unofficially finished in a tie with 65 power points. Wall unofficially won the strength of schedule tiebreaker over Manchester.
There was a third team in the South Group III drama. Highland Regional (3-5) unofficially finished three points ahead of both Wall and Manchester and earned the No. 7 seed because Woodrow Wilson (3-5) beat Deptford Saturday afternoon. If Deptford had won that game, Highland would have been tied with Wall and Manchester in the power rankings. In that scenario, both Wall and Manchester would have qualified on the strength of schedule tiebreaker and Highland would have been out.
This drama was made possible by the NJSIAA’s controversial decision last year to allow under. 500 teams to qualify for the playoffs if they finish in the top eight in the power rankings in their section so that each section would have eight-team brackets.
The NJSIAA’s decision to add a Group V last year in each of its four sections has also led to more under .500 teams being in contention for playoff berths. Until last year, there was just a Group I-IV in each of the four sections — North 1, North 2, Central and South.
Before last year, teams had to have at least a .500 record to qualify. Wall is one of three Shore Conference teams to qualify with an under .500 record. Middletown North (3-5), in Central Group IV, and St. John Vianney (3-5), in Non-Public Group III, are the other sub .500 teams to qualify.
Making the situation at the bottom of South III even more dramatic is that Wall will play at No. 1 seed, arch-rival and 11-time sectional champion Manasquan in the first round. The two neighboring schools have played each other on Thanksgiving since 2000 in one of the Shore’s best rivalries.
Twenty-five Shore Conference teams have unofficially qualified. The NJSIAA will make the pairings official today at its headquarters in Robbinsville and will also announce the pairings for the consolation games — games matching up teams who did not qualify for the playoffs.
The playoffs begin this Friday and Saturday with first-round games at the top four seeds in each section. The sectional semifinals are Nov. 22-23. The sectional championship games are Dec. 6-8 at neutral sites.
The top eight teams in the power rankings in each group in each section qualify. This year, the NJSIAA instituted a rule that only the best seven power point games of a team’s first eight count toward its final power ranking.
As usual, there was plenty of drama on cutoff weekend. Brick Memorial (6-3) earned the final seed in Central V and qualified for the playoffs for a sixth straight season because of wins by Neptune and Middletown North this weekend. The Mustangs will play at No. 1 seed Manalapan (8-0) this Friday night. It will be the second time in the last three seasons the two have met in the first round of the playoffs.
Manalapan, which lost in sectional finals the last two seasons, is seeking its first sectional championship. The Braves earned the top seed when Old Bridge lost to J.P. Stevens on Friday night.
The top part of the Central V bracket could be the tougher half because of the presence of No. 5 seed Sayreville (7-2) — a sectional champion the last three seasons.
Manalapan and Manasquan are two of five Shore Conference schools who appear to have earned No. 1 seeds. The others are Brick (6-3) in Central IV; Rumson-Fair Haven (8-0) in Central II and Shore Regional (7-1) in Central.
There are three all-Shore Conference matchups in the first round. The other one will be No. 6 seed Neptune (4-4) at No. 3 seed Colts Neck (7-1) this Saturday in Central IV.
Red Bank Catholic (8-0), which is ranked No. 1 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10 and has won 32 straight over Shore Conference opposition, is the No. 4 seed in Non-Public Group III and in the same semifinal bracket at St.. Joseph (Montvale) (8-0), the consensus No. 1 ranked team in the state. RBC was defeated, 42-7, by St. Joseph (Montvale) last year in the Non-Public Group III semifinals.
There were other near misses, besides Manchester, Matawan (5-3) and Raritan (3-5) both missed by three points in Central III. Southern (4-4) came up four points short in South V and Jackson Liberty (3-5) and Toms River East (2-6) would have qualified in Central IV and South IV respectively had they won their games this weekend.