Senior running back Tyler Leonetti and the Manalapan football team didn’t need any extra motivation entering Friday night’s NJSIAA Central Group V semifinals showdown with three-time defending Central Group IV champion Sayreville, the team that ended Manalapan’s postseason runs in 2010 and 2011.
The No. 1 seed Braves dominated Sayreville from start-to-finish.
Manalapan’s defense forced the No. 5-seeded Bombers to three-and-outs on eight of their 11 possessions and allowed just 48 yards of offense through the first three quarters as the Braves won convincingly by a 34-7 margin and will vie for their first ever sectional title the weekend of Dec. 6-8 against No. 7 seed Hunterdon Central, which was a 42-7 winner over South Brunswick on Friday night.
“Our defense has been good all year and it was tremendous again tonight,” Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri said. “People underestimate our defense because of all the stars at all the other positions, but the key to our team this year has been our D.”
Sayreville (8-3), which entered Friday’s game having won 10 consecutive playoff games and averaged over 320 yards rushing per game, was held in check by the Braves defense.
Outside of a 53-yard run from Myles Hartsfield with less than three minutes remaining, which was the first time the Bombers crossed the 50 yard line, Sayreville managed only 17 yards rushing on 23 carries for the evening.
“The biggest thing was just stopping them and putting them in positions they didn’t want to be in,” Manalapan middle linebacker, senior Chris Noesges said. “If you get them third-and-long or third-and-five, that’s not comfortable for them. They don’t like that. They like scoring on big plays or getting big-play drives, and we did not let that happen.”
Leonetti, who rushed for 138 yards on 23 carries and scored a pair of second quarter touchdowns, got a text from an old teammate prior to the game, former Manalapan running back John Sieczkowski, who was a senior when the Braves lost to Sayreville in the 2011 sectional title game.
“John texted me before the game and said, ‘Can you do me a favor and just please win this game for me,’ and I said, ‘Yes sir,’ so not only was this game for us and the fans, but it was also for all those seniors (from the past) that got their dreams crushed by Sayreville,” Leonetti said.
Manalapan (10-0) took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on its fourth play from scrimmage, as senior wide receiver and Rutgers commit Saeed Blacknall hauled in a 35-yard reception from quarterback Dan Anerella to set the tone.
“We set the tone from there and we were able to run the ball,” Gurrieri said. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, if you can run the football and stop the run you’re going to have success.”
Leonetti scored on runs of 14 and eight yard in the second quarter as Manalapan led 21-0 at the half.
The Braves added to their lead on their first drive of the second half, going up 28-0 as Imamu Mayfield scored on a 7-yard rush two plays after a Leonetti 53-yard run brought the ball down to the 15.
Nelson Rivera’s 1-yard touchdown with 7:23 left in the game made it 34-0 Manalapan, as a 50-yard Leonetti punt return gave Manalapan a first-and-goal from the five.
When it faces Hunterdon Central in two weeks, Manalapan hopes to avenge falling in the sectional final the past two seasons.
“It’s mixed emotions because we’ve been there the past two years, lost the past two years to Sayreville and South Brunswick, and the biggest thing is we want to go up there and deliver another message that Manalapan, we finish now,” Noesges said. “Our (senior) class has only lost three games since our freshman year and we don’t want to lose a fourth.”