It was the night of Friday the 13th, fitting for Manasquan to catch a lucky break.
Senior cornerback Kieran Preston picked off a pitchout and dashed 35 yards for a touchdown, sending the Warriors to a 13-3 win over Long Branch in the non-divisional regular-season opener for both teams.
Long Branch senior quarterback Shabazz Shuler pitched the ball to the left side. Preston plucked the ball out of the air and found the FieldTurf to his liking, speeding to his first career varsity touchdown for a 6-0 lead with 4:30 left in the opening quarter. Senior quarterback Will Pezzollo flipped the ball to senior Tucker Caccavale for the two-point conversion and an 8-0 advantage.
“Shuler made the pitchout and I was in the lane,” said Preston, now in his third varsity season. “My responsibility is the pitch. I caught the ball and went to the house. It feels amazing to score. The ball dropped right into my hands and I secured the ball. I’m a little bit superstitious.”
Preston said he received help from senior strong safety Earl Peters, who menaced Shuler.
“Earl is a great player,” Preston said. “I am surprised Shuler threw the ball up. I guess their quarterback didn’t see me. This feels so good. Last year, we were a second-half team. We scored first and they deflated.”
Preston, who also saw action at wide receiver and on special teams, said he enjoys playing cornerback.
“I love it,” the 5-foot-8, 170-pounder said. “It’s my favorite position.”
Preston recalled the Warriors lost their first two games last season to Long Branch and Red Bank Catholic. Manasquan will go against the latter next weekend.
“This win was huge,” he said. “This win will put us on the road toward a state title, but we’re worrying about Red Bank Catholic first. We have a lot of pride as a team. We have each other’s backs. We’ve gotten after it each day since Aug. 13, the first day of practice.”
Manasquan practiced ball control, slowing the speedy Green Wave attack. Senior running back Joe Murphy keyed the ground game, rushing for 98 yards on 23 carries.
“We call our O-line (offensive line) the Trench Mob,” Preston said. “They grinded it out for the entire game. They (Long Branch) are fast, but we talked, stuck together and it worked out.”
Manasquan pushed its lead to 11-0 with 10:27 remaining in the first half on a 20-yard field goal by Raul Perez. The senior connected with the Warriors facing fourth and goal from the three.
The winners began their drive at their 44-yard line after a Long Branch punt. Murphy swept left end from 1 yard for a touchdown, but the score was nullified by a holding penalty, putting the ball at the 12.
Senior running back Jack Bianco muscled up the middle for two yards to the 10. Murphy rushed for six yards to the 4 and gained another yard to the 3, setting up the kick. Pezzollo completed a 20-yarder to Murphy to the Long Branch 30 earlier in the drive and tossed a 9-yard pass to Bianco to move the ball to the 1.
Long Branch pulled to within 11-3 with 11:04 left in the game on a 39-yard field goal by junior Vincent Mota. The drive began at the Manasquan 25 after a 22-yard punt into the wind by the Warriors. Senior running back Raphael Deon Williams opened the possession with a 1-yard gain to the 24 and followed with a 3-yard run to the 21. A Shuler pass fell incomplete and Perez knocked the ball through the uprights on the following play.
Manasquan capped the scoring with 5:01 remaining in the game when senior Monte Sinisi and junior Craig Miller tackled Shuler for a safety.