Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri would have every right to say his program is now in the upper echelon of the Shore Conference.
The Braves have won three consecutive Shore Conference Class A North championships, 18 consecutive Class A North games and have beaten the tradition-rich Middletown South program the last three seasons.
Manalapan has been in NJSIAA sectional championship games the last two seasons, has gone 31-6 since the start of the 2010 season and has not had a losing season since 2001.
However, Gurrieri does not feel his program is completely there yet.
“I’m not going to consider us in the upper echelon until we win a state (sectional) championship,” Gurrieri said.
Whether Manalapan, ranked No. 2 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10 Poll, can win its first sectional championship will not begin to be detemined until seven weeks from now.
The tough part of Manalapan’s regular season schedule begins tonight when it hosts No. 4 Middletown South in a key Class A North game.
“I look at their (Middletown South’s program and they have state championships (nine sectional titles) and rings. That’s what we aspire to be,” Gurrieri said.
Over the next four weeks, Manalapan (2-0, 2-0) will host unbeaten Jackson Memorial (2-0) next week in an intriguing nondivisional game and unbeaten and unscored upon No. 7 Colts Neck (3-0) in another key Class A North game.
Other key games this weekend are: Brick (2-1, 2-0), ranked No. 8, at Southern (2-1, 1-1) tonight in Class A South; Lacey (3-0, 2-0), ranked No. 3, at No. 9 Toms River South (2-1, 1-1) tonight in Class A South; Wall (3-0, 2-0) at Long Branch (2-1, 1-0) tonight in Class B North and surprising Mater Dei (3-0, 1-0) at defending Class B Central champion Point Pleasant Beach (2-1, 0-0) tonight in Class B Central.
The Brick at Southern game is the Game of the Week on APP.com with video highlights available early Saturday morning.
The Lacey at Toms River South game will be broadcast live on 105.7 FM beginning at 6:50 p.m.
When asked if his players were tired of coming up short against Manalapan, Middletown South’s highly successful coach Steve Antonucci was to the point.
“I am (tired of losing to Manalapan),” Antonucci said. “It’s a no-brainer. Once somebody beats you and beats you down, you want to get back at them as quickly as you can. The tough part about football is you have to wait 365 days (372 in this case). The motivation is there.”
Two of the last three meetings between the two have been close, including last year’s 35-31 Braves’ win at “The Swamp” at Middletown South, which was a personal highlight film for wide receiver Saeed Blacknall. In that game, Blacknall, who has made a non-binding committment to Rutgers University, had an 85-yard punt return for a TD, a 39-yard TD reception, a highlight-film 34-yard run, blocked an extra point and had a touchdown-saving tackle.
“We’ve got to limit his touches,” Antonucci said. “We can’t kick the ball to him. We can’t stop him from catching the ball, but we’ve got to bring him down as soon as he does.”
Blacknall has three TDs total while playing about a half, along with most of the starters, in each of Manalapan’s first two games.
However, he is a factor even if he does not touch the ball. Because opponents are so fearful of kicking the ball to Blacknall, the Braves have started with outstanding field position.
But, what makes Blacknall even tougher to defend is that teams can not concentrate totally on him. Manalapan, which over the last decade has been one of the Shore’s best running teams, has a very good senior tailback in Tyler Leonetti and very good fullback in senior Nelson Rivera.
Manalapan’s ability to run the ball, behind tailbacks Josh Firkser and John Sieczkowski was a major reason it defeated Middletown South in 2010 and 2011. Manalapan has also had excellent offensive lines. This year’s is short on varsity experience, but has the potential to be very good.
“They are very physical,” Antonucci said. “They’ve been more physical than us. We’re striving to get back there, but you look at their uniforms and they fill their uniforms out. They’ve also got athletic kids and more kids than we have. Football is a physical game. If you can’t match the physicality, you’re going to find it tough to beat someone.”
Middletown South’s defense has played well this season, allowing just one TD each to solid offenses from Brick and Howell. It has an offense, led by senior quarterback Kyle Brey, that can challenge a Manalapan defense that returns 10 starters.
The Eagles (2-0, 1-0), because of the way the schedule has fallen in that Manalapan’s game with Jackson Memorial scheduled for Sept. 12 was postponed because of lightning, have been tested more so far this season.
“It’s (the games with Middletown South) are always great competition,” Gurrieri said. “We know they are a storied program, have a great coaching staff and they’re kinda tough, hard-nosed and very athletic. They usually don’t beat themselves.”
Brick will be trying to take another step toward establishing itself as a legitimate contender in Class A South. It trounced Toms River South, 47-21, last week and defeated Brick Memorial in the opener.
The Green Dragons’ backfield tandem of junior quarterback Carmen Sclafani and junior running back Ray Fattaruso are tough for defenses to slow down.
Southern, whose only loss was to Toms River South, has one of the state’s best players in senior receiver Mike Gesicki, an improving quarterback in senior Logan Sheehan and an improving running game, led by senior Rob Yaiser.
Expect the scoreboard to light up at Toms River South’s Detwiler Stadium.
Lacey, behind precision-like senior quarterback Tom Kelly, senior receiver Christian Tutela, senior running back Chris Jensen and junior quarterback Conor Davies, who has played extensively at slot receiver, is averaging 46.7 points a game and compiled 546 yards last week in outlasting Toms River East, 45-42.
Toms River South, behind junior quarterback Tymere Berry, senior running back Otis Kearney and junior running back Khaleel Greene, is averaging 29.7 points a game and has the game-breaking ability.
Both teams struggled defensively last week.
Wall and Long Branch figures to be a defensive struggle in a division where four of the six divisional games played so far have seen the two teams score a combined 21 points or less. Both Wall and Long Branch have veteran tailbacks in Pete Miceli for Wall and Deon Williams for Long Branch.
Mater Dei will be trying to equal the 4-0 start it got off to in 1986 behind junior quarterback Christian Palmer. The 49 points it scored last week in a 49-35 win over Dunellen was the most it has scored since it had 54 in 54-0 win over Allentown in the 1992 season-opener. Point Beach was held without a TD last week for the first time since John Wagner became its head coach before the 2011 season.