It was a great look at what the Manalapan offense is capable of when most of its key players are healthy.
And what was seen, might not have been the best of news for Manalapan’s potential opponents in the NJSIAA Central Group V playoffs, which will begin in three weeks. Manalapan will be trying to win its first sectional championship when the playoffs begin.
Rutgers University-bound senior wide receiver Saeed Blacknall had three touchdowns on six receptions for 67 yards and senior tailback Tyler Leonetti ran for 166 yards on 30 carries with a TD as the Braves, ranked No. 2 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10, took a major step toward their fourth consecutive outright Shore Conference Class A North championship with a resounding 48-18 win over No. 3 Colts Neck on Friday night before a standing-room only crowd at Manalapan High School.
Manalapan (6-0, 4-0) also extended its winning streak over Shore Conference opponents to 21, its regular season winning streak to 23 and its Class A North winning streak to 20.
Blacknall had hyper-extended his knee in the third quarter against Jackson Memorial. He sat out the remainder of that game and played last week against East Brunswick.
Leonetti sprained his ankle in the first quarter against Middletown South on Oct. 4. He sat out the remainder of that game and all of the Jackson Memorial and returned last week.
“We’re a very big running team and Tyler has come a long way since his sophomore year,” Blacknall said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. With me on the outside healthy, you really can’t guess what we’re going to do.”
“I think with everybody healthy it’s kind of like it was last year as far as we’ve got a lot of balance,” said Manalapan coach Ed Gurrieri. “If you put three guys out there on Saeed, we’re going to be able to run the ball. It’s pretty simple.”
Leonetti let the Colts Neck defense, which had allowed just seven points in its first five games, know it was going to be a different night when he went 20 yards for a TD on a stretch play to the left to cap a 52-yard drive on Manalapan’s first possession.
Colts Neck (5-1, 2-1) hung around for a little while — even though it managed just two first downs and 58 yards of offense in the first half — because of the all-around play of senior running back/defensive end Anthony Gargiulo. He scored on a 49-yard screen pass from junior quarterback Christian Sanchez and on a 38-yard interception return.
In between Gargiulo’s two TDs, Manalapan junior John Cheung returned a kickoff 91 yards for a TD for his third return of either a kickoff or a punt for a TD in the last four weeks.
The second quarter then became the Blacknall Show. First, he snared a 9-yard fade from junior quarterback Dan Anerella to make it 21-12 with 8:32 left in the first half. A little over three minutes later, he hauled in a 25-yard TD pass from Anerella to make it 28-12.
“We always say, ‘Big players play big in big games,’ and he was big tonight,” Gurrieri said. “We knew no matter what — even if they bracketed him and had three guys on him — they weren’t going to stop the double move. From that point on, they didn’t know what to do with him.”
Blacknall said Anerella, who had been alternating with junior Charles Lombana but received all the snaps on Friday night because Lombana was saddled with a sprained ankle, is gradually developing.
“This was a big game for him. I’m glad he just kept his head and did what he had to do,” Blacknall said.
Senior placekicker Mike Caggiano, who was a major weapon with his touchbacks on kickoffs, added field goals of 31 and 25 yards in the third quarter to increase the Manalapan lead to 34-18.
Gargiulo gave Colts Neck a glimmer of hope with a 37-yard TD run with 9:53 remaining.
But the Manalapan defense, which was solid all night, set up the game’s final two TDs with a fumble recovery and a blocked punt.
Blacknall added his third TD on a 17-yard slant pass from Anerella — a play Gurrieri said Anerella audibled to. Jake McCourt’s 5-yard TD run closed it out.
“It (Colts Neck) was a very big challenge because I knew the teams they played weren’t us,” Blacknall said. “We knew them coming down here and playing us it was going to be a fight. It was two undefeated teams and the hype around it. We were just going to play football.”