As a four-year starter at free safety, Carteret High School’s Brandon Gilder has always made his presence felt on defense.
But with the Ramblers being a run-oriented team out of the I formation, the senior, who has also starred at wide receiver the past three seasons, has had less opportunity to make a consistent impact on offense.
All that could change for Gilder in the final game of his career when third-seeded Carteret (8-3) meets fifth-seeded Matawan (7-4) in the Central Group III final at Kean University on Friday at 7 p.m.
The Huskies, who have plenty of confidence in their secondary, are not afraid to stack the box to take away the running game and leave their gifted cornerbacks in single coverage.
If that happens, Carteret head coach Matt Yascko will look for quarterback Nelson Baez to throw the ball to Gilder, who has caught 83 passes for 1,444 yards during his stellar career.
“If they are going to play man-to-man and (Gilder) is our best player, then we are going to have to give him the opportunity to make plays and try to win the game for us,” Yascko said.
“He’s very tough to handle one-on-one. If we get it up anywhere in his vicinity, he’s going to have to win those battles.”
Gilder made perhaps the biggest catch of his career in a 21-17 sectional semifinal victory over Long Branch to keep alive the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, displaying his athleticism on the reception.
With less than four minutes remaining and facing a fourth-and-4 from the Long Branch 22, a Baez pass was tipped about five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and floated into a sea of four green jerseys. From seemingly out of nowhere, Gilder sprinted underneath the falling pigskin and cradled it in his arms for a remarkable first-down reception.
With 233 tackles and 21 interceptions, Gilder has anchored a Carteret defense that has served as the catalyst for the team’s success during his career.
The Ramblers have compiled a 36-8 record over the past four seasons, including a 7-2 record in the playoffs. The team’s only postseason defeats were in the semifinals to Lawrence last season and in the semifinals to Matawan three years ago.
“He’s played so many games at free safety, I don’t think he’s really ever surprised by anything back there,” Yascko said of Gilder, who functions like an assistant coach on the field. “There’s not much he hasn’t seen. He can get guys in the right positions and make our checks and adjustments because of his knowledge of the game.”
Yascko said he saw Gilder play Pop Warner football, so he had an idea of the gifted player who was rising through the ranks. But what stood out the most was Gilder’s acumen for the game.
“I knew he was a terrific athlete but his football knowledge impresses me the most,” Yascko said. “He understood the game at such a young age.”
With career rushing leader Jerod Johnson carrying the load for Carteret during Gilder’s freshman and sophomore campaigns, it wasn’t until last season that Gilder was relied upon more heavily to help carry the offense.
Gilder was even utilized at quarterback in 2013 so that the Ramblers could get the ball in the hands of their playmaker and utilize his athleticism.
Yascko said the key to Gilder’s development this season has been in the maturity department, noting his team captain has been a leader on the field and in the locker room.
“Even though he wasn’t specifically a captain, he was the heart and soul of our team for the last two years,” Yascko said. “This year, more than ever, he’s staying composed and keeping (his head) in the game.
“He’s the guy that gets (the Ramblers) out to our practice field, makes sure they are focused and paying attention. In order to have success, you need somebody like that.
“I’m just happy he’s become that kid.”
NJSIAA CENTRAL GROUP III FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW
Where/When: Kean University, Friday, 7 p.m.
Who: No. 3 Carteret (8-3) vs. No. 5 Matawan (7-4).
Common opponents: While Carteret avenged a 31-6 regular-season loss to Long Branch with a 21-17 sectional semifinal victory over the Green Wave, Matawan lost 40-28 to Long Branch. Colonia defeated Carteret 28-15 and beat Matawan 10-7.
Carteret results: Woodbridge 14-7 (W), Long Branch 31-6 (L), New Brunswick 26-2 (W), Colonia 28-15 (L), South Plainfield 33-14 (W), St. Joseph 17-14 (W), Bishop Ahr 27-3 (W), J.F. Kennedy 22-13 (L), Nottingham 35-0 (W), Long Branch 21-17 (W), Perth Amboy 35-13 (W).
Matawan results: St. John Vianney 31-10 (L), Rumson-Fair Haven 31-10 (L), Raritan 26-21 (W), Monmouth 28-7 (W), Colonia 10-7 (L), Holmdel 52-7 (W), Long Branch 40-28 (L), Manasquan 23-6 (W), Barnegat 40-17 (W), Raritan 27-6 (W), Ocean 23-20 (W).
Matawan statistical leaders: George Pearson (108 of 208, 1,755 yards, 12 TD, 10 INT); Devon Spann (138 carries, 799 yards, 10 TD); Makiya Ceasar (54 carries, 393 yards, 2 TD); Justin Ferrara (37 receptions, 781 yards, 5 TD); Dejohn Rogers (33 receptions, 554 yards, 5 TD); Aliem Shaw (114 tackles, 7 sacks); Isaiah Phillip (74 tackles); Justin Ferrara (57 tackles, 4 INT); Alex Pierce (45 tackles, 7 sacks); Jake Weber (45 tackles, 5 sacks); James Pierce (14 punts, 32.1 avg.); Adam Elliot (11 of 14 PAT, 6 of 7 FGA).
Carteret statistical leaders: Nelson Baez (68 of 134, 1,150 yards, 9 TD, 6 INT); Ra’Keem Bennett (173 carries, 1,153 yards, 11 TD); Da’Avion Ellington (53 carries, 123 yards, 3 TD); Sam Kamara (33 carries, 177 yards, 6 TD); Brandon Gilder (36 receptions, 555 yards, 4 TD); Hassan Williams (15 receptions, 265 yards, 1 TD); Michael Nowak (10 receptions, 231 yards, 2 TD); Ra’Keem Bennett (101 tackles, 3 INT); Tim Irving (93 tackles, 2 sacks); Brandon Gilder (87 tackles, 3 INT); Michael Nowak (82 tackles); Justin Taylor (82 tackles, 2 sacks); Sam Kamara (75 tackles, 7.5 sacks); Hassan Williams (47 tackles, 4 INT); Brandon Gilder (32 punts, 32.1 avg.); Carlo Lopez (18 of 22 PAT, 1 of 1 FGA).
Matawan playoff history: 24 appearances, 22-18 record, 6 sectional titles.
Carteret playoff history: 22 appearances, 19-17 record, 5 sectional titles.
Outlook: Carteret’s performance in the playoffs – including a shutout of Nottingham and avenging a lopsided regular-season loss to Long Branch – illustrates the team’s improvement. The play of quarterback Nelson Baez in the postseason (18 of 24 for 331 yards and 3 TD) has been key. He likes to throw off play action. The Ramblers have a balanced rushing attack. Fullback Sam Kamara complements tailbacks Ra’Keem Bennet and Da’Avion Ellington. Wideouts Brandon Gilder, Justin Taylor and Michael Nowak are equally effective. Carteret’s strength, however, remains its defense, which has star players up front, at linebacker and in the secondary. End Kamara, linebacker Bennett and free safety Gilder are among the best in the Greater Middlesex Conference at their respective positions. Matawan has yet to defeat a team with a winning record. The Huskies are big and athletic. Rookie quarterback George Pearson took over in Week 3 after Matawan opened the season with consecutive defeats. The Huskies are balanced out of the spread formation but have a propensity to throw more than run. In the first half of a victory over Holmdel, Matawan ran the ball just once. Middle linebacker Aliem Shaw (25 sacks over the past two seasons) anchors an aggressive, hard-hitting defense. He has blitzed less this fall and been more of a sideline-to-sideline defender, illustrating Matawan’s speed on defense. Both teams struggled to slow down Long Branch running back Dahmiere Willis, the Shore Conference’s all-time single-season rushing leader, who rushed in the regular season for 370 yards against Matawan and for 207 yards against Carteret.
Did you know: Matawan quarterback George Pearson is the nephew of former South River great Drew Pearson, who enjoyed an All-Pro career with the Dallas Cowboys, while Matwan assistant coach Jay Bellamy is a former Rutgers University star who played for the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks.