FREEHOLD – It had been more than three years since Manalapan’s players had to bounce back after a regular season loss.
And Braves’ head coach Ed Gurrieri and his coaching staff were eager to see how their players would respond during practice this week and in Sunday’s big Shore Conference Class A North game against Freehold after the loss last week at Red Bank Catholic.
Manalapan, ranked No. 2 in the Asbury Park Press Top 10, delivered a resounding positive answer to all those questions as it recorded an impressive 42-3 win over No. 6 Freehold at the Cal D. Wilson Athletic Complex and clinched a tie for the Shore Conference Class A North championship.
“We love the way our kids reacted,” Gurrieri said. “They know that we’re still playing for something. Everything is front of us. Everything that we want to do is still there in front of us for the taking.
The Braves (7-1, 5-0) can clinch the Class A North title outright and become the first Shore Conference team since Middletown South from 2001-2005 to win five consecutive divisional championships outright with a win at Howell (2-6, 1-4) Friday night. They have won 29 consecutive Class A North games since the division was reinstituted in 2010.
Manalapan can also still win that elusive first NJSIAA sectional championship in its history. The Braves, along with South Brunswick and Hillsborough, are the main contenders in Central Group V.
“This one (the Freehold game) was definitely more important (than the Red Bank Catholic game).” said Manalapan senior defensive end/tight end Kyle Mullen. “We wanted to show that we were the A North champs.”
Mullen said it was not difficult for he and his teammates to refocus n after the loss at No. 1 Red Bank Catholic.
“We were fired up in practice. We had the best week of practice we’ve had all year, definitely,” Mullen said. “We wanted to get the bad taste out of our mouth, like coach Gurrieri always says. We had that chance and wanted to go at it and win A North.”
“I told them all along, ‘The first time your character gets tested, we’re going to see how you react when you’re faced with adversity. Real men react positively,’ ” Gurrier said. “They reacted great this week. We had a great week of practice. We probably had our best day of practice for the whole season on Tuesday. It just carried over to Wednesday and Thursday and carried into this game.”
Manalapan responded too when Freehold (7-1, 4-1), behind a 7-yard run on a fake punt for a first down by Bailey Indursky and runs of 27 and 19 yards respectively by quarterback Jake Curry and running back Josh Dixon, drove 68 yards into the wind on its first possession and took a 3-0 lead on a 28-yard field goal by Matt Curcio.
It took the Braves four plays after the field goal to take a 7-3 lead on a 37-yard Dan Anerella to Gerard Hodge-Rocourt touchdown pass.
An Anerella 12-yard TD pass to Brian Conforth with 2:09 left in the first half extended the lead to 14-3 at the half.
Senior Dan Debner then delivered the knockout blow when he returned the second half kickoff 86 yards for a TD.
After that, Manalapan’s depth and size on both sides of the ball took over. Senior tailback Imamu Mayfield, in his first game in Freehold since he transferred to Manalapan from Freehold before the 2013 season scored on runs of 57, 17 and 2 yards to close it out. Mayfield wound up with 174 yards on 24 carries. Manalapan rushed for 213 yards and had 236 yards of offense in the second half while holding the Colonials to 38 yards of offense in the second half.
Key play: Dan Debner’s 86-yard return of the second half kickoff for a touchdown.
Key stat: Dan Anerella was an efficient 6-for-11 for 98 yards and two TDs.
Game Ball: Kyle Mullen was a major factor on both sides of the ball.
Up next: Manalapan is at Howell Friday night. Freehold is at Middletown South Friday night.
HOWELL 39, MARLBORO 20: Senior running back Jarvis Leaks ran for a career-high 281 yards and four TDs on 23 carries to lead the Rebels (2-6, 1-4) to the win over the Mustangs (0-8, 0-6) in a Class A North game.
All four of Leaks’ TDs came in the first half as Howell, which snapped a five-game losing streak, built a 26-0 lead. He scored on runs of 4, 35, 83 and 1 yard.
Junior fullback Mike Reilly had a 46-yard TD run and senior running back Colin Mastowski had a 40-yard TD run.
Howell ran for 399 yards on 32 attempts.
Steven Falk: 732-643-4267; firstname.lastname@example.org