Central Group I First Round
No. 5 Middlesex (5-3) at No. 4 Florence (5-3), Friday, 7 p.m.
The storied Florence program is making its 26th NJSIAA playoff appearance and beginning a quest for its sixth championship. The Flashes own a 28-19 postseason record and have reached the finals 14 times. Florence finished second in the West Jersey Football League’s Freedom Division. The Flashes enter the playoffs on a roll, having won three in a row, outscoring those three opponents with a combined 6-19 record by a 104-6 margin. The Flashes have played a competitive schedule with two of their losses coming to NJSIAA playoff qualifiers Pemberton (Group III) and Holy Cross (Non-Public Group II). Florence relies heavily upon running back Joey Foga, a 915-yard rusher who has scored 15 touchdowns. The Flashes operate out of a multitude of formations and are most similar to a Spotswood team that defeated Middlesex 45-28 in the Blue Jays’ last game. Earlier in the year, Florence abandoned its traditional power game in favor of a spread offense, but has returned to its roots of late. The Flashes throw the ball sparingly. Nazseer Savage is the team’s leading receiver with 10 catches for 133 yards. Florence defensive coordinator Nick Lubrano has been with the program for years and his charges play with a swarming style. The Flashes employ a multitude of defensive fronts, alternating between a 4-3, a 4-4 and a 50. They want to apply pressure, create chaos and use their athleticism to make plays in the backfield. Middlesex operates out of the triple option and will look to pop some big-gainers to keep Florence off balance. Middlesex has rotated veteran quarterbacks A.J. Abate (9 of 30 for 176 yards) and Mike Cresitello, both of whom are equally capable of running the offense. Florence will load the box but must respect the pass, as the Blue Jays have lulled several opponents with the run only to throw deep. The late-season addition of Daniel Ffriend, a transfer from Bound Brook, has complemented star running back Ryan Coke (97 carries, 856 yards, 14 touchdowns). Bernal Murillo anchors a stout defense with a team-leading 59 tackles.
Prediction: Middlesex 21-20.
Central Group III First Round
No. 6 South Plainfield (6-2) at No. 3 Red Bank (8-0), Friday, 7 p.m.
After finishing 1-9 two years ago and .500 last season, the Bucs claimed the Shore Conference Class B North Division title, their first division championship since 1977. The team cemented itself as a sectional title contender with a 24-21 win over perennial power Red Bank Catholic, snapping an eight-game losing streak to the Caseys in which it was outscored 386-33. “We’ve had our defeats,” Red Bank coach Nick Giglio said following the win over the Caseys. “At the end of the day, it did not stop us from believing that this was going to happen eventually. I’m very proud of our guys.” Red Bank runs a spread offense similar to that which South Plainfield has seen from incumbent North 2 Group IV finalist Colonia, which is the No. 3 seed in that section this year. Red Bank’s team speed is tantamount to that of Colonia and New Brunswick, the only teams to defeat South Plainfield this season. The Patriots and Zebras, who are the No. 2 seed in Central Group V, prepared the Tigers well for this opening-round game. Red Bank quarterback Jack Navitsky is strong-armed and mobile with an ability to scramble to keep a play alive before finding an open receiver. He will face pressure from South Plainfield, which has registered 28 sacks, eight from Justin Counts, one of the Greater Middlesex Conference’s best defensive ends, and seven from Kevin Adams. Navitsky’s favorite target is Sadiq Palmer, one of the state’s best wideouts who has accepted a scholarship offer from Syracuse University. The Tigers counter with a secondary that has registered eight interceptions, two apiece from Raeon Cohen and Allen Uzoma. South Plainfield has relied heavily upon senior running back Jason Lee. He has accounted for 930 of the team’s 1,355 yards on the ground and amassed 1,380 all-purpose yards. South Plainfield, which has thrown for 568 yards and just two touchdowns, must be more balanced offensively. Jean Sapini is the team’s leading pass catcher with 174 receiving yards. The Bucs run a 4-3 defense but expect them to load the box as everyone else has done against South Plainfield. The Bucs must respect South Plainfield’s ability on special teams. Lee and Ruben Torres have combined for 586 yards and three touchdowns on kickoff returns. Dillon Harris (65), Mark Robertson (54), Josh Siegenthaler (52) and Counts (52) are South Plainfield’s leading tacklers. Senior running back Alim Godey rushed for 104 yards and two scores in Red Bank’s 31-14 win over Manchester last weekend. The Bucs are looking to win their second sectional title and first since 1975. South Plainfield has never won a sectional crown.
Prediction: Red Bank 27-23.
North 2 Group IV First Round
No. 5 Sayreville (5-4) at No. 4 Middletown North (6-2), Friday, 7 p.m.
The combination of last weekend’s heartbreaking 21-20 loss to Central Group V playoff qualifier Edison and a season-ending injury to star quarterback Jayson DeMild seven days earlier has not deflated the Bombers. DeMild passed for 957 yards through the team’s first seven games and was brilliant in a 23-21 comeback victory over perennial state power Piscataway. In his absence, sophomore Colton Redding has demonstrated the poise of a veteran, and Sayreville still has a multitude of offensive weapons including running back Michael Liberti. Receivers Andrew Wille and Jahsim Floyd are dangerous, while Coray Williams is a threat to rush or receive. Sayreville’s offensive line, anchored by team captain Anthony Porcaro, is stout. The Bombers scored a 22-6 win over North Brunswick, which lost 36-16 to Middletown North. The schools share one other common opponent with Manalapan defeating Sayreville 47-27 and losing 18-8 to Middletown North. The Lions withstood an injury to star running back and Bucknell commit Chad Freshnock, who was averaging 6.1 yards per carry before being sidelined. Freshnock returned last week from a five-game layoff to rush for 105 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-14 win over Freehold Township. In his stead, Connor Welsh has impressed, rushing for 666 yards and seven touchdowns. Middletown North quarterback Donald Glenn, a four-year starter, is phenomenal. He has completed 88 of 147 passes for 1,471 yards and 14 touchdowns out of the spread formation. Glenn’s favorite target is Brendan Kube (765 receiving yards). Nick Kish leads the Lions defensively with 93 tackles, while Matt Dombrowski (62 tackles) has seven of the team’s 18 sacks. The Lions operate out of a 4-2-5 defense, similar to the scheme that Sayreville head coach Chris Beagan utilized while winning a Central Group III title at Monroe in 2009. The Lions have size in the interior and speed on the edge of their defense, as well as playmakers in the secondary. They attack their assignments. Middletown North holds a slim 19-14 turnover margin but, for the most part, has not been hindered by its miscues. The Lions are averaging 26 yards per punt, but freshman placekicker Joey Cavanaugh has been solid, converting 21 of 26 PATs. Middletown North head coach Steve Bush, in his third season, was a former NFL assistant with the Miami Dolphins. With the exception of its win over Piscataway, Sayreville does not have a victory over a team with a winning record.
Prediction: Middletown North 28-13.
North 2 Group IV First Round
No. 7 Woodbridge (5-3) at No. 2 Phillipsburg (7-1), Friday, 7 p.m.
The game is a rematch of last year’s sectional semifinal, which the eventual North 2 Group IV champion Stateliners won 34-13. Phillipsburg’s stadium has a mystique about it, but the Barrons should not be daunted by the atmosphere of the home crowd upon their return trip. Phillipsburg picked up where it left off last season and rides a seven-game winning streak into the playoff opener. The team’s lone loss was a 31-28 setback to undefeated Bridgewater-Raritan, which garnered the top seed in North 2 Group V. Phillipsburg remains a run-heavy team, having amassed 1,584 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground, but quarterback Danny Fisher (685 passing yards and four scores) is a threat through the air. Still, Phillipsburg has run the ball 302 times while throwing it just 66. The disparity is the byproduct of a traditionally outstanding line, which makes Phillipsburg’s running backs great. With 1,430 all-purpose yards, Manny Romero is Phillipsburg’s most versatile offensive performer. He has 552 rushing yards and 466 receiving yards. Ja’Quan Jones complements him in the backfield with 581 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Brendan Grube has been a reliable placekicker for the Stateliners, converting 30 of 33 PATs and all three of his field goal attempts. Phillipsburg has allowed two or fewer scores in five games. Robert Melise and Garrett Boures anchor the defense with 51 tackles apiece. The Stateliners have recorded 18 sacks with Melise (six) and Matt Yanes (5.5) leading the way. Woodbridge had a bye after snapping a three-game losing streak against a trio of NJSIAA playoff qualifiers with a dramatic 27-25 victory over St. Joseph. Having had some time to heal, the injury-riddled Barrons are almost at full strength. Quarterback Tracy Fudge, a dual threat and one of the Greater Middlesex Conference’s most exciting players with 1,287 yards passing, is the key to Woodbridge’s offense. His favorite target is Quaasim Glover, the league’s leading receiver with 36 catches for 610 yards and six touchdowns. The Barrons feature a stable of running backs including Keshaun Henry (393 rushing yards), Nate Lanier (267 rushing yards) and Ian Mania (154 rushing yards). Dylan Leone (79 tackles), James Modica (59 tackles) and Alex LaGrippo (45 tackles) anchor a defense that has recorded 15 sacks, nine interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. Woodbridge dropped a 32-20 decision to New Brunswick (the second seed in Central Group V), a 27-26 decision to incumbent North 2 Group IV finalist Colonia and a 12-3 decision to Central Group III playoff qualifier South Plainfield. The Barrons do not have a victory over a team with a winning record.
Prediction: Phillipsburg 25-19.
Central Group V First Round
No. 7 Freehold Township (4-5) at No. 2 New Brunswick (8-1), Friday, 7 p.m.
The game is a rematch of a regular-season meeting which the Zebras won 38-28, but if Freehold Township can find a way to contain University of Pittsburgh commit Maurice Ffrench, who amassed 311 all-purpose yards and scored four touchdowns, it has a chance to post an upset. The problem for the Patriots, however, is that New Brunswick’s offense is a three-headed monster featuring running back Samad Davila, who rushed last weekend for a career-high 225 yards in a 27-21 win over a quality St. Joseph of Metuchen team, and quarterback Jah’bree Jefferys-Seawright. Freehold Township’s spread offense is the brainchild of head coach Corey Davies, who enjoyed tremendous success with that attack in his previous stop at Howell. The Patriots have rolled up a whopping 3,193 yards of offense. Quarterback Jack O’Brien has completed 143 of 243 passes for 1,805 yards and 19 touchdowns. He will once again test a stellar secondary featuring Ffrench. Freehold Township has rushed for 702 yards with Max Nowak (273 yards) and Anthony Lotti (224 yards) leading the way. O’Brien has thrown to 11 receivers including Nick Galanti (592 yards) and Adrian Rybaltowski (442 yards). Three other wideouts have 260 or more receiving yards. Quin Cleary (109 tackles), Lotti (92 tackles) and Austin Edelman (52 tackles) anchor a defense that has been tested by some potent offenses including Middletown South and Middletown North. The Patriots have recorded nine sacks, six interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. Galanti gives Freehold Township an edge on special teams, one which Ffrench, however, can negate as one of the state’s most dangerous return specialists. Galanti is averaging an impressive 37.6 yards per punt, has converted 28 of 31 PATs and two of three field goal attempts. The Patriots are making their first playoff appearance since 2001 (lost to Old Bridge) and playing just their second ever postseason game. New Brunswick, which is enjoying a remarkable turnaround, returns to the playoffs following a six-year drought. The Zebras have posted a 5-45 record over the past five seasons. In the previous meeting between the schools, Ffrench rushed 19 times for 164 yards and caught four passes for 147 yards. Davila had 145 rushing yards on 20 carries. Jefferys-Seawright completed 4 of 7 passes for 147 yards. He had one touchdown passing and another rushing. Outside linebacker German Pimentel, who leads the Greater Middlesex Conference in sacks, registered eight tackles, four sacks and two blocked passes for the Zebras. Sophomore placekicker Jeffrey Garcia booted his first career field goal, a 30-yarder, and converted four of five PATs. New Brunswick led 28-14 at the half.
Prediction: New Brunswick 30-28.
Central Group II First Round
No. 7 Spotswood (7-2) at No. 2 Delaware Valley (7-1), Friday, 7 p.m.
This game is a rematch of last year’s opening-round meeting, which the Terriers won 28-14. Delaware Valley went on to avenge a regular-season loss to Roselle before losing to Rumson-Fair Haven in the 2014 final. The team’s lone loss this fall is 28-21 to undefeated Cranford, which is the top seed in North 2 Group III. Delaware Valley, which returned a number of key starters, plays a rugged schedule of Group II and Group III schools. They are a true single-wing team, running plays that predate the Wing T. They are similar, in a way, to what Spotswood sees when it faces Dunellen, but the Terriers are more unbalanced, whereas the Destroyers primarily run power. Those who haven’t seen Delaware Valley should picture a wildcat offense. The Terriers bring four helmets to the point of attack on every play and flop their linemen. They have size and pride themselves on being a ball control team. Corey Shedlock (148 carries, 1,018 yards, 10 touchdowns) leads a rushing attack that has amassed 2,230 yards. The Terriers have completed just 13 of 25 passes for 308 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. When they do throw, Matt Donnelly is the team’s leading receiver with four catches for 160 yards. Joey Donnelly (505 yards) and Ryan Romaine (343 yards) are the team’s other top rushers. Derek Kugelman (86 tackles) anchors a stingy defense that has allowed one score or less in each of the team’s last three victories. Delaware Valley has recorded 13 sacks (Brad Apgar has four of them), 11 fumble recoveries and three interceptions. Their defense tries to take opponents out of their rhythm. They have faced spread offenses from Hillside and Roselle and fared well. They will meet a Spotswood team that altered its offensive philosophy to have much success throwing the ball over the second half of the season. Quarterback Shawn O’Connor completed 12 of 25 attempts for 280 yards – career-highs in all categories – with a touchdown and no interceptions as Spotswood successfully defended its Greater Middlesex Conference Blue Division championship with a thrilling 27-24 victory over Metuchen last weekend. Reliable placekicker Ryan Szatkowski’s 31-yard field goal with nine seconds left was the difference. O’Connor enters the contest with 1,222 passing yards, 974 of which he has thrown for during Spotswood’s current five-game winning streak including 200-plus yard games each of the last three weeks. Marlon Hart (526 yards) and Andy Madsen (263 yards) are the team’s top receivers. The Chargers are balanced offensively with Joe Hayford leading all rushers with 762 yards. The recent return from an injury of Jack Keenan (266 rushing yards) has bolstered the offense. Spotswood features one of the GMC’s best two-way linemen in Lou Vacca. The Chargers lost 17-7 to Point Pleasant Beach and 7-3 to perennial power Shore.
Prediction: Delaware Valley 23-21.
North 2 Group V First Round
No. 6 Union (4-4) at No. 3 Piscataway (6-2), Saturday, 1 p.m.
With plenty of size up front, Union likes to run power out of the I formation, but will also operate out of a shotgun spread where quarterback Justin Beckett becomes a dangerous scrambler. Beckett isn’t shy about throwing a jump ball for 6-foot-3 wideout Patrick Thomas. Caleb Holden is another favorite target, who lines up as a slot receiver or in the backfield. Out of the spread, Union will run some motion and zone read. The Chiefs rebounded from consecutive heartbreaking losses to Sayreville and South Brunswick with a 42-14 drubbing of Old Bridge, a game which Piscataway played without its best linebacker, team-leading tackler Aidan Rosa (46 tackles, including 10 behind the line of scrimmage). The opportunistic Chiefs have recovered 11 fumbles and intercepted six passes while turning the ball over themselves just four times. Jevon Buckmire (36 tackles) and Joshua Boyd (35 tackles) are among Piscataway’s most unheralded defensive players. Union has won three of its last four and proved it can compete for a sectional title in a 13-7 loss to undefeated and top-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan and in a 10-7 setback to incumbent sectional finalist Elizabeth. The Farmers normally employ a four-man front, but expect them to add a fifth defensive lineman, as they did in last week’s 21-13 win over Ridge. Piscataway wants to establish its own power-running game with Elijah Barnwell, the school’s career rushing leader who has already amassed more than 1,400 yards on the ground this season. The Chiefs have a multitude of other weapons including bruising fullback Zaire Ashley, wideout Nazir James and quarterback Danny Haus, who turned in his best effort of the season last week. Marcel Mason, who set a school record with a 92-yard punt return against East Brunswick, is among the Greater Middlesex Conference’s most dangerous specialists. Piscataway lineman Terrell Hagans has impressed on offense and defense. The Chiefs benefit from the strong and accurate leg of placekicker Michael Stalenyj, who set a school record with three field goals in one game and who has converted all but one of his extra-point attempts.
Prediction: Piscataway 21-14.
North 2 Group V First Round
No. 6 Summit (6-3) at No. 3 Colonia (7-2), Friday, 7 p.m.
After defeating two NJSIAA playoff qualifiers, the Hilltoppers extended their winning streak to three games with a 36-6 victory over Hillside. Matt Newman carried 12 times for 119 yards and three touchdowns, while quarterback Jake Froschauer had a scoring strike. Summit and Colonia run similar offenses. Both teams operate out of the spread formation, thrive on a quick passing game, run some inside handoffs and counters. The Hilltoppers can be considered a spread Wing-T, while the Patriots run read option. Summit’s offensive line features Matteo diMayorca, who has committed to Harvard University. Summit may have difficulty matching up with Colonia’s team speed. The incumbent sectional finalist Patriots have won four in a row since falling to defending Central Group III champion Matawan. After handing previously undefeated New Brunswick, the second seed in Central Group V, a 45-27 setback, the Patriots defeated South Plainfield 28-14 to claim their second consecutive Greater Middlesex Conference White Division championship. Summit’s 3-4 defense (the Hilltoppers had been in a 4-3) is solid. The Hilltoppers like to blitz their linebackers and must find a way to contain dual-threat quarterback Chase Barneys. He has passed for 1,101 yards and rushed for 699 more. Barneys spreads the ball around to his receivers, four of whom each have 190 or more yards. Tyler Santos (399 yards) and Bryce Barneys (302 yards) each have four touchdown catches. Running back Bashir Lauderdale has amassed 1,063 yards on the ground. Rutgers University commit Solomon Manning anchors the defense with a league-leading 103 tackles. Bryce Barneys (72), Lee Tamburello (67), Bryan Pedrosa (56) and Joshua Joseph (50) are the other leaders in that department. Joseph has six of Colonia’s 18 sacks. The secondary, widely regarded as the division’s best, has five interceptions. Summit has won 71 of its last 78 games and went undefeated in 2009, 2012 and 2013. The Hilltoppers have won eight sectional titles, four each in North 2 Group II and North 2 Group III. Colonia has never won a sectional crown.
Prediction: Colonia 27-15.
Central Group V First Round
No. 8 Hunterdon Central (6-3) at No. 1 South Brunswick (7-1), Friday, 7 p.m.
After dropping a 33-14 decision to undefeated Westfield on Friday night, the Red Devils needed Edison to upset prohibitive favorite Sayreville, Elizabeth to defeat defending sectional champion Linden and Hillsborough to rally from an 18-point halftime deficit to beat Plainfield in order to have a shot to qualify for the postseason. All three teams from which the Red Devils needed wins emerged victorious, putting Hunterdon Central in a deadlock with Montgomery (4-5) as both teams finished with 77 power points at Saturday’s state cutoff. Hunterdon Central earned the eighth and final seed in its section because it held the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker over Montgomery. “It’s surreal,” said Hunterdon Central head coach Matt Perotti. “I’m surprised that everything that had to work out that exact way since Friday night did. We haven’t really performed very well this year overall and have been struggling putting points up, so our defense had to carry us for the success we did have. It’s going to be a huge task in front of us with South Brunswick.” With the exception of lopsided losses to Hillsborough, which did not make the playoffs, and Union, the Red Devils have been in every game. Their 19-14 setback to reigning North 2 Group IV champion Phillipsburg and 29-14 loss to Bridgewater-Raritan, the top seed in North 2 Group V, illustrates they can compete. Hunterdon Central, however, has not faced a team as athletic as South Brunswick, which features Rutgers commits Mo Jabbie (350 receiving yards) and Phil Campbell. Wideout Wendell Allen (109 receiving yards) has received a scholarship offer from Monmouth, while Rutgers has expressed interest in sophomore receiver Justin Shorter (305 receiving yards). The Vikings have won seven in a row since squandering a 21-6 lead in a season-opening loss to an undefeated Middletown South team many regard as the best in the state. The Vikings flexed their depth, overcoming the loss of three starters in a thrilling 14-10 comeback victory over Piscataway two weeks ago (they had a bye last weekend). Still a triple-option team, South Brunswick has thrown more than it has in the past with quarterback Josh Liao averaging 111 passing yards per contest. The ground game remains stout, averaging 192 yards per contest. Campbell is the team’s leading rusher (571 yards) and tackler (75). The recent return of placekicker Drew Fehte from an injury is significant for the Vikings, who had to go for two points following every touchdown during a six-game stretch. Jabbie is among the state’s most dangerous return specialists.
Prediction: South Brunswick 27-13.
Central Group V First Round
No. 6 Edison (3-5) at No. 3 Old Bridge (5-3)
For a complete preview of this game, please read Greg Tufaro’s Game of the Week story.
Prediction: Old Bridge 35-34.