MANALAPAN – Very little, if any, of what Manalapan does on offense under Ed Gurrieri is out of the ordinary.
Under Gurrieri, who is entering the sixth season of his second tenure and ninth overall as head coach, the Braves are forever a Power-I team.
They have a strong offensive line under 15th-year line coach Joe Tetley. They have at least one running back capable of not only running the ball, but catching and blocking, and they will have a quarterback who will play largely mistake-free and manage the offense.
The running back position is where Manalapan has picked up its notoriety on offense over the last 12 years. Behind that quality offensive line, a Braves running back has rushed for at least 1,000 yards every year since 2003.
It’s not an accident that this streak has been ongoing beginning with Gurrieri’s son, Eddie, in 2003 when the Braves upset their way to the NJSIAA Central Group IV final.
Anthony Mujica watched Gurrieri rush for 1,000 yards and followed suit. Then it was David Presby, and Jimmy Gilburn, and Josh Firkser before John Sieczkowski, now an All-Big South linebacker at Monmouth University, rushed for a school-record 2,208 yards as a senior in 2011.
Tyler Leonetti followed in Sieczkowski’s footsteps and finally, Imamu Mayfield got his year in the spotlight last fall, rushing for more than 1,800 yards as Manalapan won NJSIAA Central Group V for its first sectional championship.
“The thing is, these guys get to see the older guys do it, be successful,” Gurrieri said. “When they’re freshmen sitting in the stands watching varsity football, they see how it’s done and kids today are all visual. When they’re sophomores, they’re out here practicing with and against those guys.
“I think it’s the consistency and a combination of the athleticism of the running backs, the overall technique and the work ethic of the linemen and the coaches.”
Gurrieri can rattle off all of those 1,000-yard rushers with little hesitation, but in the next breath, he is quick to point out that individual goals are nonexistent.
An underrated factor of Manalapan’s rushing attack is that when you have one as potent as it does, it takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback.
Manalapan’s coaching staff has never hesitated to start young quarterbacks because they knew the run game would help overcome the inexperience. Craig Peterson (Class of 2008), Mike Isabella (Class of 2013) and Dan Anerella (Class of 2015) were all first-year starters as juniors and Mike Bimonte took over for Peterson when he was a sophomore in 2008.
Isabella was the biggest beneficiary, not only because of the run game, which featured 1,400-yard rusher Leonetti during that era, but because he had Penn State sophomore Saeed Blacknall and Harvard junior Anthony Firkser as his two wide receivers.
“I would have loved to have been a running back when Saeed was on one side and Anthony Firkser was on the other side,” Gurrieri joked. “Two safeties are playing high, so it’s a 7-man box and everybody had a great time running the ball then.
“All of these kids have put the work in and the thing no one talks about is that we do the little things. Our running backs don’t put the ball on the ground. Besides being good runners, they can catch the ball. They can pick up the blitz well. They block and they know the most important thing is taking care of the football.”
With Mayfield graduated, Gurrieri and his staff are high on senior running back Marcus Salinas, who saw spot-duty on last year’s 11-1 team. Working in his favor is the fact that his entire offensive line returns, led by right guard and Division I recruit Joe Sellmeyer.
3 Key players
Marcus Salinas, Sr., RB: Takes over primary backfield duties for the graduated Imamu Mayfield. Salinas saw some time last fall as a junior and will be the beneficiary this season of a veteran, experienced offensive line. Manalapan has made a habit of churning out 1,000-yard rushers behind quality offensive lines. Is Salinas next?
Joe Sellmeyer, Sr., OL: The most-heralded member of Manalapan’s offensive line, the 6-foot-2, 280-pound guard is primed for a big season, which will begin with Manalapan keeping things simple for Salinas and whoever ends up being the quarterback after Dan Anerella graduated. Manalapan teams are generally known for having strong play along the offensive line, something Sellmeyer and his line mates will need to provide, especially early.
Luke Corcione, So., QB: A Manalapan resident transferring home from Red Bank Catholic, Corcione may not be the immediate starter, but early word out of Manalapan on Corcione has been very positive. Senior Anthony Sciarappa, junior Cody Weiner, and sophomore Anthony Naylor are the other three quarterbacks on the roster.
3 Games to watch
Sept. 25, at Sayreville: Once upon a time, this would have been a highly anticipated game between public-school powers. Now, Sayreville is back to playing football following the hazing scandal that made national headlines, and it will welcome a Manalapan team that is coming off its first NJSIAA Central Group V title. It is worth noting that the Braves defeated the Bombers, 64-28, last fall in Sayreville’s final game before the scandal broke and the remainder of the season was forfeited.
Oct. 16, at Middletown South: The Braves have won five straight over the Eagles in a matchup that has not only become must-see for Shore Conference, but also one that generally helps decide the Class A North champion. A Middletown South win could be a power-points bonanza for the 2014 Central Group IV finalist.
Oct. 23, vs. Red Bank Catholic: A rematch of the much-hyped meeting between the two schools last fall when they were the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 teams at the Shore. The Caseys won last season’s meeting, 35-7, on their way to winning Non-Public III. Manalapan’s loss was followed by five straight wins, including the Central Group V championship game, 21-7 over South Brunwick.
The Greatest Players in Manalapan History
Lee Rubin: Standout quarterback/defensive back in the late-1980s who played at Penn State and is now a motivational speaker.
Reggie Grant: Standout running back in the late-80s/early-90s who played collegiately at Cincinnati.
Josh Firkser and John Sieczkowski: Running backs who both ran for more than 2,000 yards in 2010 and 2011.
The Greatest Teams in Manalapan History
2014: Manalapan went 11-1 and won the NJSIAA Central Group V championship for the first sectional title in its history. Being Manalapan, there had to be a 1,000-yard rusher and it was Imamu Mayfield, who rushes for more than 1,800 yards.
2003: Manalapan went 7-5, but a magical late-season run brings the Braves to a surprising berth in the Central Group IV title game.