As the first round of the NJSIAA Football Playoffs get started tonight, we give you a breakdown of the local teams in each section. Here, we start with the Central Jersey sections: Groups 5, 3, 2 and 1.
Central Jersey - Group 5
#8 Perth Amboy at #1 Manalapan (Fri 7 pm)
#7 Hillsborough at #2 South Brunswick (Fri 7 pm)
#6 Trenton at #3 Old Bridge (Fri 7 pm)
#5 North Brunswick at #4 Freehold Township (Fri 7 pm)
Manalapan has to be the clear favorite here. The Braves are regarded as they best public school team in New Jersey, and they’re hungry after losing to Piscataway in the sectional final last year. Manalapan had beaten the Chiefs in the regular season at Rutgers, but dropped the rematch. The Braves won their regular season meeting this season, but Piscataway is off to North 2, Group 5.
It’s a fine “how-do-ya-do” for Perth Amboy, which is making its first ever trip to the playoffs, which began in 1974. The Panthers staggered into the postseason, however, at 3-5. They had won two straight heading into their last two games before the cutoff, and needed to beat either North Brunswick or Colonia to lock up a playoff spot. They ended up dropping both games, and needed a ton of help to get in. Everything broke the right way for Brad Bishop’s ballclub, and they’re in, but it could be a quick trip with a matchup against Goliath coming up Friday night.
A fun matchup here is 7th-seed Hillsborough and 2nd-seed South Brunswick. We’ll call this “The Rick Mantz Bowl,” as the current Rutgers Director of High School Relations has coached at both schools. Among other notable standouts, he’s coached future NFL players in Shaun O’Hara (at Hillsborough) and Mohamed Sanu (at South Brunswick), who both got to play on Sundays via Rutgers. The Raiders have had a tremendous year, and came within a point (on a failed two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter) of beating Bridgewater-Raritan, the third-seed in North 2, Group 5. The Vikings feature Penn State commit Justin Shorter and a solid QB in Felix Quinones, who’s taken over for the graduated Josh Liao without missing a beat. In fact, head coach Joe Goerge has said – no disrespect to Liao – he’s even better. Sure, this is a 7-2 game, but Hillsborough’s seed is more a product of the Raiders’ schedule. This is a “pick ‘em” game for me.
Trenton at Old Bridge in the 6-3 game is a little bit of an unknown commodity. The Tornadoes are 6-3, but started 1-3, and have won 5 straight since, blowing out Hopewell Valley 40-3 on Cutoff Weekend. Their defense has been good, and against the Bulldogs four different players had interceptions. Old Bridge is in a three-way tie with South Brunswick and Piscataway for the GMC Red Division lead. Each team has lost once: Old Bridge to South Brunswick, the Vikings to Piscataway, and the Chiefs to the Knights. Old Bridge looked good in a road overtime win against a tough Sayreville team back on Friday night, getting the victory on a two-point conversion in the first overtime, after the Bombers scored first on their possession.
As for North Brunswick, the Raiders are in the playoffs for the first time since 2011. They’ve been resurgent under first-year head coach Mike Cipot – a Raider alum – and sophomore runningback Myles Bailey, who we saw in our opening broadcast of the season against South Plainfield. The kid is impressive and already has been getting calls from Rutgers coach Chris Ash. Freehold Township is third in the Shore Conference’s A North Division, behind Manalapan and Howell. They’re pretty good, but a week after Manalapan handed Piscataway head coach Dan Higgins just the third shutout loss of his 15-year tenure, the Braves pounded Freehold Township 48-7.
Central Jersey - Group 3
#8 Lawrence at #1 Rumson-Fair Haven (Fri 7 pm)
#7 Ewing at #2 Somerville (Fri 7 pm)
#6 Carteret at #3 Monmouth Regional (Sat 1 pm)
#5 Wall Twp. at #4 Steinert (Hamilton East) (Sat 1 pm)
The clear favorite here, at least historically, has to be Rumson. The Bulldogs have won the last four sectional championships, including beating South Plainfield – a bit of a surprise finalist – last year.
That was only a surprise because of how Somerville burst on the scene last year in their first-year with Jeff Vanderbeek flying solo as their head coach. The Pioneers were so explosive in 2016, and went into the playoffs undefeated, falling at home to RFH in the semifinals. The Tigers quietly got to the final, and hung in with Rumson before losing in the end. South Plainfield didn't make the playoffs this season, but Somerville has one loss, but the Pioneers could be poised for a run. They may even be better than last year; some scores have been closer and they've appeared to be a bit more resilient this year. They've been tested more, and mostly passed. As the second seed, they would avoid Rumson-Fair Haven until a potential final at a neutral site. They should get by 7th-seed Ewing at home. The Blue Devils are 4-5, but haven’t beaten a team with a winning record all year.
In the other opening round game with a local team, on Saturday afternoon, 6th-seed Carteret travels to third-seed Monmouth Regional. The Ramblers are 4-4 in a tough GMC White Division. They actually faced Rumson in their last game before the playoffs, losing 41-21 at The Pit. That was their only Shore Conference crossover game this season. The Falcons, meanwhile, are tough. They’re 6-3, but their losses have come to Rumson, St. John Vianney and Point Pleasant Boro. Two of those teams are undefeated, and their combined record is 25-1.
Central Jersey - Group 2
#8 Raritan at #1 Pt. Pleasant Boro (Fri 7pm)
#7 Hillside at #2 South River (Sat 1 pm)
#6 Holmdel at #3 Johnson Regional (Fri 7 pm)
#5 Manasquan at #4 Clark (Fri 7 pm)
The South River Rams are for real. They have played through an excellent season, their best since 2001. That year, they were 10-0, and beat Shore for the Central Jersey Group 1 title. That was the last sectional title for the Rams; the following year, they would make their last finals appearance: a defeat to Keyport in a muddy, soaker of a game at Wall Township High School (it was postponed and moved several times due to snow, rain and sloppy field conditions).
The issue here for the Rams is they are one of the smaller Group 2 schools in this section. Sure, Hillside is a 7-seed, but they are 6-3 and have beaten schools the likes of Brearley, Bernards, and Delaware Valley. But South River has been special, and won some really tight games in addition to blowouts. It's going to be all bigger schools from here on out, so we'll find out if the Rams are up to the task.
Central Jersey - Group 1
#8 Asbury Park at #1 Burlington City (Fri 7 pm)
#7 Pt. Pleasant Beach at #2 Manville (Fri 7 pm)
#6 Florence at #3 Bound Brook (Fri 7 pm)
#5 Shore at #4 Middlesex (Fri 7 pm)
Those Burlington County schools all along the I-295 corridor are always tough. Florence has been a thorn in the GMC Blue's side in Central Jersey Group 1 for many years. Here, they'll be tough, too. But truly, any of the three area teams in the top four seeds have a shot at the finals, and the CJ1 crown.
Let's start with Manville. The second seed has had a wonderful season, their best in years, and - if you talk to coach Pat Gorbatuck - maybe their best ever. The last time the Mustangs had this many wins in a season was 1968, when they went 9-0. The '60s were the best stretch of success Manville has ever had. In addition to that '68 campaign, they won 7 games in 1965, and 8 each from 1962 through 1964. They've won some big games this season; you don't get to a coin flip for the top seed without those kinds of games on your resume. Up first is Point Beach, which is having a tough season. Normally in the top half of this section, the Garnet Gulls have been beset by injuries.
Bound Brook is the third seed, and speak of the devil, there's 6th-seed Florence. The Crusaders are coming off a tough cutoff-weekend loss to Clark (Roselle), where a win could have helped Spotswood qualify in Central Jersey, Group 2. But they're good. We saw them beat Bernards in a game where the Crusaders' desire to win might have been the difference against a bigger school. Joe Frappoli's Flashes, meanwhile, are 4-4, and haven't won or lost two in a row all season. Win, loss, win, loss has been their pattern this season, and they lost by 8 (22-14) at Burlington City in their season opener.
The most intriguing first round matchup in this section - and maybe of all our area teams this playoff season - is Middlesex-Shore in the 4-5 game. These two teams played in West Long Branch on October 13th - less than a month ago - and the Blue Jays won a wild game, 22-21 in overtime. John Kressbach threw four TD passes for Middlesex. That included a 25 yarder in OT after Shore got on the board first. Then, Middlesex went for a 2-point conversion for the win - and got it, reminiscent of last week's Old Bridge win at Sayreville by the same score. This is a toss-up, but should be a fun game the second time around, this time at Mountainview Park.