By Tim Morris
The Manalapan High School football team gained further validation without even playing a game.
The Braves, who were the 2014 NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group V champions and have been to the sectional finals or semifinals the last six seasons, were invited to play in Rutgers University’s inaugural High School Football Showcase. Inclusion in the game is a sure sign of the respect the Braves have earned over the last several years.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to play in the game,” Manalapan head coach Ed Gurrieri said. “We love going [to Rutgers], that’s for sure. We’re excited.
“We love playing big games.”
The showcase Oct. 29 will feature six of the state’s best high school football programs. The tripleheader at High Point Solutions Stadium is Piscataway starts with Manalapan taking on Piscataway Township High School at 11 a.m. in the only public school contest. That game is followed at 2 p.m. by St. Peter’s Preparatory School vs. Lincoln High School in a battle of Jersey City titans. The last game is at 5 p.m. with Pope John XXIII Regional High School taking on DePaul Catholic High School.
Piscataway will provide the Braves with a “big game” opponent. The Chiefs have a championship pedigree.
“We’re playing a great team,” Gurrieri said. “We won’t see a team that is faster, stronger or bigger.”
There’s a reason the Braves like to play at Rutgers. It’s the site of the Central Jersey sectional finals and the last time they played on that field, the Braves were carrying Gurrieri off the field on their shoulders after defeating South Brunswick High School, 21-7, to finally claim the sectional championship that had eluded them on four other occasions.
That state championship validated a Manalapan program that won five straight Shore Conference A North Division championships and made four straight appearances in the sectional finals.
The football showcase is another way Rutgers’ new head coach and former Ohio State University defensive coordinator, Chris Ash, and his staff are reaching out to the community and to New Jersey high school coaches to build a rapport with them. A priority for Ash is to keep New Jersey’s best football players in the state, and it all starts with the high school programs and their coaches. He wants to keep players like Eastern Regional High School graduate Eli Apple, the Ohio State cornerback who was the 10th overall pick in this year’s NFL draft by the New York Giants, and Middletown High School North graduate Shilique Calhoun, a defensive end who starred at Michigan State University who went to the Oakland Raiders.
Gurrieri has been very impressed by what Ash and his staff have done thus far.
“They’re doing a great job there,” he said.
The date of the showcase was chosen because it is the Scarlet Knights’ bye week. That made both the stadium and Rutgers’ staff available for the tripleheader.