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Braves are poised to return to championship form

By Tim Morris

There’s a lot for the 2016 Manalapan High School football team to look forward to this season.

That’s saying a lot for a program that has placed itself among the elite in the state this decade and has a state championship (NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group V) to show for it. However, these Braves have the potential to much more than good. This could be outstanding.

They are loaded in the skill positions. Head coach Ed Gurrieri drew comparisons of this team to previous ones that included the likes of receivers Saeed Blacknall and Anthony Firkser, who are now playing in college.

“We have a lot skill players who played last year,” Gurrieri said. “We have a lot of talent and speed. They’re very athletic.”

It all starts at quarterback with Luke Corcione, a dual threat who makes the offense complete. His ability to extend plays and improvise if needed makes the offense that much more dangerous.

“He has a good grasp of the offense, and he’s a great leader,” Gurrieri said.

Niam Mayfield, the younger brother of Imamu Mayfield, who was the star back of the 2014 state championship team, is ready to take over as the featured running back. He scored six touchdowns in a backup role last year. Two of those touchdowns were punt returns, which displayed his big-play potential. Manalapan has another game-breaking back who can be counted on add to its ever-growing list of single-season 1,000-yard rushers.

Fullback Chris Maksimik had a big season in 2015. Although primarily a blocker, he scored eight touchdowns last year and is a short-yardage specialist.

Manalapan is deep at receiver with returning starter L.J. Holder (22 receptions and four touchdowns last season) and Scott Scherzer and Saymir Blacknall, who is the younger brother of Saeed Blacknall. They are all playmakers after they catch the ball, putting a lot of pressure on defenses.

The receivers give Corcione a number of viable targets and Manalapan the ability to move the ball on the ground and through the air.

These skill players give Manalapan a very explosive mix.

Manalapan also has another weapon in kicker Cody Wiener. He’s not only a good place-kicker, but he’s also effective at helping the Braves gain field position with his punting and kickoffs. He follows in the footsteps of the graduated Mike Caggiano, who set state kicking records with the Braves.

At this time last year, it was Manalapan’s offensive line — an experienced unit that had helped the team win the state sectional championship — that carried the team in the early going. This year, it’s the offensive line that is new and will need time to gel.

Mike Cardenale is among the newcomers to the line. Antonio Scala, Gage Ciorciari, Joe Centola and Trevor Radosevich are all in the mix for the starting lineup.

The tight end position will be shared by Mike Taylor and Jon Pimentel.

Manalapan is stacked with experience on defense, returning eight players who started in 2015. Gurrieri noted that while the offense is breaking in a new line, the defense will have to hold the fort.

‘I’m very happy with the defense,” Gurrieri said. “It is fast and athletic.”

Cardenale and Richie Peters are the mainstays on the defensive line, with Cardenale at nose tackle and Peters on the end.

The inside linebackers in the 3-4 are Sal Tardogno and Tom Pearce, and the outside backers are Taylor and Pimentel.

Sean Kinniburgh and Saymir Blacknall play the corners, and the safeties are Wiener and Eli Aviva.

The Braves came back to the pack in 2015 with their 6-5 mark, but they finished the season strong with many of the players who are now starters. They went on the road in the first round of the state playoffs to knock off higher-seeded Trenton Central High School. In the semifinals, they took eventual champion South Brunswick High School to the final play of the game. The Vikings eked out the 27-21 win, scoring a touchdown on the game’s last play.

“We want to build on how we finished last year ,” Gurrieri said.

If that’s the case, the Shore Conference A North Division will need to look out.

Manalapan kicks its season off Sept. 10 against rival Marlboro High School at 12 p.m. The winner of this game gets the Doc Berman Trophy, which is currently held by the Braves.

The Braves’ home opener is Sept. 16 against Southern Regional High School in a non-division tilt at 7 p.m.

A highlight of the non-division schedule is the Oct. 29 game against Piscataway Township High School at Rutgers University’s High Point Solutions Stadium. The game is part of the inaugural High School Football Showcase. It is a tripleheader featuring six of the state’s top programs. Kickoff at the site of the Braves’ 2014 state championship is 11 a.m.

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