By Wayne Witkowski
Halfback Joe Mannino, quarterback Jordan Winston and their senior and junior teammates remember two years ago when they were in Allentown High School’s football program that reached the state playoff championship game for the first time, losing in the NJSIAA South Jersey, Group III finals in overtime to Delsea Regional High School.
“I haven’t played in a game like that since the last state championship game,” defensive tackle Makelli Quinones said.
Now they get another shot as the team, which has been in the playoffs the last six years — their only playoff trips in program history — will look to take care of unfinished business. Allentown, which moved to the Central Jersey, Group IV bracket, takes on Brick Township High School for the championship at 4 p.m. Dec. 3 at Rutgers University’s High Point Solutions Stadium.
“We’re definitely ready to go,” Mannino.
Mannino, who recalls playing on special teams in the 2014 season, emerged this year as a state-caliber running back in the sectional semifinals when he rushed for 210 yards and four touchdowns, as Allentown crushed two-time defending champion Jackson Memorial High School, 41-15, Nov. 19. His effort upstaged Mike Gawlik, who is Jackson Memorial’s all-time leading rusher with more than 4,000 career yards and who was held to 101 yards and one touchdown against Allentown.
“We’re ready to do whatever it takes to win,” Mannino said.
The running back comes in with his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season — 1,059 yards on 121 carries and 17 touchdowns. Winston, who is headed to Oklahoma State University next fall for a college baseball career, for the second year in a row has a double in 1,000-yard stats: 1,135 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground on 248 carries and 1,081 yards passing with 10 touchdowns. In 2014, quarterback Michael Curry also had more than 1,000 yards in passing and rushing.
Allentown (9-2) has won its last eight games and finished unbeaten in the West Jersey Football League Patriot Division for its fourth division title in Jay Graber’s seven years as coach. The Redbirds have six winning seasons and one .500 record under Graber after decades of struggling seasons.
Brick Township, which is one of the most successful teams in state playoff history with seven state section titles, is 8-3 this season with three straight victories. It won seven of the last eight games. The team comes off a 24-23 semifinals victory over Freehold High School after blocking what would have been a game-tying extra-point kick after Freehold scored with 1:23 left.
Like Winston, Brick Township quarterback Anthony Costanza can run and throw the ball well, while Rahson McCall and Ja’Sir Taylor also run the ball well for the Green Dragons.
Allentown has a 420-156 scoring edge this year, as Aydon Chavis and Ricky Mottram complement the running game with eight touchdowns each. Chavis has rushed for 584 yards. Mottram has run for 324 yards and has again been the leader on defense with more than 100 tackles for the second straight season at 135 (87 solo).
Brick Township has a 350-202 scoring edge.
In the kicking game, Allentown freshman Chris McCrae has converted 46 of 60 extra-point kick attempts and both field-goal tries. Brick Township’s John Brown has kicked 18 of 24 extra points and made his only field-goal try.
“They’re really tough up front,” Graber said.
Allentown again will have to contend with another challenge in the trenches, as Brick Township — like Jackson Memorial — builds its success off the blocking of its line. But Brick Township has not seen a ground attack this season that has pounded out 300 yards a game — 3,577 yards overall — and 48 touchdowns like Allentown’s and a dangerous passing attack from Winston, who has completed 51 of 87 passes and was intercepted only three times this season. X’zavier Harris is the top target with 17 receptions for 475 yards and five touchdowns. Joe Bellotti has caught 11 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns, while Samir Queen also has made some key catches.
“I love throwing the ball; I wanted to throw more for this year and I’ve told coach Graber that,” Winston said. “X’zavier and Bellotti are huge for us out there [as receivers], and the line gives me a couple of seconds I need. The passing game is going to be huge; it may be a game-changer, a big play. We’ll use anything it takes to win.”
The linemen are ready to respond as they did so effectively against Jackson Memorial.
“If we play physical and the best game of our lives, we’ll pull it out,” Ryan Huth said.
Huth is a two-way lineman headed for Princeton University who anchored a defensive front with Antonio Triscari and Quinones that locked down Jackson Memorial’s ground game. Big tackle Harrison Hill and Colin Roy also kept up the pressure on Jackson Memorial’s quarterback in the pocket.
“If we play with tremendous pace, they can’t hang with us,” Triscari said.
Their efforts have helped a defense that has been comparable to the offense for much of the season.
“Our defense has stepped up and played very well,” Graber said. “At this point, every play helps.”
Defense will be the key, according to Winston. Mottram’s 76-yard interception runback was part of a three-touchdown burst in two minutes in the third quarter that broke open Allentown’s victory over Jackson Memorial.
“Defense has to come up huge with guys like Ricky [Mottram], [Ryan] Locke and [Colin] Roy,” Winston said. “They’ll have to plug the holes. Defense will win the game.”
The Redbirds have not been intimidated by the division nameplate of Brick Township, which plays in one of the most highly regarded ones in the state in Shore Conference A South.
“They’re similar to teams we play in that they like to run,” Graber said. “They like to run a spread, but they like to run different stuff. Defensively, they mix it up with a 4-4 and a 4-3 [formation].”
Jha’Quel Brown, who is Allentown’s second leading tackler with 59 (including 44 solo tackles), and Max Boyle join Mottram at linebacker. Chavis, Harris and Queen rotate at the cornerback spots, while Locke and Bellotti are the safeties. Winston rotates in.
Depth has been important to success on both sides of the ball, with different players stepping up for crucial plays throughout the season, but the line has had its resilient starting lineup of Hill and Huth at tackle, Cameron Capone and Mike Pugliese at guards and Triscari at center.
“They’re pretty aggressive and tough on the line, so if our line blocks, that’ll be important to get the run game going,” Mannino said. “We usually run first and if we do that well and if Jordan comes to play and our receivers are open, we’ll be fine.”
Turnovers and penalties also have not been a big concern for Graber.
“We haven’t had many penalties, but you have to expect some when you’re in this high level of competition,” he said.
Josh Rosenbaum scored four goals and had three assists, while Shawn Camisa had a hat trick when the Robbinsville/Allentown Ravens co-op ice hockey team opened the season with a 7-2 blitz of Freehold High School Nov. 26.
Nick Koch made 23 saves in goal for the Ravens. Freehold pulled to 2-1 in the second period before Rosenbaum scored four unanswered goals, three of which were assisted by Camisa.
This week, the Ravens played Ocean Township High School Nov. 28 and West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North Nov. 30 at Mercer County Park.