The 2017 NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 5 football playoff championship trophy will reside in South Brunswick High School this year.
South Brunswick defeated Manalapan High School, 18-14, in a dramatic title game at High Point Solutions Stadium at Rutgers University in Piscataway on Dec. 2.
The reasons that South Brunswick claimed the prized trophy ranged from the Vikings’ ability to slow down Manalapan’s outstanding back, Naim Mayfield, and the passing of quarterback Felix Quinones, as well as the clutch plays produced by Jaylan Lawson.
Another key to South Brunswick’s state playoff title — its first since 2015 — was the ability to not let Manalapan take over the game after the Braves struck twice in the first quarter.
“We said that we could win at halftime, and the kids felt the same way,” said South Brunswick coach Joe Goerge, whose team trailed, 14-12, at halftime. “We felt a little frustrated in the third quarter because we had the ball and a couple of first downs, so we thought we had some wasted opportunities. But this is what these kids have done all year. They’ve been resilient, and they’ve fought back, and it showed on that last drive. I never thought it was over.”
Those touchdowns in the first quarter — both by Mayfield — were all the Braves could muster in the entire game. In fact, Manalapan was about to score and possibly seal the game with 9:46 left in the fourth quarter until Lawson halted the Braves.
His interception in the end zone thwarted Manalapan’s bid to score and set up his winning touchdown. He took in a 17-yard touchdown pass from Quinones when South Brunswick pulled ahead to end the scoring at 18-14 with just 53 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Manalapan refused to go down easy, however.
The Braves quickly marched down the field and appeared to have pulled out the game when Mayfield caught a 29-yard pass in the end zone with only three seconds left. The play was nullified, however, on an offensive pass interference penalty.
The Braves tried for one last heave, but the pass was broken up in the end zone, bringing the game to an end.
Manalapan had struck early and quickly behind Mayfield, the senior back who entered the game with more than 2,000 yards and 45 touchdowns carrying the ball this season. He ripped off a 34-yard touchdown run to deliver the first score, and then he returned a punt 60 yards to the end zone. Both scores were in the first quarter.
Despite trailing, 14-0, the Vikings didn’t fold.
In the second quarter, senior running back Dylan Kriz scored on a 14-yard pass from Quinones. The two-point conversion attempt failed, keeping the score at 14-6 in favor of Manalapan. Then with 17 seconds to go before halftime, senior receiver Justin Shorter, who is headed to Penn State University, scored on a 10-yard pass from Quinones. The Vikings were denied the two points on the conversion again and trailed by a score of 14-12 at intermission.
The victory left the Vikings with an 11-1 record this year and presented the school with its third state sectional playoff championship. South Brunswick had won the Central Jersey, Group 5 title in 2015 and 2012.
Goerge revealed a simple game plan: stop Mayfield at all costs. Mayfield finished the game with 138 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“We wanted a nine-man box on him,” Goerge said. “We had to take a chance. The kids did a great job and had great eye discipline. All week, we’ve been preaching eye discipline — eye discipline, read the blocks. If they release, it’s a pass. We thought we would be able to stay with them in pass, but we definitely had to stack the box to stop the run. It’s a tribute to their resilience and their effort.”
While he still rushed for triple digits and scored twice, Mayfield was contained well relative what he has accomplished all year.
Quinones, who returned from an injury that he suffered in the semifinals victory over Old Bridge High School on Nov. 17, was one of the heroes for the Vikings with his play at quarterback. He ended the game with 179 passing yards and three touchdowns, while he also ran for 41 yards.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Lawson, who finished with 43 rushing yards and 36 receiving yards. “Our coaches have worked so hard day-in and day-out to just build this up for us. They have so much faith in us that we don’t ever question them. Whatever they tell us to do, we do. We know it’s all going to work out and get us the win.”
Lawson felt the team was going to win after he got the interception, stating that he felt everything was coming together when the team needed it most.
“It felt great,” Lawson said. “The pieces were just coming together at the right time. It felt great on our final drive as well. With every first down, we felt that we were getting closer and closer to the goal. We made a promise our freshman year to get another chance for a ring, and we did it. It’s amazing.”
The Vikings were used to putting up a lot of points during the season but were held to just 18 points in the championship game. The fact that the team was able to battle and win a close game impressed Shorter.
“It says that we’re tough,” he said. “They’re a very, very, very tough football team, and we had to fight for all four quarters, and it paid off in the end.”
Shorter knows this will be a season to remember for a long time. He recorded 86 receiving yards and a touchdown in the title victory. He ended his senior season with 334 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns as well as 608 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns.
“I’m never going to forget this,” Shorter said. “All my brothers out here. All the time and sweat that we put in together. It all paid off. Now I have to take what I learned here and bring it with me at the next level.”
The defeat marks the second consecutive year the Braves have fallen in the Central Jersey, Group 5 finale after they had entered with an 11-0 record. Last December, Manalapan was defeated by Piscataway Township High School, 34-13, in the title game. Manalapan had won the Central Jersey, Group 5 crown in 2014.
Despite the penalty at the end of the game that nullified a potential winning touchdown, coach Ed Gurrieri and Mayfield did not blame the call for the loss.
“They said he pushed off,” Gurrieri said. “But listen, I’m not going to cry over spilled milk. They made plays, and we didn’t. We had plays in the first half that we felt the game should have been a lot better. We were up, 14-0, in the first quarter, and we missed plays that should have increased that lead. Mayfield was wide open on one play, and we didn’t see it until it was too late. We thought that we could get him going in the second half and wear them down, but it never happened. I tip my cap off to them; they did an outstanding job.”
“It was just a debatable call,” Mayfield said. “The refs made the call that they thought was best. I can’t argue with the refs. They did their job, and that’s why they’re refs — to make the best call that they can.”
Mayfield was quick to praise the Vikings’ performance.
“We worked hard,” he said. “We have to give credit where it’s due. South Brunswick’s a great team. They have great players. They have a great coaching staff, and they’re just very well-coached. They came out in the second half and just outplayed us. We came into the second half thinking that we had the game won, but they came out in the second half with a vengeance and they had a chip on their shoulder.”
Gurrieri praised Mayfield for his “warrior” mentality all year long and was proud of how he fought until the very end. Mayfield ended his season with 2,684 rushing yards and 46 rushing touchdowns and totaled 48 touchdowns on the season.
“His effort is always the same,” Gurrieri said. “He’s always 110 percent. He fought. He’s a warrior till the end. Even on that last touchdown catch, it was a great adjustment to the ball. He high-pointed it; he turned his body. Whether it was a push off or not, I don’t know. But either way, he made a hell of play to try to win it for us.”