Braves defeat Colonials, 39-7; eye South Jersey sectional playoff berth

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Manalapan High School wide receiver Tyler Walker hauls in a 23-yard touchdown reception during a game against Freehold on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Manalapan defeated Freehold by the score of 39-7 to improve to 5-1 on the season.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School defenders #19 Matt Pirozzi and #51 Mario Chierchia force Freehold quarterback Spencer Rushton to fumble the football during a game played on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Manalapan won 39-7. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School quarterback Michael Heckel scrambles up the field for a first down during a game against Freehold on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Heckel threw three touchdown passes in the contest.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School wide receiver Austin Dille catches a pass for a first down during a game against Freehold on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Manalapan is 5-1 on the season.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School linebacker Jordon Gravesande celebrates getting a sack during a game against Freehold on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Manalapan won 39-7.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School wide receiver Tyler Walker hauls in a 23-yard touchdown reception during a game against Freehold on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Manalapan defeated Freehold by the score of 39-7 to improve to 5-1 on the season.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School defenders #19 Matt Pirozzi and #51 Mario Chierchia force Freehold quarterback Spencer Rushton to fumble the football during a game played on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Manalapan won 39-7. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School quarterback Michael Heckel scrambles up the field for a first down during a game against Freehold on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Heckel threw three touchdown passes in the contest.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School wide receiver Austin Dille catches a pass for a first down during a game against Freehold on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Manalapan is 5-1 on the season.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Manalapan High School linebacker Jordon Gravesande celebrates getting a sack during a game against Freehold on Oct. 16 in Freehold. Manalapan won 39-7.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

The Manalapan High School football team is back to being the Braves of old this season. Manalapan improved to 5-1 in 2021 with a 39-7 victory over Freehold High School on Oct. 16 in Freehold Borough.

The Colonials fell to 3-4 with the loss on their home field.

Manalapan’s 5-1 mark is the best start to a season for the Braves since 2017, when that squad won 11 straight games before losing to South Brunswick High School in the Central Jersey Group V state sectional championship game.

Manalapan is currently No. 1 in the South Jersey Group V state sectional playoff rankings (the Central Jersey bracket has been eliminated), which is a welcome position for Coach Dominick Lepore.

“We want the playoffs to come through Manalapan,” Lepore said. “That’s our motivation. We just want to come out every week and be 1-0.”

During Lepore’s first season at the helm in 2020, the Braves went 2-4 during a campaign that was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. It marked the first time since 2009 that Manalapan failed to finish with a winning record.

The rare losing season had some people wondering what to expect from the Braves in 2021, but Lepore knew his squad would get back to the success the football program had become used to over the last decade.

“We knew that once we had a full off-season of the weight room, summer workouts and a full preseason, things would start coming together for us,” Lepore said. “It’s just unbelievable what these guys have done. It says a lot about their character and effort.”

Manalapan scored a season-high 39 points (33 in the first half) against Freehold. In the first half, senior quarterback Michael Heckel threw for 164 yards and three touchdowns.

“It feels great,” Heckel said after the game. “It’s the most points we have scored in a game on offense. We started a little slow, but punched it in on every drive after that.”

After running three plays and punting on their first possession, the Braves scored touchdowns on their next five drives.

Running back Elijah Marquez barrelled into the end zone on a two-yard run with 5:38 to play in the first quarter for a 6-0 lead.

The Colonials went three and out and when the Braves got the ball back, Heckel threw a pass that was tipped by Freehold’s Marcus Murphy, but senior wideout Michael Bimonte came back and caught the ball and scored from the 9 with :41 to play in the first quarter. Michael Calton’s extra point gave Manalapan a 13-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

On the Braves’ first possession of the second quarter, Heckel hit wide receiver Tyler Walker with a 23-yard touchdown pass. Calton’s extra point gave the Braves a 20-0 lead.

Bimonte scored his second touchdown when, on defense, he scooped up a fumble and returned it 72 yards for a 26-0 lead with 5:50 to play in the second quarter. The senior has scored six touchdowns in 2021.

“When everyone is in the right spot, we all do well and we win,” Bimonte said. “It’s all a credit to the guys up front. I was lucky to be in the right spot when the ball popped up (on the fumble) and was able to take it. It was a big play.”

Mario Chierchia and Matt Pirozzi helped to force the fumble. It was the third forced fumble by Chierchia this season and the second fumble the Braves have scored a touchdown on.

The defense has been clicking on all cylinders while allowing fewer than two touchdowns per game (12.5 ppg). Manalapan allowed one touchdown against Saint John Vianney and one touchdown against Freehold.

“We just try to do the right thing,” Chierchia said of the defense. “We practice hard. We watch film; all the basics. We are a football team that prepares for every game.”

Heckel capped his outstanding first half by leading the Braves on a 60-yard touchdown drive that began with 2:42 to play in the second quarter. He converted a second down and 16 by running for 25 yards with :50 to play.

Heckel completed his next two passes, the second being a nine-yard pass to Walker that moved the ball to the 6 with :20 to play. Following a timeout, Heckel once again looked Walker’s way and threw a dart for the score with :14 to play. Calton’s third extra point gave Manalapan a 33-0 lead at the half.

Heckel has 10 touchdown passes in his first full season as a starter.

“Last year we lacked confidence,” he said. “This year is completely different. We all trust each other. We are all brothers. We have 100% more confidence than we did last year.”

Marquez scored the team’s final touchdown on the first possession of the second half. A nice punt return by Walker set up the Braves at the Freehold 7 and Marquez ran for his second touchdown and a 39-0 lead. The senior tailback has four rushing touchdowns in 2021.

 

Freehold scored on its next possession on a 33-yard pass from Spencer Rushton to Yah-Sin Calhoun on a wide receiver screen. Kayden Hutchinson’s extra point made the score 39-7 and that is how the game ended.

Manalapan will host undefeated Red Bank Catholic High School on Oct. 22.

Freehold will travel to play Holmdel High School on Oct. 22.