Heckel leads Braves to 31-7 win over Patriots in grid season opener

Manalapan High School quarterback Nicholas Heckel breaks away from Freehold Township's Alex Fallon for a first down during a game played on Aug. 26 in Freehold. Manalapan won 31-7.

FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP โ€” Manalapan High School senior quarterback Nicholas Heckel had a big night in his debut under center as he accounted for three touchdowns in the second half to help lead the Braves (1-0) to a 31-7 victory over Freehold Township High School (0-1) on Aug. 26 in the 2022 football season opener for both teams.

โ€œIt felt great to come out and get three touchdowns in my first varsity win. It feels amazing to stand here and be 1-0. Best feeling ever,โ€ Heckel said.

Heckel set up his outstanding performance in the second half with a game-changing drive to end the first half.

After Freehold Township tied the game, 7-7, on a two-yard run by Chase Enlow with 7:48 left in the second quarter, Heckel drove the Braves 70 yards to the Patriots’ 10. From that spot, Michael Calton kicked a 27-yard field goal to give Manalapan a 10-7 lead at the break.

On the drive that produced the field goal, Heckel rushed for two first downs and he converted a fourth down with a 22-yard pass up the seam to tight end Preston Birine that brought the Braves to the 15.

Heckel then ran to the 10 and got out of bounds with :03 left. Calton came onto the field and kicked the 27-yard field goal.

โ€œWe needed that drive (to end the first half). It was a tie game. We needed to come out and get some points on the board,โ€ Heckel said.

Calton was 4-4 on his extra point attempts against the Patriots.

Manalapan dominated both sides of the ball in the second half and outscored Freehold Township 21-0 over the final two quarters to secure the road win.

โ€œThat was definitely Manalapan football (in the second half). We stopped the run, we ran the ball well and we played great special teams,โ€ Coach Dominick Lepore said.

On the Braves’ first possession of the third quarter, senior wide receiver Alex Dille ran across the line of scrimmage to receive a quick pitch from Heckel and then ran 55 yards up the sideline for his first touchdown of the season. Calton’s extra point lifted the Braves to a 17-7 lead.

โ€œThat was a momentum starter for us in the second half,โ€ Dille said. โ€œIt felt really good.โ€

On the Braves’ next possession, Heckel snuck in from the 1 as Manalapan pushed the lead to 24-7.

Heckel threw his second touchdown pass of the night to cap the victory with 3:54 to play in the fourth quarter.

The senior threw a quick screen pass to junior wideout Anthony Macchio, who dashed along the sideline for a 17-yard score. Macchio added an interception on defense to help lead Manalapan to the win.

Manalapan scored its first touchdown in the first quarter on the strength of its defense. A strip-sack on Freehold Township quarterback Mark Augello by senior defensive lineman Artem Reinikov-Jouk led to Birnie recovering the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.

“To be honest, I didn’t know I knocked the ball out until I heard people say ‘ball,’ ” Reinikov-Jouk said. “I just saw Preston (Birnie) in the end zone with the ball and it felt great.”

Manalapan’s defense forced three turnovers in the season opener.


Manalapan will travel to play Middletown North High School in Middletown on Sept. 2.

Freehold Township will play at home on Sept. 1 when the Patriots host Barnegat High School.