Mustangs top Braves, 17-14, for first win in grid series since 1994

A host of Marlboro High School defenders bring down Manalapan running back Jason Rodriguez in the backfield for a loss during a game played on Oct. 14 in Manalapan. Marlboro defeated Manalapan, 17-14, to improve to 4-3 on the season.

MANALAPAN — What has become a new era of Marlboro High School football got even better on the night of Oct. 14 when the Mustangs snapped a 28-year losing streak to rival Manalapan High School with a thrilling 17-14 victory over the Braves.

Marlboro (4-3) had not beaten Manalapan since 1994 during the team’s run to the school’s only NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV state sectional championship.

The Mustangs rallied from a seven-point deficit entering the fourth quarter and won the game when junior Luke Rubin kicked an 18-yard field goal as time expired.

“Words really can’t describe it,” Coach Jason Dagato said after the victory. “For our kids to toughen up in an atmosphere like this and beat a long-time rival in Manalapan for the first time in almost 30 years is pretty special.”

Marlboro came into the game after three hard weeks on the gridiron.

On Sept. 23 against Howell, starting quarterback A.J. Schwartz was lost for the season with a leg injury. The Mustangs lost that game to the Rebels, 28-14, and then lost to Saint John Vianney High School of Holmdel and to Jackson Memorial High School of Jackson.

Despite those challenges, the Mustangs kept their faith as they went on the road to Manalapan.

“We knew we were capable of this from the start,” senior Ryan Mendes said. “We needed this (win). I’m speechless right now.”

Manalapan led 14-7 as the fourth quarter began.

Junior quarterback Brayden Klein led the Mustangs on a 14-play, 84-yard drive that ended with an 11-yard scoring pass to Mendes with 4:26 to play.

Klein completed six passes for 51 yards on the drive. The touchdown and Rubin’s extra point evened the score at 14-14.

Klein’s scoring pass to Mendes did not look promising as the play began, as the QB lost his grip on the ball as he sprinted out to his right.

However, Klein was able to regain possession of the ball and threw it into the end zone, where Mendes went over defensive back Anthony Macchio to catch his first touchdown of the season.

“We did what we needed to do to get the ball into the end zone,” Klein said. “That instinct (of making a play) kind of kicked in when the ball bobbled out. I knew I had to make a play. I just threw the ball up and Ryan made a huge play.”

Klein threw two touchdown passes against Manalapan and has thrown for four touchdowns since coming in at quarterback following the injury to Schwartz.

With the game tied, Dagato called for a pooch kick to keep the ball away from the Braves’ explosive return team. The Braves were unable to field the kick cleanly and the Mustangs recovered the ball at the Manalapan 42.

“The (pooch kick) probably went a little shorter than we wanted, but it ended up working out in our favor because (Manalapan) didn’t field it and we did,” Dagato said.

The Mustangs had a golden opportunity to drive down the field to win the game and they relied on their linemen and junior running back Matt Cassidy to get the job done.

Cassidy rushed for 40 yards on 11 carries to move the ball to the 2.

Rubin came on to the field to attempt the game-winning field goal with :04 left. Louis Ogno came on to snap the ball and Nick Scaff took his place as the holder.

“It played out kind of how we wanted it to play out,” Dagato said of the final drive. “We wanted to drain the clock and get down near (the end zone) to finish the game with a touchdown or end it on a field goal.”

The 18-yard kick was Rubin’s first field goal attempt of the season and his first chance to kick a game-winning field goal. He had only kicked extra points until that moment.

The junior was confident he could send Marlboro home a winner and did exactly that as the Mustangs beat the Braves for the first time since 1994.

“It feels amazing. I was confident going in. I practiced for this (moment). This is something I will remember for the rest of my life,” Rubin said.

Dagato, who led the Mustangs to the program’s first winning season in more than two decades a year ago, called the win over Manalapan the best he has had during his 10-year run as Marlboro’s head coach.

“With everything we have been through this year, the kids keep showing up every day and they keep fighting. The coaches show up every day and keep coaching. To come out here and win like we did is a testament to everyone in our program,” Dagato said.

Marlboro will return to action when the Mustangs host Colts Neck High School on Oct. 22.

Manalapan (3-5) will return to action when the Braves play Wall High School on Oct. 21.

The Braves scored twice against Marlboro in the first half.

Senior quarterback Matthew Grzejka found junior tight end Joseph Melo for a 45-yard touchdown pass to give the Braves a 7-0 lead with 4:21 to play in the first quarter.

Marlboro tied the game at 7-7 on a six-yard scoring pass from Klein to Daniel Alcide and an extra point by Rubin with 2:38 to play the second quarter.

Manalapan answered on its following possession with an eight-play, 72-yard drive that was capped off on a five-yard touchdown run by sophomore Jason Rodriguez.