This year, the NJSIAA high school football playoffs are a little different. Teams must now win five playoff games to become a state champion. For the first time, New Jersey is joining most other states in crowning true state champions in each of its seven groups (five public, two non-public).
Gone are the “Regional Championships” or “Bowl Games” that have been the final destination for teams the past couple of seasons. These new state playoffs test a team not only physically, but mentally. South or Central Jersey champions must win their section, then beat either the South or Central champion in their grouping, then beat the winner that comes out of the North Jersey championship.
One team that has answered the bell right from the start of the season has been Mainland Regional, and the Mustangs host Long Branch tonight at 6 in their quest to win a state championship. Mainland is the No. 2 seed in the Central Jersey Group 3 tournament, as the Green Wave check in as the No. 7 seed.
The third-seeded Stangs come into the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week riding high after last week’s 63-10 drubbing of No. 6 Moorestown in the opening round. Long Branch, meanwhile, upset No. 2 Pennsauken, 13-6, to punch its ticket to the sectional semifinals.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Mainland defense. The Stangs have been stingy all season long, starting the year with shutouts in two of their first three games and only Ocean City and Atlantic City have scored more than two touchdowns against Mainland. The Stangs are bullish against the run, and when teams try to pass they have some very capable defensive backs with guys such as Joe Sheeran and Jamie Tyson.
Long Branch offensively, by comparison, sometimes struggles to score points. The Green Wave have two wins in which they scored 14 points or less, and in their three losses the most points they scored was 13 in a 23-13 setback to Middletown South.
TRADITIONAL POWERS: Mainland has been a solid state playoff contender going back several decades, having epic battles in the 1990s against teams like Ocean City and Lacey Township. Long Branch is no stranger to postseason success either, as former coach Dan George (who retired in 2021) built that program into one of the best in Monmouth County. A skipper since 1999, George won 151 games, three sectional championships and a regional title. He also won nearly 400 matches as Long Branch’s wrestling coach for 22 years.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: For Mainland, it’s all about senior running back Ja’Briel Mace. He’s already set the school single-season touchdown record and he’s been grinding toward a big-time senior season for four years now. Arguably the best running back in South Jersey, Mace, a Villanova University recruit, is strong, fast and smart and he’ll be a load to handle for Long Branch’s defense. He’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in nine games, leading Mainland to an 8-1 record. If Long Branch can’t stop him, this one could be over by halftime.
Also, keep an eye out for Tyson — with so much emphasis put on Mace, Tyson could break out and have a game like he did in Mainland’s 29-14 win over Hammonton in late September. He had 100 receiving yards and a score in that victory.
For Long Branch, their offense is geared around two-way quarterback threat Earnest Reevey, a junior who has rushed for nearly 200 yards and passed for 725 yards and six touchdowns. Running back Sekou Kamau is also a guy to watch, as he’s rushed for nearly 400 yards and also has more than 100 yards receiving.
BATTLE TESTED: Mainland has just one loss, a 21-20 setback against Ocean City early in the year, but its 8-1 record is no joke. Three of their eight wins have come against teams that are playing in sectional semifinals this weekend — they blanked Oakcrest 49-0, beat Atlantic City 56-26 and topped Hammonton 29-14. Those teams have a combined six losses, and three of them have come against Mainland.
The Stangs also did what they had to do against other teams on their schedule, outscoring Egg Harbor Township, Bridgeton, Absegami and Clearview by a combined 173-27.
THE SKINNY: No. 2 Mainland (8-1) hosts No. 7 Long Branch (5-3) at 6 p.m. in Linwood. Mainland has won seven straight games. The winner takes on either No. 1 Middletown South or No. 5 Winslow in next weekend’s Central Jersey Group 3 championship game.