Staff Report

The Battle at the Beach, the annual kick-off of the high school football season now in its third year, continues to improve and bring fans some incredible matchups. This year, the event attracted two of the best teams in the country, as IMG Academy (Fla.) and St. Joseph’s Prep (Pa.) will square off in the Saturday night showcase game that will be televised by ESPN2. Friday’s slate features two of the top public schools in the state, as defending Group 4 state champion Millville takes on defending Group 5 state champion Toms River North.

There are a host of other great games on the slate, so let’s take a look at each game and give a quick breakdown:

FRIDAY

10 a.m. Mainland vs. Washington Township: This is a heck of a matchup to start things off, as Mainland is coming off a 10-2 season that included a sectional title and returns a ton of starters, including sophomore quarterback Johnny Franchini, senior running back Stephen Ordille, and some absolute beasts on defense with the likes of Hunter Watson and J.J. Sinclair. Washington Township is a huge Group 5 school and can wear people down with numbers, especially on the lines, and the Minutement will rely on senior QB Jared Dzierzgowski, who doesn’t throw the ball a ton but is a bruising runner. Last year, he and Giuliano Scavetta combined for more than 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Minutemen did lose a huge piece on offense in lineman John Stone, who is now at Rutgers, and defensively they’ll have to make up for the loss of guys like Logan Brown and Jason DiBlasio. Look for this to be a quick game with a lot of running, especially if the weather is bad on Friday morning.

1 p.m. Hammonton vs. St. John Vianney: The Blue Devils had a tremendous year in 2022 and are looking for more of the same, and it all starts with junior all-state running back Kenny Smith. If they can get him going, it’s going to be a long day for the Lancers. Smith has a ton of confidence and this will be a stage he really enjoys. Hammonton also has some other interesting pieces on offense with guys like Justin Doughty, who is kind of a combo running back/QB, and Josh Camargo. Tight end Andrew Wehner is also back, as are some big boys up front in Donald Church and Christian Medina. Look for Hammonton to try to establish the run early and often.

Kenny Smith, a junior at Hammonton, is one of the best running backs in the state. (South Jersey Glory Days file photo/Sully)

4 p.m. Millville vs. Toms River North: This is one of the premier games of the entire weekend as two public school powerhouses go at it. Two of the state’s best quarterbacks — 2022 state Player of the Year Micah Ford of North and Jacob Zamot of Millville — get to showcase their skills. Ford is much more of a runner than a passer, and he’s a bulldozer at that. He threw for 1,200 yards last year, but rushed for 2,360 yards and 33 touchdowns on 236 carries. Millville will counter with a more passer friendly offense and look to get the ball into the hands of Lotzeir Brooks, one of the nation’s top recruits at wide receiver. If he can make some big plays — like he did as a freshman against Union at the Battle at the Beach — the Bolts will be in business.

7 p.m. Ocean City vs. Pleasantville: The host Red Raiders will look to make a good showing on their home field, but will have to deal with a much improved Pleasantville squad. Last year, under first-year coach and former Cedar Creek standout Malachi Timberlake, the Greyhounds went 7-3 and won the West Jersey Football League Patriot Division. They had a balanced offensive attack, rushing for 1,300 yards and passing for 1,400. They only had 10 rushing touchdowns, though, so if Ocean City can take away the passing game it may be tough for Pleasantville to score. Ocean City has plenty to prove after going 3-8 a year ago, and the Red Raiders also have to deal with replacing outstanding quarterback Riley Gunnels. The Walker Bailey era could begin this weekend at Carey Stadium.

SATURDAY:

9:30 a.m. West Deptford vs. Hightstown: The Rams went 5-4 last year and most of their games were close, win or lose. They mostly rely on the rushing attack and junior Cole Vinson should be a focal point of the offense. He passed for 317 yards last year and rushed for 363, and leading receiver Devron Lewis is a senior now. Don’t expect a ton of points, as they scored more than 20 on just two occasions last season. West Deptford, long a stalwart in South Jersey Group 2, has dropped off a bit since legendary coach Clyde Folsom moved over to be an assistant at Mainland. The Eagles went 5-5 last year but did win four of their last five. Most of their offense came from seniors last year, but there will be some impact returners on defense.

12:15 p.m. Paul VI vs. St. Thomas Aquinas: Paul VI went 7-3 last year with its best win probably coming over Highland, 31-30, in the season opener. The Eagles were led by junior QB Dom Santiago, who passed for more than 1,000 yards and 10 TDs a year ago, but they don’t have a lot of rushing yards returning. On defense, however, Paul VI was young last year so all those guys now have another year of experience. St. Thomas is a powerful private school from Edison that went 9-2 last year and scored wins over the likes of Hillside, Edison and St. John Vianney. They lost the season opener to Timber Creek but then didn’t lose again until the sectional quarterfinals when Holy Spirit beat them, 50-21.

3 p.m. Rancocas Valley vs. Union: The Farmers traditionally are one of the most athletic teams in North Jersey. Lou Grasso’s squad had an uncharacteristically down year last season, going 2-7, so look for them to make a statement this weekend that they are back. They are only two years removed from going 9-2. Last year, sophomore O’Malley King and Kasie McDowell combined to throw for more than 1,000 yards, and current senior Kordal Hinton led the defense with 91 tackles. Rancocas Valley went 6-4 last year but played pretty tough in all four losses. The Red Devils will have to find a way to replace Kevin Burr, Jase Deiter and Jerimya Paula, who accounted for nearly all their offensive yards in 2022.

7 p.m. IMG Academy (Fla.) vs. St. Joseph’s Prep (Pa.): This is the big one, as fans will get an up-close look at IMG Academy, a powerhouse post-grad school in Florida that routinely churns out top college prospects. They have three levels of teams, and their national travel team is ranked fourth in the country and No. 1 in Florida. They’ve gone 86-7 the last 10 years and hasn’t lost more than one game in a season since their first season, in 2013. The program has produced 52 Under Armour All-Americans and 18 NFL draft picks between 2018-2023. Cornerback Ellis Robinson IV is a 5-star commit to Georgia, and they have a host of four-star uncommitted players. St. Joseph’s Prep, No. 10 in the nation, is the defending 6A state champion in Pennsylvania and the preseason No. 1 in the state’s Top 25.

SUNDAY

10 a.m. Collingswood vs. Maple Shade: A classic small-school scrum, this one should be fun to watch. Colls Nation went 4-7-1 last year and lost starting QB Tim Search to graduation, but Isaiah Pepe-Magro had 155 rushing yards last year as a junior. About 75 percent of the Panthers’ offense came from Search, however, so they’ll be “searching” for his replacement. Maple Shade had a great year last year, going 9-3 with two of its losses coming against Woodbury. They, too, will need to replace a bunch of solid seniors.

Alim Parks and Cedar Creek will be looking to bounce back from a 4-7 season a year ago when the Pirates kick off their 2023 season at the Battle at the Beach. (South Jersey Glory Days file photo/Sully)

1 p.m. Cedar Creek vs. Matawan: The Pirates had a sub-par 4-7 record last year, and they are hungry to prove people wrong this fall. Led by QB Billy Smith and receiver Alim Parks, this has the potential to be a very good offensive unit. Mandel Pettiford could be poised for a breakout year on the defensive line and Justin Castillo is a reliable, hard-hitting linebacker in the middle. The Huskies went 6-3 a year ago as sophomore Colin Palumbo rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Look for Cedar Creek to take some chances in the passing game early to try to break this thing open, but they’ll have to be stout against the run on defense to win this game.

4 p.m. Holy Spirit vs. Conwell Egan (Pa.): Under second-year coach Andrew DiPasquale, the Spartans love to get after it offensively. They put up 28 or more points eight times last year but have to replace QB Sean Burns and record-setting receiver Gavin Roman. Watch out for junior running back Jahcere “Pops” Ward, the kid is an absolute wrecking ball at 5-foot-10, 225 pounds. He rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 19 TDs as a sophomore.

7 p.m. Timber Creek vs. Highland: A Black Horse Pike showdown at the beach, these teams are sure to get after it in the Battle at the Beach finale. Highland went 6-5 last year, but QB Connor Leary is now a senior after having passed for more than 1,600 yards and 15 TDs a year ago. He comes from a long line of South Jersey QB royalty. The Tartans, however, did lose Angelo Rodriguez, who had 1,400 of their 2,700+ rushing yards. Timber Creek went 6-4 last year and things kind of fell apart for the Chargers in the second half of the season, as they lost four of their last five. They’ll be looking to get back on track and are led by DL Brahim Winn, one of the top players in all of South Jersey. He had 13 sacks, 49 tackles and three forced fumbles as a junior. QB Victor Oquendo threw for more than 1,200 yards and 10 TDs last year.