LONG BRANCH – It’s been 45 years since Long Branch and Brick met on the football field, but after Friday night’s nail-biting, down-to-the-wire 21-14 Long Branch win, it would be a shame if it took that long for these two Shore Conference powers to meet again.
The victory over third-seeded Brick gives top-seeded Long Branch its first back-to-back sectional titles in the history of this storied program and as the Central Jersey Group IV champions, it also punches its ticket to one of the new NJSIAA bowl games that were implemented this season.
The Green Wave (10-1) will now play South Jersey Group IV champ Shawnee, which also repeated as champions with a 17-14 winner over Clearview, in two weeks at MetLife Stadium.
“We wanted to make history,” said Long Branch’s two-way, 305-pound lineman Kevin Cerruti, who intercepted a tipped screen pass and returned it three yards for a touchdown for what turned out to be the game’s biggest play.
On Brick’s first possession of the second half with the score knotted at 7-7, Dragons junior quarterback Anthony Prato attempted a screen pass that was tipped by Long Branch defensive tackle Imir Durant. The ball then fluttered right into the path of a charging Cerruti, who plucked it out of the air and rumbled three yards into the end zone for a 14-7 lead less than a minute into the second half.
“This is most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me, honestly,” said a jubilant Cerruti. “I never dreamed of catching a touchdown, ever. It’s the greatest feeling of my life. Our sideline was electric with everyone cheering and I’ll never forget this for the rest of my life.”
“I’m calling everyone I can,” said Long Branch head coach Dan George, gushing about Cerruti. “This kid is a big-time football player. Nobody uses his hands better than him. He never walks off the football field. He’s 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, and he’s running around tackling No.8 (Brick’s Jimmy Lebo) on stretch and batting balls down and catching the ball on a screen. Who does that?”
Long Branch added to its lead on its next possession to make it a 21-7 game, but the game was far from over with a team as talented as Brick gunning for its first state title since 2014.
Following Cerruti’s big play and the score now 14-7, Brick took over at their own 24-yard line and went nowhere. Long Branch forced a three-and-out thanks to a Luke Arnold tackle of Leblo for a three-yard TFL on third-and-4 from the 30.
A bad snap forced a hurried punt by Prato that sailed out of bounds at the Long Branch 48-yard line with the Green Wave taking over.
On first down, Long Branch quarterback Marc Dennis ran 21 yards up the middle on a keeper almost breaking it all the way were it not for Prato’s diving shoe-string tackle from behind.
On third-and-eight from the 29, Dennis found senior wide receiver Matt Clarke on a slant for 15 yards and a first down at the 14-yard line. Star running back Jermaine Corbett, who scored on a 77-yard run on the second play of the game to give Long Branch an early 7-0 lead, took a handoff and side-stepped a blitzing Joey Carchio to avoid a loss before breaking it down the right sidelines to the one-yard line. Dennis then ran it in on the next play to push the lead to 21-7 with 6:14 left in the third quarter.
Down 7-0 early in the game after Corbett’s long run, Brick tied it up with 5:30 remaining in the first half on a six play, 48-yard drive that ended with Prato connecting with senior wide receiver Cole Groschel for a 24-yard score.
With the Brick defense keying on Corbett and making him pay for every yard he gained, Long Branch turned to Dennis in its running game and the elusive QB ran for 102 yards on 19 carries while Corbett picked up 125 yards rushing on 14 attempts with 77 of those yards coming on his first quarter touchdown.
Corbett has now rushed for 1,787 yards and a conference-leading 28 touchdowns.
“It’s (Dennis’ running) something we’ve had in our back pocket but the last thing we wanted to do was to use him if we didn’t have to,” said George. “That’s what great coaches and great teams do – take away your No. 1 option but we were able to turn the page on the play book and Marc made some good things happen.”
Brick threatened on its next possession driving to the Long Branch 29-yard line. But on third-and-seven, Dennis, who had an outstanding game on defense as well as offense, made a sensational play diving for the ball and knocking it out of Groschel’s hands forcing a fourth down.
The Dragons elected to go for it on fourth down but a Prato pass down the right sidelines intended for Groschel sailed out of bounds.
However, with eight senior starters on both sides of the ball, Brick was not about to lay down and go out without a fight and on Long Branch’s next possession they got the break they needed.
On third-and-2 from their own 37, Corbett coughed up the ball after being hit by Leblo in the backfield and the Dragons took over the Long Branch 40-yard line.
Senior Joey Carchio then took the ball on a jet sweep on first down, stopped and tossed a 34-yard pass that Groschel had to leap over two defenders to make the catch at the six-yard line. Two plays later Leblo ran it in from three-yards out and the Dragons were within one score of tying.
“They have incredible playmakers,” said Dennis. “Leblo, Cole, they’re ridiculous. On the sideline after they scored and made it 21-14, I brought the all the defensive backs in and told them, ‘This is our house. We’re not letting no one come back on us like this.’”
“We knew what we were up against. We knew these guys were playing their best football at the right time,” said George, praising Brick’s effort. “They were confident and their whole world revolved around winning that ring. This group has been together since they were sophomores and we knew they were coming for that ring. I’m just so proud of our defense, we shut down the run and we managed the pass.”
Long Branch held Brick to 107-yards rushing on 37 attempts for a 2.9 yard per carry average.
Thanks to Long Branch’s bend-but-don’t-break defense the rest of the way, that was as close as Brick would get as the defense made the big stops when they needed it most.
On Brick’s final two drives of the game, Long Branch foiled two 12-play drives that ended in fourth-down incompletions.
With 7:04 left in the game, the Dragons took over at the nine-yard line following a Long Branch punt and methodically drove to their own 45-yard line overcoming a holding penalty with the longest play of the drive being a 12-yard pass.
On first down from the 45, junior defensive tackle Tracey Taylor Jr. stopped Leblo for a four-yard TFL setting up a second-and-14 at the 41-yard line. A Leblo-to-Groschel pass fell incomplete on second down, then on third and fourth downs Cerruti pressured the quarterback into incompletions on deep balls that the secondary had eyes on the whole way.
Brick’s quarterbacks completed just 10-of-33 for 134 yards thanks to a Long Branch secondary that also picked off a pass.
Long Branch then took over at the 41; Corbett ran for nine yards on third down to the 32-yard line coming up just inches short of a first down. Electing to go for the first, Dennis was stopped on a quarterback sneak up the middle by a host of defenders turning the ball over to Brick giving them one last shot with 2:37 left in the game.
Prato completed an 11-yard pass to Val Grigorian on fourth-and-8 from the 34 giving Brick a first down at their own 45-yard line with 1:01 left in the game. Prato then found Leblo for eight yards on first down before a spike and an incompletion set up another fourth-down play.
On fourth-and-3, Prato hit Groschel for eight yards and another first down at the Long Branch 39-yard line. Following a spike with 27 second left, Prato was rushed out of the pocket by Taylor, who pulled Prato down after a one-yard pickup. Rushing to the line of scrimmage, Prato again spiked the ball stopping the clock with 11 seconds showing.
With enough time for one more play, Prato’s deep ball sailed over everyone’s head to end the game, sending the capacity crowd at Bresett Stadium into complete pandemonium.
“Long Branch has been playing football for a long time so for us to go back-to-back for the first time in school history is indescribable,” said George. “Put it this way, the last time we were home in a state championship game was 1986 and we won that with my brother happening to be a captain on that ‘86 team. So it’s pretty special to do something that hasn’t been done in so many years.”
That ‘86 Long Branch team went 11-0 and is considered the best squad of all time for a program that began in 1923.