With a talented senior-laden roster, Long Branch started the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III playoffs with high hopes. In the section semifinal Saturday, Long Branch had twice as much offensive yardage than opponent Nottingham and held the home team to six first downs.
That explains the dismay the Long Branch players had after they dropped a 7-0 decision to Nottingham, which goes on to face defending champion Neptune in the section championship Saturday at 1 p.m. at The College of New Jersey.
"The season wasn't supposed to end like this,'' said junior running back Deion Williams, who had a game-high 70 rushing yards. "We had big hopes of going to play for the championship and meeting Neptune again for a rematch.''
Neptune had been the only team to beat Long Branch (9-2) until Nottingham came along to deny the Green Wave their first trip to a section final since 2007.
The difference, according to Williams, was that the Northstars "made a big play in the second half, a trick play. We weren't ready for it.''
Nottingham scored on a 24-yard flea flicker, with wide receiver Jameel Bailey throwing a pass to Daviyon Davis with 7:05 left in the third quarter. There were no other occasions when the Northstars reached the red zone as they were consistently thwarted by Long Branch's defensive unit led by Vincent Roselli, Nicholas Pappayliou, Dominic Mincielli and others. Brett Roach chipped in with an interception in the second quarter.
There was still plenty of time for the Green Wave to recover and they nearly did on their next drive, taking the ball on an 18-play march from their 5 to the Nottingham 9. But on first-and-goal, quarterback Avry Griffin fumbled under pressure from Josh Lajeunesse, and Ryan Malagrino recovered for the Northstars.
Long Branch coach Dan George said Nottingham's scoring play was similar to reverses used in past games, "though not the reverse pass,'' he said. "We had two kids right in position so we weren't fooled by it at all. It was a great-executed play on their part. We didn't get the big play. They got the big play and won the football game.''
George joined his players for a lengthy debriefing after the game.
"I gave them advice on how to process things like this. My heart goes out to them. Just a tremendous effort from them. I thought we moved the ball well. I thought we played great defense,'' George said.
Long Branch's last possession covered 62 yards but fell short in the final minute. Griffin, who was 6 of 10 for 82 yards and no interceptions, completed passes on the final drive to Joscil Jackson, Myesson Pennington and a 24-yarder to Chris Pappayliou.
But a nine-yard completion to a diving Williams was not enough on a fourth-and11. Nottingham took over on downs at the 13.