Toms River North earns high school football immortality with historic 2022 season
PISCATAWAY -- When Passaic Tech's fourth-down pass to the end zone fell incomplete with 4:17 left, Toms River North's players knew they had likely clinched a state championship.
Less than two minutes later, junior running back Josh Moore put the appropriate exclamation point on a one-of-a-kind season with an 80-yard touchdown run. All that was left to do was wait for the clock to hit 0:00. The coronation was complete.
On Sunday afternoon at Rutgers University's SHI Stadium, Toms River North put the finishing touches on one of the greatest high school football seasons in Shore Conference and New Jersey history by defeating Passaic Tech, 28-7, to secure the inaugural NJSIAA Group 5 state championship.
The Mariners set a state record for points scored in a season with 660 and are believed to be the first team in state history to finish 14-0. They averaged a staggering 47.1 points per game led by a devastating running game that rushed for 4,352 yards and 62 touchdowns. The defense was not as heralded but was nearly as dominant, allowing just 8.2 points per game. Their point differential was a mind-numbing 545 points.
"It's kind of hard to wrap my brain around it," said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. "It's not really registering. You coach long enough and you see it all, but to go 14-0 and do it like this"
"It's indescribable," said senior center Josh Kaye. "I can't even put it into words."
Junior quarterback Micah Ford had a monster season and showcased all of his talents vs. a Passaic Tech team that presented the toughest defensive challenge for the Mariners' offense. Ford completed 6 of 7 passes for 117 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 109 yards on 23 carries. He did all of this despite dealing with severe cramps in the second half that forced him from the game multiple times. He also made an impact on defense from his safety position with a tackle for loss and a pass breakup in the end zone early in the game.
Ford threw a perfect pass to sophomore wide receiver Camryn Thomas for a 25-yard touchdown in the first quarter, connected with senior tight end Ty Kazanowsky for a 10-yard touchdown on a screen pass in the second quarter, and made a fantastic throw while running to his left for a 48-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Nasir Jackson just before halftime. Ford is known more for his running ability and is being recruited as such at the next level with FBS offers from Maryland and West Virginia as an athlete, but he reminded everyone that he is among the best dual-threat quarterbacks in New Jersey.
"Kind of felt like a quarterback today," Ford quipped after the game. "I showed what I can do as a (complete) quarterback."
He threw the ball just 89 times this season but was extremely efficient in completing 64 percent of his passes for 1,203 yards and 17 touchdowns to average 13.5 yards per attempt.
"We don't have to do it often but he can throw it as good as anyone," Oizerowitz said.
On the ground, he rushed for a ridiculous 2,360 yards and 33 touchdowns on an average of exactly 10 yards per carry. His total offensive output was 3,563 yards and 50 touchdowns. Just absurd numbers.
Ford has a history of cramping up but that wasn't anticipated to be an issue considering the cold weather on Sunday. However, in the second half, Ford was experiencing major leg cramps that forced him to exit the game six different times. This is where the Mariners showcased the depth of their talent by inserting dynamic junior Jeremiah Pruitt, who finished with 42 yards rushing on eight carries, and also sophomore quarterback TJ Valerio.
Don't forget about Moore, who despite missing multiple games with a dislocated elbow and playing next to a quarterback who had 236 carries still managed to rush for 1,053 yards and 12 touchdowns on an average of 9.7 yards per carry. He had a game-high 127 yards rushing and that history-clinching 80-yard touchdown run on Sunday.
Tying it all together is a group of offensive linemen, tight ends, H-backs, and fullbacks who ground teams into a paste all season and led the way for Ford, Moore, and company. The line of sophomore left tackle Jaelyne Matthews, sophomore left guard Hathem Hooranyi, senior center Josh Kaye, senior right guard Nick Baiocco, and junior right tackle Justin Kaye was overpowering. Senior guard Charlie Wood stepped in for some time when Hooranyi was injured and rotated in during the state final. Senior fullback Nick Walano was an unsung yet integral part of the running game. Kazanowsky was an excellent blocker at tight end along with junior Matt Shea lining up as the backside tight end. Senior Ty Boland's specially is at linebacker but he helped lead the way on many a run as the Mariners' H-back.
Ironically, Ford's second three-touchdown pass game of the season came playing without leading receiver Tareq Council. The junior wideout led the team with 24 catches for 516 yards and nine touchdowns this season but was unable to play in the state championship game after an unfortunate incident during the Mariners' 42-14 state semifinal win over Edison in which he and an Edison player were ejected. Thomas took Council's place at wide receiver and on kick and punt returns and turned in a great game that included a touchdown catch. Jackson also stepped up with a 48-yard touchdown reception and was excellent in the secondary where Council is also a standout cornerback.
"Micah's star is so bright but we have so many players who are as good as we've ever had at their positions," Oizerowitz said. "We have four to five all-time players on this team and so many more who are so important to what we do."
It's easy to overlook a defense when the offense is putting up numbers like that, but Toms River North's defense finished as the No. 1 scoring unit in the Shore Conference.
Kazanowsky is one of the best linebackers in the Shore and was voted as the Colonial Division's Defensive Player of the Year. In addition to his touchdown catch, he had six tackles and two pass breakups and was instrumental in limiting a physical Passaic Tech ground game to 122 yards on an average of 4.2 yards per carry. Pruitt was among the conference leaders with six interceptions this season and was dynamite on Sunday with five tackles, a strip-sack that resulted in a turnover, a tackle for loss, and a pass breakup. Boland has six tackles and a fumble recovery, senior defensive lineman Nasir McDougald had five tackles, and Baiocco had three tackles and swatted two passes the line of scrimmage.
The Mariners allowed more than two touchdowns just twice this season and both of those games were before Labor Day. They posted four shutouts and held 10 of 14 opponents to seven points or less. And many of those games allowing one touchdown came when the backups and JV players had entered the game in the second half.
"That fueled us all week," Kazanowsky said of the lack of attention the defense has received this year. "We have been playing defense as well as anybody in New Jersey."
Defense is a mentality," Ford said. "You have to believe in yourself and your teammates and believe that you're better than the guy across from you. This defense has grit."
Toms River North even broke records on special teams. Sophomore kicker Yianni Papanikolas kicked 78 extra points this season, which was announced in the stadium as a new state single-season record.
The elephant in the room is that Toms River North was not in the Shore Conference's top division with Red Bank Catholic, Middletown South, Donovan Catholic, Rumson-Fair Haven, Wall, and Manalapan, but that isn't something the Mariners had control over. Under the realignment for next season, they will replace Manalapan and join the American Division.
The Mariners did their part with a dominant run from start to finish that resulted in 14 wins and zero defeats. They beat Group 2 finalist Rumson, 40-27, in Week 1 and defeated sectional semifinals Long Branch, 42-7, in Week 5. They outscored their division opponents 253-13. In five state playoff games, Toms River North averaged 41.8 points per game and outscored Old Bridge, Marlboro, Kingsway, Edison, and Passaic Tech by a combined score of 209-48. And in most of those playoff games, it could have been even more lopsided.
People can debate among themselves if things would have played out differently, but none of that truly matters. What Toms River North's football team accomplished this fall will be remembered for years to come. This group has achieved high school football immortality as New Jersey's first Group 5 champion, its first 14-0 team, and the first Shore Conference team to win an overall football state championship. No one can ever take that away.
What's scary is that most of the team is juniors and sophomores and will return next season on what should be another powerhouse squad. But this year's senior class, although small, will be greatly missed, Kazanowsky, Kaye, Boland, Baiocco, McDougald, Walano, and linebacker Cody VanderVliet all played critical roles and will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.
The Mainers will worry about next year when 2023 rolls around in a few weeks. For now, after months of intense focus and drive, they can finally relax and celebrate a season that will live on forever.
"I think it's going to take a few days to set it," Kaye said. "Just thinking about what we did is crazy. I'll never forget it for the rest of my life."