PISCATAWAY — Three plays into Saturday night’s NJSIAA Central Group V final, Dontae Strickland got the South Brunswick High School football team off to a fast start.
His 61-yard touchdown run on a sweep to the left got the second-seeded Vikings on the board first against a Manalapan defense that hadn’t allowed more than seven points in any of their last five games.
On the second play of the second quarter, Strickland had another long touchdown, this time catching a T.J. Perkowski pass and going 68 yards down the middle of the field, giving the Vikings a 13-0 lead.
“Coach set that play up for me and he said that the safeties would be coming up,” Strickland said. “He told me to go across the middle and I was wide open. I knew T.J. was going to throw me the ball but I had no clue I was going to catch it and when I saw green I was gone.”
South Brunswick held off a Manalapan rally in the fourth quarter to win 33-22, and secure the school’s first sectional championship.
But Strickland’s assignments weren’t restricted to offense only, as the 6-foot sophomore drew the daunting task of single-covering one of Manalapan’s two dominant wide receivers, either Anthony Firkser or Saeed Blacknall.
Coming into the game, Firkser had caught 38 passes for 883 yards and seven touchdowns and Blacknall had hauled in 35 balls and had amassed 657 yards through the air to go with 10 touchdowns.
“We knew how good their receivers were coming into this game, we knew that they’re going to big schools, so coach moved me to corner so I could line up with those guys,” Strickland said. “I had only played corner in the beginning of the year and I was lock-down the whole season wherever I was on the field. It was really tough out there against them.”
T.J. Taylor, the Vikings’ other cornerback, locked down one side of the field, leaving Strickland one-on-one for a good majority of Manalapan’s offensive snaps.
“I just followed what I had learned in practice and I used it the way that I know how,” Strickland said. “I just took a lot of reps and as a group we did all we could do against them.”
After South Brunswick fumbled away a handoff at their own 37 midway through the second quarter, Manalapan quarterback Mike Isabella found Firkser down the seam for a 43-yard touchdown. That score got the top-seeded Braves on the board for the first time in the game and Strickland was out-leaped by the Firkser on the play.
But Strickland couldn’t have been in better position; he simply couldn’t match the reach of Firkser and the 6-3 senior, who’s headed to Harvard to play both football and basketball, came down with the ball.
But for the remainder of the first half, Strickland wouldn’t get beat on defense, holding his own against the bigger receivers from Manalapan and players that have three and four years of experience, compared to the two that he has.
In the fourth quarter, just three minutes after South Brunswick scored to make it 27-16, Manalapan tried to beat Strickland one more time, and they were successful, but not because the Vikings’ corner was out of position.
Isabella lofted another perfectly thrown ball into the hands of Firkser, again from 43 yards out, just over the outstretched arms of Strickland who was in single-coverage on the play.
All three of Manalapan’s touchdowns came from outside of 40 yards, but none of the three were due to blown assignments in the South Brunswick secondary. Strickland and Taylor, who will play for Rutgers next season, locked down the Braves’ duo of receivers, limiting them to 199 yards on 10 catches, well below their season average.
“We came out here, we knew what we had to do and we did it,” Strickland said. “Everybody put in their best effort and it was enough for us to win this game.”