Toms River North defeats Passaic Tech to win NJ Group 5 state title and complete historic undefeated season
PISCATAWAY -- On Sunday evening at Rutgers University, Toms River North completed one of the most remarkable seasons in Shore Conference football history.
With three touchdown passes from junior quarterback Micah Ford, an outstanding defensive performance, and a title-clinching touchdown run by junior running back Josh Moore in the final minutes, Toms River North defeated Passaic Tech, 28-7, to win the inaugural Group 5 state championship at SHI Stadium.
The Mariners set a state record for points in a season with 660, are believed to be the first team in NJ history to go 14-0, and will go down as one of the most dominant teams in Shore Conference history.
Ford threw for 117 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 109 yards and Moore ran for 127 yards and a touchdown, including an 80-yard touchdown run with 2:25 left to ice the game. Sophomore wide receiver Camryn Thomas had a 24-yard touchdown catch, senior tight end Ty Kazanowsky had a 10-yard touchdown reception, and sophomore Nasir Jackson caught a 48-yard touchdown pass. The Mariners churned out 389 yards of offense, including 272 yards rushing.
Ford completed his incredible junior season with 3,563 yards of offense and 50 total touchdowns, rushing for 2,360 yards and 33 touchdowns and passing for 1,203 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Toms River North's defense was also exceptional in allowing only one touchdown. Junior defensive back Jeremiah Pruitt had five tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss, and a pass breakup, and Kazanowsky, an outside linebacker, had six tackles and two pass breakups to lead the way.
Trashon Dye scored the lone touchdown for Passaic Tech, rushing for a 47-yard score in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs were held to 220 yards of offense on an average of 4.3 yards per play.
"It's an amazing feeling. Indescribable," Kazanowsky said.
"It's kind of hard to wrap my brain around it," said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. "It's a tremendous honor to be able to play (in the first Group 5 final) and to go 14-0 and come out of our section (South Jersey Group 5) to do it, it's humbling."
While the final score and a three-touchdown margin of victory wasn't an absolute blowout like the Mariners' prior 12 games, Toms River North was clearly the better team and established that early on. North won the toss and deferred its choice to the second half, giving Passaic Tech (11-3) the first offensive possession. The Bulldogs nearly struck first thanks to a 43-yard pass from Ma'Kao Taylor to Michael Kiritsis that put them at the North 36-yard line. A pass to the end zone two plays later was broken up by Ford, and on fourth down Taylor had a receiver wide open for a likely touchdown but the pass was dropped around the 15-yard line.
Toms River North took full advantage of the break and marched 69 yards in nine plays to take a 7-0 lead. Ford had an 11-yard run and Moore followed with a gain of 14 yards to put the ball at the PCT 35-yard line. Some tough gains by Ford, including a great second effort to convert a 4th-and-1, to put the ball at the 25-yard. On the next play, Ford tossed a perfect pass to Thomas in the front-left corner of the end zone for a 25-yard score. Sophomore kicker Yianni Papanikolas, who would go on to set a state single-season record for extra points with 78 by game's end, added the PAT for a 7-0 lead.
Passaic Tech moved to its own 41-yard line on the next series but stalled out when linebackers Cody VanderVliet and Ty Boland combined to halt Taylor for no gain on 3rd-and-3. The punt traveled just 12 yards and set up the Mariners with great field position at their own 45.
Ford again led the way on Toms River North's second scoring series, a 9-play, 55-yard drive that featured him either rushing or passing on all nine plays. On 2nd-and-12 from the PCT 26-yard line, Ford connected with Pruitt, who made several defenders miss and nearly scored before being marked down at the 1-yard line. A fumbled snap on first down and then a delay-of-game penalty on second down pushed North back to the 15-yard line for a 2-and-goal play. On third down, the Mariners ran a tight end screen pass with Kaznowsky taking the pass from Ford and diving into the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown and a 14-0 Toms River North lead with 4:33 left in the first half.
"I don't get many of those, so that was pretty awesome," Kazanowsky said.
PCT started its next series at its own 35-yard line and stuck with its gameplan of pounding the ball between the tackles with Trashon Dye. After three straight rushing plays brought up a 4th-and-2, a 27-yard completion from Taylor to Cashmere Jones gained a first down and moved the ball to the TRN 31-yard line. The Mariners' defense held from there, however, with Jaelyne Matthews and Nick Baiocco combining to stop RaySun Belton for just two yards on 4th-and-11 from the 32.
Toms River North looked like it was going to add to its lead before penalties stymied their next drive and forced a rare punt. A holding penalty negated a first-down run at the PCT 40 and moved the ball back inside TRN territory, and the Mariners were unable to convert a 3rd-and-15.
Coming into the game, Passaic Tech had not allowed more than 14 points all season and yielded two touchdowns in a game just twice. Yet, here were the Mariners with touchdowns on their first two possessions of the game and were set for another score on their third possession before penalties forced a punt. That forced the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone on offense.
Passaic Tech knew it needed to get something going and quickly against New Jersey's highest-scoring team so the offense took to the air starting from its own 21-yard line with 2:06 left in the half. The Toms River North secondary was up to the challenge with Pruitt breaking up a pass on first down and Taylor's passes falling incomplete on the next two downs. Just 27 seconds ran off the clock during the three-and-out, which gave Toms River North plenty of time to find the end zone for the third time.
With 1:39 remaining in the first half and the ball at the PCT 49-yard line, the Mariners need just two plays to take a 21-0 lead and put Passaic Tech in uncharted territory. On 2nd-and-9, Ford rolled to his left to escape pressure and heaved an off-balance throw to Jackson, who got behind the cornerback, hauled in the pass, and sprinted toward the end zone for a 48-yard touchdown.
There was no scoring in the third quarter, mainly because Ford was dealing with severe leg cramps that forced him to exit the game six times in the second half. He tried to work through the pain but lacked his usual power and speed.
"Micah cramps easily and when it starts it doesn't stop," Oizerowitz said.
He had to leave the game after gaining eight yards on the first play of the third quarter, so the Mariners turned to Pruitt as a Wildcat quarterback and inserted sophomore TJ Valerio as the traditional quarterback on other plays. Ford returned for two more plays on the drive with gains of 9 and 6 yards but left the game after each play. A 17-yard run by Pruitt put the ball inside PCT territory at the 34 and Ford's 6-yard run gained a first down, but a holding penalty wiped out the yardage and brought up 3rd-and-17. Valerio's pass to Kazanowsky down the seam was broken up by Jones and Passaic Tech took over at its own 27-yard line.
The defense picked up the slack immediately. Passaic Tech gained one first down on the next possession, but on 2nd-and-10 from the 38-yard line, Pruitt came on a secondary blitz from Taylor's blind side and dived for a strip-sack that Ty Boland recovered at the PCT 27-yard line. The Mariners were unable to do anything with the field position, though, when on 4th-and-2 Ford's pass attempt slipped out of his hands and fell harmlessly to the turf for a turnover on downs.
Toms River North was still firmly in control of the game when the fourth quarter began, but things got interesting when Passaic Tech finally got on the board with 8:48 left. After a 22-yard pass from Taylor to Kiritsis moved the ball across midfield, Dye took advantage of a three-man front and busted loose for a 47-yard touchdown run to cut TRN's lead to 21-7.
"That's my fault we gave up the touchdown," Oizerowitz said. " They caught us in a dime with a three-man rush. They were doing anything all game against our four-man front."
Passaic Tech had even more life after the Mariners went three-and-out on their next series with Ford still on the sideline trying to work through the leg cramps. Kaiden Rex stopped Pruitt for no gain with a great tackle on 3rd-and-5, and the punt traveled just eight yards to the Toms River North 40-yard line with 6:31 remaining. It was now or never for Passaic Tech if it wanted to begin a rally. The Toms River North defense knew it, too.
"We knew if we got a stop it wins us the game," Kazanowsky said.
Passaic Tech moved to the 29-yard line via a defensive holding penalty and Dye gained 14 yards two plays later to put the ball at the 10-yard line on a first-and-goal. Dye then gained two yards on first down, but that was as close to the end zone as the Bulldogs would get. Baiocco deflected a pass attempt on second down to force an incompletion, then another pass was incomplete on third down. On fourth down, Taylor looked toward Kiritsis on the right side of the end zone but the throw sailed incomplete with Jackson in coverage. Toms River North had forced a turnover on downs with 4:17 left.
"There were some nerves and a slight worry, but we overcame that with clutch plays," Moore said.
Speaking of being clutch, Moore delivered the final exclamation point of the season just a couple of minutes later. Ford returned on the first play and rushed for 12 yards to push the ball out to the 20-yard line for an important first down. He had to leave the game again, but Moore took over from there to seal the championship. Moore gained 10 yards on the next play to put the Mariners in position to run out the clock with another first down or two. After a pair of false starts pushed the Mariners back 10 yards, Moore got the yardage back and then some with an 80-yard touchdown run that put North up 28-7 with 2:25 left. The vibes on the sideline were at an all-time high as the realization set in that a state championship was about to be theirs.
"I saw beautiful lead blocks in front of me," Moore said. "They had been attacking outside the box all game so I knew if I got to the second level I could cut it back."
A last-ditch effort by Passaic Tech ended with a turnover on downs at its own 36-yard line, which allowed Ford to take the field one more take to receive the snap, take a knee, and conclude the Mariners' unprecedented championship season.
"We knew Passaic Tech was a very good team and the best challenge we had faced all season," Oizerowitz said. "We jumped up them early and it got hairy in the fourth quarter, but our team showed their character. I'm glad, in a way, that we got to win it like that."
"We trained for this all season," Josh Kaye said. "When they scored it lit a fire under us and gave us the push we needed to finish it off."
Fourteen wins, zero losses, the most points in state history, and the first-ever NJSIAA Group 5 state championship. The 2022 high school season was special, and fittingly, so was this Toms River North team. They started the season with high expectations after returning most of their starters off a team that reached the 2021 South Jersey Group 5 sectional final. Those expectations grew each week until it became clear that going all the way was not only possible, it seemed inevitable. The Mariners matched the moment and the high stakes of the playoffs with five outstanding performances to finish off a historic season.
There will be many more Group 5 champions in the years to come and surely some 14-0 teams, but the 2022 Toms River North football team can always say they were the first. They will forever be immortalized in Shore Conference lore as one of its most dominant champions.
Toms River North 28, Passaic County Tech 7
Toms River North
TR North (14-0)
Passaic Tech (11-3)
TRN — Camryn Thomas 25-yard pass from Micah Ford (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
TRN — Ty Kazanowski 10-yard pass form Micah Ford (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
TRN — Nasir Jackson 48-yard pass from Micah Ford (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
PCT — Trashon Dye 47-yard run (Efrain Sanchez kick)
TRN — Josh Moore 80-yard run (Yianni Papanikolas kick)
RUSHING — TRN: Josh Moore 10-127, Micah Ford 23-109, Jeremiah Pruitt 8-42, TJ Valerio 1-1, Team 2-(-7); PCT: Trashon Dye 17-117, Cashmere Jones 7-11, RaySun Belton 1-2, Travon Dye 1-2, Jovan Tyrell 1-1, Ma’Kao Taylor 2-(-11).
PASSING — TRN: Micah Ford 6-7-0 117, TJ Valerio 0-1-0 0; PCT: Ma’Kao Taylor 5-22-0 98.
RECEIVING — TRN: Nasir Jackson 3-57, Jeremiah Pruitt 1-25, Camryn Thomas 1-25, Ty Kazanowsky 1-10; PCT: Michael Kiritsis 2-65, Cashmere Jones 2-32, RaySun Belton 1-1.