NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—How in the world did the New Brunswick High School football team get so good?
It seems the stars have finally aligned for this football team, as the 7-1 Zebras are poised to clinch a division title, if they can defeat St. Joseph's High School on November 7.
The Zebras are currently sitting atop the Greater Middlesex Conference White Division, just ahead of South Plainfield and Colonia.
Ever since head coach John Quinn left the team in 2009, the Zebras haven't had a winning season, going just 2-36-1 from 2009-2013.
Let's face it, the Zebras always have athletes, there is no excuse for them to not have a good team. It all depends on having a good coach.
This is where Don Sofilkanich comes in. Coached by the legend Marcus Borden at East Brunswick, it's no wonder Sofilkanich is such a good football coach.
This is his second year as head coach of the team.
Going 3-7 last season, Sofilkanich built the foundation of re-establishing the football traditions at New Brunswick.
The white division was insanely competitive last year, as multiple teams reached the playoff semi-finals. They held their own against tough competitors, but were too young of a team.
This year the team has completely flipped the script and has transformed those seven loses into wins.
The Zebras haven't started a season 7-0 since 2005, when they were coached by Sofilkanich, who led the team to sectional championships in 2003 and 2006. In 2003, the team was undefeated for the second time in school history.
As head coach at Asbury Park High School his teams went 33-3, winning consecutive sectional titles before he moved on to transform Neptune High School into a championship team.
Sofilkanich left Neptune the year before they won a sectional title and then coached at Bishop Ahr High School for three years before returning to New Brunswick.
The key here is this coach believes in his players. You can tell he believes in them and has confidence in their skills by watching how these athletes perform.
Take Maurice Ffrench for instance. Most coaches play athletes in one position and aren't comfortable moving them around. Meanwhile, Ffrench is placed wherever coach Sofilkanich thinks he can help the team. Hence, Ffrench can be found as a wide receiver, running back, quarterback, cornerback, punter returner, kick returner and punter.
Ffrench is considered a "commit" to the University of Pittsburgh, but now Rutgers University is also interested according to Scout.com.
Ffrench has scored a touchdown in every game this season, leading the conference in all-purpose and rushing yards.
There have also been countless times this season when Ffrench has taken a punt or kick-return to the house, displaying incredible vision on the field.
Every team knows about him, which can work for or against the Zebras on any given Friday.
Many teams have learned to not put the ball in Ffrench's hands on returns.
On the other hand, the Zebras are equipped with multiple playmakers on the team like quarterback Ja'Bree Seawright-Jeffery, running back Samad Davila and a quintet of wide receivers: Kadas Reams, Curtis Revan, German Pimental, CJ Hernandez and Kyshaun Jackson.
Jackson played well this season, but had a scary incident against Woodbridge which led him to be carted off the field. Luckily, he is doing fine and is currently recovering from the injury.
With the Zebras operating out of the "wing-T" offense, opposing defenses have had trouble figuring out which players to focus their attention on.
While teams are concerned to stop Ffrench, the offensive line can bulldoze their way up the field, opening holes for Davila.
Davila is the type of running back who will give you a hard 'pop' if you don't catch him at a good angle.
He's strong, runs hard and at the same time he can slice past defenders with his jukes.
Even when tackled he forces his way forward to gain more yards, often requiring more than one defender to bring him down.
Davila, a wise player, praised the offensive line, "I just got to follow my o-line. They are the key to my success. Without them I can't go anywhere."
The offensive line consists of left tackle Mohammed Bangura, right tackle Arturo Omedo, right guard Jovan Mercado, left guard Alon Revan and center Tah-Jeir Montgomery.
Bangura and Revan are fast, pulling to the right side when needed. Mercado, Omedo and Montgomery push D-linemen anyway they please.
Bangura has put his team first, switching from tight end to left tackle this season, even though he possesses the athleticism to play in a "skill" position.
This line operates in the power offense as well, being they have the strength to push defensive lines backwards.
Fullback Josimar Contreras helps with this and loves to shoot his way through gaps and deliver hard hits when he blocks. He happens to look and play similar to Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Davila is the workhorse on the team, causing defenses to be concerned with the inside run. But just when they decide to focus their attention in the middle, Ffrench has space to hit the outside corner and dart down the sideline.
This team can move the ball through the air just as well as they can pound it on the ground.
They work better when they throw short passes and use their athleticism to get past defenders, rather than relying on the long ball.
Seawright-Jeffery gets the job done with his arm and his legs.
He's a quarterback who can run, but is also smart enough to rely on his arm when he drops back to pass.
He is agile, making it hard to tackle him, and is a pest for defenses when he keeps the ball.
This is his first year as a starter and he has stepped up huge for his team after the Zebras lost Trevon Blakey who transfered to South Brunswick.
It appears to have all been for the best, as Seawright-Jeffery provides even more versatility for his team.
"There has definitely been a learning point," he said. "It has been tough, but I try come out and play hard every game."
Of the wide receivers, the most impressive has been Curtis Revan.
Playing tight end at times, Revan does a wonderful job at sealing the outside edge and makes great blocks in open space.
When Seawright-Jeffery targets him he simply does not drop the ball. He has hauled in important touchdowns and converted crucial 2-point plays for his team.
In their game against Bishop Ahr High School, the Zebras also faced off with another opponent: the weather. Both teams struggled to cope with the rain and winds so strong they were flipping just about every fan's umbrella inside out.
On the very first play of the game, Seawright-Jeffery slipped in the backfield because he could not get his footing.
Despite wet and muddy conditions, he lobbed a back-shoulder throw, which Revan leaped in the air over his defender to corral for an impressive touchdown.
With a playmaker like Ffrench, it is easy to turn to him when the game is on the line.
However, Revan has also been clutch, and if there is any way for the team to improve it will be to utilize Revan more in their passing game.
But let's not forget about Jeffrey Garcia. The kicker with a small windup, Garcia blasts kick-offs and extra points hard into the air for the Zebras, something he has had do quite often this season.
Besides offense and defense, special teams has been the key to the Zebra's success.
Ffrench manages to always put his team into great field position or score a touchdown on nearly every return, which has been their bread and butter.
Ffrench is great, but the blocking has been phenomenal for him when he dances over the field.
The best touchdown he has scored this season came against Carteret, on making the most of a play gone wrong.
After the Ramblers played perfect defense, they forced the Zebras to punt deep in their own half.
With Ffrench back to kick, the snap flew over his head. Picking it up around the 15-yard line with a swarm of defenders coming after him, he had no desire to kick the ball away.
He first jogged backwards to draw the defense towards him, and then sprinted to the left side of the field.
Suddenly, he switched to the right heading straight for the sidelines.
At midfield he stopped on a dime and cut back to the left, zigzagging with multiple jukes to avoid the outstretched arms of defenders, and with blazing speed, he outraced everyone to the end zone. Touchdown!
A failed punt attempt had turned into a sensational play, putting the Zebras up 28-6 at the half.
"When I got the ball I zoned out and thought I got to put some points on the board, and it was right before halftime," Ffrench said. "So I followed who was in front of me, made my cuts, kept following who was in front of me, and it led to a touchdown."
Defensively the Zebras have been a funny team. Against the Mustangs, Tigers, Ramblers, Trojans and Patriots they let up the first touchdown of the game, but later came back and dominated.
For example, the Carteret Ramblers struck first blood when quarterback Angelo Galino launched a 45-yard bomb down field to wide receiver Justin Taylor.
Taylor hit the jets and outran the defense for the touchdown, silencing the crowd in disbelief. The Ramblers were up 6-0 and missed the extra point.
But with the Zebras playing on their new turf field for the very first time, they knew they could not disappoint the fans.
With a packed house at Memorial Stadium, it appeared the entire school came out to support their team. The atmosphere was electric, and Carteret was determined to rain on their parade.
Off to a slow start, the Zebras struggled to move the ball down field.
However, they would respond in full swing later in the half.
Seawright-Jefferey looked to outdo Galino, tossing a 60-yard touchdown pass of his own. Ffrench was the recipient of the pass, putting the Zebras on the board, and in the lead 7-6 following Garcia's extra point.
Early in the second quarter Ffrench would extend the lead with a 54-yard burst down the field, putting the Zebras up 14-6.
After a 40-yard interception from Ffrench, the outstanding Zebra offensive line went to work opening holes for Samad Davila.
Davila pounded his way to the end zone on a 6-yard touchdown, capping a drive that consisted of just five running plays to put the Zebras up 21-6.
New Brunswick would go on to defeat Carteret by a final score of 35-6.
The team uses a 3-4 defense with Revan playing nosetackle and Bangura and Frank Rosario as defensive ends.
Mercado, Contreras, Pimental and Reece are linebackers, constantly showing blitz. Ffrench, Reams, Davila and Seawright-Jeffery line up as defensive backs.
German Pimental has been trouble for opposing offenses, picking up sacks and swatting down passes.
Against Perth Amboy, head coach Brad Bishop was hesitant to put the ball in Ffrench's hands, as the team never allowed a punt or kickoff to land in his possession. The Zebras still prevailed by a final score of 28-7.
Allowing a touchdown and scoring four touchdowns, the Zebras seemed disappointed with their performance despite picking up another win in their division.
By comparison the Zebras had defeated the Woodbridge Barrons 32-20, while the Barrons had defeated the Panthers 33-0.
But it was another team from Woodbridge that would give the Zebras their toughest challenge so far this season.
The Colonia High School Patriots started off 11-0 last year and lost in the state championship game. This year, they were 5-2 going into their matchup with the undefeated Zebras.
Against Colonia the Zebra offense worked to a tea, as the offensive line shoved their way forward.
But New Brunswick was overzealous on defense, trying to rush on the outside to make big plays in the backfield.
Underestimating the athleticism of Colonia the Zebras gave up too many big plays to quarterback Chase Barneys, who sped right past the Zebras and repeatedly picked up big chunks of yardage.
Doing a solid job on containing Ffrench, the Patriots were lucky to know about him.
Against Colonia Steven Reece impressively pancaked two defenders at the same time in order for Ffrench to return a kick-return for a touchdown.
Had this game been played on opening day, the result would have arguably been different, as the Mustangs were the first to play the Zebras, letting up a whopping 42 points.
The question now is: How will this team respond after picking up their first loss?
First, they need to secure a win against 3-4 St. Joseph's to win the division, but if they do, a run at the state title may be in the Zebras' future.
The game is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov, 7 at St. Joseph's High School in Metuchen.