By Brian Deakyne
TOMS RIVER – With county pride on the line, area football players delivered last Thursday night in the U.S. Army Gridiron Classic at Toms River High School North.
The game, played annually by the best players from Monmouth and Ocean counties, finished in a 19-7 win for Monmouth County, which leads the all-time series 20-15-1.
Red Bank running back Jahimere Hinton had six carries for 26 yards and Middletown South running back Eli Smith had four rushes for 37 yards to help pace Monmouth’s offense.
Regardless of the finish, though, both running backs said the experience was one neither would forget.
“It was real fun and I became attached to some of these guys; some of these guys are like my best friends now,” Hinton said. “It’s real cool playing against Ocean County. You play these guys during the season, but now we get to interact.”
“It was a crazy experience,” Smith said. “In the first day or practice, it was a different atmosphere, but it was fun. The speed is really different because everyone’s talented, but I made new friends that I’ll probably have for the rest of my life.”
After Monmouth County jumped out to a 6-0 lead on a game-opening 12-play drive, the game was halted for a 30-minute lightning delay.
Neptune quarterback Ajee Patterson, who finished with two touchdown passes on the game, hit Holmdel wide receiver Robbie Cantelli for a 14-yard strike in the second quarter to give Monmouth a 12-0 lead. Patterson had also connected with Colts Neck wide receiver Tim Vangelas in the first quarter for a touchdown.
Colts Neck quarterback Ryan Campbell threw a touchdown pass in the third quarter when he found Vangelas in the corner of the end zone to push Monmouth’s lead to 19-7.
Ocean County scored its lone touchdown of the game in the second quarter, when Brick Memorial quarterback Ryan Cieplenski found Point Beach wide receiver Andre Cochran in stride for a 29-yard score.
“The people here in Monmouth County are pretty neutral,” Hinton said. “It’s either represent or sit back. I got enough playing time – we all did – and representing Monmouth County and the people we grew up with and knew from our hometowns is awesome.”
Aside from winning, there was plenty of pride on the line for local athletes.
“Even though I was only at (Middletown) South for one year, it’s always big to represent them,” Smith said. “They have such a rich tradition and big program and they’re known for good things, good kids, and most importantly, good character. That’s the main thing, it’s great playing for them.”
“It’s awesome. I bleed maroon and white. I love it,” Red Bank linebacker Dillon Stambaugh said. “It was an honor to be selected to do this and work my ass off and play with all the guys.”
Red Bank finished the 2012 football season at 4-6 and missed the playoffs, so for Stambaugh and Hinton, it was a special night.
“It’s a total honor. So many people have congratulated me, and when it’s in the moment, I didn’t realize how special this is,” Hinton said. “I like to overachieve, so when I looked at what I’m doing, and given the outlook in life, I realized that I’m blessed. I’m just happy to be here and represent Red Bank Regional.”
“You just want to win. The ultimate goal is just having fun,” Stambaugh said. “It’s hard-nosed, but at the end of the day, it’s an all-star game, you’re just trying to have fun. It’s the last football game I’ll ever play, so that’s pretty cool.”
Red Bank Catholic was represented by linebacker Dylan Hroncich and defensive lineman Rich Curran. Wide receiver John Ryan was the lone Rumson player in the lineup.
The win is the second straight for Monmouth County, which won last year 28-7.