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OCEAN CITY -- From a rough start to last season to a heartbreaking ending in the sectional final, Toms River North's football team knows all about adversity. There was no way the Mariners were going to let just a couple of bad plays stop them from starting 2022 with a victory.

Junior quarterback Micah Ford ran for 131 yards and two touchdowns and threw a touchdown pass, and Toms River North's defense came up with clutch plays in the second half as the Mariners (1-0) held off Washington Township, 28-21, to start the season with a victory down at the Battle at the Beach showcase at Ocean City High School's Carey Stadium.

Ford carried the ball 26 times and scored on runs of 2 and 4 yards. He completed 7 of 12 passes for 86 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown strike to junior wide receiver Tareq Council. Junior cornerback Jeremiah Pruitt intercepted a pass and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, junior running back Josh Moore ran for 67 yards, and sophomore defensive back Nasir Jackson pulled down a game-clinching interception with under a minute left in the game.

"Coach always tells us that we're going to face adversity, it's football," Ford said. "You just have to stay patient and let the game come to you."

Ford picked up the 2022 season right where he left off last season when ran for 1,451 yards and 17 touchdowns and threw for 944 yards and eight touchdowns en route to being a Shore Sports Network First Team All-Shore selection. And he did so playing with a heavy heart.

"I played this game for my friend Isaac, who passed away yesterday," Ford said. "Everything was for him today. I just want to send condolences to his family."

The Mariners had a big advantage in time of possession, especially in the first half when they ran 37 offensive plays compared to just 12 for Washington Township. The Minutemen cut into that disparity in the second half but Toms River North still ended up running 20 more plays (59-39). That is the formula for a Toms River North team that is big up front and plays a bruising style in their power-spread offense. Ford is a load to tackle on every play and Moore runs much harder and bigger than his 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame might suggest.

"That's our identity," said Toms River North head coach Dave Oizerowitz. "We can big-play you but our philosophy is to wear you down and then make you tackle our skill. It body-blows you into submission. The way it went down was probably to script. They were faster and wanted to play on the edge and you saw how dynamic they can be if they get there."

Toms River North controlled the first half of play, but the game was tied 14-14 at halftime thanks to a pair of big plays by Washington Township.

The Mariners began the game with a 13-play, 57-yard scoring drive that 7:06. North mostly chipped away with 5-yard runs, but came up with a big play when Ford rumbled for a 25-yard gain on third-and-15 from the TRN 38-yard line. Moore had a key block downfield that helped spring Ford past the first-down marker. Ford finished off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run on third and goal and sophomore Yianni Papanikolas knocked through the extra point.

It took just three plays for Washington Township to respond.

After a 14-yard run by Logan Perez put the ball at the Washington Township 36-yard line, quarterback Jared Dziergowski got to the edge and raced 64 yards for a touchdown that tied the game 7-7.

Toms River North answered on the next possession, going 65 yards in 10 plays to take a 14-7 lead. Ford had a 13-yard run from midfield halfway through the drive and then, on first and 20 from the Township 36-yard line, Ford dropped a perfectly-placed ball down the seam and into the hands of a streaking Council, who secured the pass and crossed the goal line for the score.

"It was actually designed for Kaz (senior tight end Ty Kazanowsky); because of how they were playing it they didn't have anyone on the tight end, but then they ended up covering him," Ford said. "The safety cheated over and I just saw Tareq right down the middle and I knew he was going to catch it."

"He's come a long way (as a passer)," Oizerowitz said. "He really evolved late last season and coming into this year he's now a quarterback who can run the football as opposed to a tailback who can throw it a little. And he's going to keep improving."

Toms River North's defense forced a three-and-out on the next Township possession and then drove to the Minutemen's 42-yard line. The Mariners appeared poised to add to their lead, but a sack by senior Nate Leone on first down was followed by a fumble that senior Jason Diblasio scooped up and raced 50 yards down to the North 4-yard line. On the next play, Dziergowski found a hole and scored on a 4-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 14.

The game went to the half tied at 14 even though Toms River North had controlled about 98 percent of the first 24 minutes.

"Coach likes to bring up the score when we lost last year in the championship game (21-14 to Kingsway in the South Group 4 final)," and that makes us hungrier," Pruitt said. "It flipped a switch with us. We came out on defense and tackled better and on offense we were mostly lights out."

"In the second half it was about setting edges," Oizerowitz said. "If they got to the edge they would crease it every time. They had very good skill and we knew if we could box everything back to the inside we could tackle them. If they got to the edge and made it 1-on-1 it was 50/50 whether it was going to be an open-field tackle or a touchdown. Once we started forcing them inside it became more difficult for them."

The first 6:02 of the second half saw Toms River North score all the points it would need to hold on for the win. After forcing Township to go three-and-out, the Mariners marched 55 yards in 11 plays to take a 21-14 lead. Moore had a 17-yard catch and then appeared to score on a smooth 25-yard run in which he hurdled over a downed opponent, but an inadvertent whistle brought the play back to the 15-yard line and went down as a 10-yard run. Oizerwitz was furious at the call, but North made sure it only delayed a trip to the end zone. Five plays later, Ford bulldozed his way into the end zone for a 21-14 lead.

The Mariners' lead grew to 28-21 two plays into the next series when Pruitt jumped a wide receiver screen and returned the pick-6 20 yards for a score. Just like that, North had turned a tie game into a two-score lead.

"I saw the guard pop up, the wide receiver go out, and the quarterback long-arm it, and I just jumped it," Pruitt said.

Washington Township put together its only sustained scoring drive of the game on the next series, going 75 yards in 13 plays to pull within a touchdown. The Minutemen's passing game had only gained a handful of yards until Dziergowski hit Dashawn Long for 13 yards, found Perez for 17 yards, and then connected with Long again for 12 yards down to the 2-yard line. Dziergowski then polished off the drive with a 2-yard plunge with 10:36 left in the fourth quarter.

The two teams traded punts from there, including Toms River North kicking the ball back to Township with 1:31 on the clock. A 10-yard run by Dziergowski moved the ball out to the 38-yard line, but on the next play, his pass over the middle was deflected and intercepted by Jackson, who returned it to the 14-yard line to allow the Mariners to run out the clock.

"Last year we didn't start 1-0 so this was a goal," Ford said. "It's a good feeling."

"We kind of expected it to go this way," Oizerowitz said. "It was almost a glorified game scrimmage but you don't know what you're going to get this early. That was the first time we did live special teams. It's two teams I think are talented and have high hopes for the season. I thought it would be physical and come down to the wire and the heat would be a factor for both teams, which it was."

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