Defending state champs Neptune fell to the ferocious, unrelenting play of the Buccaneers, as Red Bank Regional rolled to victory, 21-19, powered by the touchdowns of Tajhi Tomaino and Jahimere Hinton and a brutal defense that baffled the Scarlet Fliers.
Tomaino, a senior standout, took a hand off from quarterback Ross Gisondi and scrambled 70 yards for a touchdown on the Bucs' first possession. Erwin Pupovic's kick for the extra point - the first of three - put the Bucs up 7-0 less than two minutes into the game.
Playing at home under crystal-blue skies, the Bucs never let up in a nail-biter that saw defensive end Garrett Sickels beat back Neptune's last gasp at a game-winning touchdown by stripping the ball from the quarterback as time ran out.
"Good things happen when the team works together during difficult times," said Coach Nick Gigilo, referring to close losses in past games. The victory puts the Bucs at 1-2 in division play, and 1-4 on the season.
Neptune's loss put the Scarlet Fliers in a three-way tie for first place in the division.
Neptune's offense has been especially potent all season, but was no match yesterday for a Bucs defense led by seniors Sickels, Dillon Stambaugh, Isaac Coates, Gisondi and junior Dylan DeVita.
Neptune tied the game with just over two minutes left in the first quarter after a long drive, with Scarlet Fliers running back Miles Martin taking the ball into the end zone off the left tackle, followed by an extra point.
The first quarter ended with the Bucs driving, led by keepers by Gisondi and runs by Hinton. And on fourth down at the start of the second quarter, Gisondi, back to punt, kept the ball and sprinted to the Neptune six yard line. But a Bucs fumble was recovered by Neptune at their own 13, and the Scarlet Flyers took over.
Neptune never got traction, however, with Stambaugh tackling runners in the backfield, a false start penalty, and pressure on the Neptune quarterback by Sickels. Neptune was forced to punt, and Red Bank took over at its own 34 at 8:37 of the second quarter.
The Bucs' passing game failed to take hold, and the Bucs were forced to punt, with junior Saiquan Thigpen taking down Neptune's receiver at the Neptune 35, with 7:35 left in the first half.
After Gisondi took down a Neptune runner for a loss, and a Flier penalty for delay of game, Gary Johnson forced a Neptune fumble. Tomaino picked it up ran the ball down field for a touchdown at 6:35 for the third quarter, with blocking assistance from Sickels. The Pupovic extra point put the Bucs up 14-7.
On Neptune's next possession, Mario Williams of the Bucs recovered another Neptune fumble, but the Bucs, starting out at the Neptune 36, couldn't get moving. A Red Bank Regional punt was downed by Adam Lynch at the Neptune two yard line. Neptune, anxious to put more points on the board before the half, threw long, but the pass was broken up by the Bucs' Gary Johnson.
At 3:55 of the second quarter, the Scarlet Fliers started out at their own 25. The Neptune offense looked strong and was driving, but pressure by Sickels, tackles by Coates, and Tomaino's pass defense held Neptune at the Bucs 32 yard line with 2:35 left. Gisondi broke up a pass play in the end zone at 1:21, and a Neptune penalty put the Scarlet Fliers at fourth down and eleven yards to go at the Buc 25.
Neptune went for it, but the Bucs' Ryan Seely was having none of it, intercepting a Neptune pass. The Bucs took over at their own 40, but fell short of the end zone as time ran out in the first half, Bucs ahead 14-7.
On Neptune's first drive of the second half, the Bucs' DeVita recovered a Neptune fumble, and the Bucs began a strong drive, including runs by Tomaino, Hinton, and Coates. And on third down at the Neptune nine yard line, Hinton ran the ball in for the Bucs' third touchdown. Another Pupovic extra point put the Bucs ahead, 21-7, at 9:33 of the third quarter.
A Bucs onside kick left Neptune starting at their own 40, quickly moving to the Red Bank 37. But Stambaugh tackled a Neptune runner for a loss at 7:15 of the third quarter, and when Neptune again went for it on fourth down, a Scarlet Fliers pass was blocked by DeVita, and the Bucs toook over on downs at 6:40 of the third quarter at their own 31 yard line.
The Bucs were frustrated by the Neptune defense, and were forced to punt on fourth down. The Fliers took over on their own 49 yard line at 4:34 of the third quarter, and a quick 49-yard pass play put six more points on the board for Neptune. But the Scarlet Fliers failed to make the extra point, making the score 21-13.
Neither team scored on their next possessions. As the fourth quarter began, a Neptune pass play was again broken up by DeVita. But Neptune drove steadily toward the end zone with a series of short passes. And at third down and three to go on the Buc 10, Gisondi knocked down a pass in the end zone.
But as the dust cleared, Tomaino, face down, didn't move. He was eventually immobilized, and as he gave his team a thumbs up, was taken from the field by ambulance.
On the next play, a Neptune pass into the end zone connected, and Neptune narrowed the Bucs' lead. Neptune then tried for two points, but failed, putting the score at 21-19, Bucs, at 8:34 of the fourth quarter.
On the Bucs' next possession, Gisondi faked a punt and passed to DeVita for a 65 yard run, but an illegal shift penalty on the Bucs put the ball back on the Bucs 30 yard line.
The Bucs had to punt, but with the Scarlet Fliers threatening, a Neptune pass was tipped, and Sickels intercepted it and carried it to the Buc 46 yard line with less than five minutes remaining. Gisondi ran a keeper into the end zone at 3:10 of the fourth quarter, but a Buc penalty caused the ball to be brought back to the Neptune 48. A number of Gisondi runs moved the ball, but the Bucs had to punt.
So with a minute left in the game, Neptune started out at its own 36 yard line.
DeVita blocked one pass, and Sickels blocked another, but with 30 seconds left, Neptune passed for a first down just inside the Buc 30 yard line. A holding call against the Scarlet Fliers brought the ball back to the 41. There, on the last play of the game, Sickels stripped the ball from the Neptune quarterback, and it was jumped on by players from both teams as time ran out.
Coach Giglio attributed the win to a tough week of practice . "Despite being 0-4 our team prepared and played like we were 4-0," he said.
"We played as a team and made the most of our opportunities," said Sickels. "When there were setbacks, we just kept working, and it all paid off."
His teammates agreed.
"We worked on things in practice and knew that when they made mistakes we needed to capitalize, and that's what we did," said Gisondi.
Tomaino, who was taken from the game by ambulance after a stellar performance, said after the game: "Our hard work paid off in the end and we played with consistency."
"I love my team," he said.
Red Bank plays Matawan at RBR's homecoming game next Saturday at noon.