Mastroianni wins MVP in Sunshine Classic
The throwing aspect of the position--especially under pressure--felt a little foreign to Ray Mastroianni at first.
But the running, the leading and the winning, well, that's all become pretty much second nature for the Bridgewater-Raritan quarterback these past few months.
Mastroianni was just under three weeks removed from guiding the Panthers lacrosse squad to an undefeated season and second straight Tournament of Champions crown, and looked on a few of his early throws as if he'd indeed been playing something other than football lately.
But he settled down remarkably well to pass for 96 yards and a touchdown and also rush for 96 yards to propel the West to a 16-6 win over the East at the 16th Sunshine Football Classic Thursday night at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.
While Mastroianni guided the offense with guts and skill, end Jimmy King of Notre Dame and tackle Jake Graziano of Hopewell Valley anchored a stingy, hard-hitting defense to help the West snap a four-game losing streak in the Sunshine.
"I hadn't thrown a ball in a while, and it's definitely a lot different when you have guys coming after you," Mastroianni said. "I figured I'd just go out and have fun. And I'm surrounded by a bunch of great players. Without them, I couldn't do it."
Mastroianni was named MVP of the game, but insisted that the award could easily have gone to key members of that West defense, which allowed just 85 yards in the first half and 153 for the game.
King was named Outstanding Lineman for the West after compiling five tackles and a sack, a forced fumble and also a blocked field goal attempt in the first quarter. Graziano was also in on five tackles, recorded a sack and blocked a PAT attempt after the East scored with eight seconds remaining in the contest.
"Our defense was ridiculous. They should be getting the MVP," Mastroianni said. "If you could give an MVP to that many kids, they should get it. I thought the defense was absolutely unbelievable."
The defensive tone seemed to be set on the East's first two possessions, a three-and-out deal on the first and King's blocked field goal on a 34-yard attempt with 1:09 to go in the first quarter. But that unit actually offered a glimpse of what would unfold by making life very tough for its own offense during practice sessions.
"All week in practice, our defense pretty much dominated our offense, so we felt pretty comfortable going into the game," Graziano said. "But you can't go into a game relaxed. We came in going full bore with everything we could and it turned out successful for us."
Success such as the West enjoyed is no easy venture due to heavy restrictions placed upon the defense in the Sunshine Classic. Blitzing is prohibited and there are even rules against certain alignments.
"It's geared for the offense to be better," the Bucknell-bound King said. "But as a defense we came out hard and we wanted to shut them down. Everyone had the same goal to shut them down and we all just pulled together. I was impressed the way we played as a team."
The West defense performed much more like a unit that has been together for six weeks instead of six days. King, Graziano, Ed Carrington of Lawrence, James Burke of Bridgewater-Raritan and the other linemen were able to both hurry the quarterbacks and provide their linebackers and secondary easy access to the running backs with steady pressure. The longest run for the East was a 19-yarder in the second half by Brett Stroman of Hamilton.
"They did put limitations on what we could do, but that didn’t affect us," the Monmouth-bound Graziano said. "We just ran our base the whole time and that was exactly what we needed to do. We did our individual jobs and just got it done as a unit."
The West's third possession was Mastroianni's first, and he displayed the same kind of versatility and sharp game sense that he showed all spring as an All-State midfielder for the 21-0 lacrosse team. He will play lacrosse at Lehigh.
Mastroianni threw incomplete on two of his first three passes, but gave the West solid field position when he scrambled for 28 yards to the West 46. He then hit Ewing's Ronald Valentine on a 22-yard pass and threw consecutive nine-yard completions to Hopewell Valley's Matt Pagano to put the ball on the 16.
After a 1-yard run by Jihad Bryant of Lawrence and two incompletes by Mastroianni, the West opened a 3-0 lead with a 32-yard field goal by Bill Eldridge of Montgomery with 8:33 left in the first half.
"In the fall you get used to the pressure coming at you, but when you've been away awhile, it's tough," Mastroianni said. "My arm isn't as good as it was in the season, but my legs are alright."
King helped set up the West's next scoring drive when he forced a fumble that was recovered by Trenton's Jason Levy at the East 31 with 6:11 to go in the first half. Chris Evans of West Windsor-Plainsboro South threw incomplete on first down and then Bryant swept off left end for 31 yards and a 9-0 West lead.
"I was impressed with how we all pulled together on defense. You felt the guy behind you had your back," King said. "I think the defensive line was the strongest part of our defense. Every person on the defensive line had an amazing game."
The West forged a 16-0 lead on Mastroianni's 15-yard pass to Marty Flatley of West Windsor -Plainsboro South with 2:54 to play in the game, but the East answered with a nine-play, 69-yard drive capped by Stroman with an 11-yard run.
Mike Kinney covers football for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS