By Tom Szieber
Posted: Monday, December 5, 2016 11:00 pm
Just like every year, the 2016 NJSIAA sectional football finals brought drama, excitement and an opportunity for some of the Garden State’s top gridiron talent a chance to shine.
In North 2, Group 2, it came in the form of sophomore running back Matt Mulcahy, who converted a 17-yard touchdown on a pass from quarterback Michael Kearney to give Madison a 13-7 victory over Lenape Valley with just 15 seconds to play. The Dodgers completed their season without a blemish on the schedule, and handed the Patriots their second setback of the year. Lenape Valley suffered both of its losses to Madison, as a matter of fact, by a total of nine points. The Pats pushed the Dodgers to their limits again, but Mulcahy’s late-game score put his team over the top once more.
For Paramus Catholic, it was a familiar face in running back Alijah Jackson who put a stamp on the Paladins’ 33-28 victory over St. Peter’s Prep in the Non-Public, Group 4 championship game. Jackson had perhaps the biggest play of the game when he broke an 82-yard touchdown in the fourth. It was his second score of the second half, and part of an 11-carry, 127-yard rushing day. Quarterback Andrew Brito (126 rush yards) and running back Jonathan Clark (130 yards) made it three players with at 125-plus yards for the Paladins.
Brito wasn’t the only quarterback who had a big rushing day. Morris Hills’ Daymon Fleming had 15 carries for 102 yards, rushing for a decisive 57-yard touchdown with under five minutes to play in their eventual win over Parsippany Hills in North 2, Group 3. The victory marked the end of a 41-year title drought for the Knights, a group that had gone 7-13 over the past two seasons.
For the second straight year, Westfield took down Bridgewater-Raritan in the North 2, Group 5 final, this time by a final score of 15-13. Defensively, the Blue Devils kept Panthers quarterback Nick Attanasio in check, sacking him five times and holding him to just 79 yards through the air. The Westfield 'D' was also responsible for the touchdown that proved to be the difference maker, when Adam McDaniel took a second quarter pick 39 yards to the house to give his team a 15-7 lead. The defense also stopped what would have been a game-tying two-point conversion in the fourth, preserving the victory.
One quarterback that certainly was not held in check was Nick Patti of St. Joseph (Mont.), who was an efficient 9-of-14 for 277 yards and four touchdowns in a 26-17 victory over DePaul in the Non-Public, Group 3 final. Patti threw an early pick six that allowed DePaul to jump out to an early lead, but bounced back with a 61-yard pass to receiver Nick Cantone to tie the game. That connection was the first of two between Patti and Cantone, who connected on a 46-yard touchdown in the third.
One year after going 3-7, Manasquan is a Central, Group 2 sectional champ again, downing Bernards in emphatic fashion, 42-7. Running back Conor Morgan rushed for 128 yards and two scores and Canyon Birch and Thomas Meyer combined for 152 yards and three more to push the Warriors to the title. The win snapped a five-game win streak for the Mountaineers, who scored a season-low in points
Running back Elijah Barnwell ran wild in Piscataway’s 34-13 victory over Manalapan in the Central, Group 5 final. Offensively, he was an unstoppable workhorse, rushing 29 times for 185 yards and three touchdowns. Defensively, the Chiefs were on point, as well, holding outstanding Braves QB Luke Corcione to just 14 yards through the air. Running back Naim Mayfield got 160 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, but Piscataway’s 'D' held strong and kept Manalapan to its lowest scoring output of the year.
Quarterback Dave Estevez did it all for River Dell in North 1, Group 3, as Old Tappan’s inability to solve him lead to a 26-20 overtime victory for the Golden Hawks. Estevez showcased his ability to be a premier passer, going 17-of-29 for 249 yards and two touchdowns, as well as a workhorse, rushing 23 times for 115 yards. His elusiveness and athleticism were on display all game long, and Old Tappan simply couldn’t do enough to compensate.
Just two years after Sayreville forfeited nearly its entire season, the Bombers are North 2, Group 4 champions. Despite trailing by a touchdown at halftime, they rode fullback Jaquae Roberts to two second-half touchdowns that paced them in a rally against an outstanding Middletown North squad. Roberts ended up carrying the ball 25 times, pounding the Lions 'D' for 159 hard-earned yards, as the Bombers won, 41-14.
In Central, Group 4, Allentown was dominant in steamrolling Brick Township, 41-6. In doing so, the Redbirds put forth a true team effort, particularly in the run game, where they rumbled for 328 yards. Brick, meanwhile, managed just just 178 total yards on offense. The rushing duo of Joe Mannino and Aydon Chavis combined for 247 yards rushing, while QB Jordan Winston finished the day with 103.
Rumson Fair Haven walked away with the Central, Group 3 championship after downing South Plainfield, 27-22. Running back Matt Vecchiarelli was the catalyst, tallying 195 yards and three touchdowns, while linebacker Mike Ruane and the Rumson 'D' slowed down a Tigers offense that had proven it had the ability to put up points in bunches throughout the year.
For the second straight game, Weequahic’s defense held Shabazz to just eight points, and the Indians dropped 18 of their own to earn the North 2, Group 1 title. The victory gave them their second-ever title, and came on the backs of a defensive unit that forced six takeways -- including two picks by cornerback Tyler Phillips. Defensive back Ali Beh returned a fumble for score, while safety Jahid Alexander snagged a pick six.
Wide receiver Eddie Lewis took a hook-and-lateral 45 yards with just seconds to play to push Mater Dei Prep to a historic Non-Public, Group 2 championship, 26-20 over Holy Spirit. A five-yard pass from QB George Pearson to wide out Kyle Devaney set up the lateral, and Lewis was off to the races, capping a remarkable transition for a program that was once on the brink of shutting down. Pearson had a big day, himself, going 11-of-19 for 214 yards and three touchdowns.
Asbury Park put together an epic fourth-quarter rally against Keyport in Central Group 1, scoring 20 unanswered to win, 26-17. Bishops RB Nymeir Agologos ended the day with both the go-ahead touchdown with four-and-a-half minutes to play from the 11, and another to ice it away. He finished with 145 yards, as Asbury avenged an early-season loss to the Raiders.
For the first time in five years, Delsea will not reign supreme in South, Group 3. Running back Sean Larkin and Wall did their thing all day, as the former rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns. His backfield compatriot, Chevesse Coleman, rushed for 54 yards and a score, as well. The Wall rushing attack was so dominant it needed only a single completion from QB Eddie Scott, to clinch the 20-7 victory.
Paulsboro pulled out a tight 29-26 victory over Salem in the South, Group 1 final, on the legs of Dehron Holloway, who ran for 108 yards and two touchdowns. For a while, the Red Raiders had issues with Salem’s two-headed rushing monster of Jonathan Taylor and Zaire Jones, but tightened up considerably on defense in the second half. Holloway’s 67-yard fourth quarter touchdown ended up being the game winner.
South, Group 5 was the showcase for the biggest upset of the weekend, as Millville came away with a 22-16 victory over Toms River North, who had been the top public school team in New Jersey for the entirety of the fall. Running back Clayton Scott ran for 128 yards for the Thunderbolts, who led 20-0 after a one-yard touchdown run by Marcial Ramos in the second quarter. The Mariners rallied, but only got as far as the Millville 45 on their last real drive.
Timber Creek quarterback Devin Leary made multiple types of history in leading the Chargers to a South, Group 4 championship win over Lenape. In the 31-10 victory, Leary went 23-of-34 for 357 yards and three scores, which allowed him to lock up the New Jersey state career passing record, with a final tally of 3,688 yards. Timber Creek actually trailed 10-0 after the first quarter, but took control in the second and never looked back.
Mahwah defensive end Jack Wood experienced the kind of moment linemen live for, making the game-deciding play in a championship victory for his team. The T-Birds were knotted up at 28 with Westwood with barely over four minutes to play, when Wood nabbed an interception and went 31 yards to the house. It proved to be the difference in a back-and-forth contest, giving Mahwah a 35-28 win and another North 1, Group 2 title.
A missed extra point decided the North 1, Group 5 championship, as Ridgewood edged Passaic County Tech, 14-13. It was revenge for the Maroons, who were beaten soundly by the Bulldogs a year prior. Running back Zach Feagles had another big day for the Maroons, rushing for 91 yards and both of the team’s touchdowns. The title is Ridgewood’s first since 2004.
West Deptford took the South, Group 2 title away from Cedar Creek, beating the defending champs 19-13 a year after losing to them on the same stage. Quarterback Peter Orio was a modest-yet-efficient 2-of-3 on the day, but hit running back Ken Lim for a 33-yard touchdown pass in the third that gave the Eagles a 12-point lead. Later, Lim played another important role in the win, icing the victory with a late interception from his free safety spot.
Another quarterback that often makes his noise with his legs, Hasbrouck Heights’ Frank Quatrone was loud in the Aviators’ 30-12 win over New Milford in the North 1, Group 1 title game. Quatrone rushed for 295 yards and three touchdowns, offsetting the 246-yard day by New Milford running back Christian Correa in the win.
And Wayne Hills won another sectional crown, coming out on top against Wayne Valley, 31-24 in overtime in the North 1, Group 4 final. Their win certainly wasn’t conventional, as it required a quarterback throwback pass that set up a short touchdown by running back Luca Grave. Still, with a seven-point lead, the Hills defense needed a stop, which it got in the form of a Valley fumble that rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
The finish for Hills and Valley exemplified the thrills we’ve come to expect on championship weekend. The 2016 edition certainly didn’t disappoint.
Tom Szieber can be reached by emailing email@example.com.