By Tom Szieber
Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2017 9:45 pm
Like every year, finals weekend saw the emergence of brand new stars and the latest act of some established ones. There were a host of players who stepped up on the biggest stage in New Jersey high school sports.
Among them was running back Abellany Mendez made several big plays for Rutherford in the North 2, Group 2 final against Hackettstown. Mendez had a 72-yard touchdown run in the first, which accounted for most of his 96 yards on the ground, and also caught a 24-yard score in the third. Those scores were pivotal in a game that Rutherford ended up winning, 21-13. From his cornerback spot, he also knocked down a potential game-tying pass in the end zone in the fourth.
Westfield made it 37 wins in a row -- and, more importantly, three North 2, Group 5 titles in a row -- with its 20-7 win over Bridgewater-Raritan. It was the Blue Devils’ third consecutive win over the Panthers in the finals, this one coming largely thanks to a great defensive effort. It was bend-but-don’t-break, coming up with big stops even as Panthers running back Anthony Goffe did pile up 174 yards. Linebacker Jacob Dayton had a second quarter interception for Westfield, as well.
For the first time since 2004, Bergen Catholic is the champion of Non-Public, Group 4, and the Crusaders earned that accolade in dominant fashion. BC crushed St. Peter’s Prep, 44-7, led by another stellar and balanced performance by quarterback Johnny Langan. Langan went 9-of-18 for 117 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 91 yards and two TDs, as well. The victory was solidified by a strong defensive effort led by defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste (3.0 sacks). St. Peter’s didn’t help its cause, racking up a number of costly penalties and bringing a sour end to an otherwise outstanding year.
Quarterback Tarrin Earle was outstanding for Montclair, leading it to a 35-14 win over Union City in the North 1, Group 5 final. Earle went 16-of-24 for 309 yards and scored three total touchdowns (two passing), and spread the ball around to slice through an excellent Soaring Eagles defense. Wide out Colin Callahan caught 7 passes for 124 yards, and Danny Webb took the game’s opening kick to the house from his own 7. Webb’s impact was minimized a bit due to an injury in the third quarter, but Earle and the rest of the offense were more than able to carry the offensive load, giving Montclair its fourth title in the last six years.
Newton walked out of Kean University with the first North 1, Group 2 title in its history (its first title in any section), with receiver Jaiden Elliot coming up huge with five catches for 101 yards and two scores. His impact was huge, and gave the Braves a 28-14 victory over Lakeland that was far different than the one it earned back in October. In that contest, Newton rushed for 461 yards; this time around Elliot was the playmaker whose connections with quarterback Luke Young spelled trouble for the Lancers. Of course, the run game was still a factor for the Braves, with fullback Chase Cramer rushing for 141 yards and a touchdown.
Sophomore running back Nahree Biggins’ two first half touchdowns spearheaded a 20-13 Hillside victory over Point Pleasant Boro in the Central, Group 2 final, giving the Comets their first sectional title since 1985. His first came from the 2 to put Hillside on the board in the second, and his second came later in the first half on a 36-yard screen pass from quarterback Tajae Irby. Those touchdowns put the seventh-seeded Comets up, 14-0, and they’d never look back. Biggins also had 13 tackles and a pick from his safety spot.
One of the most inspirational performances of the weekend was by West Essex quarterback Zach Lemanski, who threw four touchdowns in the Knights’ 28-14 North 2, Group 3 championship game win over Voorhees. Lemanski missed 3 games after suffering a broken hip, but found the end zone almost every time he completed a pass in the final, going 5-of-7 for 160 yards. The victory gave West Essex its first title since 2011.
Shabazz defeated Weequahic in the North 2, Group 1 just as it had on Thanksgiving, but in far more convincing fashion. After a low-scoring 7-0 shutout win by the Bulldogs just a week ago, Shabazz came out and steamrolled its Brick City rival, 35-0. Defensively, the Bulldogs were near-flawless, with cornerback Shakee Pearson nabbing a pick and linebacker Michael Fields recovering a fumble. Offensively, quarterback Anthony Travis was the star, going 7-of-11 for 141 yards and four scores. Wide receiver Sean Sanders was on the receiving end of four of those completions, for 66 yards and two TDs.
The South, Group 5 final was about as dramatic as you can get, as Lenape kicker Stephen Mulville gave his team its first sectional title ever, hitting a 33-yard field goal with five seconds to play to down Rancocas Valley, 10-7. Quarterback Matt Lajoie hit wide receiver Brandon Marshall on a 19-yard pass to get Lenape to the 16-yard line to set up the kick. The kick was redeeming for Mulville, who’d missed a field goal in the Oct. 6 meeting between the two teams. That miss proved to be the difference on the scoreboard, as RV won that one, 10-7.
Long Branch quarterback Juwan Wilkins hit running back Elijah Sherin with a game-winning two-point conversion in overtime to deliver an equally dramatic victory for the Green Wave, who beat Freehold Boro, 43-42 for the Central, Group 4 crown. The attempt followed a 6-yard touchdown connection between Wilkins and running back Pasa Fields, one of Wilkins’ 18 completions on 25 attempts. He threw for 260 yards and three touchdowns, while running back ran for 155 yards and two scores on 29 carries. The win negated a sensational effort by Freehold Boro QB Ashante Worthy, who rushed for 271 yards and six touchdowns and threw for 141 yards, as well. Long Branch trailed by 14 in the fourth, but a 1-yard run by Wilkins to knot things up with a minute to play in regulation allowed the Green Wave to pull off the victory in the extra period.
Mount Olive made it tough, but Old Tappan managed to hold on to win the North 1, Group 4 title, 31-28. The victory came after a back-and-forth game that came to a head on a fumble recovery by defensive lineman Jack Dippolito, which stymied Mount Olive’s attempt to win the game in the final minute at the Golden Knights 29-yard line. Old Tappan running back Marquez Antinori starred for the victors, rushing 28 times for, 123 yards and two touchdowns.
A late score not only gave Haddonfield the South, Group 2 title for the first time in three years, but some payback for an October loss to West Deptford. Jay Foley found tight end Drew Gavranich on a 51-yard touchdown pass with 2:36 left in the game to push the Bulldawgs ahead for good. The victory came despite the Bulldawgs trailing 17-7, a deficit they began cutting into with a 15-yard scoring run by Foley with :19 to go in the third.
South Brunswick came out with a shocking 18-14 victory over Manalapan in the Central, Group 5 title game, winning the game on a Felix Quinones 17-yard touchdown pass (his third of the day) to running back Jaylan Lawson with 53 seconds on the clock. The touchdown capped an 11-play, 92-yard drive that Manalapan simply couldn’t stop. Still, the Braves nearly pulled off a miracle with ten seconds to play, but running back Naim Mayfield’s apparent touchdown grab was wiped from the books due to him being flagged for offensive pass interference.
Running back Jasiah Purdie was a beast in the North 1, Group 1 title game, carrying the ball 16 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns to lead Hasbrouck Heights to a win over Pompton Lakes, 39-14, and a second consecutive championship. He added a fourth touchdown on a 47-yard fumble return in the third. That defensive score, plus Purdie’s 68-yard scoring sprint in the second, put Heights ahead by 17 going into the fourth, and deflated the Cardinals’ championship hopes in the process.
North Hunterdon signal-caller Matt Busher had to overcome three interceptions, but ended up throwing for 246 yard and two touchdowns in a thrilling 21-20 Lions win over Phillipsburg in the North 2, Group 4 championship game. P’Burg led 14-0 before Busher hit wide receiver Griffin Honthy on a 12-yard scoring pass, to cut the lead to seven at the half. A 34-yard TD from Busher to receiver Jared McMahon gave North Hunterdon a permanent lead in the fourth, and a missed PAT by the Stateliners following a fourth quarter score resulted in the final score.
A year after losing all but its last game of the year, Middlesex has completed an 11-1 season and won the Central, Group 1 title. Point Pleasant Beach made it a five-point affair in the third quarter, but Blue Jays quarterback John Kressbach found wide receiver Zach Godfrey on a 60-yard touchdown to keep them safely ahead. RB Tom Rau scored on a 5-yard run in the fourth to put the finishing touches on a 33-21 win.
Quarterback Jalahn Dabney led Somerville for much of the of the Central, Group 3 final with his arm, passing for 211 yards and a score to lead the Pioneers to a 20-15 win over Rumson-Fair Haven. But it was a three-yard TD on the ground (his second rushing touchdown of the day) that gave Somerville a lead it wouldn’t relinquish, as the Pioneers took the lead permanently with just :53 to go. Dabney rushed for 84 yards and converted a two-point conversion through the air, as well, preventing the Bulldogs from capturing a fifth straight sectional title.
RB/DB Dehron Holloway simply did it all in Paulsboro’s 34-24 win over Penns Grove in the South, Group 1 final. Defensively, he stymied the Penns Grove attack all day long, snagging three interceptions and taking one 77 yards to the house. He caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Gabe Onorato to kick off the scoring, and later cashed in on a 2-yard run. If ever one player made a difference in a competitive sectional title game, Holloway did it here.
River Dell quarterback David Estevez was just as dominant in the Golden Hawks’ 28-7 win over Ramapo in the North 1, Group 3 championship game. Estevez went 9-of-10 for 187 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 98 yards and three more. He also picked off three passes from his free safety spot. The victory allowed the Golden Hawks to not only win the title, but make amends for the only blemish on their schedule -- a 23-20 loss to the Raiders on Oct. 20.
When Woodrow Wilson tied the South, Group 3 title game at 22 on a 1-yard touchdown by running back Jairo Ramos and a two-point conversion, the Tigers seemed to have seized momentum. They took a lead when quarterback Nick Kargman hit receiver Travon King on an 11-yard TD pass, but had their PAT attempt blocked. But Delsea made just enough big plays to pull out a win, scoring late when RB Aidan Borguet reached pay dirt from a yard out. A Larry Holdcraft kick was the difference, and Delsea hoisted hardware for the fifth time in six years.
Shawnee had little trouble dismantling Hammonton in the South, Group 4 final, winning by a score of 41-6. Renegades QB Colin Wetterau was 10-of-19 for 251 yards and two touchdowns, both of which went to wide receiver Daevon Robinson. Hammonton simply couldn’t keep up with the Shawnee offense, which scored 122 points in three playoff games.
St. Joseph (Hamm.) was the powerhouse it is known to be in the Non-Public, Group 2 final, outrushing Mater Dei Prep for 432-66 to roll to a 30-14 victory. Running back Qwashin Tonsel ran for 223 yards and two scores, with RB Jada Byers not far behind at 200 and 2.
And DePaul finally got the monkey off its back, beating St. Joseph (Mont.) for the first time in 44 years to win the Non-Public, Group 3 title. The defensive slugfest ended with a score of 7-3, the only touchdown coming at the buzzer in the first half when quarterback Taquan Roberson hit wide out Teddy Harper on a 6-yard pass. Roberson went 15-of-26 for 140 yards, and the Spartans defensive was spectacular, limiting Joe’s to a Angelo Guglielmello 34-yard field goal.
Tom Szieber can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.