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Tom Horak

High School Sports

Close games, fierce comebacks highlight day two of High School Football Regional Championship’s at MetLife Stadium

North Group 1 Regional Final: Park Ridge (28) vs. Boonton (21)- After capturing their first sectional title in 24 years against Hasbrouck Heights, Park Ridge (11-1) was looking to end the season on a high note with a North Group 1 Regional Championship Title. Facing off against Boonton (8-4), the Owls started out with a flourish, led by quarterback Vincent Pinto accounting for two rushing scores in the first quarter.

However, the Bombers caught a break on a fumble by Justin Wagner attempting to field a punt in the second quarter. Starting out at the Park Ridge 21-yard line, running back Corey Dempster broke free for a 13-yard touchdown with less than seven minutes remaining. Receiving the second-half kickoff, the Boonton offense marched down the field in 14 plays and 65 yards, including QB Danny Portas completing a key 11-yard pass to running back Clyde Liverpool. On third and goal from the Park Ridge one-yard line, Portas barreled through for the score with less than six minutes to go in the third quarter.

The Owls offense managed to mount a response with a lengthy drive of their own, but on fourth and goal at the Bombers nine-yard line, Pinto was sacked, resulting in a turnover on downs. On second and eight at the 23, Portas launched a perfect strike to a wide-open Eunwoo Hahm for the touchdown.

Just when it appeared all the momentum had shifted in Boonton’s favor, Pinto changed that outlook in one play, blasting through a pack of players and sprinting 63 yards to the house. The Park Ridge defense rose to the occasion with the Bombers driving deep into Owls territory on the following possession, stopping Dempster on fourth and three at the 28-yard line. Pinto went back to work on the ground, gaining 26 yards and advancing the ball into the Boonton end of the field. On second and 11 at the 36, Pinto aired out a perfect pass in stride to wide receiver Justin Wagner down the right sidelines for the game-winning score with 1:38 left in the fourth quarter.

Pinto finished the game with 192 yards on 28 carries while completing 10 of 15 passes for 147 yards while Wagner had 121 receiving yards. For Boonton, Dempster rushed for 99 yards but only 20 in the second half.

Pinto on the regional championship win, “Things opened up. We have great play calling and that last play I felt confident throwing the ball. Justin Wagner was going to make a play. That play has been designed for him but had not been a game-breaker until now. Nobody in Park Ridge history has done this before and I have been playing with these guys since fourth grade. Never once when we were down did I say I don’t believe we can come back. We trust our coaches, players and have athletes that can go out and play our hardest. It’s surreal to cap it off like this, we had our ups and downs all year and it is just amazing to go out with a win with my best friends.”

North Group 4 Regional Final: Wayne Valley (21) vs. Northern Highlands (17)– Winning a sectional title for the first time in 28 years was a major accomplishment for Wayne Valley (11-2), but there was still one goal left: notching a North Group 4 Title. Taking on a Northern Highlands (9-3) team that had defeated the Indians last month 17-13, they ended a 41-year drought and won a sectional title.

Early on, things looked very bleak for Wayne Valley. Five seconds into the game Highlanders running back Ethan Harris busted loose for a 75-yard touchdown run. With less than five minutes remaining, quarterback Enzo Arjona heaved an 80-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Zack Saturn.

Trailed 17-0, Elijah Lugo provided a major spark, returning a punt 57 yards to the Northern Highlands 31-yard line. On third and 21 at the 45, QB Tommy Moran completed a 28-yard pass to wide receiver Anthony DePalma for the first Wayne Valley first down of the contest. Three plays later, Moran connected on an 18-yard touchdown pass to DePalma with less than six minutes left.

Outgained by a wide margin in the first half, the Wayne Valley defense slammed the doors in the second half, limiting the Highlanders offense to a grand total of 26 yards. Back-to-back sacks fueled a sustained drive by the offense. 12 plays and 70 yards were capped off by a one-yard touchdown run from running back John Testa 38 seconds into the fourth quarter.

After the Indians defense forced a quick three and out, Moran engineered a seven-play drive that resulted in a 38-yard touchdown pass to Lugo with less than six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Wayne Valley still had to endure some anxious moments late in the game. A botched fourth and one at their own 36 gave Northern Highlands an opportunity to reclaim the lead but the defense hunkered down, forcing an incomplete pass on fourth and eight. The Indians’ offense kept it on the ground to run out the clock.

Moran completed 12 of 16 passes for 178 yards and rushed for 32 yards. Testa rushed 19 times for 94 yards. For Northern Highlands, Arjona went 12 for 17 and 160 yards while Harris ran for 106 yards on 15 carries.

Lugo on the win, “Our QB (Moran) knows how to just make plays. He knows how to get into playmaker’s hands and is just a beast. We do this all the time in practice with deep routes and he and I have that connection. We went into halftime and we just said we have to pick it up. We came out slow and they came out fast and made a couple of good plays. In the second half, we were a new team. We made plays and played tough defense and ended up winning.”

Head Coach Roger Kotlarz on the regional championship victory, “This past month has been so surreal and incredible. Just the fight, grit and determination that these guys have shown. Their character has grown collectively, it’s so invaluable, and what these guys have learned this season, it is so awesome to watch their growth. We just said keep playing. The kid’s messages coming off the field was that they got this. It’s a tough thing to do considering how bad things were. At 17-7 we sort of weathered the storm. The last time we were here we were up 17-7. Once the momentum started to shift it was tangible and our defense started to smell blood in the water. We got after them and our offensive line stepped up.”

Non-Public Group 4 Final: St. Peter’s (21) vs. Don Bosco Prep (14) – Playing for a sectional title for the fifth time in the last seven years, St. Peter’s Prep was searching for its first title since 2014. Taking on a Don Bosco Prep team that squeaked by St. Joseph Regional (Montvale) in the Non-Public Group 4 semifinals and on a five-game winning streak, the Marauders got off to a fantastic start with Cody Simon returning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown with less than six minutes left in the first quarter.

The Ironmen responded on their ensuing offensive possession, however, led by running back Jalen Berger gaining 69 yards and finishing it off with a 10-yard line. The fast and furious scoring pace continued on the following series. With St. Peter’s punting inside their own 20, Don Bosco defensive lineman Jahmir Greene found an open lane in the line, blocking the punt and linebacker Colin Ramos recovering the ball in the end zone for the score with just about a minute and a half left.

Five consecutive times the Marauders offense would start inside their own five-yard line, but managed to avert any further mistakes. Meanwhile, the Ironmen offense sustained a major setback with starting quarterback Jake Robbins exiting the game for good with a shoulder injury midway through the second quarter. With Jahquil Batts taking over the signal duties, the St. Peter’s defense swarmed all over them, shutting down the passing and running lanes. After gaining 67 yards in the first half, Berger was limited to minus 10 yards in the second half while Kyle Monangai was held to 20 yards on the ground.

In the fourth quarter, the Marauders offense started to click with junior QB Tahj Bullock ( 8 of 13, 75 yards) orchestrating a 12-play 73-yard drive that consumed six minutes of the clock, including completing an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Jelani Mason on fourth and two at the Don Bosco 25. On third and goal at the five, Bullock plowed through the line, absorbing heavy contact and lunging into the end zone. Instead of kicking the extra point, St. Peter’s Head Coach Rich Hansen called for the two-point conversion play. Bullock handed the ball off to Mason who raced towards the left corner of the end zone, sneaking just inside the left pylon.

After a short kickoff, the Ironmen started out with excellent field position at their own 47. Batts completed a 28-yard pass that moved the ball to the Marauders 28-yard line. With the drive stalled out at the 26, Don Bosco attempted for a 43-yard field goal attempt. Isaiah Giles came flying through on the kick, blocking it and returning the ball for the score with 41 seconds remaining. With the Ironmen having one last opportunity to tie the game, Graziano Mazzella squashed those hopes with an interception to seal the victory.

Mason on the win, “We were a team that was just relentless and never gave up. We’re built upon effort and knew our offense would click because we have so many playmakers and knew we had to break one on that drive.”

Head Coach Rich Hansen on winning a state championship, “We have really good senior leadership and great skilled players. The line came together as the season went on. We have the best QB in the state of New Jersey. He has great poise and came through at the most opportune time. These are the most resilient group of kids I have ever coached. We thought we had a play and had them on a ropes. We’re here to win and didn’t want to go to overtime and get involved in flipping coins. Our kids wanted to do it and believed in it. We had that play in our pocket and practiced it all week and it worked. It feels great, these kids deserve it and just so happy for these seniors. Everybody picked us to lose this game. We are going to keeping doing what we do and hope people recognize us for being consistent and contenders.”

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Sunil is the Rockland Boulders Beat Writer for DoubleGSports.com and also covers North Jersey High School Sports
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