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Rutherford knocks off Hasbrouck Heights in overtime thriller

The NJIC Championship game between the Rutherford Bulldogs and Hasbrouck Heights featured plenty of compelling storylines. Two undefeated teams at 7-0. In an NJIC semifinal game at New Milford last week, the Bulldogs erased a 20-point deficit by scoring 35 unanswered points in the final 18 minutes of the game. On the flip side, the defense had yielded only 8.4 points a game.

Riding an 18-game winning streak, the Aviators were seeking their second consecutive NJIC Championship title. Hasbrouck Heights offense rolling all season long amassing 295 points while a staunch defense yielding just 81 and  11.6 points per game. The question would be which team flinches first.

On a cold and blustery night, both offenses found it tough going in the first half that featured penalties, turnovers and turnovers on downs. The only score came on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Aviators quarterback James Klenk to JC Pagan.

Rutherford Head Coach Andrew Howell said afterwards the most important part of a football game is the first four minutes of the third quarter where the momentum could shift easily and make a statement right there.

Following a 29-yard kickoff return by Abellany Mendez to the 38, quarterback Kyle Russell orchestrated an 8-play, 62-yard drive that carved out 3:14 and Mendez capped off breaking into the clear for a 22-yard touchdown run. Rutherford’s defense did an outstanding job of shutting down the electric tandem of Klenk and Jasiah Purdie. Coming into the game Klenk had thrown for 750 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 351 yards but on this night held to 13 carries on 42 yards and 11 of 16 passing for 72 yards. Purdie had caught 26 passes for 521 yards and eight touchdowns but only able to record 6 receiving yards while rushing for 50 yards.

After the Bulldogs defense came up with a defensive stop on fourth down early in the fourth quarter, Russell went back to work completing a 31-yard pass to Rich Marques. On the very next play, Mendez (12 carries for 114 yards) continued to pound the rock, sprinting for a 37-yard gain. Inside the Aviators 10, Rutherford ran into a brick wall as Hasbrouck Heights defense refused to allow another yard, the Bulldogs went for it on 4th and 2 at the four-yard line but came up short again.

Getting the ball back at their own 44 with 1:28 remaining, Klenk completed a key 17-yard pass to Pagan. Handing the ball off to running back Nick Facchini who gained 15 yards advancing the ball to the Bulldogs 24-yard line. With three seconds left, it came down to a 42-yard field goal attempt by kicker Matthew Gwzisc but the kick sailed wide right sending the game into overtime.

In the overtime session, Rutherford got the ball first after Hasbrouck Heights had won the coin toss and elected to go second. Part of a running attack that ran 33 times for 187 yards, Marques (16 rushes for 56 yards) barreled his way for 22 yards. On third and goal at the three, Russell fired a laser pass to Mendez in the back of the end zone for the five-yard score. Attempting to tie the game up, the Aviators employed some trickery on their first play but Tyler Aponte stepped in front of a wide receiver in the end zone for the interception setting off a wild celebration.

“We needed to come out strong and make big plays and not in mental mistakes in penalties, blocks in the back,” said Kyle Russell. “Our team believes that we can comeback always.”

“We came out with energy in the second half and coach always preaches about finishing,” said Abellany Mendez. “A great feed by Russell, found me open and made the play.”

“Our defense played great in the second half and Russell did a great job of extending the play, Mendez not the first option but Johnny (Abellany) is the just a playmaker,” Howell said. “A great feeling and so proud of these guys but we’re not done.”

“That was one of the best public schools in Bergen County we had to knock off and knew our work would be cut out for us. Our goal and we wanted to be the team to stop the streak and no better place to do it under this environment and incredible high school football game. We beat a very good football team today and we don’t quit, our kids are winners, confident and can’t wait for state playoffs.”

Sunil Sunder Raj

Sunil Sunder Raj

Sunil is the Rockland Boulders Beat Writer for and also covers North Jersey High School Sports
Sunil Sunder Raj

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