By Warren Rappleyea
Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School got off to an excellent start in its effort to win a fourth consecutive state sectional football championship.
The fourth-seeded Bulldogs built a 14-0 lead in the first quarter over fifth-seeded Cranford High School in the opening round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group III playoffs. Thanks to a solid defense that intercepted three passes and its ball-control attack, Rumson-Fair Haven rolled to a 23-13 win on a windy evening Nov. 11 in Rumson.
Two big plays highlighted the opening quarter. First, Bulldogs quarterback Michael O’Connor broke free for a 50-yard touchdown run. Later in the quarter, it was running back Matt Vecchiarelli’s turn. The senior’s 34-yard run put his team up, 12-0, before a successful two-point conversion.
Cranford (7-3) entered the contest averaging nearly 40 points per game. Rumson-Fair Haven’s defense was more than up to the task, shutting down the visitors throughout the first half.
After receiving the second-half kickoff, the Bulldogs started deep in their own territory. What occurred next was classic Rumson-Fair Haven football, as it meandered down the field, eating nearly eight minutes off the clock before the Cougars defense stiffened. Coach Jerry Schulte’s team still cashed in when Thomas Chapin connected for a 24-yard field.
“We like to grind it out on offense and let our defense do the rest,” Schulte said. “It’s worked for the 12 years I’ve been here.”
Cranford finally got on the board early in the fourth quarter, but Rumson-Fair Haven responded immediately with a 53-yard touchdown run by Vecchiarelli, who ran for 112 yards on the evening. The Cougars came back to score again and then recovered an onside kick. The drive ended on Ryan Tuorto’s interception.
“By scoring 14 points early, we put them in a position of having to play catch-up,” Schulte said. “They had to take some chances and do some things that they don’t generally do, and that worked in our favor.”
The Bulldogs (7-2) will face top-seeded and undefeated Somerville High School in the semifinals Nov. 18. If anything, the Pioneers have an even more formidable offense than Cranford, having scored 41 or more points in each of its games.
“[Somerville is] a strong team,” Schulte said. “They run a spread offense and they have several fast skill players. Defensively, it will come down to us being disciplined and doing the things we’re supposed to do.”
Shore Regional High School (6-3), the top seed in Central Jersey, Group I, dominated eighth-seeded Keansburg High School in an opening-round game and walked off the field with a 50-21 victory.
The Blue Devils will host fifth-seeded Asbury Park High School (6-3) in the semifinals Nov. 18. The two teams clashed on opening night in Asbury Park and the Bishops came away with a 14-7 win. The Bishops are coming off a solid 33-14 triumph over New Egypt High School in their opening-round matchup.
Shore Regional played Keansburg (2-7) in the regular season and won going away, 42-0. This time around, the Blues Devils again controlled the line of scrimmage, piling up 437 yards on the ground. Mark Russo led the way for the Blue Devils with 232 yards, including touchdown runs of 41, 56 and 5 yards.
Quadir Larson ran for another 108 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, while Josh Campi scored a pair of touchdowns and picked up 82 yards on eight tries. Blue Devils quarterback Matt Pennell took to the air just once, hooking up with Gil Goldsmith for a 31-yard scoring pass.
It was a solid all-around performance for Shore Regional, which is looking for its third straight Central Jersey, Group I championship. Coach Mark Costentino’s team looks to turn the tables on Asbury Park, which ended Shore Regional’s 20-game winning streak thanks to a late touchdown after the Blue Devils tied things up in the fourth quarter Sept. 9.
The winner will square off against the victor of the other semifinal between second-seeded Point Pleasant Beach High School and third-seeded Keyport High School. In regular-season play, Shore Regional downed Point Pleasant Beach, 21-7, but fell to Keyport, 21-20, as the result of a missed PAT.
All four teams remaining in Central Jersey, Group 1 compete in the Shore Conference’s Class B Central Division. Division champion and undefeated Mater Dei Prep will host Saint Joseph High School of Hammonton in the Non-Public, Group II semifinals Nov. 19.
Red Bank Catholic
In Sparta, sixth-seeded Red Bank Catholic (RBC) High School’s season ended with a deceiving 48-21 loss to the third-seed, Pope John XXIII Regional High School. The Caseys took an early 7-6 lead and twice came back to trim the deficit to seven points before the Lions pulled away.
Pope John struck less than a minute into the contest on a 21-yard touchdown pass to ignite the home crowd. The visitors showed poise, however, slowing the Pope John offense on a subsequent possession and scoring themselves on a 19-yard run by Zach Bair with less than three minutes remaining in the opening quarter.
The Lions responded by striking quickly for a pair of touchdowns before the quarter ended. RBC came back on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Steve Lubischer to Kevin Baumann. Just 28 seconds later, the Lions came up with a big play, as Berrell Neal scored on a 75-yard run to make the score 28-14 at halftime.
When play resumed, the Caseys again came back. Lubischer teamed up with Jaden Key for a 23-yard touchdown pass. The Lions immediately responded with another big play — this time an 89-yard kickoff return by Jhadir Charles to put the lead back at 14 points. Pope John put up the next 20 points to put the game out of reach.
The youthful Caseys, plagued by injuries including a shoulder problem that sidelined Lubischer for most of the year, finished at 5-5. Along the way, RBC downed Ocean Township High School and Middletown High School North.