By Jeff Appelblatt
No athlete wants to end a season on a loss, especially in heart-wrenching fashion, like ones that are decided on one of the most unique, late-game plays some of the participating athletes will ever see.
The football team from Freehold Township High School knows all too well what a loss in that manner feels like. About halfway through the fourth quarter of its NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group V playoff game Nov. 11 in Freehold, South Brunswick High School’s defense got to Patriots quarterback Charles Sabbagh quicker than he saw someone to pass to. As a result, the rushing Vikings sacked the senior.
In this instance, Sabbagh had backed into the end zone. The safety gave two points to South Brunswick — the same two points that would end up being the difference in the 23-21 loss for Freehold Township.
Freehold Township’s coaching staff knew its quarterback was going to drop back into the end zone on the play. The coaches just expected Sabbagh to be able to get rid of the ball.
“We knew [Sabbagh] was going to drop back. We were just hoping he had an opening to throw the ball,” Freehold Township head coach Cory Davies said after the game. “But he didn’t have the time to throw it.
“You’d rather lose, 28-0, than lose, 23-21, and lose on a safety at the end of the game.”
But the safety wasn’t at the very end of the game. More than six minutes remained on the clock when Sabbagh and the Patriots got the ball back. They had time to overcome that play. It just didn’t happen. South Brunswick’s defense continued to suffocate the ball en route to its victory.
And the only thing that mattered to Sabbagh after the game was the fact that his team lost.
“We lost how we lost. It doesn’t really matter how we lost,” the senior, who completed 15 of 27 pass attempts, said after his final game. “I’m just so upset it had to come to an end early. We wanted to make a run [in the playoffs].”
Freehold Township scored early when Sabbagh launched a 10-yard pass to Tyrique Hall for the first of his two touchdowns on the night. But before the first quarter ended, South Brunswick tied the game, 7-7. And the second quarter was all about the Vikings’ ability to turn its defense into offense. Multiple interceptions, in tandem with a sack, led to South Brunswick holding a 21-7 lead.
But the Patriots didn’t fold. Sabbagh connected on a 28-yard touchdown pass to Adrian Rybaltowski in the final two minutes of the first half, knocking the Vikings’ lead down to seven, 21-14.
And then the second half was all about defense for both sides. Other than the 19-yard touchdown pass Sabbagh got to Hall about halfway through the third quarter, no one was getting into the end zone. The score sat knotted at 21-21 until the fourth-quarter safety — the one that wound up the difference in the game.
While South Brunswick (7-2) will continue on in the playoffs to face top-seeded Manalapan High School (10-0) Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. in Manalapan, Freehold Township’s season is over with a 7-3 record.
Davies knows that Manalapan, whether the team expresses it or not, has an axe to grind with South Brunswick. Last year, the Vikings closed out the Braves’ playoff run when they topped Manalapan, 27-21, with a game-ending touchdown.
Freehold Township’s coach doesn’t expect this year’s game between those teams to end like it did then.
“South Brunswick is a good team, but I don’t know if anybody could compete with Manalapan,” Davies said, remembering the 35-0 defeat Manalapan gave his team the prior week.
And whether he or any of his athletes watch anymore football this season, coach Davies hopes his players will remember the good times they had on the field.
“Our guys played outstanding all season long. It’s been a great year for us,” the coach said. “I told the kids after the game, you focus on that; [focus] on all the good things we did and not worry about the final game of the season.”
Much of what Davies said to his team was primarily to the seniors.
“I said at the end that we really appreciated them, that we loved having them, that I loved coaching them and that they’ve done something that had never been done here at Freehold Township: they went to the playoffs two years in a row. They had seven wins, [which] tied the school record for wins in a season,” Freehold Township’s coach said. “They did some outstanding things, and it was great I was around to be able to coach them.”