Rockets’ late-season surge ends in state playoff opener


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By Matthew Rocco

The Raritan High School football team needed five wins in five games to book a ticket to the state playoffs, and the Rockets delivered in the clutch. A sixth consecutive win proved elusive, though, as the Rockets’ attempt to defend their state title was brought to an abrupt end.

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One year ago, the Rockets stunned Lincoln High School with a last-second, game-winning touchdown in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group II championship. The two teams met again in the state playoffs Nov. 12 — this time in the first round. Lincoln turned the tables on Raritan, surging to a 30-7 lead at the halfway mark that was too much for the Rockets to overcome in a 38-22 loss.

“We feel like we had a shot against anybody in the state tournament, but Lincoln is obviously a great team,” head coach Anthony Petruzzi said.

Raritan paid the price for two costly turnovers in the final minutes before halftime. The Rockets had the ball down 14-7 before quarterback Marc Carnivale was intercepted twice, with one going 49 yards for a Lincoln touchdown.

But the Rockets fought back in the second half. Carnivale rushed for an 8-yard touchdown with 6:15 remaining in the third quarter.

The offense returned to the field when Lincoln’s Kamani Addison fumbled the football, giving Raritan great field position at Lincoln’s 32-yard line. Carnivale capitalized on the turnover with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Michael Wojtowicz, and Raritan was back in the game down just one score, 30-22.

Lincoln managed to slow Raritan’s momentum on the next possession. Addison capped a long fourth-quarter drive with his third touchdown of the day, putting the game out of reach.

The loss to top-ranked Lincoln doesn’t erase the Rockets’ impressive feat of winning five games in a row after dropping their first three games of the season. Those early struggles backed Raritan into a corner, but the team responded in a big way. The Rockets positioned themselves for a postseason berth in their final game before the tournament — a 41-13 victory on the road at Red Bank Regional High School.

“They did a great job winning five straight to get in. I’m proud of the effort they gave to get there, and I’m proud of their effort [against Lincoln]. Last year, we had three must-win games to get in; this year, it was five,” Petruzzi said. “The guys have been raising their level of play week in and week out. It’s just hard to put in that level of effort week after week. It finally caught up to us.”

The head coach also praised the Rockets (5-4) for maintaining their poise and their focus, even as the pressure continued to build in the final weeks before the state tournament.

“They conducted themselves with a calm attitude in the face of adversity. They were not really affected by outside expectations or criticisms or the pressures put on you by being a defending champion. I think they handled themselves very gracefully. I’m proud of them. That attitude allowed them to come together and win those five games,” Petruzzi said.

There’s still one more game to play this season: a Thanksgiving Day showdown with Holmdel High School (2-7).

For the Rockets, the game is an opportunity to end the year on a positive note and send off the senior class in grand fashion.

“I want them to bounce back. When you’re expected to defend a state title, it’s tough to bounce back in such a short amount of time. But I’m going to challenge them this week,” Petruzzi said.

“It’s another chance for us to play together and be on the field, especially the seniors. With the legacy they have left for the program, it’s important for us to put a great foot forward against a rival in Holmdel.”

Raritan will host the Hornets on Thanksgiving Day with a 10 a.m. kickoff.

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