O’Toole rallies Bulldogs past Raritan, 34-27, to win state sectional championship


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HAZLET — The words “epic rally” would be an understatement for what the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School football team was able to pull off against Raritan High School to win the 2022 NJSIAA South Jersey Group II state sectional playoff championship on the evening of Nov. 11 in Hazlet.

The fourth quarter began with Raritan leading 27-10 and with the Bulldogs unable to stop senior running back Kieran Falzon, who scored three touchdowns and rushed for more than 300 yards through three quarters of play.

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Things did not look promising for the Bulldogs in their quest to win a sectional title for the first time since 2018, but their desire to win could not be denied as they rallied to claim the program’s seventh sectional title since 2010.

Led by sophomore quarterback Owen O’Toole, the Bulldogs rallied to tie the score, 27-27, as the fourth quarter ended and won the sectional title on their second possession in overtime to defeat the Rockets, 34-27.

“We were down, but we kept saying we believe and that we were going to come out here and give it our all,” senior defensive lineman Marshall Halfacre said. “There’s no better feeling than winning a championship. We got guys who are dedicated and guys who want it more. Our team doesn’t need the flash. We just go.”

Halfacre recovered a fumble at the end of the third quarter and the Bulldogs began their comeback.

“Coach (Jeremy Schulte) always says, ‘big players make big plays at big times.’ That was the spark we needed,” Halfacre said of his fumble recovery.

On the Bulldogs’ possession with 10:12 to play, O’Toole rolled to his right and fired a four-yard pass to wide receiver Scott Venancio, who was able to keep his feet inbounds for the touchdown. Following the extra point, the Bulldogs trailed, 27-17.

After Raritan punted with 5:50 to play, O’Toole led a quick scoring drive. The quarterback connected with wide receiver Cole Cashion on a 60-yard bomb.

O’Toole’s pass covered most of the distance and Cashion ran in the final few yards for the score. Following the extra point, the Bulldogs trailed, 27-24, with 4:53 to play.

“We stuck to our game plan the whole game and knew it was going to work at some point and it clicked at the right time,” O’Toole said. “It’s not all me. I have 10 other guys on offense helping to show me the way. Everybody did their job and it clicked at the end.”

When the Rockets got the ball back, the Bulldogs stopped them and took possession with 3:05 to play. An eight-play drive ended when senior Oliver Lorraine kicked a 36-yard field goal to tie the score, 27-27, with 1:23 to play.

Lorraine went 2-3 on his field goal attempts and 4-4 on his extra point attempts in the championship contest.

“I can tell you right now that (Oliver Lorraine) was the reason we won this football game,” Venancio said. “He made some big kicks to keep us in the game.”

In overtime, each team gets possession of the ball at their opponent’s 25. Neither the Bulldogs nor the Rockets scored on their first possession.

The Bulldogs had the ball first in double overtime and before their fourth play, O’Toole and Venancio both saw that the senior had a one-on-one matchup in the slot. The quarterback and receiver communicated that fact with each other and the rest is history.

O’Toole found Venancio on an out route at the 11 and Venancio did the rest by running along the sideline and into the end zone to complete the 19-yard touchdown pass. Following the extra point, the Bulldogs led 34-27. It was their first lead of the game.

“You needed a freight train to stop me from getting (into the end zone),” Venancio said of his game-winning touchdown catch. “I knew right away we were going to win this game and that the defense was going to get that stop to help us win this ring.”

The defense sealed the state sectional championship for the Bulldogs by stuffing the Rockets in four plays on their second possession in overtime. On fourth and 20, senior cornerback Beau Kemler intercepted a pass to end the game.

After catching two touchdowns against Raritan, Venancio has nine touchdown receptions in 2022.

O’Toole threw for 281 yards against Raritan and has 22 touchdown passes this fall.

Rumson-Fair Haven’s first touchdown of the contest came in the third quarter on a seven-yard run by junior tailback Alastair Orr.

As the son of two Rumson-Fair Haven graduates, O’Toole said he always dreamed of playing football for his parents’ alma mater and helping the Bulldogs win a championship.

Getting a chance to live that childhood dream was an “unreal” feeling for O’Toole, who was proud to deliver another state sectional crown for the school’s record book.

“There’s one thing you do when you go play football at RFH and that is win a state championship. It’s what everyone before us did and what you shoot to do every year,” he said.

Schulte, who is in his first-year as the Bulldogs’ head coach, said the comeback victory was “incredible” and indicative of how his players have fought all season to become champions.

“It’s something special. I put my trust in the coaches and my trust in the players to get the job done. We had guys step up (tonight). It’s absolutely incredible,” Schulte said.

With the win over Raritan, Rumson-Fair Haven (7-4) has advanced to play in the semifinals of the Group II state tournament.

The Bulldogs will play Central Jersey Group II state sectional champion Willingboro High School on Nov. 20 at Cherokee High School in Marlton.

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