Late Game Heroics Secure Northern Highlands a Spot In State Championship
Photo by: Anthony Ferrara
The North Hunterdon Lions and Northern Highlands Highlanders met at the line of scrimmage. North Hunterdon just drove down the field in overtime, with Navy-bound running back Kente Edwards plowing into the end zone from the one yard line. The Lions had answered back after Highlanders quarterback Nate Johnson found Fred Kanning over the middle for a physical 14-yard bullrush to the endzone. The events that were to transpire seemed obvious: the Lions would kick the extra point then try and get a stop on defense before going for the win. The ensuing kick was not what was supposed to happen in a normal football game, but this game was anything but normal. A Northern Highlands player got his hand on the kick at the line, sending it off course. Pandemonium ensued as the Highlanders secured back-to-back regional championships and the chance to play for a state championship at Rutgers.
The first quarter started sloppily for both teams. After failing to move the ball during the first two drives, Northern Highlands head coach Dave Cord took out junior quarterback JR Walley and gave the reins back to sophomore Nate Johnson. Johnson was the starter for the majority of the year, but missed time in concussion protocol. He immediately made his presence known, finding Danny Smiechowski from ten yards out for the first points of the day. North Hunterdon would control the ball into the second quarter, getting to the red zone before a snap went sailing over quarterback Luke Martini’s head and was recovered by Highlands. This would not matter, with the Lions defense standing tall and getting the ball back. North Hunterdon would put on one of their best drives of the day, with Martini delivering a strike down field before Edwards scampered into the endzone to tie the game at a score a piece.
North Hunterdon would try some trickery, with an arching squib kick going off the chest of a Highlander and back into the Lions’ possession. The trick would not pay off, asNorthern Highlands edge rusher Peirson DeBruyn would force a fumble that set up a drive capped by a Nate Johnson touchdown run. Down by a touchdown, Hunterdon gained back their momentum and trudged down the field with under a minute left in the half. The drive would stall in the red zone, with Martini being picked off on the goal line.
It was an uncharacteristic game in the turnover department for North Hunterdon, losing a fumble and throwing three interceptions. A number of bad snaps ruined drive momentum at times too. The majority of these mistakes were made in the first half, the offense cleaning up nicely for the final push. It would pay off in the fourth quarter, as the Lions roared down the field with Martini finding Derek Vaddis for a 31 yard gain and Edwards finishing the drive in the endzone again to tie the game up. The events of overtime were fitting for the game, and the third nail-biter in a row where the Highlanders came out on top. Northern Highlands now holds wins over Irvington, Ramapo, and Northern Hunterdon in the playoffs. They are battle tested and will await the winner of Millville-Mainland at Rutgers for the first-ever Group 4 State Championship.