by Andrew Garda
For the seventh time in nine years, the Montclair High School football team is ending the season where they belong.
The Mounties resoundingly defeated North Bergen, 47-12, in the NJSIAA North 1, Group V semifinals Saturday at Woodman Field, earning them a shot at their second straight sectional title this weekend.
Making it all the sweeter, top-seeded Montclair (7-4) will host a sectional final at Woodman Field for the first time since 1990, as they welcome No. 2 Ridgewood (8-2) this Saturday, Nov. 17, at 1 p.m. The winner will advance to play the North 2, Group V champion in the first ever “Super Sectional” bowl game at MetLife Stadium, which will be played either Nov. 23-24 or Nov. 30-Dec. 1.
This year’s championship game will be their seventh under ninth-year head coach John Fiore (84-21), and the Mounties will be shooting for their fifth title in seven years.
And the opponent will be a familiar one, as Montclair and Ridgewood will meet in the state playoffs for the fourth straight year. Montclair rolled to a 49-14 win in last year’s N1G5 semifinal, atoning for back-to-back semifinal losses to the Maroons in 2015 and 2016.
This past Saturday’s semifinal saw Montclair overwhelm fifth-seeded North Bergen (7-3) by scoring touchdowns on all five first-half possessions, and by a defensive effort that forced a season-high six turnovers.
On a windy Saturday that would make passing difficult, the Mounties’ two-headed running attack of Josh Crawford (167 yards, 4 TD) and Charles Murphy Jr. (82 yards) carried the day.
“I’ve got to give credit to the offensive line — 100 percent,” Crawford said. “I literally mean to tell you that the gaps were wide open — like a car could fit through there. I just got to give my utmost appreciation to my offensive line, because without them I couldn’t have accomplished what I accomplished today.”
But early on, the game seemed like it would be a real fight as the two teams traded scores.
After Walter King recovered a Bruin fumble on their opening possession, the Mounties only needed five plays to score. Much like they had against West Orange, Murphy and Crawford traded carries, with Crawford scoring on a one-yard plunge into the end zone. A diving catch by tight end Kevin Zaccareo on the two point conversion made it 8-0.
North Bergen responded immediately though, as Jaylon Melendez broke off a 50-yard kickoff return down the sideline, setting up a seven-play, 30-yard touchdown drive capped by a Michael Santini TD run.
But it took Montclair just two plays to answer, as Crawford broke through a big hole for a dazzling 64-yard touchdown run.
North Bergen showed some early resolve, answering that drive with a 12-play, 65-yard drive scoring drive, again capped by a Santini touchdown in the waning seconds of the first quarter. And while they missed the two-point conversion, maintaining Montclair’s lead at 14-12, it looked like the Mounties would need to pour on the points and win a shootout.
The offensive onslaught continued as Crawford broke off another long touchdown, a 52-yarder, on the second play of the ensuing drive, to extend the Montclair lead to 20-12.
But then, suddenly, the Mountie defense stepped up and locked the game down.
“Can’t say enough about [Eugene] Kline and [Pat] Leonardis, the offensive game-plan was on point,” Fiore said. “I think we scored on almost every drive at the beginning of the game. Really kept it going. And defensively after a couple of adjustments we got it going.”
King forced a fumble on North Bergen’s next possession, and Tariq Jiles jumped on it
Seven plays later, Crawford was in the end zone for his fourth touchdown of the game and his 18th of the year. Fiore said Central Michigan is getting a fantastic running back in the person of Crawford, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard season rushing mark in Saturday’s win.
“He’s a pile mover, he can catch the ball, as we’ve seen him do in the slot for two years and he’s a thick-bodied kid with some wheels,” said Fiore. “He gets into a Division I program, gets some training under his belt, and Central Michigan has got a great one.”
Crawford has now topped 100 yards each of the last three weeks, putting him at 1,084 yards for the season.
North Bergen again took over and began driving down the field, with the slow, methodical running style which had ground down so many teams this season. North Bergen controlled time of possession for more than 30 of the game’s 48 minutes, but couldn’t make it count; after falling behind by 15, the Bruins squandered a 13-play, 42-yard, nearly-seven-minute drive with a turnover on downs.
Meanwhile, it again took the Mounties very little time to score, as Murphy hit King on a deep sideline route for a 53-yard touchdown to go up by a score of 33-12.
For several drives, the Bruins had put King in single coverage, and often had just one defender covering both King and Steven Rose, who was stacked in front of him. It seemed obvious that at some point the Mounties would go vertical and test the secondary.
Well, obvious at least to the Mounties receiver.
“The whole time I was sitting there, looking at the safety to see what he would do,” King said. “The corner was already in press coverage. So, when I was going out on my route, I was watching the safety. I saw him come down [towards the line of scrimmage] and I knew it was going to be a touchdown. I depended on Murph to get me the ball, and he did it.”
King easily left his coverage behind him and Murphy’s pass was easily his best of the season, a perfect throw well downfield which hit his receiver in stride.
Montclair opened the second half with its first non-scoring drive of the game, but King deflected a Thomas Liggio pass, and it bounced right to Amarae Witter for an interception.
That Mountie drive stalled too, but North Bergen obliged with another mistake to set up the next Mountie scoring drive, this time a fumbled punt snap that gave the Mounties the ball in the red zone.
Montclair’s offense finally got back on track on the ensuing drive, which saw Murphy hit Witter with a nine-yard score, Murphy’s 14th TD pass of the year and Witter’s first TD catch.
Fiore was effusive in his praise for the underrated Witter, calling him a “Swiss army knife” for the Mounties this year. Witter has been an impact player at outside linebacker, racking up 57 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks. He’s also caught 8 passes for 126 yards, better than 15 yards per catch.
“Wait to you see him at nose guard!” Fiore said, jokingly. “Amare has been a key contributor to this team even when he wasn’t a starter last year. He’d come in in spot moments, special teams, and he was always creating turnovers or getting them. Swiss army knife is probably the perfect explanation of what he is.”
With the outcome decided, Montclair capped the scoring with one last highlight-reel play early in the fourth quarter, as Murphy hit Steven Rose on a short pass to the flat on 3rd-and-long. Rose broke several tackles, ambling 23 yards into the end zone for his first score of the season.