by Kevin Meachem
Motivation shouldn’t be hard to come by for the Montclair High School football team as they spend their weeknights at Montclair State University, gameplanning for their North 1, Group V semifinal against Ridgewood Saturday.
The Maroons, after all, have ended Montclair’s championship hopes in each of the past two years. The memories are still fresh for many of the current Mounties, many of whom played key roles as underclassmen in those games.
“Our focus is going to be focus,” said junior linebacker Willie Matthews, led the team with 15 tackles in last year’s semifinal. “Ridgewood sticks to their P’s and Q’s, and they keep really clean reads. We have to be on our game.”
Ridgewood’s style of play is the exact sort of style that can give the high-octane Mounties trouble, if executed well.
The formula to beat MHS is straightforward, and well-suited to head coach Chuck Johnson’s misdirection-based Wing-T offense: control the clock with long, time-consuming drives that end in touchdowns, limit the Mountie offense’s big plays, and win the turnover battle. No one in 2017 has been able to do both of those things, but no one here is taking that for granted.
“Ridgewood isn’t going to beat themselves,” head coach John Fiore said. “And I think the last two times up there, we kind of beat ourselves. We can’t help them beat us this time. If we take care of what we do, I think we’re going to be OK.”
Montclair had made sectional finals in all of Fiore’s first five seasons, a streak that was broken after an agonizing loss at Ridgewood in the 2015 North 1, Group V semifinals. Late in the fourth quarter of a 17-17 game, then-sophomore QB Tarrin Earle was intercepted in the end zone with seconds remaining in the fourth quarter; the Maroons went on to win in overtime.
Last season’s semifinal was also a cold Friday night in Ridgewood, and once again it ended with heartbreak for MHS. The Mounties led that game 20-7 at the end of the third quarter, only for a nightmarish sequence of events to turn the tide. Ridgewood scored on a long pass touchdown to pull within six, then forced a fumble on Montclair’s next offensive snap, scoring immediately to take a 21-20 lead. The Mounties’ final three drives included a three-and-out, a fumble, and an interception that allowed the Maroons to pull away for a 31-20 win.
AROUND THE BRACKET
Outside of Montclair’s dominant win on Saturday, the other quarterfinals in the North 1, Group V held a few surprises.
Chief among them was seventh-seeded Bloomfield’s 21-3 upset of Passaic Tech, just the Bengals’ third state playoff win ever.
PCT had won eight straight games since an opening-day loss at Montclair, and had reached three consecutive sectional finals.
But Bloomfield jumped on top with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Tice to William Robinson in the second quarter.
The Bengals then made that lead stand up behind the running of former Mountie Jeremy Witherspoon, who scored a pair of second half touchdowns to build an insurmountable lead.
As a result, Bloomfield will travel to second-seeded Union City Friday night seeking its first state final appearance since 2012.
The Soaring Eagles, meanwhile, dominated Hudson County rival North Bergen in their first-round game, 35-0, behind 170 yards and two touchdowns from Jean Alvarez. Union City has reached the semifinals in seven of the last eight seasons, but has lost all seven of those semifinal games.
The North 1, Group V championship game is expected to be held at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford during the weekend of Nov. 30-Dec. 2, though times, dates and locations for all 23 sectional finals statewide should be announced Sunday or Monday.
The 2017 MHS squad has a real shot at eclipsing the school scoring record in the coming weeks.
Through nine games, the Mounties have already scored the third-highest point total in school history with 442.
They’ve put up at least 40 points every game but one (the 22-7 win over Union City on Sept. 30), and they’ve posted 50 points in four of their last five games.
With at least two, and potentially three games remaining, the 2017 team trails only the dominant 2013 squad (464 points) and the Khalif Herbin-led 2011 offense (501 points).
On a per-game basis, the current team looks to be a good bet to become the third team in school history to average at least 40 points per game (they’re at 49.8 currently). Only two Montclair teams have ever managed to average at least 40 points per game: the 2011 squad finished at 41.8 points per game, and the 1952 team that featured Aubrey Lewis (40.0 per game).
NOTES & NUMBERS
Webb is closing in on the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season (he’s currently at 933), an astounding feat given that he missed part of several games due to a series of nagging injuries throughout the season. In fact, Webb has made the absolute most of his limited time in 2017, scoring 19 TDs on just 83 all-purpose touches … Junior wide receiver Charles Murphy is another example of “bang for your buck”: the standout basketball player with the outstanding leaping ability has scored touchdowns on more than half of his receptions this season (18 catches, 10 TDs) … Montclair hasn’t played a tight game this season, but it’s a safe bet that if they do, the Mounties should hold an advantage in the kicking game. Senior placekicker Harry Wylie has been as dependable as it gets this season, successfully booting 58 out of 61 extra-points; one of the three misses was blocked … With Saturday’s win, MHS improved to 15-0 all-time in NJSIAA sectional quarterfinal playoff games (the brackets expanded to eight teams in 1998). Since Fiore took over as head coach in 2010, the Mounties are a perfect 11-0 in playoff games at Woodman Field, and 16-4 overall in playoff games.