by Andrew Garda
For two seasons, the Montclair High School football team has fallen one game short of returning to MetLife Stadium and playing for a state championship.
But Saturday, the Mounties took the field in the same spot, against the same opponent who denied them in 2015 and 2016, and stood tall.
A pair of long touchdowns by Charles Murphy and Daniel Webb helped Montclair dominate the second half and earn a resounding 49-14 win over Ridgewood in the NJSIAA North 1, Group V semifinals at Woodman Field.
For the top-seeded and unbeaten Mounties (10-0), now it’s on to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford and the school’s sixth sectional final appearance in eight seasons under head coach John Fiore.
Third-seeded Union City (8-3) will be the opponent in the championship game Friday, Dec. 1, at 5 p.m., a rematch of the teams’ Sept. 28 meeting, won by MHS, 22-7.
Prior to that, the Mounties still have business to take care of in the form of archrival Bloomfield in the annual Investors Cup game tonight, Wednesday, Nov. 22 (see story at right).
Getting to Montclair’s first sectional final since 2014 wasn’t always easy, of course, because nothing is ever completely smooth when it comes to Ridgewood and the playoffs, even if the end result was still the one the Mounties wanted.
After falling behind by two scores early on, fifth-seeded Ridgewood (8-2) took a 14-13 lead early in the second quarter after quarterback Jack Barclay hit Aidan Toomey for a 53-yard flea-flicker touchdown. MHS found itself trailing for the first time since facing Seton Hall Prep.
But later in the quarter, Mountie quarterback Tarrin Earle and the offense took over, driving 78 yards on four plays in 1:21, capping it off with an 8-yard touchdown run by West Point commit Danny Webb. Charles Murphy then hit Matt Niemann on a pass for the 2-point conversion and the Mounties were back on top, 21-14, heading into halftime.
For a group of players who had been snakebitten by Ridgewood in each of the past two North 1, Group V semifinals, giving up fourth-quarter leads in both games, it was an uncomfortably close halftime lead.
“It was different,” Earle said of the atmosphere in the locker room. “I could feel it was different, and I knew we were going to come out with the win.”
Still, while there were flashbacks to the last two years, Earle and the other team leaders were confident and they let the rest of the team know it.
“We went inside and I told everybody, we finished the first half good, but now we have to finish the second half great,” receiver DJ Williams said.
Linebacker Willie Matthews agreed that the team as a whole, and the defense in particular, had responded well but could do better.
“I told everyone, that we need to play tougher. More physical,” he recalled. “We can’t be getting bullied at the line of scrimmage. We need to set the line, on offense and defense. It starts with the guys on the line, and I feel like in the second half, they really took that to heart and they really played like that.”
Considering how the last two years had gone — with a late game collapse in 2016 and a disappointing overtime loss in 2015 — the mental fortitude shown by the Mounties on both sides of the ball, especially on defense, was impressive.
The Mounties shut out Ridgewood in the second half, and held the Maroons to less than 100 yards rushing; Ridgewood ran for more than 250 in each of the past two playoff meetings.
“[Ridgewood] pulled out everything they could except the kitchen sink,” head coach John Fiore said after the game. “And we withstood all their punches and in the second half we did what Montclair football does.”
Taking the opening kickoff of the second half, the Maroons moved the ball down the field efficiently, gashing the Mounties defense for some big gains on the ground, then shifting to the air for back-to-back completions to drive inside the Montclair 40-yard line.
Which is when Matthews, who recently received an offer from Rutgers University, stepped up and sacked Barclay for an 8-yard loss.
After that, everything fell apart for Ridgewood in rapid succession. The Maroons were flagged for a delay of game right after the sack, and then had to punt shortly after.
The Mountie offense took over at their own 28, and picked up a couple first downs behind Webb, followed by an Earle pass to Collin Callahan.
Earle then found Murphy for a spectacular 52-yard touchdown, Murphy outjumping two Ridgewood defenders, and MHS was back in the driver’s seat, 28-14.
“[Tarrin’s] got a read there,” Fiore said of the play. “And he put it on the money. [Murphy] high-pointed it, everybody was laying at his feet and then, people don’t realize Murph ran track last year. He’s a high jumper who can clear 6 feet and is one of the fastest kids on our team.”
Webb, who scored three touchdowns and posted his eighth career game of 200-plus rushing yards, put the exclamation point on the game with an electrifying 80-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
A few minutes later, cornerback Tysean Williams turned the game into a rout when he stripped the ball from a receiver, then ran it back for a touchdown behind a key block from Matt Battle.
As the clock wound down in the fourth quarter and Montclair students prepared to storm the Woodman turf, senior wide receiver and three-year starter DJ Williams was on one knee, emotional about reaching his first sectional final. He had scored the Mounties’ opening touchdown on a 35-yard catch – his first career playoff touchdown – and set up another score with a 52-yard reception. It was a meaningful win.
“I was telling my teammates all last night at our team dinner, that I would do anything to win this game and anything offensively to get my first career playoff touchdown. And it actually happened in the biggest game of my whole career.”
“The key word was finish,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”