Senior Michael Herring (5) gets the Mounties fired up as the team gets ready to take the field for their Nov. 18 NJSIAA North 1, Group 5 playoff game against Ridgewood.

by Andrew Garda

While the Mountie faithful are already planning their tailgates and the best way to ditch work to make it to MetLife Stadium for next Friday’s state final against Union City, the players and coaches are focused on preparing.

Not just for MetLife and the Soaring Eagles, though.

In the excitement over a championship game, it’s easy to overlook the annual Thanksgiving rivalry game against Bloomfield, to be played tonight, Wednesday, Nov. 22, at 6 p.m. at Foley Field. The Mounties don’t plan on doing so, though.

“We can’t look past Bloomfield this week,” head coach John Fiore said. “The legacy [for this team], do you want to be an undefeated state champ or a one-loss state champ? Undefeated sounds good.”

Beyond the desire for a perfect season, there’s an added aspect to this game: it’s the last one to be played during Thanksgiving week, at least for the immediate future.

The schools have agreed to move the game away from the holiday week for the 2018 and 2019 scheduling cycle, Fiore said, though they will continue to play for the Investors Cup. This would be the second time the teams have discontinued the Turkey Day series; the Mounties and Bengals played each other on or around Thanksgiving from 1922 to 1976, resuming in 1992.

Whereas once the game could be part of the regular season, over time the NJSIAA playoffs have overtaken the classic Thanksgiving Day rivalries, leading to this game potentially in the midst of a playoff run for one or both teams.

“In the eight years we’ve played this game,” Fiore said,”six times we’ve had another game after it.”

The Mounties own a 55-24-1 advantage over the Bengals in games played on or around Turkey Day (they also lead the series overall, 70-26-1).

It will be interesting to see how the Mounties approach Bloomfield Wednesday night. On the one hand, the undefeated season is on the line. So are a few potential records, such as Daniel Webb’s bid to set the Essex County and MHS record for career touchdowns (he’s at 75, two short of 2012 alum Khalif Herbin).

Fiore and his staff will absolutely want to give those players a chance to draw closer to those goals but getting through Wednesday night healthy, with a much bigger game in the offing, is key.

Bloomfield (6-4, 3-2 NJSFC-Liberty Blue) is coming off a disappointing 35-0 North 1, Group V semifinal loss at the hands of Union City after pulling an upset win over Passaic Tech the week before.

The Mounties and their fans celebrate their 49-14 win and a return to the North 1, Group V playoffs – and MetLife Stadium.

Back in the MetLife Groove

The Mounties have a lot on their plate the next two weeks, but that’s not to say they can’t take a moment to enjoy themselves and consider the opportunity before them, now that they’ve punched their ticket to MetLife and a shot at a state championship.

“I’ve never [played] at MetLife before, so it’s kind of new territory,” Willie Matthews said after the Ridgewood win. “It’s kind of unreal right now. It’s gonna sink in, though.”

A lot of players feel the same and most of the team hasn’t been to MetLife Stadium as anything than a fan watching the New York Giants or Jets.

For the senior class, though, the return to MetLife is special in a different way. About 10 of them were in uniform for the Mounties’ last sectional final appearance in 2014, while others joined the team on the sideline or were fans in the stands.

All have been anxious to get back there since, but the goal remained just out of reach.

No more.

“I haven’t been to MetLife since my freshman year,” running back Danny Webb said. “This is the only thing I’ve been thinking about the past three years. It’s just so amazing.”

“Just to know we finally got over the hump,” an emotional DJ Williams said. “These past two years we’ve gone up to Ridgewood and left the field with tears of sadness and a lot of anger. It felt good to get over the hump and we’ve got a chance to do what we want to do. We’ve just got to finish.”

Williams is one of the players who didn’t suit up for the 2014 run but that just makes the moment sweeter for him.

Football: Mounties crush Ridgewood to return to sectional final

“As a kid growing up, you come here and watch the guys do it before you and you tell your friends, the ones you play with, “That’s gonna be us. We’re gonna get there.” All of us seniors, it’s emotional for us because this is our last home game here, and now we get to go to MetLife, something we’ve always dreamed of. So it feels really good.”

For guys like Webb or quarterback Tarrin Earle, getting back to the championship was like a weight coming off their back.

“Just elation right now. You know we’ve worked, for three years the senior class has worked tirelessly to get back here,” Earle said. “This senior class, we’ve been through so much. Sophomore year, that heartbreak we had in overtime and then last year, the fourth-quarter debacle. Just with these guys, I’ve been playing with for four years now — just for them, I feel great. Not even for myself, but for my team. We’ve still got two more [games] to go, but right now we’re going to celebrate it.”

Linebacker Willie Matthews celebrates another sack during Montclair’s 49-14 win over Ridgewood in the NJSIAA North 1, Group V playoffs.

Matthews gets Rutgers offer

Willie Matthews’ dominant season on defense got just a bit better this past week, as the junior linebacker received a scholarship offer from Rutgers University.

Matthews, who is well over 300 tackles for his career (including a team-high 124 in Montclair’s first 10 games this year), is well aware of how just how big a season it’s been.

“I feel like I’ve always had the capability to do it. But I’ve taken another step, like I’m on another level now.”

Still, he knows he has a lot of work to do before he gets to college, wherever that might be.

“There’s always more improvement to do,” he said. “I was watching practice at Rutgers and [that practice is] like a whole different thing. So, I really have a whole lot of preparing to do if I want to play at that next level.”

That said, as with the rest of the team, there’s really only one thing on Matthews’ mind.

“These next two weeks? Nothing but hard work. We need to ascend.”

Matthews was one of the keys to stopping Ridgewood’s Wing-T offense, making 13 tackles and compiling 3 sacks as well.

MHS senior linebacker Matt Niemann flattens Ridgewood’s Gabe Santiago during the Mounties 49-14 playoff win.

Niemann’s very big day

Senior linebacker Matt Niemann had perhaps his single best day ever as a Mountie, compiling nine tackles and a key first-half sack during the win over Ridgewood, while also catching a key 2-point conversion late in the first half. He couldn’t have chosen to do it at a better time, either.

When asked what possessed him to tear up the Ridgewood offense, he simply shrugged and praised the people around him.

“The coaches did a really good job preparing us and our team just played lights out,” Niemann said. “The D-line, they played great. We just had the linemen go in and stuff [the running backs], which allowed the linebackers to make all sorts of plays.”