BY ANDREW GARDA
After a year without meeting due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Montclair Kimberley Academy and Immaculate Conception High School football teams returned to their annual crosstown rivalry game on Friday, Sept. 3.
MKA head coach Anthony Rea’s Cougars were looking to build on the foundation they built last season with their 4-3 record, while the ICHS Lions were looking for a fresh start with new head coach Maurice Lucas after sitting out the 2020 season.
Four quarters later, it was the Lions who looked like they had taken a step toward achieving their goals, as they scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to cruise to a 42-6 win over MKA.
“It was something to build off of, you know what I’m saying?” Lucas said after the victory. “I’ve got a young team, a lot of freshmen and sophomores, so I see a lot that we can build off from today.”
Eleven out of the 20 players who dressed for ICHS were sophomores or freshmen, and four out of the six touchdowns ICHS scored were by those players. Freshman Felipe Aponte ran in two touchdowns, while sophomore Jasin Shiggs caught a 30-yard pass from fellow sophomore Christiano Pittman. Jordan Jenkins, a freshman, ran in a 25-yard touchdown. The outlier was junior Marcus Gronwicz, who broke off touchdown runs of 30 and 25-yards.
Lucas said the entire offensive line is made up of sophomores.
“I’ve got a lot of kids on the line who’ve never played football before, so we really had a task this summer trying to get them prepared,” Lucas said.
But those on the line played well despite a lack of experience, and time will only make them better.
“Listen, in a couple of years, they’re going to be really good,” Rea said of the Lions.
Both teams suffer from small roster numbers, with 20 dressing for Immaculate and just 18 suiting up for the Cougars. As the game wore on, MKA suffered several injuries, and Rea said that made things even tougher against a very athletic, very dangerous ICHS team.
“Just a couple of guys going down with various ailments,” he said. “They played very hard in the first half and you know what? We had a chance early to play right with [ICHS].”
Rea knows his team can compete, but the roster size is going to make it harder than it would be otherwise. At the end of the game Friday, the Cougars were down to just 15 players able to take the field, and to help protect their opponents, Immaculate put out their second- and third-string players.
“We’re capable. We just don’t have numbers that we normally have, so it becomes tough,” Rea said. “But a lot of credit to a lot of our new guys, specifically sophomores, freshmen and two new seniors that were out there to kind of finish things out.”
For Lucas, what the Lions showed Friday was just a fraction of their potential. He wants them to clean up the penalties, which wiped out several scores and big plays, and knows the younger players have a way to go before they will have the consistency they need for a playoff run.
Part of that will be continuing to finesse the passing game. The Lions have a backfield filled with young running backs who can move with speed, power and agility, but the passing game is just a little bit rough. Some throws were a little off-target. In others, the receiver was not quite where he should have been.
It’s a game of inches, and a throw that is an inch off or a receiver who is a second slow in his break can be the difference between an incomplete pass and a touchdown.
“We need a little bit more time, a little bit more chemistry, a little more reps,” Lucas said.
“We’ve got to get a lot more reps. We’ve got a nice receiver corps, but it’s just the timing. It’s just a little bit off. Once we get that, I think we’ll be fine.”
Lucas and his staff have to balance two very important things for a rebuilding football program. They want to win now, but they also have to build for the future.
“I’m hoping that’s the base, here. I’m hoping a year or two from now that that line will come together after being together for a year or two and we’ll be good,” Lucas said.
Defensively, Lucas was pleased with the way the team played, especially in containing the elusive Jake Pryor.
Early on, Pryor was an issue for the Lions, as he would run a bootleg to the outside and then toward the line of scrimmage, where he was a threat to run or, because he was always looking for a receiver downfield, to pass.
However, by the end of the first half, Pryor was contained and the Lions defense had adjusted.
“We just didn’t want the [defensive ends] to be knifing in, and for the linebackers to just read first before they react, you know. Don’t just move fast; play with the flow of the game,” Lucas said. “So once we saw that, I thought we were pretty good.”
Despite the lopsided score, Lucas thinks MKA’s opposition shouldn’t take the Cougars’ quarterback lightly.
“That kid is a good quarterback,” Lucas said. “He’s something special.”
The Lions next face Pascack Hills at home on Saturday, Sept. 11, with the game starting at 1 p.m. Pascack Hills lost 29-24 in a fourth-quarter collapse to Snyder. Meanwhile, MKA remains home next Saturday to welcome Newark Academy, which did not play this weekend but which the Cougars have beaten the last five times the teams have met. MKA has outscored the Minutemen 211-34 over the course of those games.
The kickoff is at 2:30 p.m.