By EDWARD KENSIK
For Montclair Local
Montclair High School’s football team was poised to pull the upset in its season opener at East Orange Friday, but a scatback changed those plans.
With the Mounties as the underdogs Sept. 3, Montclair and interim head coach Pete Ramiccio pulled out all the stops. But it was East Orange running back Damon Phillips (at 5 feet and 6 inches, and 162 pounds) who did in the Mounties’ upset bid in the second half.
Montclair (0-1) ran out of time in the end and fell 37-28 at Paul Robeson Stadium on the road in the season opener for both schools in the Freedom Red division of the New Jersey Super Football Conference.
Not only was the loss a downer for the Mounties, but because of havoc wreaked when remnants of Hurricane Ida came storming in Wednesday, Sept. 1, it couldn’t be played as planned at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium. The Montclair-East Orange clash was originally scheduled to be part of the weekend-long “Rumble at the Raritan,” featuring 12 high school football games with teams from throughout New Jersey. But when Rutgers University rescheduled its own opener against Temple University from Thursday to Saturday, plans for the entire weekend’s schedule were reworked.
“When you score 28 points you should win the game,” said Ramiccio, who is filling in this season for John Fiore. Fiore is taking the year off with a leave of absence.
While Ramiccio was pleased in some areas, he knows the team needs to be better when it hosts Ridgewood on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 2 p.m. in a NJSFC crossover contest. (That game was originally scheduled to be at Ridgewood on Friday, Sept. 10, but was moved because of storm damage to Ridgewood’s field.)
“I really liked our resilience and we didn’t give up,” Ramiccio said about his squad, which came back a couple of times to take the lead. “We were still in the game until the end.”
The interim head coach pointed specifically to finishing the tackles on Phillips, who torched the Montclair defense with 217 yards and two touchdowns in the game on the ground. In total, East Orange had almost 350 total rushing yards.
“We didn’t hit him (Phillips) at the point of attack and didn’t wrap up,” Ramiccio said.
While East Orange quarterback Raeden Oliver threw for 233 yards, most of that came in the first half, and it was Phillips who wore down the Mounties’ defense in the second half to prevent a Montclair comeback in the fourth quarter.
Offensively, Montclair was balanced with the passing of senior quarterback Solomon Brennan (14 of 26 attempts for 176 yards and three touchdowns) and the combination of Brennan and senior running back Jordan Williams, who totaled 113 rushing yards combined. Senior Maverick Selementi was Brennan’s top target, with four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. Both junior running back Semaj Adams and sophomore wide receiver David Thom-Rogers had 44 yards receiving, and a touchdown catch each.
While Ramiccio said he could not point to one play as being crucial to the difference in the contest, a couple of plays could have turned a loss into a win.
There was an onside kick, where Ramiccio believed the Mounties had recovered the ball late in the fourth quarter, but the referees gave the ball to the Jaguars. Then there was the fumble by Adams on a kickoff return that put a clamp on a comeback.
“The referee said that he was still trying to advance,” Ramiccio said about the call of a fumble, recovered by East Orange at the Montclair 17-yard line with a little more than seven minutes left in the contest.
In terms of the onside kick, Montclair kicker Gage Hammond hit the ball perfectly after the Mounties sliced the Jaguars’ lead to 31-28 with a little more than five minutes left in the game, and the Mounties thought they recovered the ball. But the refs saw it differently.
East Orange made the Mounties pay for not successfully getting the ball on the onside kick. The Jaguars put the game away with an eight-play drive that culminated in an Oliver throw to BJ Covington that made it a two-score deficit at 37-28 with less than a minute remaining in the game.
Despite Adams’ fumble, the junior helped keep the Mounties ahead or in the game with a touchdown reception, a big kickoff return and also an interception.
Adams got the Mounties going to start the second half as he returned the opening kickoff 79-yards to the East Orange 16. Three players later, Brennan hit Selementi on a 12-yard touchdown pass. With the extra point, Montclair increased its lead to 14-6 with just two minutes off the clock in the second half.
Another difference was the various injuries during the night, especially by the Montclair defense, where the Mounties had a few key players miss a series of downs, especially in the linebacking corps.
“We had three second-team linebackers in at one time,” Ramiccio said.
While Brennan’s passing numbers are not impressive, Ramiccio praised the senior for handling the no-huddle offense that at times gave East Orange fits.
“I thought he played real well and moved the ball well,” Ramiccio said.
Brennan was also impressive on one of the biggest offensive touchdowns on the night. He faked a handoff that fooled the East Orange defense and ran the other way untouched in front of the Jaguars bench for a 68-yard touchdown run that regained the lead for Montclair, 21-18, halfway through the third quarter.
Ramiccio, though, wanted his offense to go even faster with the no-huddle, but the numerous penalties and injuries slowed down the pace.
In a slow defensive struggle in the first half, Montclair took a 7-6 lead as Brennan hit Adams on a 30-yard pass for a touchdown. Hammond kicked the point after for the one-point Montclair lead.