BY ANDREW GARDA
In the aftermath of tropical storm Ida, Montclair High School’s football team found itself hosting its game against Ridgewood High School on Saturday, Sept. 11, rather than being hosted the night before, as Ridgewood’s field sustained too much damage due to flooding.
Home field advantage didn’t help, though, as the Mounties fell to the Maroons, 21-7, leaving them with an 0-2 record to begin the season while Ridgewood advanced to 1-0.
For MHS head coach Pete Ramiccio, there were multiple factors at work in the loss.
“Part of it is still the reality of [making] an adjustment,” Ramiccio said. “We had one [preseason] scrimmage, we opened up with two very good, well-coached football programs. You’re in a position where you can’t make mistakes, and we did.”
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While nature robbed them of a home game, Ridgewood did get an emotional lift from the return of head coach Chuck Johnson, who missed last season as he battled for his life, enduring multiple surgeries to fight sepsis in his hip and back. It was a battle he was not expected to survive.
Having him on the sideline again certainly gave the Maroons some pop in their step.
“They’re a good football team and they were excited to have Chuck back,” Ramiccio said. “They definitely played for him.”
They needed it early, as Montclair defensive back Semaj Adams picked off Ridgewood quarterback Dan Caiafa and returned the ball to the Maroons’ 10 yard line on Ridgewood’s very first drive.
Not long after, MHS quarterback Solomon Brennan connected with tight end Elijah Hailey for a touchdown, with kicker Gage Hammond’s extra point making it 7-0 with 8:30 left in the first quarter.
Ridgewood would turn the ball over again early in the second quarter, with Montclair linebacker Justin Bernal recovering it.
Unfortunately, that seemed to be the last bit of good fortune the Mounties would have.
Offensively, the rest of the game was a mixed bag of dropped passes and miscues for Montclair. Sometimes the receivers couldn’t hold onto the ball when Brennan got it to them, and other times they weren’t where the quarterback expected them to be.
As the game wore on, Brennan seemed a little more tentative, not setting his feet at times and forcing throws. There were also times when he appeared to lock onto certain receivers, while ignoring others who were open. The pressure from the defense was consistent, but nothing worse than what was brought by East Orange on Sept. 3, but Brennan looked much less comfortable.
It didn’t help that the offense got very little in the way of support from the ground game. Jordan Williams was held to 23 yards on eight carries, and the leading runner was Brennan with 26 yards.
With under two minutes to go in the first half, Brennan threw an interception from his own 10 yard line. Ridgewood’s Jack Foerch punched the ball in from the two, battering his way through Mountie defenders to get into the end zone, making the score 7-7.
Montclair went into the half a little deflated, having watched as its offense stalled repeatedly after its initial touchdown, and then as the lead evaporated at the last moment of the half.
Things did not improve for MHS when it received the ball to start the third quarter, as first the offense stumbled and then the special teams offensive line began to fall apart.
Hammond has an enormous foot and can bury a team downfield, but he needs time to do it, something he lacked Saturday afternoon. He repeatedly had to punt under duress in the third and fourth quarters as the Mountie line allowed the edge rushers from Ridgewood through with alarming regularity. Hammond struggled to get kicks off and had two blocked, one recovered by the Maroons in Mountie territory.
Montclair did a better job containing the run than it did against East Orange, though admittedly after allowing 351 rushing yards to the Jaguars, there was nowhere to go but up.
For Ramiccio, the defensive effort was good, despite the outcome.
“We gave up what? 230 yards of offense?” he said. “I know it didn’t look great at times, but we really didn’t play terribly defensively. We forced three turnovers. Unfortunately we just had some trouble moving the football [on offense]. We couldn’t get anything started.”
Not being able to move the ball on offense, coupled with a few defensive miscues and the Maroons’ relentless ground attack, resulted in Ridgewood’s scoring 21 unanswered points after Montclair’s early touchdown.
The Mounties could only watch as the game slipped away.
“Listen, two weeks in a row, we’re in a dog fight at the half, and things just don’t break the right way in the second half,” Ramiccio said. “We’ve got to be able to play 48 minutes, not 24. It’s not enough.”
By the end of the game, the box score told the tale, with Ridgewood totaling 231 yards, converting three third downs and one fourth down, and having a time of possession of 29:25.
Montclair, for its part, managed just 136 yards, converted just two third downs out of 13 and possessed the ball just 18:35 of game time. It did manage to convert a pair of fourth down opportunities, but neither extended drive resulted in a score.
Among the bright spots for the Mounties were David Thom-Rogers’ five catches for 56 yards, Adams’ interception, Bernal’s fumble recovery and Jaren Haley-Coley’s sack.
That leaves a lot of room for improvement.
The Mounties have to find a way to fix the issues plaguing them before they host Newark East Side on Saturday, Sept. 18, at Woodman Field, with kickoff slated for 1 p.m.
Like the Mounties, East Side is coming off back-to-back losses, handed to them by Bayonne (39-0) and West Orange (44-10).
This is a great chance for Montclair to get moving in the right direction.
In particular, it might be the jump-start the Mounties backfield needs. Last weekend, West Orange’s backfield decimated the Red Raiders’ run defense, hammering them for 264 yards and six touchdowns.
East Side is a team that, arguably, shouldn’t be in the Super Football Conference’s Freedom Red division with Montclair, East Orange and West Orange. Over the past 11 years, the Red Raiders have won all of seven games.
After two weeks of disappointing outcomes, MHS has a chance to gain some confidence and momentum, perhaps knocking the rust off and getting Ramiccio his first win as a head coach.
The coach, however, isn’t taking anything for granted.
“You know, I understand East Side got beat, but if you watch the film, they still played physical football,” he said. “They still punched. They still put up a fight.”