BY ANDREW GARDA
The regular season for Montclair High School’s football team finished with a solid, if at times sloppy, 35-13 win over the Orange Tornadoes on Saturday, Oct. 30.
Orange (1-8, 1-4 SFC-American Red) put up a spirited effort, and sophomore quarterback Maurice Williams looks like he will develop into a real problem for opponents, but the defensive unit for Montclair (5-4, 4-2 SFC-Freedom Red) generated its usual turnovers with its bend-but-don’t-break approach, allowing Orange to move the ball everywhere but into the end zone save for one early drive and another when the game was well in hand.
Now the Mounties look toward the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 1, Group 5 Tournament and a game against Passaic Tech (6-3, 2-3 SFC-Patriot Red) on the road.
Montclair’s effort was a careful balance of aiming to win the game while also planning for this week and an inevitable playoff matchup.
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To have the best chance to beat whomever they met — as of kickoff, that was still unclear — the team rested quarterback Drew Pfeifer, who was still healing from an arm injury he suffered in the loss to West Orange and put freshman Jayden Lee under center for the second straight week.
The net effect, along with a win, was that the Mounties came out of the game without any new injuries.
”We need everybody healthy for round one,” said head coach Pete Ramiccio. “So the fact that we’re able to get out of here with the win and everybody’s health is very important.”
While Lee was understandably still not ready to use the whole playbook, he continued to show a cool head under pressure and clearly has the trust of the offense around him.
“Jayden is like a sponge, you know, everything we throw in front of him, he just keeps taking it in,” Ramiccio said. “He’s done such a great job. The kids have really rallied behind him, too. We really couldn’t ask him for anything more.”
Montclair ran the ball well, using a running-back-by-committee approach. Semaj Adams led the group with 114 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 11 carries. Jordan Williams was just behind him with 92 yards on 9 carries, with Ja-khi Chance (15 for 85) and Justin Bernal (5 for 50) rounding out the highest run totals of the day. Williams, Chance and Bernal each had a touchdown as well.
Gage Hammond was a perfect 5-for-5 with the extra points.
For Chance, it was his first touchdown as a varsity player. Just as the Mounties’ using Adams in different and creative ways gives them more tools to work with, a young player like Chance stepping up is huge as well.
“It’s always good to have bodies, that’s for sure,” Ramiccio said. “It’s great to get the pup in the end zone today, that was helpful and he looked good. That’s going to boost his confidence going forward.”
Ramiccio and the Mounties are counting on more surprises, like Chance and Lee, emerging when the need arises.
“We have the pieces, and as long as our guys continue to believe in what we’re doing here and they continue to believe in each other, we can make some noise. So we’ll see what the [playoff] draw brings us,” Ramiccio said before knowing Passaic Tech would be the quarterfinal round opponent. “Our focus is going to continue to be on us, getting better every week, and us buying into the program and doing what we need to do to get the job done.”
Now that the Mounties know their opponent on Friday, Nov. 5, they can turn their attention to breaking down just what the Bulldogs are about.
Montclair has not faced Passaic Tech since Sept. 9, 2017, when MHS beat them at Woodman 49-7 during the 2017 championship run. That was the third year in a row the two teams faced each other, with Montclair the victor each time.
This, of course, is not 2017, and the Bulldogs are as different from that team as the Mounties are from their 2017 counterparts. That said, their 6-3 record may not be all it is cracked up to be.
The total record of the six teams Passaic Tech beat this season is 18-33, including two teams without a single win. Of course, Montclair’s wins didn’t exactly come against Super Bowl champions, but that merely points out that the teams are very close.
Much like Montclair, the Bulldogs run the ball a lot, with 279 run plays versus just 96 pass attempts. When they do throw the ball, they have thrown more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4).
But why pass when you can win with the run? Passaic Tech powers through games with sophomore Trashon Dye, who has 933 yards and 8 touchdowns on 127 carries, averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Montclair will need to hem Dye in and make sure he cannot catch the outside edge of the defense.
The Mounties have had issues containing runs to the outside, so they need to make sure their defensive ends don’t get drawn in toward the quarterback and the middle of the formation. They need to remain outside and bottle up the running back or quarterback so that they are stuck in the middle of the field and cannot get around the defense.
Meanwhile, the offense needs to find ways to move the ball quickly and efficiently down the field, spreading the defense out at the edges, and then attacking the middle of the field.
As Ramiccio pointed out, the Mounties have plenty of pieces that could propel them toward success in the playoffs.
Now it’s just a matter of finding how those pieces fit together.
They have until 6 p.m. on Friday to do that.