Justin Bernal crosses the goal line after picking up a fumbled ball during Montclair High School’s 20-14 triple-overtime playoff loss to Passaic Tech on Friday, Nov. 5.
ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

BY ANDREW GARDA
garda@montclairlocal.news

WAYNE — When things go wrong, sometimes they go wrong all at once.

That was the case for the Montclair Mounties during their NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 1, Group 5 quarterfinal round game against Passaic Tech on Friday, Nov. 5.

That it took Passaic Tech (7-3, 2-3 SFC-Patriot Red) three overtimes to get the 20-14 win over Montclair (5-5, 4-2 SFC-Freedom Red) and advance to face Ridgewood next weekend speaks to the resilience of a Mounties team that has seen a tumultuous season and yet never quit.

“I love each and every one of these kids, I love each and every one of these coaches,” head coach Pete Ramiccio said after the game. “And I cannot stress it enough. Every chance I get, I will remind you and I’ll remind everyone in our community of how damn proud I am of everybody affiliated with this program.”

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Ramiccio said that describing the season as tumultuous might be understating things, and only makes the effort the team put forward more impressive.

“Between everything that’s been happening, from COVID and then coaches and things in the community and just the fact that the kids continue to push and the coaches continue to push,” he said. “The individuals that support us, I’m very grateful for that and for them, and you know, it’s not over yet. We got to keep pushing to next year now, and hopefully we can build it the way we would like to build it. And hopefully we will be able to move forward.”

For now, the Mounties will likely look back on Friday night and wonder what might have been. 

Montclair took a lead in the first quarter on a bizarre score.

In Passaic Tech territory, Semaj Adams took the ball on a run around the right edge of the MHS formation but was stripped of it at about the 15 yard line. The ball bounced forward, where Justin Bernal scooped it up, carrying it the rest of the way into the end zone.

MHS had to kick the extra point twice due to a penalty, but Gage Hammond made them both and the Mounties led, 7-0.

That held as the two teams moved up and down the field but were unable to get into the end zone. As the first half wore on, it became clear that Drew Pfeifer may not be fully recovered from his arm injury. Over the course of the game, MHS only threw the ball six times, compared to nearly 70 carries on the ground.

By the end of the first half, Montclair had only thrown the ball twice, for 13 yards.

Not throwing the ball meant the Bulldogs could stack their front with as many players as possible, clogging the Mounties’ run lanes. That makes it hard to run the ball, and yet Montclair did a good job gaining ground, with Jordan Williams totaling 90 yards on the day, Bernal gaining 69 and Adams 79.

“The game plan was no secret,” Ramiccio said. “Everybody knows our situation at quarterback and the fact that even with the deck stacked against them, [the backfield] put their head down, did a great job reading blocks and really did a nice job pushing through. The message to them is if they run like that, we got great things in front of us.”

Montclair went into halftime with a touchdown lead, knowing they would have to add to that but confident that they could, especially as they were going to receive the ball at the start of the second half.

That didn’t turn out to be the advantage they’d hoped for.

On the third play of the second half, Pfeifer threw a screen pass to Maverick Selementi that was picked off by Passaic Tech’s Justin Vazquez, who took it 11 yards for a pick-six. Suddenly, momentum shifted, and Montclair found itself on its heels. 

Turnovers were a constant theme during this season, with the Montclair defense generating a turnover at least once a game. 

Unfortunately, that streak was snapped Friday night.

“The one night we had to get one and we just couldn’t get it,” Ramiccio said.

Not only did Montclair’s defense fail to generate a turnover, but its offense turned the ball over three times, with two lost fumbles and the interception. They fumbled six times total but were able to recover three of them. Still, that kind of lopsided turnover ratio will cost even the best teams a game.

Montclair running back Jordan Williams hits the hole during the Mounties’ 20-14 triple-overtime loss to Passaic Tech in the NJSIAA playoffs. Even against a stacked defensive front, MHS ran for 246 yards.
ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

The two teams failed to score in the final 21 minutes of regulation, and Montclair found itself in overtime for the second time this season. Last time Montclair overcame Livingston in the second overtime, and the team felt they had an edge, having been in this situation before.

For the first two overtimes, each team would get the ball on the 25 yard line and have it until they scored or failed on a fourth down.  

As happened in the overtime against Livingston, Montclair’s opponent got the ball first and scored. The Mounties responded with a Pfeifer pass to a wide-open David Thom-Rodgers on a gutsy fourth-and-six call.

In the second overtime, both teams missed field goals, with Gage Hammond kicking the ball wide left and the Passaic Tech kicker hammering the ball directly into the line.

In the third overtime, teams that score have to try a 2-point conversion, not an extra-point kick. 

Passaic Tech scored on their possession but failed on the conversion.

Montclair then drove down to about the 1 yard line. The offense tried to hurry the snap to catch the Bulldogs off guard, but the snap was bad, and Pfeifer was barely able to recover the ball.

Then the Mounties handed the ball to their most dynamic player, Adams. 

And Adams fumbled the ball, with Tech recovering.

After the game, Adams was clearly inconsolable, but Ramiccio told him and then the team that it wasn’t any one player or moment that cost Montclair the game.

“I told the kids, I know you can sit there and pick on one fumble down there, we had a fumble down here. We had an interception on a screen pass. We put the ball on the turf at midfield,” the coach said. 

Montclair High School sophomore quarterback Drew Pfeifer throws one of his six passes in Friday’s 20-14 playoff loss to Passaic Tech.
ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

“I mean, it’s never one thing. It’s always everything. There were at least five or six opportunities where we could have pulled this thing out, and we just didn’t get the job done.”

Montclair now goes into the off-season with the uncertainty of what the future holds. Coach John Fiore has been absent from the team this season, and it is unknown if or when he might return. While there are talented players returning — Pfeifer, Bernal, Thom-Rodgers, Adams — there will also be many gaps to fill.

Not having access to the weight room much of last off-season due to COVID-19, having to replace the head coach at the last minute, bringing in a new offensive coordinator, having a member of the team leave, having to throw a freshman in under center, dealing with a glut of injuries, having private and other schools recruiting Montclair players — these are all things that made it hard for Montclair this year.

“We have been through so much as a group,” Ramiccio said. “It just seems like every time we start getting on track, something else gets thrown in front of us. You’ve got to keep pushing, and our kids have pushed so much. I guess the engine just stopped running.”