BASKING RIDGE, NJ - Although the Ridge football team has practiced in the rain plenty of times during the weekdays this rainy summer and fall, it had actually been dry for every Friday night game the team had played during the regular season.
But when coach Bill Tracy peeked at the extended forecast earlier this week, he planned accordingly.
Ridge played a clean and mistake-free game despite monsoon conditions Friday night and defeated East Orange, 28-7, in the first round of the Section 2, Group 5 playoffs, and preparing for inclement weather had a lot to do with it.
"We were using wet footballs all week in practice," said Ridge senior quarterback Wes Hudkins. "We were dunking them in buckets so they were soaked and then those were the footballs we practiced with. That's all coaching right there. That's thinking outside the box."
Whether Tracy's meteorological foresight had anything to do with it, Hudkins completed 9 of 16 passes for 182 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. And, in the second half, when the rain was heaviest, he completed 7 of 9 passes.
"Throwing in the rain is always tricky," said Hudkins, who at least did not have to contend with either wind or cold temperatures.
"Our guys did a good job of taking care of the ball in these conditions," Tracy said. "I'm an old coach, so during the week I pulled out the bucket and filled it with water for the footballs."
Ridge's first three possessions Friday night began in perilously poor field position thanks to the punting prowess of East Orange's Leonard Munford, who buried the Red Devils on their 4, 3, and 10-yard lines, respectively, to begin their first three series. But Ridge nonetheless turned the first of those predicaments into a six-play, 96-yard drive. On the second play, Hudkins completed a 46-yard pass to Lloyd Cameron out to midfield toget the Red Devils out of the hole.
"To make that catch and get us down the field like that gave us a huge energy spike," Lloyd said of Hudkins' long pass to him on the first drive. "The rain made catching the ball tricky, but we had to trust our training."
For much of its season, Ridge's opening drives have been textbook examples of solid execution. After the completion to Hudkins, Jake Hoffman picked up 18 yards with a run, Christian Sweeney ran 26 yards to the 5, then 4 more yards to the 1, before Sweeney went over from a yard out and Jake Beckman kicked the extra point to give Ridge a 7-0 lead with 5:27 left in the first quarter.
It looked like it would be a dogfight when East Orange (6-3) moved right back down the field on its next possession and scored to tie the game on a 7-yard pass from Nasir Montgomery to Qadir Scott and Munford's PAT. But Ridge's defense after that drive was able to funnel East Orange's speedy skill players to the inside and keep them from turning the corner and getting upfield.
"When we beat Linden (29-13) last week, I think that was our best defensive game of the season," said Hudkins, who also plays cornerback on defense. "I definitely think that prepared us for this game. After the first couple of series, we were able to contain them and keep them from making any big plays."
Ends Jake Hoffman and Kevin Fern and linebacker Jake Stein helped keep East Orange from breaking off any big plays after the first quarter.
The next big play for Ridge came late in the second quarter, when junior halfback Jack Perry busted a counter run 52 yards down to the 1-yard line, setting up Sweeney for the second of his three TD runs with 2:49 left in the second quarter to give Ridge the lead, 14-7, going into the half. Sweeney finished with 70 yards on 16 carries and also played an impactful game on defense at linebacker.
Ridge took the third quarter kickoff and marched 74 yards in seven plays to score on Hudkins' 48-yard play-action TD pass to Lloyd with 8:46 left for a 21-7 lead. Lloyd was not even the first option on that play.
"The play was not really designed for me," Lloyd revealed. "But Wes saw the safety come up, he changed the play, I ran a flag route and got open."
Ridge's final TD drive, an 80-yard, 12-play maneuver in the fourth quarter, was highlighted by a spectacular diving catch at the left sideline by Brendan Bell, whose 21-yard reception at the Panthers' 21-yard line left him temporarily shaken up, but provided the momentum on the drive that led to Sweeney's final TD of the game, a 2-yard walk-in with 3:47 left in the fourth quarter.
"This was a clean, well-played game," Tracy said. "We've had three straight close, heartbreaking losses in the first round of the playoffs, and to beat a very good team like East Orange that came in averaging more than 30 points a game is a tribute to our guys."
Ridge (8-1) will play the winner of Saturday's Bridgewater-Piscataway game in the second round next weekend.
EAST ORANGE (6-3) 7 0 0 0 -- 7
RIDGE (8-1) 7 7 7 7 -- 28