WESTFIELD, NJ -- Westfield scored four touchdowns in the last 14 minutes and 15 seconds of the game to rally from a 23-point deficit to defeat Bridgewater-Raritan, 27-23, in the first round of the Section 2, Group 5 football playoffs Saturday afternoon.
Westfield will play at top-seeded Ridgewood next week in the second round.
It was the fourth time in the last five years that Westfield has ended the Panthers' season in the playoffs. Westfield won the sectional Group 5 championship three years in a row, 2015-2017, over Bridgewater-Raritan at MetLife Stadium.
But in none of those tightly contested games did Bridgewater ever look as dominant as the Panthers did for two-and-a-half quarters on Saturday. BRHS had a 23-0 lead before Westfield (6-3) got on the board with a touchdown with 2:15 left in the third quarter.
Westfield quarterback Hank Shapiro, who finished with 311 passing yards in an impressive aerial duel with Bridgewater QB Alex Fromberg, completed the Blue Devils' unlikely comeback with a 29-yard TD pass to Griffin Rooney with 2:01 left in the game. Shapiro finished 24-for-32.
Fromberg was 14-for-27 for 278 yards with two touchdown passes.
And while Brigewater-Raritan (4-6) dominated the action with an almost perfectly played first half, a couple of calls that did not go the Panthers' way ended up looming as very significant in retrospect. With BRHS already ahead, 17-0, in the second quarter, the Panthers drove to the Westfield 7-yard line, where they faced second-and-goal.
On the next play, Fromberg threw a pass to tight end Mike Maciolek in the middle of the end zone. Maciolek leaped, caught the ball, came down with both feet and then turned before the ball was knocked loose. It appeared that Maciolek had possession long enough for it to be a touchdown reception, but the officials waved it off as an incomplete pass. On the very next play, Fromberg connected with wideout Miftar Hasanaj--who had already caught two TD passes earlier in the game--in the front of the end zone. Hasanaj cradled the ball as he was falling to the ground. The ball came out after he hit the ground--again, a pass that could have been ruled a catch (and a TD) was waved off.
Instead, on fourth down, kicker Mike Pastor came on to kick the second of his three field goals in the game, from 25 yards out, to extend Bridgewater's lead to 20-0 with 3:21 left in the first half.
"Even when we went in at halftime and looked at the video," Bridgewater-Raritan head coach Scott Bray said of the two nullified TD catches, "both of our kids looked like, after they caught the ball, they were able to make an athletic move before the ball comes out."
With a 20-0 lead, it seemed as though those controversial calls might end up just being incidental footnotes, instead of the critical moments they would actually prove to be an hour or so later.
Bridgewater-Raritan built its lead on a textbook first half effort by Fromberg, who completed eight of 12 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns before halftime. Both of his TD passes were to Hasanaj, but the degree of difficulty on the two connections were very different. With time running down in the opening quarter and BRHS leading, 3-0, Fromberg dropped back to pass on first down from the Westfield 41-yard line. Fromberg was almost sacked, but somehow ducked away, evaded the pressure and scrambled to his left, where he found Hasanaj deep downfield at the left pylon for a 41-yard TD reception and a 10-0 lead.
Three plays later, after a Westfield punt, Fromberg sold a play-action fake and connected with Hasanaj running downfield without a Blue Devil defender within 10 yards of him. The pass play went for 49 yards and another Bridgewater TD that, after Pastor's extra point, extended BRHS' lead to 17-0.
In the third quarter, Bridgewater appeared poised to apply the finishing touch. A pass to the flat from Fromberg to Peter Usewick went for 41 yards to the Westfield 21-yard line and set up an eventual 22-yard field goal by Pastor with 9:25 left in the third quarter for a 23-0 Bridgewater lead.
It wasn't until Westfield started to play with a real sense of urgency, going to a no-huddle offense, that the comeback began in earnest. Shapiro's 27-yard TD pass to John Czarnecki and a PAT brought Westfield back within 23-7. A 12-yard swing pass from Shapiro to Tim Alliegro resulted in the Blue Devils' second TD with 6:35 left in the game, but the pass for the two-point conversion was broken up, leaving BRHS with a still apparently safe 10-point lead, 23-13, with time running down.
But Westfield forced a three-and-out on BRHS' next possession, and Alliegro capped a six-play, 68-yard drive with a 1-yard TD run after Shapiro completed a 44-yard bomb to Rooney the play before. Westfield was within 23-20 after the PAT with 3:09 left.
The Panthers went three-and-out again, and this time a 20-yard punt return by Rooney gave Westfield possession on the BRHS 31. It took Westfield just two plays to take the lead when Shapiro hit Rooney down the right sideline with a 29-yard TD pass with 2:01 remaining.
"You can't give up 27 points when you have a big lead," Bray said. "Westfield just executed. They didn't do anything that we didn't expect or didn't prepare for. Their kids made plays, and that's it."