EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – The Bridgewater-Raritan Panthers' undefeated season came to a bittersweet close Thursday night, as the team suffered its first loss in the NJSIAA North 2 Group 5 State final at MetLife Stadium.
“This season was a miraculous one. When you come into a season and try to put into perspective, ‘What are we going to do?’ you can never fathom 11-0. You always set your goal at reaching this point, but very rarely do you do it,” head coach Scott Bray said.
Bridgewater-Raritan did everything right on defense, limiting Westfield's Jack Curry to only 80 yards in the first half, and disallowed the state’s touchdown leader a trip to the endzone.
Despite Eric Nickel’s 1820-yard, 20-touchdown season, the quarterback struggled in red zone situations throughout Thursday’s game. A lost fumble on the three-yard line, a blocked field goal, and an interception in the end zone kept the Panthers off the scoreboard until the game’s closing moments.
“We’re down 10 nothing, we could have all just said pack it up on the sidelines,” Bray said.
But with 14 seconds left, the Panthers finally found hope when Cole Harper blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to narrow the lead. The team caught a break when they were allowed to re-try the ensuing onside kick, but failed to recover.
“They’ve been resilient all year long, but we just ran out of clock. All we ever asked them to do was play 48 minutes of football, and they played right down to the wire,” Bray said.
The state final appearance was Bridgewater-Raritan’s first in school history, planting a seed for the future of its football program.
“It sets a standard for those to come and says, ‘Hey, look what hard work gets you. Look what perseverance gets you. Look what being resilient gets you.’ That’s going to be our message to the younger guys. You’ve been here before. It’s up to them if they want to do that and I hope they do,” Bray said.
The Panthers finish the 2015 season with a record of 11-1, and boast wins against powerhouse teams Phillipsburg and Ridge.