WESTFIELD, NJ – It was Bridgewater-Raritan’s first win over Westfield since 2011 three weeks ago: a 17-6 triumph by the Panthers over the Blue Devils at John Basilone Field on Oct. 18, that arguably propelled them to a berth in the 2019 North 1 Group 5 Football Playoffs.

These very same Blue Devils had that fresh in their minds on their home turf at Gary Kehler Stadium Saturday.

Returning to the playoffs one year after failing to qualify in 2018 with a 2-7 record, the Panthers (4-6) dominated on the way a 20-0 halftime lead and extended their lead to 23-0 over Westfield early in the 3rd quarter. But in the final 14:15 of regulation, Westfield quarterback Henry Shapiro and his offense came to life. Not only did the Blue Devils (6-3) get on the board for the first time with a 27-yard touchdown reception by tight end John Czarnecki; they got quite a bit more than that when it counted.

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Three touchdowns in a span of 4:34 late in the 4th quarter, including two by Timothy Allegro and the go-ahead score by Griffin Rooney with 2:01 remaining, capped off a shocking rally of 27 unanswered points for Westfield in a miraculous 27-23 victory over Bridgewater-Raritan to eliminate the Panthers in the first round of the 2019 North 1 Group 5 Playoffs.

Given the Blue Devils already defeated Bridgewater-Raritan in the playoffs in four straight seasons from 2014-2017, this loss will certainly sting for the Panthers, who fell to 0-5 all-time against Westfield in the playoffs despite starting off so strongly in their 2019 postseason meeting.

Panthers 10, Blue Devils 0

It was all Panthers right out of the gate, and for the first 33:35 of regulation for that matter.

Bridgewater-Raritan’s defense forced a three and out on Westfield’s opening drive, and responded by immediately marching down the field on offense. A 23-yard pass by Panthers quarterback Alex Fromberg to tight end Bryce Myers on 4th and 3 moved the chains to the Blue Devils 13, eventually leading to a 34-yard field goal by Mike Pastor with 6:51 left in the opening quarter.

With the Panthers up 3-0, Blue Devils quarterback Henry Shapiro managed a pair of first downs on a couple of keepers deep in his own territory.

But Panthers defensive lineman Mike Maciolek brought Shapiro down for a loss on the Blue Devils’ next third-down play, giving Bridgewater-Raritan the ball back with 1:28 left in the period.

Fromberg completed another big pass of 17 yards to Myers to move right back into Blue Devils territory, and as time expired in the period, he tossed a 41-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Miftar Hasanaj to give the Panthers a 10-0 lead on the road to start their 2019 postseason.

Panthers 20, Blue Devils 0

Another quarter, another 10 points for Bridgewater-Raritan.

And another touchdown connection for the Panthers’ dynamic duo.

After a sack by Panthers defensive lineman Gerard Redden drove Westfield deep into its own territory, Bridgewater-Raritan took over at the Blue Devils 48 and went the distance in one play. Hasanaj again got past the Blue Devils secondary, and Fromberg delivered another strike to the wide-open junior, who caught the ball at the Blue Devils 20 and walked into the end zone from there.

The second touchdown in as many drives for both Fromberg and Hasanaj and Mike Pastor’s extra point extended Bridgewater-Raritan’s lead to 17-0 with just under two minutes into the period.

The Panthers then forced a turnover on downs on Westfield’s ensuing drive, giving Bridgewater-Raritan the ball back on the Blue Devils 42 with 7:49 left in the half. Running back Brett MacMath then moved the chains for the Panthers with a 9-yard carry, and catches of 14 yards and 9 yards by Brady Kurdyla and Myers, respectively, gave the Panthers a first and goal from the Blue Devils 7 with 4:10 left in the first half.

A pair of bobbled catches in the end zone on both 2nd and goal and 3rd and goal from the 7 were not ruled in favor of the Panthers, who appeared to have receivers with at least one foot down before losing control on both of Fromberg’s pass attempts. Nonetheless, the Panthers still extended their lead to 20-0 with 3:21 left in the half on a 24-yard field goal by Pastor.

While Westfield appeared to settle in on offense and marched all the way down to the Panthers 10 thanks to big plays from Shapiro and tight end John Czarnecki, Bridgewater-Raritan’s defense got a key stop on 4th and 1 from the Panthers 10. After stuffing the Blue Devils at the line of scrimmage and forcing a turnover on downs, a quiet and stunned home crowd at Gary Kehler Stadium saw their Blue Devils go into the locker room down 20-0 with the visiting Panthers in line to receive the second-half kickoff.

Panthers 23, Blue Devils 7

After receiving the second-half kickoff, a 41-yard rush by Bridgewater-Raritan’s Peter Usewick immediately put the Panthers at the Blue Devils 21 and in business out of the locker room. Fromberg then ran for 15 yards on the very next play to set up a first and goal from the Blue Devils 6, and it appeared that the Panthers were in line to put Westfield away.

However, the Panthers settled for a 22-yard field goal by Pastor, extending their lead over Westfield to 23-0 with 9:25 left in the 3rd quarter but still only up by three possessions.

Both teams came up empty on their ensuing drives, but the Blue Devils finally came alive late in the 3rd quarter.

It began with a contested 30-yard catch near the Panthers sideline by Westfield’s Griffin Rooney on a deep ball by Shapiro. Two plays later, Shapiro tossed a 27-yard touchdown pass to Czarnecki up the middle into the end zone to put Westfield on the board with 2:15 left in the period, cutting Bridgewater-Raritan’s lead to 23-7.

A good kickoff return to the Panthers 46 by Ryan McKinney and a 13-yard carry by Usewick immediately put Bridgewater-Raritan back into Blue Devils territory with under a minute left in the 3rd quarter. They ended up gaining another 7 yards from there as the quarter came to a close, setting up a 3rd and 3 from the Blue Devils 32 to open the final period of regulation.

Panthers 23, Blue Devils 27

An encroachment penalty on Westfield ended up moving the chains for Bridgewater-Raritan with 11:11 to go, putting the Panthers on the Blue Devils 27. However, Westfield managed to force a turnover on downs with 8:29 left in regulation, giving the Blue Devils the ball back on their own 17.

From there, Westfield got going when it counted.

Shapiro and Czarnecki led the Blue Devils right down the field with a pair of connections of 22 and 30 yards right up the middle to put Westfield at the Panthers 35 with 7:17 to go. Westfield’s Timothy Allegro then turned a short pass into a 12-yard gain to put the Blue Devils in the red zone for the first time all afternoon, and moments later, Allegro caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Shapiro with 6:35 to go. Westfield’s two-point conversion attempt ultimately failed, keeping it a two-possession game in favor of Bridgewater-Raritan, who led 23-13 at that point.

Even after another big return close to midfield for McKinney, Westfield’s defense forced a three and out, while their offense again marched right back down the field.

With 3:47 to go, Shapiro completed a 13-yard pass to Rooney, followed by another first-down pass to Czarnecki. An 11-yard catch and run for a first down then stopped the clock 20 seconds later at the Panthers 45, but a 44-yard pass up the middle from Shapiro to Rooney quickly brought up first and goal from the Panthers 1. Allegro then punched it in on the ground from one yard out with 3:09 to play, cutting Bridgewater-Raritan’s lead to 23-20.

Another three and out by the Panthers offense forced a punt, and Westfield took over just 42 seconds later with a chance to tie the game or take the lead.

With the home crowd electrified, Westfield went with the latter option.

After again marching down into Panthers territory, Shapiro then found Rooney wide open in the right corner of the end zone for what ended up being a go-ahead 31-yard touchdown reception with 2:01 to go in regulation. After trailing 23-0 with 2:15 left in the 3rd quarter, Westfield had now taken its first lead of the game with 27 unanswered points, including three touchdowns in the last 4:34.

Now all of a sudden on the ropes and with their 2019 season on the line, Bridgewater-Raritan ended up converting a 4th and 1 on a keeper by Fromberg with 1:01 remaining. However, while attempting from deep in Panthers territory near midfield, Westfield came up with a first-round clinching interception at their own 15 with 0:39 remaining.

A couple of kneel downs later by Westfield, Bridgewater-Raritan’s season came to a shocking and heartbreaking end at Gary Kehler Stadium, with the Blue Devils emerging from the dead late in an eventual 27-23 victory over the Panthers that will be remembered by everyone in attendance for a long time.

In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Bridgewater-Raritan was denied what would have been its first-ever win against Westfield in the postseason after being eliminated by the Blue Devils in the playoffs in four straight seasons from 2014-2017.

Instead, Bridgewater-Raritan dropped to 0-5 against Westfield in the postseason, and the Blue Devils successfully avenged their 17-6 loss at Bridgewater-Raritan three weeks earlier. The Panthers have now been eliminated by Westfield in five straight postseasons and to close out five of the Panthers’ last six seasons overall. With three touchdowns scored by Westfield in the final period, Bridgewater-Raritan allowed five 4th-quarter touchdowns by their opponents in their final two games of 2019, including the go-ahead, game-winning scores by their opponents in the final 2:01 of regulation in both of these contests.

#4 Westfield will therefore travel to #1 Ridgewood, who defeated #8 Bayonne by a score of 34-12 the night prior in their first-round playoff contest, for the 2019 North 1 Group 5 Semifinals on Friday November 15th, 2019.

Bridgewater-Raritan will finish its 2019 campaign with a 4-6 record, improving from its 2-7 finish in 2018. Four of the Panthers’ six losses in 2019 were by a touchdown or less and were decided late in the final period, including their season-ending first-round playoff loss at Westfield.

Follow him on Twitter (@MrOlivola) for live updates during game days and all things related to Bridgewater-Raritan Panther Athletics. Like The BReeze on Facebook and follow The BReeze on Twitter (@TheBReezeTAP).