CHATHAM, NJ - It was worth the wait.
Chatham fans waited 31 years to see a home state football playoff game and the Cougars exceeded all expectations with a near-flawless 45-6 victory over West Essex before an estimated crowd of 3,000 on Saturday at Cougar Field.
It was the kind of state semifinal that those in attendance are likely to recount for the next 30 years.
The victory earns Chatham (9-2) a date with undefeated and top-seeded Cranford (11-0) to decide the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 state championship, 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4 at Kean University.
Chatham last hosted a home state football playoff in 1984 when Chatham Borough defeated New Providence to win the Group 1 sectional championship, the town's lone football title.
"This year, more than any, our full senior class has taken an opportunity to leave our mark here," Chatham senior quarterback Alex Sands said.
Chatham certainly left its mark in the first half versus West Essex (6-5), scoring on its first five possessions and taking a 31-0 lead into the halftime break.
Sands connected with Brian Brady for two touchdown plays in the second quarter, and also ran for a touchdown in the third quarter. In the game, Sands completed 11 of 14 passes for 126 yards and rushed nine times for 56 yards.
"They executed perfectly. Perfectly," Steve Trivino, Chatham's offensive coordinator, said. "I couldn't have asked for anything better. Alex had a great day making his reads and being the point guard that I needed. He found the open receivers when other ones were covered."
Chatham QB Alex Sands talks about the 31 points the Cougars put up in the first half
After forcing West Essex to punt on the opening series, the Cougars covered 64 yards in 9 plays to take the lead for good. Sands threw a 20-yard pass to Brady over the middle before Matt Nestler (see video below) followed a lead block by Nick Zack and bounced off a tackler to complete a 20-yard TD run. Timmy Adams' PAT made it 7-0 with 6:13 left in the first.
Adams produced 15 points for Chatham, kicking six extra points and scoring on a 35-yard TD burst. His 35-yard field goal staked Chatham to a 10-0 lead with 1:30 left in the opening period.
In the second quarter, Sands engineered a 63-yard, 5-play march, keyed by an 18-yard pass to tight end Ryan Barnett. Sands culminated the drive with a 42-yard pass, hitting Brady (see video below) down the left sideline for the touchdown.
"Alex is getting better every week," Chatham head coach Jason Izsa said. "He just keeps getting stronger and stronger. I couldn't be more proud of him. These guys have worked their rear ends off. You want the best for them because they've worked so hard and it's paid off. It's unbelievable. Today is a great day to be a Cougar, that's for sure."
Adams took his turn at calling the signals and cut off tackle for his 35-yard scoring sprint (see video below), boosting the lead to 24-0 with 6:06 left in the half.
Greg Kurlak, who returned an interception for a touchdown against Barringer in the first round of the playoffs, picked off a pass to set up Sands' second TD pass to Brady, a 14-yard strike over the middle that pushed the score to 31-0 with 2:43 showing in the second.
In the third quarter, Sands' 35-yard quarterback keep helped set up his own 9-yard touchdown run.
Brady's interception led to a 7-yard touchdown run by Justin Hayes on the first play of the fourth quarter. Hayes' 21-yard gain preceded his TD run.
"The loss to Pope John made them believe they could win when they played knuckle-to-knuckle with that school and then they went out and beat the state champions (Parsippany Hills) from last year," Trivino said. "That was huge moment for them. Then they started to believe that we're pretty good. These guys are living their dream and I'm glad I'm here on the ride with them."
COUGAR NOTES: Chatham's heralded offensive line cleared the way for 248 yards on the ground, an average of 7.5 yards per carry. Hayes led the balanced ground game with 87 yards rushing. Brady made four catches for 86 yards.
Matt Nestler 20-yard touchdown run in the first period gave Chatham its first points. Nick Zack gets out in front to make a key block.
Quarterback Alex Sands throws the first of his two TD passes completed to Brian Brady, this one good for 42 yards
Quarterback Timmy Adams breaks a 35-yard touchdown run for Chatham