MORRIS PLAINS, NJ - Chatham went into halftime tied with Parsippany Hills on Friday night, thinking about the big plays that were keeping the Vikings in the game.
"Take away the big plays and they really didn't do much against us," Chatham coach Jason Izsa said. "They scored on two big plays. We just had to make sure that we settled down."
Chatham was the team making the big plays in the second half, with a scintillating touchdown run by Justin Hayes and a clutch interception by linebacker Nick Zack to secure a 24-17 victory over Parsippany Hills and earn a state playoff berth.
Chatham (6-2), which earned its first state playoff appearance since 2011, simultaneously ended the playoff bid of 2014 sectional state champion Parsippany Hills (4-4). A victory would have put the Vikings in the playoffs to defend its title while snuffing out the Cougars' playoff bid.
Chatham came into the game ranked 7th in the section in power points, but have picked up enough points to likely gain a home state playoff game.
"We definitely did pick up a lot of points and the possibility of playing at home is pretty high," Izsa said.
The game was tied 17-17 when the Cougars started their winning drive at their own 20 with 1:33 left in the third quarter. The first play of the march was an 8-yard pass from quarterback Alex Sands to Chris Bredahl. The pass was nearly picked off by Par Hills, but Bredahl made a great play by grabbing it out of the defender's hands and turning it into a gain.
Sands kept for nine yards and a first down on the final play of the third quarter and Hayes opened the fourth with a 20-yard burst. Timmy Adams followed with a carry for an 8-yard gain before Hayes took a handoff from Adams, ran outside, and cut toward the left corner flag. He finished his 39-yard TD sprint without being touched. (Hayes unofficially ran for more than 150 yards in the game).
"He's a real special player out there; sometimes I just have stand on the sidelines and watch him," Senior running back Matt Nestler said of Hayes." I just went out there and tried to make contact with a person (while blocking) and I saw him beat 10 other players."
Adams added the placement kick to make it 24-17 for Chatham with 10:26 left in the fourth.
On the ensuing kickoff, Greg Kurlak dove for a fumble and teammate Luke Sukiennik recovered for Chatham at the Viking 24. The Cougars could have put the game away right there, but handed the ball over on downs at the 20.
Later, when Chatham was forced to punt the ball back to Parsippany Hills with 1:26 left, Zack clinched it when he picked off Nick Verducci's pass with 1:22 showing.
Justin Hayes and Nick Zack each made a big play, but both pointed to their teammates after the victory that put Chatham in to the state playoffs
Izsa, in his third season as the head coach, had trouble holding back the tears when the game ended. He had inherited an 11-game losing skid when he took over and it reached 23 losses in a row before the turnaround last season.
"It was hard to get the words out," Izsa said. "I'm proud of each and every one of them. These guys are unbelievable."
The Cougars took the opening kickoff and moved 80 yards in just five plays to take a 7-0 lead. Hayes ignited the drive when he bolted 58 yards to the Par Hills 14. Two plays later, Sands threw a 13-yard scoring strike to tight end Ryan Barnett. Adams kicked the PAT.
Chatham got the ball back four plays later and drove to the Vikings five before the Cougars settled for a 22-yard field goal by Adams and a 10-0 lead with 1:18 left in the first quarter.
A long return on the kickoff preceded a 57-yard TD run by quarterback Verducci. Later in the quarter, Cormac Bradley's 30-yard field goal tied the score at 10-10 for Parsippany Hills.
Nestler regained the lead for Chatham with 3:43 left in the first half when he ran over one tackler and bounced off another for a 11-yard TD run. But the 17-10 lead lasted just 50 seconds after another long kickoff return and a 22-yard TD rush by Verducci made it a 17-17 game at the break.
Justin Hayes' 39-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter broke the 17-17 tie for Chatham
Matt Nestler runs over one player and then runs through another to score on 11-yard touchdown run in the second quarter