CHATHAM, NJ - The losing streak continued, but the lost feeling is now gone.
The Chatham football program is back on its feet and there is no doubt that the Cougars will win a football game this season. That was evident in the way Chatham played during its 24-21 opening loss to Randolph on Saturday at Cougar Field.
The word that has to be spreading in the American Division of the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference is this: Chatham football is back!
"I don't care what the scoreboard says, I felt, me personally, that we won the football game," Chatham coach Jason Izsa said. "I don't want to take anything away from Randolph because they did a great job. That's just the way I felt."
Chatham has now lost 22 in a row, dating back to 2011, but after the performance put in by the Cougars against Randolph, the first victory cannot be far away.
"They definitely shook up a very good Morris County football team, especially a playoff team like Randolph," Izsa said. "They're definitely believing, that's the logo on the back of our shirt. Thirty-something guys, sophomores through seniors, all pulled together and played as one today."
Chatham quarterback Alex Sands threw two touchdown passes and Matt Nestler rushed for another in a balanced attack that featured wide receivers Robbie Moskowitz and Brian Brady, along with running back/kick returner Justin Hayes.
Chatham's new spread offense put Randolph on its heels early. Sands set the tone on Chatham's first possession with a pass over the defense that just missed the grasp of a sprinting Chris Bredahl. Later in the period, Sands threw to Brady in stride for a 72-yard touchdown. Chatham was a team playing with confidence from that point on.
"I was running a stop-and-go, the corner tripped and I got behind him," Brady said of the first TD of the season. "Sands threw me a nice ball."
A high snap on the extra point forced Nestler to try for the two-point conversion, but he didn't make it, so Chatham held a 6-0 lead late in the first quarter. Corcoran's 27-yard field goal with 2:37 left in the half cut Randolph's deficit to 6-3.
But it all started to unravel for Chatham on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. Sands turned and threw a swing pass to Nestler, which was dropped. But Nick Hafner of Randolph picked it up and carried it into the end zone for a touchdown. The Cougars were stunned, thinking it was an incomplete pass. But the ball was live, according to the referee, who ruled the ball had not been thrown forward.
"Matty was definitely past the line," Sands said. "Sometimes the refs are going to be in hard positions and make hard calls. You just have to take what they give you and push through."
The gift-wrapped TD staked Randolph to a 9-6 lead. Chatham then took the ensuing kick and marched 72 yards in 12 plays, scoring on a two-yard run by Nestler. Tim Adams added the placement kick to give the Cougars a 13-9 lead with 5:49 left in the third period.
During the drive, Nestler rushed for 36 yards and pulled in a five-yard pass. Sands bolted out of the pocket for a 15-yard run, which also drew a personal foul penalty on Randolph for 15 more yards. The junior quarterback hit Moskowitz for gains of nine and eight yards, in between a 20-yard rush by Nestler. Nestler's nine-yard run preceded his TD run by two plays.
"I definitely think we showed a lot today," Nestler said. "It would have been better to come out with the win, but you can't blame the refs. You just have to get better."
Two touchdown receptions by Corcoran, the second on an option pass by James Bertelli with 11:08 left in the fourth period, handed Randolph a 24-13 lead.
But the Cougars were not done. Hayes made a 22-yard return on the kickoff to give Chatham a start at its own 37. A pass interference call and a personal foul helped advance the ball for the Cougars before Sands hit consecutive passes to Moskowitz for nine and 12 yards to put the ball on the 14. Sands then kept for four yards.
On the next play he tossed the ball to running back Hayes, who weaved his way to the left pylon and willed his way in for the TD. Luke Sukiennik then barreled his way in for the two-point conversion and it was 24-21 with 8:30 to play.
On the kickoff, Bertelli took the ball and sprinted up the left side and would have scored if not for a touchdown-saving tackle by Evan Bernard at the Chatham 20. The Cougar defense then held its ground with linebacker Ryan Barnett batting down a fourth-down pass by Randolph. Chatham was forced to punt, but a big pass breakup by Hayes gave the Cougars another chance.
In what could have been a storybook ending was denied when Sands threw to a wide-open Brady, who was unable to make the catch as he turned toward the ball. It would have been more heartbreaking if not for a holding call against Chatham on the play.
"The ball was just wet and I got excited," Sands said of the pass. "We had (the play) all game and we tried it a couple times earlier. The touchdown (to Brady in the first) was designed to go out wide. We were knocking them underneath with Rob (Mostkowitz) and we figured they'd pull the safety in and they did.
"It felt good. They're a playoff team. It comes down to a couple calls. You can't blame the refs, adversity happens. We looked good on offense and defense. All around the ball pretty much. I'm not too worried about this year, I think we'll be fine."
There were big plays contributed by numerous players for Chatham. Some of highlights included Brady forcing a fumble that Mike Kellstrom recovered; there was a key sack by Brian Weber and great blocking by Colin Ness.
Chatham plays an American Division game at Sparta on Saturday at 1 p.m.