CLARK, NJ-  The Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders varsity football team put everything they had out on the field, but in the end, came up short, losing to the Hillside High School Comets in the NJSIAA Central, Group 2 Semifinals by a final score of 19-16 Saturday night in Clark.

The Crusaders lost a fumble on the opening drive, after getting to the Hillside one-yard line before the Comets got possession. After a short drive, the Johnson defense forced Hillside to punt, but an unusual series of events took place.

The snap went high and over the head of the Hillside punter, going out of bounds for a safety, giving Johnson a 2-0 lead, the score after the first quarter. The Crusaders took the field for their next drive and took it into Hillside territory, but senior Mike Casalino came up short on a field goal, giving the football back to Hillside.

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Hillside got on the board, as junior James Louis took it in from 13 yards out to give them a 6-2 lead with 4:48 left in the first quarter.

The Crusaders responded on the next drive by getting into Comets territory, coupled with a few penalties, junior Vito Galluzzo taking it in for an eight-yard rushing touchdown.

Following senior Mike Casalino’s extra point, Johnson took a 9-6 lead and that was the score heading into halftime.

Hillside began the second half with the ball and on the first play of their drive, Louis took it to the end zone for a 70-yard rushing touchdown, giving his team the lead back at 12-9. Hillside led by that same score as the third quarter came to an end.

Johnson battled with Hillside as the third quarter went along, but couldn’t get the points on the board as the fourth quarter began.

As the fourth quarter went along, the Comets extended their lead, as senior quarterback Tajae Irby found senior Shadon Willis for a 21-yard touchdown pass and following the extra point, Johnson trailed Hillside 19-9, but wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Casalino helped his team out on offense, with a nine-yard rushing touchdown and following his extra point, Johnson got closer, trailing only 19-16 with 6:49 left in the fourth quarter.

The defense came up with a huge stop, giving the ball back to the offense with a chance to take the lead.

“It’s just their heart, their mindset of just fighting and never giving up,” Johnson head coach Anthony DelConte said of his players battling throughout the game. “[I know] these guys would run through a wall for me and they know I would do the same for them in return and that’s what this program is about.”

Casalino stormed his way deep into Hillside territory to set up his team with a potential scoring opportunity, but a few plays later, senior quarterback Mike Bruno was intercepted by Hillside junior Boris Nicolas-Paul, ending the Crusaders’ chances at the state tournament.

“I love all of these seniors and we are so close,” Bruno said. “We are all brothers for life and I couldn’t be happier that I got to play this sport with them.”

“I’m just proud of the guys and the way they fought, they didn’t give up,” DelConte said. “They know I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

Despite the loss, senior co-captains Joe Turek and Tommy Bowen had good words to say about the way their teammates fought until the end, along with the friendships developed along the way.

“That’s football, it’s the greatest sport because it makes you and your teammates become brothers,” Turek said. “This team bonded like one I’ve never seen before.”

He finished the evening with 122 yards on 22 carries for the Crusaders.

The Johnson Crusaders (8-2) finish off their 2017 season with their Thanksgiving Day game at Rahway HS Thursday morning at 10:30 a.m.

“The seniors, we need to win for them, plain and simple,” DelConte said. “We’ve got to finish it for them. It’s going to be a battle as it always is, but we’ve got to get the win for the seniors.”

The Hillside Comets (8-3) advance to the NJSIAA Central, Group 2 State Title Game, where they will take on Point Pleasant Boro HS, with the time, site and date TBD.