CLARK, NJ- The Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders varsity football team took the field on Friday determined to win the UNICO bowl this year. Their fortitude paid off as the Crusaders kept control of the ball and fought with great physicality on both sides of the ball, and defeated the Hillside High School Comets by a final score of 22-13 in Clark.
“The guys took that loss (UNICO Bowl) personal last year,” Johnson head coach Anthony DelConte said. “It was a game where they didn’t get our A-game. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot, the guys made it a point that it wouldn’t happen again this year.”
“It’s a credit to their hard work and the type of young men they are,” he added. “It’s awesome to see them pull together in such tight situations.”
Not only did Johnson capture the win, they added two accolades to their season in the process. They won the 2017 UNICO Bowl and are the 2017 Mid-State 38 Valley Division Conference Champions. It is the first time since 2006 that Johnson won a conference championship.
“It’s a great feeling. We’re always working really hard [and] doing the best we can,” Johnson senior and co-captain Tommy Bowen said. “It’s awesome to see everything pay off, from 40-yard sprints in the summer, going to East Stroudsburg University. I just love this team and we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing.”
The Crusaders struck first with the scoring on the night. On a drive that featured a lot of short rushing plays, senior Mike Casalino sped through the defenders and into the end zone for a five-yard rushing touchdown to put Johnson on the board 6-0, the score after a fast-moving first quarter.
Hillside would strike around the mid-point of the second quarter, with sophomore Nahree Biggins barreling up the field for a 38-yard rushing touchdown. Following the extra point, Hillside took the 7-6 lead.
Johnson would start the next drive in Hillside territory and would answer back. In a drive that featured eight plays and 44 yards, Turek finished off the drive with a 11-yard rushing touchdown. After a two-point conversion attempt came up short, the Crusaders took back the lead, up 12-7.
In the win, Turek finished with 155 yards on 26 carries to go along with his rushing touchdown.
“We practiced hard all week,” Turek said. “We knew we let this one slip away last year. We didn’t want that to happen again. I’m just so proud of everyone on this team [and] I’m so excited to see what lays ahead for the rest of the season.”
Senior quarterback Mike Bruno continues to lead his team on offense, rushing for 72 yards on eight carries. He credits his coaches for getting him and his teammates ready every week.
The Comets got the ball back and immediately made a push to try and find the end zone prior to halftime. The Comets got close on a huge rushing play, but was called back because of a holding penalty. Later in the drive, senior quarterback Tajae Irby was intercepted by junior Sebastian Iakouchevitch.
The ball appeared to be tipped in the air and off a helmet and after a long return, Johnson began at the Hillside 25-yard line and a chance before halftime to score. A Hillside facemask penalty increased their chances.
Casalino converted on a 34-yard field goal, as Johnson led Hillside 15-7 at halftime.
Hillside began the second half with the ball right near midfield. Biggins provided a 23-yard rush that set up the Comets at the Crusaders’ ten-yard line. Irby finished the drive with a one-yard rushing touchdown as his team cut the lead to 15-13.
Hillside tried going for a two-point conversion to tie the game, but following a jarring hit right near the goal line, the Crusaders defense kept Hillside out of the end zone.
Johnson led Hillside 15-13 after the third quarter.
As the fourth quarter started, Johnson punted the football away and Hillside had an opportunity to drive to take the lead. Irby threw a deep pass down the field, but was intercepted by senior Kevin Metz, cancelling out another Comets scoring opportunity.
The Johnson defense now has seven interceptions on the season and it was Metz’s second of the season.
“They were trying to throw that fade all game and the linemen kept blowing it up,” Metz said. “Me and Lorenzo [De Paz] were there to cover it and I made the catch and that’s a wrap.”
The Johnson offense took the field, looking to finish the job. With Turek and Metz adding to the drive, the Crusaders charged down the field, capping it off with senior Brandon Rapp’s five-yard rushing touchdown to give Johnson a 22-13 lead following the extra point.
“This was probably our best week of practice hands-down,” Rapp said. “The scouts gave us a really good look. It’s so much sweeter after what they did to us last year. We executed in the end and that was the difference tonight.”
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Crusaders all ran off the sideline in celebration of the accomplishments on the night.
The Hillside Comets (3-2) return home to take on Dayton HS on Saturday, October 14 at 1:00 p.m.