HASBROUCK HEIGHTS - Two teams with a long history of success as high school programs at the state level. Two teams with recent history having met in the North 1, Group 1 State Sectional Finals twice in the past 10 years. Two teams who come into Saturday night’s matchup having won in completely different ways.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR WHEN POMPTON LAKES HAS THE BALL
The junior running back has exploded onto the scene his junior season, rushing for 1,645 yards, including 506 in wins over Wallington and Emerson in the North 1, Group 1 sectional playoffs.
At 5-10, 200 pounds, he runs powerfully through holes and breaks arm tackles and has good straight ahead speed. He is versatile having caught nine passes, including three for touchdowns on the season, and has thrown twice, completing both passes, for 68 yards and a touchdown.
He is joined on offense by dual-threat quarterback Kyle Shafer, who has thrown for 870 yards, and seven touchdowns, while running for 429 yards on the year. Shafer has however thrown seven interceptions on the season. Steven Sanders started the season as the featured back and remains a nice complement to Negrini. At 5-10, 170, Sanders has been averaging 7.5 yards a carry and is the Cardinals leading receiver as well as their third-leading rusher.
The Cardinals line is bookended by senior tackles Drew Flynn (6-3, 285) and Austin Leone (6-2, 240). Senior Ronnie Aponte, (6-2,220) anchors the middle of the line.
Pompton Lakes has been putting up points throughout the season, and the post-season is no different, putting up 34 points in wins over Emerson and Wallington in the playoffs.
WHAT TO WATCH WHEN HASBROUCK HEIGHTS IS ON DEFENSE
The task of stopping Negrini will fall to a Hasbrouck Heights defense which has been stingy all year, with the exception of the NJIC playoff opener against Wallington. Even in that game, there were three fumble recoveries and an interception, so the defense still made plays.
The defense is led by tackle machines Travis Culkin and James Varga. Both have over 100 tackles on the season and have made impactful plays in the post-season. Culkin’s hit in Cedar Grove changed the momentum in overtime, and set up the passing play, which Jasiah Purdie picked off, that allowed Heights to escape Cedar Grove with a 12-6 overtime victory.
Jordan Wexler provides big plays on the pass rush, and usually draws plenty of attention from opposing offensive coordinators. He missed a large part of the first half of the New Milford game when he leg was cut open, but came back to block New Milford’s field goal attempt at the end of the game.
The secondary is coming in as Ian Rinke and Zai’heer Jenkins have settled in at the corners. Purdie can cover from the linebacker spot, and the defensive line uses several players to give fresh, physical players throughout the game.
Since the opener against St. Mary, the defense has allowed two touchdowns in a game once, to Rutherford in the NJIC Final. And it took the North 1, Group 2 Champion Bulldogs until overtime to get that score,
WHAT TO WATCH WHEN HASBROUCK HEIGHTS HAS THE BALL
The Aviators offense is basically a three-headed monster. If quarterback James Klenk is not running the ball, he is handing/throwing it Jasiah Purdie. When you are focused on those two, Nico Facchini chews up yardage on the ground. It sounds simple to stop, but it works.
Purdie is a dynamic player, who can score anytime he get his hands on the ball. Running jet sweeps or lining up in the backfield, Purdie carried the load of the carries early in the season, and you can ask Cresskill about how his talent can take over a game. As a receiver, he can take a bubble screen the distance, and catch the deep ball. The two acrobatic catches he made at the end of regulation are a large part of the reason the Aviators did not go home that night with a loss.
Klenk, one of the team’s two captains with Varga, is the leader of the team, with a penchant for making big plays, particularly after he makes a bad one. He is a physical runner at 6-1, 195, with good speed if he gets a step. And he has tons of experience, having started some games at quarterback as a sophomore and junior when starter Frank Quatrone was injured. He also started last season as a defensive back, and runs the Aviators secondary.
Facchini is the grind-you-down back that can sustain drives - just ask Wallington. He complements Purdie and Klenk well, and is another player who is going for his second title as a regular.
After those three, the Aviators get contributions, and big plays, from Wexler, receiver JC Pagan, and fullback/tight end Will Vera as well as a senior laden-line led by Varga and Culkin.
WHAT TO WATCH WHEN POMPTON LAKES IS ON DEFENSE
Like most Group 1 schools, the same guys who lead on offense, lead on defense, and the Cardinals are not different.
Shafer is second in tackles behind Flynn. Leone and Sanders are two-way standouts are well.
Sophomore Philip Latora had six sacks, and will need to be someone that Heights needs to keep an eye on.
A secret weapon, of sorts, for the Aviators is a strong kicking game. Purdie had a huge night against New Milford, netting over 40 yards on his kicks and pinning New Milford’s offense in its own end in a field position battle.
And kicker Matthew Gwziszc has one of the strongest legs in North Jersey. He has nine touchbacks on the season, and his kicks generally go deeper the more he kicks. In a close game, the Aviators know they can kick the ball deep with Gwziszc, and get the kick down inside the 10 without an issue.
Heights’ offense has been, uncharacteristically, low-scoring in recent weeks. Limited to seven points against Rutherford in their 14-7 overtime loss, they were shut out for 59 minutes against Cedar Grove, and held to 10 points by New Milford. The flip side is that they went 80 yards in less than a minute to force overtime in Cedar Grove on a night that was brutally cold. They beat the top-seed New Milford, despite scoring only 10 points.
Pompton Lakes has jumped out early on the scoreboard against Emerson and Wallington, then given up points late.
The questions are:
Will Heights defense continue its strong play, especially against the run, and force Pompton Lakes to throw?
Will Pompton Lakes defense keep Hasbrouck Heights in its low-scoring offensive funk?
Can Heights continue to survive playing close games? Will having played two consecutive overtime games, and narrowly avoiding a third, provide the Aviators with an edge?