PISCATAWAY, NJ — When Somerville found itself trailing on the scoreboard for the first time all night and had only three minutes left to reclaim the lead, it didn’t press.
Instead, quarterback Jalahn Dabney took control of the game, and carried Somerville through a state-title winning three-minute drill.
With his legs and arm, Dabney led the Pioneers on a stunning eight-play, 66-yard drive with 3 minutes, eight seconds remaining in the game. Concluding the drive with a three-yard quarterback keeper touchdown run, Dabney lifted Somerville to its first state championship since 1994, while also ending Rumson-Fair Haven’s stretch of four-consecutive state titles.
The Pioneers’ junior quarterback finished the night with 211 passing yards and 84 rushing yards, and used his legs to score two touchdowns while passing for another in his team’s 20-15 victory.
“It feels amazing; we’ve been working so hard to beat them [Rumson-Fair Haven],” Dabney told TAPinto.net. “Some people were down [when Rumson took the lead], but I told them that we’ve been in these situations before and just keep working hard, then we’ll have the right outcome.”
With just over three minutes remaining in the game, Rumson Fair-Haven claimed its first lead of the night when Peter Lucas ran for an 14-yard TD and Quinn Doherty nailed the PAT to give the Bulldogs a 15-14 lead.
Downed, but not out, Somerville responded by executing the most important drive of its season.
Starting at their own 34-yard line, the Pioneers scratched and clawed their way to midfield. Then, on third-and-ten from the 50-yard line, Dabney rolled out and launched a bomb down the right side of the field, where a wide open Joe Ciempola hauled in the pass for 45 yards and landed just five yards out from the endzone.
Two plays later, Dabney snuck across the goal line on a three-yard QB keeper, which gave Somerville the six points it needed to win the Central, Group 3 section.
“My coach told me I was going to get in,” Dabney said. “He said: ‘Just trust your team, trust the coaches, and just follow your blockers’. He promised me that I was going to score.”
Somerville was incredibly efficient on the drive, averaging over eight yards per play.
“They’ve been through this many, many times and they played loose, were not pressing, believed in themselves, and it just was a matter of time,” said Somerville head coach Jeff Vanderbeek. “We practice a two-minute drill, three-minute drill, four-minute drill … Those kids practice that all the time, and they executed it to the tee.”
Ciempola’s monstrous grab was the highlight of a very successful night for the junior tight end. He came down with 110 yards in the air on four receptions — an average of 27.5 yards per catch.
“That just lit the atmosphere up,” Ciempola said of the 45-yard grab. ““I’m speechless; it was insane. The atmosphere was awesome, and we just worked our asses off. We worked all season, and we deserved this.”
Seven minutes out of halftime, Somerville claimed a 14-8 lead which severed an 8-8 deadlock. Using just eight plays to march 90 yards down field, Dabney concluded the drive by hooking up with Kyree Hinton on a 38-yard TD pass.
However, four-time defending champion Rumson-Fair Haven wasn’t letting go without a fight. With Lucas at the forefront, the Bulldogs knotted up the score at 14 on Lucas’ 14-yard breakaway TD run late in the fourth quarter. Doherty’s PAT attempt clinked off the left goal post and through the uprights to provide Rumson with a 15-14 lead.
Lucas finished the game with 88 yards rushing on 24 carries.
“They’re just good; they’re just good players,” Vanderbeek said of a talented Rumson-Fair Haven team, which knocked off Somerville in the sectional semifinals last season. “They execute a scheme, most of their players play only one way, and they have a helluva defense. It’s just that simple.”
Both the Pioneers and Bulldogs exchanged blows during the first half. Somerville struck first six minutes into the game, when Dabney rushed for one yard into the endzone, then completed a two-point conversion pass to Robbie Fiorentino.
Rumson-Fair Haven equalized the score with 55 seconds remaining in the half. Alex Maldjian scored on a two-yard run, then the Bulldogs’ Dan Harby-to-Ian O’Conner two-point conversion tied things at eight apiece.
Somerville’s eight-ever sectional title represents a another huge step in the program’s stunning turnaround. The Pioneers went from winning just two games in 2014 and 2015 combined, to winning 31 in the last two seasons.
“It’s just great for the kids — I love to see their smiles,” said Vanderbeek. “They’ve been through a lot. These seniors were 2-and-18 in their freshman and sophomore year, and now they’re 21-and-2. Talk about a great turnaround; it’s just a fantastic feeling.”