NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – The Zebras left the Memorial Stadium field Friday night with their heads held high.
In fact, the seniors were carried off, one by one, by the team’s underclassmen.
It was a sign of respect for the Class of 2020, an honor bestowed on those players who kept the New Brunswick football team steady through the highlights and the heartbreaks of the 2019 season.
Tyaire Blount, Ahyan Brown Miller, Joseph Ciafullo, Keshon Davila, Ibn Davila Hibatullah, Nydir Harmon, Jordan LeBron, Jaydin Mahon, Elijah McDaniel, Tahjay Moore, Oscar Pacheco and Junior Pena were also honored at halftime of Senior Night.
Coach Nate Harris said he relied on these players – his 2020 Guys, as he often referred to them – to hold the team together.
“Carrying them off, that’s the least we can do for them,” said Harris following New Brunswick’s season-ending 34-33 loss to Watchung Hills. “They worked hard, so we just wanted to get them off their feet and show a little appreciation to them.”
The Zebras held a 20-0 lead in the first half and a 27-13 lead in the second half, but could not hold off the Warriors’ charge. The Zebras’ last-minute drive stalled at the Watchung Hills’ 46 when a fourth-down pass attempt was incomplete.
The seniors, however, all had one last moment to shine.
Moore, a wide receiver who already has a handful of football scholarship offers from colleges, made a difficult catch in the back of the end zone to give the Zebras a 12-0 lead
Davila, an offensive guard by trade, took a handoff and blasted through the middle to push the Zebras’ lead to 18-0. His teammates rushed to congratulate him when he returned to the sideline.
Harmon showed the extra effort he’s become known for all season when he lunged forward and stretched for the end zone being tackled. The ball hit the pylon on the right side of the end zone and the score stretched New Brunswick’s lead to 26-13.
The running back scored again on the first play of the fourth quarter, when he took a handoff, ran right and outraced the Watchung Hills defense. His 19-yard touchdown run gave New Brunswick a 33-27 lead at the time.
But in a game of dramatic momentum swings, Watchung Hills took the ensuing kickoff and put together a 61-yard touchdown drive. Spencer Ostroff’s extra point put the Warriors ahead for good.
Harris used the word “humbling” to describe the season.
The Zebras lost their final four games by a total of 12 points. In their 7-0 loss to Sayreville on Oct. 11, they were driving for a late tying touchdown when a fumble ended their hopes. In their 17-14 loss to East Brunswick the following game, they drove the ball inside the Bears’ 10 in the final seconds but couldn’t punch it in. Last week, the Zebras held a 13-point lead at halftime but eventually fell to state public school powerhouse Woodbridge, 21-20.
In addition to the tough losses, the team was sanctioned for using an ineligible player in their four season-opening wins.
The ruling wiped out, at least on paper, the Zebras’ victories over Monroe, Dickinson (Jersey City), Edison and Piscataway. The 13-7 win over Piscataway was especially impressive considering the reigning North Jersey Group V champs had a 17-game win streak and were ranked in the top 10 in several statewide polls.
New Brunswick was coming off a loss to North Brunswick when it received word it would have to forfeit those four victories.
Those wins still count, at least in Coach Harris’ heart. He has continuously praised the team, especially the seniors, for their courage and determination in the face of adversity. Sanctions, injuries to players such as Brown Miller, bad breaks – the Zebras played with intensity and passion until the final snap of the season.
“Despite the ups and downs, this is how life works,” said Harris, when asked what he told his team after Friday’s game. “You don’t always get the best cards. You have to play them. You have to be tough. You have to fight and that’s what they did.”