SUMMIT, NJ – For the second straight season, a standing-room only crowd surrounded a football field and watched two unbeaten rivals clash on the high school gridiron in a game that showcased the burgeoning collection of talent assembled by these two neighboring towns. Summit and New Providence have long been rivals on athletic fields of play for several reasons, proximity being the main factor. The players know one another, the coaches know one another, the fans – though they sit on separate sides of the field in their designated sections – know one another. This closeness makes the game that much more meaningful and this year, just like last year, both the Hilltoppers (7-0) and Pioneers (5-0) entered the game with perfect records.
Once again, Summit commanded the play and the Hilltoppers walked off the field victorious by a nearly identical score, 35-20, to last year’s game (36-19).
“It’s a great feeling [to win this game]. There’s a huge rivalry here between Summit and New Providence, we’re right next to each other,” quarterback Ryan Bringewatt said after the game. “They’re the best team we’ve played all year, we were both undefeated coming in so that made the stakes high, but we came out and played as a team.”
The Hilltoppers began the game with what could have been a costly miscue when they fumbled the opening kickoff out of bounds at their own 1 yard line, but Summit drove 90 yards down the field before they were finally stopped and forced to settle for what would normally be an easy field goal for Mike Badgley who is one of the best kickers in the state. But a holding penalty pushed the ball back and made the field goal attempt a more difficult one of 30 yards and Badgley clanged the ball off the right upright and the game remained scoreless.
New Providence responded by driving the ball down the field, all the way to the Summit 2-yard line. Dave Barletta – who had accumulated 712 yards rushing on just 41 carries through the Pioneers’ first five games – plowed in from two yards out to stake his team to an early 7-0. It would be New Providence’s only lead and Barletta would be completely shut down by a stifling Summit defense for the rest of the afternoon. In fact, Barletta was so completely taken out of the game that he finished with just 50 yard rushing on 12 carries. If you don’t count a 35-yard gain on a perfectly executed hook-and-lateral play in the third quarter, Barletta was held to just 15 yards out of the backfield on 11 carries. That is just over one yard per carry, well off his season average of 17.4 yards per carry.
The Hilltoppers began implementing their Barletta-stopper strategy at Wednesday’s practice when senior running back Phillip Jefferson imitated the all-conference tailback on the field against the first team defense. In fact, both head coach John Liberato and senior linebacker Stefano Stadlinger credited Jefferson’s hard work in practice as one of the reasons Summit became the first and only team to stop Barletta cold this season.
“[Stopping Barletta] was our gameplan,” Stadlinger said after the game. “The coaches did a great job getting us ready and our philosophy coming into this game was to make them beat us ‘left-handed’ by taking away their best asset and trying to make them beat us with their other players. Phillip Jefferson was our ‘look squad’ Barletta and we really went at him hard to try and simulate what it would be like in the game.”
Liberato added: “We know how talented [Barletta] is so we did some things [in practice] where we worked on filling gaps as they opened up so he couldn’t come back and the kids executed the gameplan to perfection. My hat goes off to our ‘look’ squad, the kids who helped us prepare. Our senior running back, Phillip Harrison, helped us simulate [Barletta] and our guys really got after each other in practice and that helped us out here today.”
Yet while Barletta may have found the sledding rougher than usual at Investors Bank Field, the Hilltoppers had little trouble pounding their way through the Pioneers’ defense. Following Barletta’s touchdown plunge, the Hilltoppers would not come away empty-handed on their second possession as they did on their first because Kyre Negron finished off a 63-yard drive with a smooth 6-yard touchdown run that knotted the score at 7-7.
Negron’s scoring run loosened up the Pioneers’ defense just enough that the holes and gaps for the Hilltoppers’ backfield to run through became a little bigger and stayed open a little longer before Summit burst through them en route to racking up a mind-boggling 403 rushing yards on the afternoon. Yet before the Bringewatt, Negron and A.J. Iarussi began to rack up the rushing yardage, Summit took the lead on a brilliant special teams play by the versatile Mike Badgley.
After the Summit defense held New Providence to a three-and-out, kicker Robbie Fay came on to punt. Badgley fielded the ball and slithered 60 yards through the porous Pioneers’ coverage for a touchdown. It was the second of three punt returns Badgley took to the house, but the first and last were wiped out because of penalties on the Hilltoppers return unit. Badgley had a monster game for Summit with 203 all-purpose yards, the aforementioned punt return TD and a perfect 5-for-5 day in the extra point department.
So far this season, Badgley has scored points for the Hilltoppers nearly every way possible. He has rushed for a score, caught a touchdown pass, returned a punt for a TD and has kicked several field goals and extra points. Last year, Badgley was merely a great kicker, this year he has become a great all-around player, one of the many weapons Liberato has molded and one which he can deploy anywhere on the field at absolutely any time. Badgley even saved a touchdown when he caught up to a wide open Derek Singer in the corner of the end zone and knocked down what would have been a sure scoring pass from quarterback Mike Marchesano.
“[Mike Badgley] has really matured into an outstanding athlete,” Liberato said. He’s only a junior. The one throw [New Providence quarterback Mike Marchesano] threw into the corner of the endzone late in the game was an absolutely perfect pass and Mike [Badgley] came out of nowhere to break it up. He did just about everything we asked him to do today. He really kicked butt. He really kicked butt.”
Badgley’s punt return opened the floodgates and the Hilltoppers scored two more touchdowns before the first half – both scoring runs by A.J. Iarussi, from 24 and five yards, respectivel – while the Pioneers could only muster a Fay 35-yard field goal. Were it not for three first half turnovers by Summit – two of which were in the endzone – the score could have easily been 42-10 at the half instead of 28-10. The Hilltoppers rushed for over 300 yards in the first half and Iarussi – who led all rushers with 184 yards and three touchdowns on just 18 carries – put together a fantastic all-around game.
“We overcame a lot of adversity today with the turnovers, but we never point fingers at our teammates and we never get on each other about mistakes. We have really good team chemistry here,” Bringewatt said.
Thought Summit held a huge statistical advantage in nearly every offensive category in the first half, New Providence is still a tremendously talented team and they are still reigning Group 1 state champions. The Pioneers fought back in the third quarter and cut the lead to 28-20 early in the fourth quarter when Marchesano found Erik Wehner in the front of the endzone between two Summit defenders for a touchdown strike.
Summit then responded with a drive that featured several key plays including an excellent fourth down conversion on a play-action pop pass just over the top of the defensive line from Bringewatt to 6-5 wide receiver Will Weber. The pass was up high, where only Weber could make a play on it and make a play he did. Weber threw up one hand and snatched the ball out of the air just as he was hit and held on for a nine-yard gain and a crucial first down. Iarussi then went around left end on the very next play for 24 yards all the way down to the one-inch line. Iarussi then completed the task on the very next play as he bowled in for the decisive score.
Iarussi’s third touchdown of the day made the score 35-20 with 6:19 remaining. The Summit defense, led by Stadlinger’s 10 total tackles, four of which were for a loss, pinned down the Pioneers and allowed them no space to operate on their final possession. In fact, the Hilltoppers only granted New Providence 59 seconds with the ball before they took it back after another punt by Fay. Summit began their final possession with 5:20 on the game clock and the usually fast-paced, up-tempo offensive attack of the Hilltoppers ground to a near-stop.
“We knew we had to maintain the ball during the fourth quarter. When they scored that last touchdown [to make the score 28-20] we knew we had to dig deep and keep getting first downs to grind down the clock,” Bringewatt said.
And grind the clock they did. Summit did not surrender the ball again and took all five minutes and twenty seconds off the clock thanks to excellent clock management by Liberato on the sidelines and his quarterback on the field. Bringewatt picked up three key first downs with his legs on that final possession and he rushed for 148 hard-earned yards on the afternoon, second only to Iarussi’s 186-yard performance. It was a textbook lesson on how a winning team takes the air out of the ball and time off the clock when they have a lead in the fourth quarter.
When the final seconds began to tick off the clock, the Summit players on the field came to the sidelines to celebrate with their teammates. For the second straight year, Summit had thrown a monkey wrench into the Pioneers’ regular season. For Liberato – a product himself of New Providence High School where he both played and coached football for the Pioneers – the win was a sweet, but it was certainly tempered by respect, admiration and appreciation that can only come from knowing your team’s biggest rival from the inside.
“It feels great [to win this game],” Liberato said. “I know everybody over there, I respect everybody over there and it’s just a great win for Summit.”
With that, Liberato ran toward New Providence head coach Art Cattano, hugged him and said with absolute sincerity in his voice, “Great job, Art. Best of luck the rest of the season. You guys played great today.”
Saturday’s victory was, as Liberato said, “a great win for Summit,” but it’s evident by the respect shown on both sides of the field that while this is still a heated and hotly contested rivalry game that no one wants to lose, there is not one drop of bad blood involved.
And that is not only good for Summit and New Providence, it’s good for the area, good for football and best of all, good for the kids who will inherit this rivalry in five, 10, 20 or 25 years because they will know – above all else – that sportsmanship is as much a part of this rivalry as the final score.