WARREN, NJ - The Watchung Hills Pop Warner Junior Pee Wee team survived and advanced to the Regional Finals with a 12-7 victory over the New York State Champions, North Rockland on Sunday. This game came down to the wire. The North Rockland Red Raiders were seven yards from the end zone with 10 seconds to play. They advanced the ball to the 4-yard line with time running out before they could get off another play. Game captains today were Julian Sanchez, Anthony Bateh, John King, Kaden Everly, and James Palaia.
The last play of the game by North Rockland was a run to the right side. Their speedy ball-carrier did make a turn on the edge with a lane to the end zone. Responding quickly from the corner-back position, Aqili Holmes contained the outside. Palaia squeezed the play from line-backer and Kaden Everly tripped up the runner with a "shoe string tackle" keeping him in-bounds and the clock moving.
The end-game didn't have to be that dramatic but the Wolverine offense could not get a key first down and with 2:14 remaining in the game. On a previous North Rockland drive, Wolverine corner-back, Johnny King deflected a long pass play turning the ball over to Watchung and it looked like the Wolverines might run out the clock. They failed to do so giving the Red Raiders another chance.
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At the half, the Wolverines appeared to be in good shape with a 12-0 lead. However, adjustments made by North Rockland at the break allowed them to run the ball through the middle of the Wolverine defensive line repeatedly. The Red Raiders capitalized with a long scoring drive to close the gap to five points at 12-7.
Elhanan Wilson secured the ensuing on-sides kick attempt as the Wolverines got the ball back toward the end of the 3rd quarter. It seemed as though the Wolverines would answer with a second half touchdown. Billy Black and Aqili Holmes each had first down runs but eventually the drive stalled and the 3rd period came to a close with the Wolverines clinging to that 5-point cushion.
Early in the 4th period, Anthony Bateh made a key play on special-teams with a long punt. Aided by good bounce of the ball, Bateh executed a 42-yard punt sending the Raiders backwards into their own territory. It would take a total team effort defensively in this game to slow down the very strong Red Raider team. Many players contributed on defense as Aqili Holmes, Billy Black, James Palaia, Anthony Bateh, Nasir Maryland, James Carbone, Jake Checchio, Ty Marion, Dylan Braunstein, Peter O'Mara, Kaden Everly, and Mac McAteer all made multiple tackles during the game.
The Watchung Hills Wolverines did all their scoring in the second quarter. Sources close to the Red Raider team said that this was the first time they had been scored on all season. Bateh recovered a fumble setting up a Palaia touchdown run. Later in the period, utilizing a perfect block by Jake Memoli, Palaia again broke free for an 80-yard scoring run as it seemed like the Wolverines were seizing control. Watchung failed to convert the extra point kick on both touchdowns which would prove to be key as the game wore on.
The Wolverine kicking game had been pretty solid for much of the season with snapper, Ty Marion; holder, Mac McAteer, and kicker, Billy Black successfully executing multiple 2-point kicks this year. Today, however, the first kick was blocked by a defender sneaking through the line. And the second kick, albeit a strong one by Black, bounced off the crossbar.
With the win, the Watchung Hills Junior Pee Wee team advances to the Regional Finals the day after Thanksgiving, Friday, November 27. The game is scheduled to be at East County Park in Warren, even if the Wolverines did not make it that far. The Championship is a home game for Watchung Hills Friday at 3 p.m. Watchung Hills will face the winner of the other semi-final game which features the Ward 5 Warriors from Washington, D.C. versus the North Philly Aztecs from Pennsylvania. The complete regional bracket can be viewed at: http://www.popwarner.com/Page4392.aspx#
Additionally, the 11th win this season, puts the 2015 team in some very elite standing. Only five teams in the 44 year history of the Watchung Hills Pop Warner football program have won that many games in a single season. Of course, one of those teams was the 2014 Junior Pee Wee squad which went 14-1 and advanced to the Pop Warner Super Bowl at Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. The 2015 team will attempt to repeat as Regional Champs and Disney participants in back-to-back seasons; a feat never achieved by any Watchung Hills team at any level.