SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - Even though the South Plainfield High School football team secured their spot in the playoffs last week, they knew a win tonight would be a huge boost for their postseason hopes.
After coming off a bye last week, the Tigers (6-2) returned to action Friday night against Iselin Kennedy in front of a packed Frank Jost field. A win against the Mustangs (4-5) would help the Tigers snag a higher seeding, and also put next week’s playoff game on their home turf.
It wasn’t the prettiest, cleanest, or most complete game the Tigers have put on this season, but some well-timed offensive success, combined with a hard-nosed defensive stand on 4th and goal in the game’s closing moments, earned the Tigers a gritty 16-13 win.
South Plainfield head coach Gary Cassio said he was proud of the way his players persevered but was also very clear in stating that the performance they put on tonight won’t cut it in post-season play.
“We've got to get better,” Cassio said. “There were too many mistakes, and there's nowhere to blame (specifically). It was the coaching staff, the line didn't play well, the running backs didn't run well, and the defense didn't play well. We don't give up 13 points to this team, we're a much better team than that. That was a hell of a defensive stand at the end though.”
Both teams had trouble getting clean plays off from the beginning of the game to the end. The Tigers had four costly penalties in the first half --including a pass interference that led to a successful 30 yard Mustangs field goal attempt by Gianfranco Tiseo -- while Iselin Kennedy racked up three penalties.
The Tigers biggest offensive success in the first half came at the hands of backup quarterback Ryan Marston. At the four minute mark of the second quarter, Marston managed to evade the Mustangs’ pass rush just long enough to get the ball off to Jean Sapini who then sprinted past Iselin Kennedy defenders for a 50-yard touchdown. Starting South Plainfield quarterback Charles Lovett did manage to finally make his return to the field today, after suffering an injury that sidelined him earlier in the season, but Cassio pulled him for safety reasons after a few series in the first quarter.
“We thought (Lovett) was healthy, and we thought he was almost there,” Casio said. “We gave him the start tonight, but he wasn't ready to go. We knew that, but we figured we'd give him one or two series, but we have Ryan in the bullpen. Ryan's a stud and a born leader, and he came out and got a big score, and we got a heck of a run by Sapini.”
In the first quarter, the Tigers saw another one of their leaders go down, when their standout middle linebacker Dillon Harris had to be carried off the field after a special teams play. The Tigers defense persevered though, and managed to hold Mustangs quarterback Kyle Heaney to 22 yards passing and 43 yards rushing in the first two quarters.
A 38-yard field goal from Deshair Smith, and an 11 yard rushing touchdown by Zach DelVecchio put the Tigers in the lead by the closing moments of the game.
Heaney had some success in the second half, --including an 11 yard rushing touchdown-- but the defining moment of the game came when he got his team a 1st and goal while down by three points with just over a minute left in the game.
Without their defensive leader Harris on the field, the Tigers stopped three up the middle rushing attacks from the Mustangs, and on fourth and goal, Heaney fumbled the snap and was stopped by senior Tiger OLB Ryan Stankan which essentially clinched the game for South Plainfield.
Even though Harris was on the sidelines, Stankan said it was his senior LB’s example that inspired the team to make the stop.
“We knew that if he was on the field, he'd make the stop, so we had to come together as a unit to make the stop and get the game for everybody.” Stankan said.
“Our motto is next man up, and that's exactly what we did tonight. We threw a lot of people in our defense tonight, and we just executed and got the job done.”
Next week, it’s officially do or die time for the Tigers. For Cassio, the important part is getting his team as ready and healthy as possible.
“Hopefully we get Dillon back, and hopefully Charlie will be healthy, and some other injuries get better, and we'll be ready to go next Friday,” said the coach. “We've got to coach better, and the kids have to play better.
“I'm proud of these kids,” the coach added. “We're 6-2. Get rid of one of those parochial schools in our division, and we're the number one public school in our division. These are good kids, and I'm very, very proud of them, but the first part of the season is over and we have to get ready for the playoffs.”