SUMMIT, NJ - The contest had the air of a play-off game without the specter of elimination which, for the Summit High School Varsity Football Team, turned out to be a good thing.
That's because the Hilltoppers, up 14 points with less than five minutes remaining in the tilt, yielded two Somerville touchdowns that forced overtime, a session which saw the Pioneers again find paydirt and the Maroon and White then getting turned away on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard-line.
The end result was a 42-36 'Senior Day' defeat at the hands of Somerville, a loss which snapped Summit's five-game winning streak and sends the boys from the 07901 into the NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 post-season with a painful, but potentially beneficial, lesson in tow.
Big plays and big moments abounded and, while a fair share of them went Summit's way, too many of the key ones did not. The game's final play, a quick-hitting Jackson Tyler to Stephen Sajer pass play that would have tied the score and given the home team a chance to win with a successful point-after-touchdown, was batted away inches from being completed.
The harsh reality, however, is that the plays which gave Somerville the landscape in which to come back and win, pretty much all occurred in the fourth quarter. The Hilltoppers had several chances to ice the game on both sides of the ball, but missed opportunities, missed tackles and some flat-out mis-takes all contributed to the setback. Credit should, though, be extended to the visitors who found a way -- individually and as a team -- to make plays.
Summit themselves actually did make a bunch of big plays: a long run for a touchdown; forcing two turnovers, one of which was returned for touchdown; blocking an extra-point that forced overtime and stopping another two-point conversion attempt in overtime that -- if the Hilltoppers would have ultimately scored and kicked the PAT -- could have actually yielded the decisive point.
Somerville won the toss to start the game and found the end zone 93 seconds later on a 38-yard touchdown pass and then tacked on a two-point conversion.
Summit struggled on their first few possessions, but eventually did put together a drive that culminated in them tying things up. A big pass down the left sideline from Skyler Schluter to Max Hayford -- who made a leaping catch -- did most of the damage, and Max Jackson cruised over from short-range. Then, on the PAT, some trickery saw captain Andrew Miller take a flip pass from holder Schluter and complete a toss to fellow captain Stephen Sajer and the game was knotted at 8-8.
One of Summit's best moments occurred in the second quarter when, just as the Pioneers looked like they were starting to chew up big chunks of yards and began marching down the field, junior Jack Kelly's crunching tackle put his hat directly on the ball, sending the pigskin flying right into the arms of Sajer who galloped 60 yards down the left sideline to The House. Will Goldy drilled the PAT and the Hilltoppers led, 15-8.
Both team's defenses were getting stops, and the game went to halftime with the score unchanged and stayed that way into the third quarter when another Summit takeaway led to the home team scoring again. In a reprise of the second-quarter scenario, Somerville was driving but the Hilltoppers jarred the ball loose and fell on it. Two plays later, Jackson Tyler belted through a hole and went 70 yards down the right center of the field. Goldy's PAT made it 22-8.
It didn't take long for the Pioneers to answer right back. After converting a fourth-and-two situation, quarterback Jalahn Dabney found Joe Ciempola over the middle and, after the successful PAT was kicked, Summit's lead had been trimmed to 22-15.
The return of Hilltopper Head Coach Kevin Kostibos' 'The Gambler' persona led to Summit punching right back at the 3:58 mark. Facing their own fourth-and-two from the Somerville 30-yard-line, Kostibos went play action and Schluter found Sajer over the middle with no one around him for literally 25 yards -- the receiver so wide open that he could have literally walked to the end zone but he dutifully ran, and Goldy thumped the PAT to make it 29-15.
The Maroon and White completed what looked to be a decisive third quarter when, with 49 seconds left, Schluter snuck over from the one-yard-line, culminating a short-field drive that was set up by a solid defensive stop and a nice punt return from sophomore Joe Lusardi. Goldy cracked another PAT and the quarter ended with Summit in control and leading, 36-15.
Perhaps if Summit could have drained some significant time off the clock without allowing a Somerville score, the time is on my side strategy may have enabled the Hilltoppers to emerge victorious. But, that is not what transpired, as the Pioneers scored just 94 seconds into the fourth quarter, the subsequent PAT making it 36-22.
Still, Summit looked about to seal the deal when they drove deep into Somerville territory. An interception on the five-yard-line, however, snuffed the drive and the Red Zone turnover came back to haunt the home team when the Pioneers went 95 yards for a touchdown and added the two-point conversion. There was 3:38 to go, and Summit's lead was just six points at 36-30.
The Hilltoppers could only return the ensuing kick-off to the their own 15-yard-line and then went three-and-out. Not good news if one is a card-carrying member of Hilltopper Nation, but that development -- in itself -- was not calamitous.
No, that would be the next play.
Catching Jack Kelly's punt at midfield, Somerville's Duke McDuffie broke right and then made everybody in Maroon miss en route to a 50-yard touchdown run. Suddenly, there was just 1:39 left to play and a successful PAT of any kind meant Summit would be behind -- something that seemed unthinkable five to ten minutes earlier.
The Pioneers eschewed the two-point conversion and opted to kick. Lusardi broke through up the middle and blocked the attempt, and the game remained deadlocked at 36-36.
Each team had the ball in the final 90 seconds of he final frame but neither could move, so overtime was in the cards. Somerville won the toss, converted on a fourth-and-two, and then scored on the next play. The Pioneers chose the two-point conversion opportunity, but were stopped, a key play that meant Summit -- now trailing 42-36 -- could emerge triumphant with a TD and one-point PAT.
Summit drove to the two-yard-line, but faced a fourth down. Tyler went over center, which usually means a running play. Taking the snap, he looked for a quick slant to Sajer, but a defender's hand popped up at the last second, and the ball fell to the turf.
"The margin for error in games like this is very small," said Kostibos, adding, "You have to take advantage of opportunities and find ways to win. While we played a great game for three quarters, ultimately we didn't do that today."
While official NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 brackets will not be released until November 5, there is speculation that Summit -- which ended the regular season with a 6-3 record -- will be given the number-four seed and earn a home match-up against projected number-five seed Rahway, an opponent the Hilltoppers defeated just eight days ago, 34-14.