RAHWAY, NJ - What a difference a month makes.
On September 22, the Summit High School Varsity Football Team was trudging off the turf at Warren Hills defeated and dejected, having first surrendered the ball and then allowing a touchdown -- both in the game's waning moments -- and seeing their record fall below .500 at 1-2.
Fast forward to the end of October, and the Maroon and White is flying high, the wind at their backs courtesy of a five-game winning streak and appearing to be a team that, in all honesty and with much praise, looks nothing like the mid-September bunch.
Gone is the sporadic lack of execution, the propensity to metaphorically stub their own toes with costly penalties, and the perception of a lack of confidence.
In its collective place now is a high-level of execution, the near-elimination of self-inflicted football wounds, and a meteoric rise in intensity, physicality on both sides of the ball, and more than a whiff of the swagger that comes with knowing they will find a way to get the job done.
The latest example of this transformation was on display at the new Rahway football stadium, which sits smack dab in the middle of Rahway River Park and feels like the New Jersey High School Football version of the Iowa corn field-turned-baseball-diamond in Field of Dreams.
The Hilltoppers ripped off a big gainer on the opening play of the game -- quarterback Skyler Schluter hitting senior captain Stephen Sajer for 38 yards down the middle -- and literally never looked back, building a 27-point lead through three quarters en route a dominating victory over the Indians, 34-14.
Jackson Tyler had four touchdowns and senior captain Luca Curran had a Pick Six for the other Hilltopper visit to paydirt The victory improves Summit's record to 6-2 on the season heading into the final regular-season game November 4 versus Somerville at Investors Bank Field.
Football is a game of physicality, toughness and emotion, and Summit brought all three out of the locker room in spades to start the game. The Hilltoppers scored on their opening drive when Tyler went around right end from five-yards out. Will Goldy's PAT made it 7-0 at the 9:55 mark.
It was 13-0 three and a-half minutes later when, on fourth-and-short, Tyler took a pass in the right flat from Schluter and rumbled 22 yards to The House. Goldy's PAT was blocked, but the Hilltoppers were pounding a highly-rated opponent, the offensive line opening holes, Tyler and Max Jackson running hard and dragging would-be tacklers with them for 5-10 yards, and the defense allowing nada.
Late in the quarter, Rahway finally got a drive together that culminated with a Jakir Robinson to Zion Pendleton 31-yard touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone, the receiver impressively leaping to catch the toss and -- in the referee's opinion -- coming down in bounds, although that verdict may not have passed the naked eye test. Nonetheless, the PAT was good and Rahway had fought back into the game, beckoning what was likely to be a competitive struggle the rest of the way.
Instead, what resulted was that Rahway struggled to stay in the game, and Summit used the next quarter and a-half of action to deliver a statement.
After Tyler and Jackson took turns delivering Earl Campbell-like runs that brought the ball deep into the Rahway Red Zone, Tyler took a direct snap out of the Wildcat formation and busted over from a yard-out with 4:42 to go in the half. Goldy split the uprights, and it was 20-7.
After the halftime break, Summit put the hammer down and put Rahway away.
After the Summit defense produced yet another stop, Rahway was forced to punt. The snap sailed two yards over the punter's head, and the now ball was rolling -- for those that are card-carrying members of Hilltopper Nation -- unaccompanied in the right direction, which is to say deep in Indians' territory.
All Rahway could do was fall on the bouncing ball, and the 07901ers had a short field to work with. After a few slams into the line, the Hilltoppers faced a fourth-and-four and called Jackson's number. The junior got the four yards and about 10 more, and soon thereafter Tyler banged over from the four, then Goldy cranked the PAT to make it 27-7 with 7:14 left in the third quarter.
The Summit defense got its reward for another stellar performance on the next series, delivering six points and the knockout blow. As Robinson rolled to his left to avoid pocket pressure, he looked for his receiver along the left sideline. Spying the throw, Curran stepped in front of the wideout, snared the rock, and ran untouched 25-yards for the score. Goldy cracked the PAT, it was 34-7 and, while there were still 17 minutes of football left, it felt like Game Over.
Managing the final quarter-plus, Summit did give up a Robinson to Jerish Halsey touchdown pass and Rahway was driving the ball during the final minutes but, fittingly, Summit's defense stopped the Indians on fourth-and-goal with a shade over a minute left. Not that the outcome was in doubt -- all the score would have done is slightly change the optics -- but the stand served as an emphatic example of just what the visiting team brought on the night: specifically an effort and a game that combined the best elements of the four wins which preceded it.
"I think our coaching staff did a great job preparing our team and our kids did a phenomenal job executing tonight," said Summit Head Coach Kevin Kostibos. "You want to be judged by how you play against the better teams, and Rahway is certainly in that class. The game had playoff implications and I felt that we dominated tonight."
Summit will next face a very tough Somerville team that, heading into their October 28 game against Scotch Plains-Fanwood, is 6-1. The Pioneers' and Hilltoppers' scores against like opponents are more that comparable, with Somerville's only loss coming at the hands of Rahway three weeks ago.
Summit versus Somerville on November 4 at Investors Bank Field kicks-off at 2 p.m.