SUMMIT, NJ - Left without a healthy quarterback on the roster, the Summit High School Varsity Football Team dug deep, relied on its senior leadership, and rallied from a halftime deficit to beat Morris Hills, 29-17, in the first round of the NJSIAA playoffs.
The Hilltoppers played a jagged first half, one that put them behind after two quarters, 11-8. They also lost their only healthy quarterback still on the active roster, captain Peter McKinlay, who left the game with an injury late in the second quarter. Quarterbacks Ryan Richson and Jake Froschauer are also both currently out with injuries.
On a clear, cold day at Investors Bank Field, Summit got off to a strong start in their quest for a third consecutive state title. The Hilltoppers won the coin toss and deferred, giving Morris Hills the ball and, despite allowing chunks of yards on the ground during the Scarlet Knights' opening drive, eventually took the ball away.
First defensive end Pat Maloney blew up a running play, setting up a third and long. Then, Senior captain Andrew Helmer intercepted a pass at the Summit goal line, and returned the ball 30 yards.
Summit's offense began their march down the field, culminating in McKinlay finding Drew Mulholland alone deep down the right sideline for a 24-yard touchdown. Chris Zanelli's two-point conversion made it 8-0.
Morris Hills got back on offense, their running game again posing problems for the Summit defense. Running back Isaiah Turner was doing a large share of the damage, mainly through sweeps left and right. The Hilltopper defense eventually held, and Damian Gonzalez's 22-yard field cut the lead to 8-3.
In the second quarter, things went flat for Summit. Unable to move the ball, a short punt gave the Scarlet Knights advantageous field position, the short field led to a one-yard touchdown by Turner and, with the two-point conversion successful, Morris Hills took the lead, 11-8.
After losing McKinlay, the Hilltoppers went to the locker room at halftime to think about myriad issues: how to stop the Scarlet Knights running attack, how to get their offense untracked, and how to win a game without a healthy quarterback.
At the break, according to Summit Head Coach Kevin Kostibos, his senior leadership rallied the team. Spirits lifted, the Hilltoppers turned to the type of offense that has given them so much success, and to the player who has shouldered a big part of the load in that offense, namely the running game and Zanelli.
Catching the second-half kickoff on his 10 yard-line, Matt Murdock ran right, handing the ball to Zanelli who was running left. The kick off reverse was executed beautifully by Zanelli and the Summit special teams unit, as he brought the ball back past midfield.
A Zanelli run to the left, followed by a Zanelli run to the right took the ball inside the Morris Hills five-yard line. Two plays later, Zanelli scored from the three, and Paulo Umana tacked on the PAT to put Summit back ahead. 15-11.
Morris Hills, however, punched right back on the subsequent possession. In a drive that was solely executed on the ground, quarterback Daymon Fleming scored on a four-yard bootleg run to the right side. The PAT was wide left, and the Scarlet Knights were again in front. 17-15.
The defending champs used the next drive to show their toughness, talent, and versatility to take back the lead, scoring the go-ahead touchdown that proved to be the game winner. After moving to the Morris Hills 30 on series of runs, Andrew Helmer threw a flanker-pass to Vincent Bonomo, who was wide open at the goal line on the gadget play. Umana's point after made it 22-17 with a quarter to go.
The Hilltoppers iced the game in the fourth quarter, on a drive when Spencer Sink reeled off several impressive, powerful runs, it was Zanelli blasting over from one-yard out. Zanelli's rushing totals on the day helped him set a new Summit single-season record for yards rushing, braking the previous record of 1,394 set by Torrie Fogg during the 1994 season.
The 29-17 scoreline was perhaps not indicative of the level of the struggle, with Summit having to overcome both a tough Morris Hills team, and the adversity of losing their quarterback. Kostibos was justifiably proud of fortitude displayed by his team.
"We found a way," he said. "The seniors spoke at the half, and our kids took ownership of the challenge." On winning without a healthy offensive field-general, Kostibos said, "We danced with who brought us here. Chris Zanelli is one of the best who has ever played in a Summit uniform."
Summit's second-round opponent is Parsippany Hills, a 35-34 winner over Orange. The kickoff time for the November 22 match-up at Investors Bank Field, a rematch of last year's championship game, is yet to be announced.