SUMMIT, NJ – A week ago against Hillside, Summit head coach John Liberato’s team scored touchdowns on its first eight possessions en route to a 56-0 victory. On Friday night against Johnson, it was more of the same for the Hilltoppers as they opened up a 21-0 lead just 7:04 into the game on touchdown runs by A.J. Iarussi and Ryan Bringewatt and a dazzling punt return by Mike Badgley to put the Crusaders in their rear view mirror on the way to a 43-point victory at Investors Bank Field.
The Hilltoppers opened with a crisp drive that culminated when Iarussi scampered into the end zone from 17 yards out with the game’s first scoring play. After the Summit defense forced a Johnson punt, Badgley made what could be considered the play of the year so far for the Hilltoppers as he fielded the punt and proceeded to spin and twist his way out of tackles before breaking away for a tremendous 72-yard punt return. Consider that the only reason Badgley was out there to field the punt in the first place was an injury to regular return man Seth Ryan and you have even more reason to believe that Liberato’s “next man up” mentality has firmly taken hold on a team that looks more and more like it is regaining the form that made the Hilltoppers Group 1 state champions after the 2009 season.
Badgley then notched all seven points for himself on the scoring play by booting the extra point right down the middle to give Summit a quick 14-0 lead.
“Special teams have always been a big part of our program,” Badgley said after the game. “Every day [Coach Liberato] has us out there working on that in practice.”
Iarussi continued to pound his way through the Crusaders defense and notched touchdowns of 1 yard and 14 yards respectively that rounded out the first quarter scoring for the Hilltoppers. Iarussi again had an extremely effective afternoon as he rushed for 135 yards on just 10 carries and Summit led at the end of the first quarter, 28-0.
Senior quarterback Ryan Bringewatt also had a fine afternoon, both on the ground and through the air. While Johnson began the second quarter with what looked like a possible scoring drive, the Hilltoppers’ defense forced a fumble and Summit took over on its own 16 yard line still ahead by four touchdowns. That’s when Bringewatt went to work. The efficient, strong-armed QB scanned the field with ease behind an offensive line that allowed him time to find his receivers. Bringewatt hit Kyr’e Negron for a 22-yard gain then found Will Weber for 24 more yards before finally firing a laser of a 19-yard touchdown pass to a streaking Luke Stephens.
Thought the Hilltoppers were now up 35-0 early in the second quarter, the Crusaders certainly did not quit. Johnson built on its previous drive and moved the ball quickly down the field covering 83 yards in just four plays. The drive ended from long distance when Johnson running back Nick Mullery broke loose and scampered through the secondary on his way to a 40-yard touchdown. It was the first of three touchdown runs on the afternoon for Mullery who also scored from 44 and 35 yards out in the fourth quarter against Summit’s second and third team reserves after Liberato emptied his bench following halftime. Though Mullery had broken through and gotten the Crusaders on the board with his scoring jaunt, Summit’s Nick Liberato raced in and blocked the extra point attempt which made the score 35-6.
Whatever momentum Johnson mustered with Mullery’s score was immediately crushed following the ensuing kickoff when Bringewatt took the first play from scrimmage 69 yards for another Summit touchdown. Negron then cashed in on a smooth run, this one from 34 yards out, to give the Hilltoppers an absolutely insurmountable lead at halftime, 49-6.
Though head coach Liberato seemingly called off the dogs by lifting his starters after halftime, Summit continued to move the ball effectively. Back-ups Colm Dougherty (three carries, 36 yards) and Charlie Terry (one carry, eight yards) made their limited touches count as both of them scored touchdowns to cap off the biggest scoring output of the season for the Hilltoppers.
Though the starters played barely more than a half of football against Johnson, it was a day for statistics on the Summit sideline. Iarussi’s aforementioned 135 yards on just 10 carries were coupled with Bringewatt’s 146 yards rushing on just nine attempts to form the bulk of the rushing output. Negron added 37 yards on just two carries with a touchdown and eight different Hilltoppers had at least one carry, none of which went for less than five yards on the way to a 386-yard rushing output by the team on Friday afternoon.
Bringewatt also added 101 yards through the air on 6-of-8 passing with a touchdown while the Summit defense played fantastic while the starters were in, led by Stefano Stadlinger’s 10 tackles. Chris Chaves had nine tackles and Mike Badgley continued his tremendous all-around play by notching eight tackles, converting all eight extra points he attempted, breaking up a pass, forcing a fumble and oh yeah, that 72-yard punt return for a touchdown.
While Summit was barely tested – their starting defensive unit held Johnson to just five total yards on its first three possessions – and the 63 points scored pushed Summit’s season total to 215 for the season which is on pace to break the school record of 520 points set during the 2009 state championship season, the most satisfying thing head coach Liberato took away from the game was his team’s continued ability to play for one another.
“Our kids started fast today and put together a full game out here [against Johnson],” Liberato said after the game. “They made that commitment to one another that they were going to do everything in their power to be 5-0 after this game and they went out and executed.”
With an undefeated New Providence team lurking just a few weeks off, Liberato’s team has certainly hit its stride at the right time. The 2011 edition of the Hilltoppers may not be as stout defensively as the 2009 state championship team, but that truly remains to be seen as the starting unit hasn’t been truly tested for an entire four quarters. Next week’s opponent, the 1-3 Governor Livingston Highlanders, will be taken seriously and a win at home coupled with win by New Providence on the road at 3-2 North Warren will set up an absolutely gigantic showdown on October 22nd at Investors Bank Field against not only two of the best football teams in the area, but in the entire state of New Jersey.
For any fan of high school football, the prospect of the Pioneers and Hilltoppers facing off is always a treat and a great look at a solid rivalry, but if both teams enter the game undefeated, the postseason implications will be felt throughout the state.
Yet right now, Liberato and his team are focused solely on the task at hand at this very moment – game-planning for and recording a victory over Governor Livingston.
For the rest of us, all we can do is hope for two wins on the 14th to make sure the battle of the undefeated teams takes place on the 22nd at Investors Bank Field between the Pioneers and Hilltoppers.