WASHINGTON, NJ - Mired in nasty traffic, it took the Summit High School Varsity Football Team a full 90 minutes to get to Washington for its Friday night tilt against Warren Hills. While there was little to no traffic and miles of open road post-game, one can safely surmise that the Hilltoppers' ride back to the Hilltop City felt a lot longer.
In an odd game that saw virtually every turning pointish moment go against the Maroon and White, Summit surrendered a touchdown with 29.1 seconds remaining in the game and was beaten by the Blue Streaks, 20-17.
The Hilltoppers had no less than four -- count 'em four -- touchdowns called back when the yellow mist descended on them in the form of penalty flags. They also saw their own second-half onside kick -- attempted immediately after they scored to take the lead -- returned for a Warren Hills touchdown.
Despite this string of misfortune, Summit would have likely returned to the 07901 as winners on the evening if they had converted a a fourth-and-less-than-a-yard from their own 30 with four minutes to go. They came up short, and the Blue Streaks used the turnover on downs to produce the game-winning drive.
The Hilltoppers nearly persevered despite all of that pigskin plight when they stormed downfield after the Blue Streaks took the late lead had a 32-yard field goal attempt with six seconds left that would have tied the game. Will Goldy's kick had plenty of distance -- it likely would have been good from 40 or more yards -- but it sailed just wide right.
For those watching the game, the fact that Summit was even in that position -- needing three points to tie with virtually no time on the clock -- is a tough pill to swallow, as the Hilltoppers -- especially in the second half -- were the better team.
The loss spoiled some praise-worthy Hilltopper performances, led by Summit's defensive unit which, while allowing a few big plays, showed significant steel all game long. When they had the ball, a pair of Max's -- receiver Max Hayford and running back Max Jackson -- each were standouts and contributed multiple big plays.
Ironically, Summit was significantly better offensively in the final two quarters than they were in the first half, but they actually led at the break 10-7 after Goldy drilled a 20 yarder at the end of the second quarter.
Perhaps it was the long sojourn to get there, but Summit wasn't exactly electric out of the gate. The offense was not in gear and, when the Blue Streaks' Zach Hamilton broke a 42-yard run for a touchdown at the 6:24 mark of the first quarter, the Hilltoppers trailed, 7-0.
Summit tied the game early in the second quarter after a drive that began in the waning moments of the first frame. The play will go down in the stat book as a 44-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Skyler Schluter to senior wideout Hayford however, in reality, it was a nice six-yard pass by Schluter boxcar-ed with a brilliant 38-yard,, Elroy 'Crazylegs' Hirsch-like run from Hayford that included a several broken tackles.
A concise description would be: if one looked up 'yards after catch' in the dictionary, there would be a photo of the play.
After Goldy's PAT it was 7-7 with 10:36 to go before half, and Summit seemed to be getting stronger offensively as the game progressed
A bit of trickery set up the Hilltoppers' go-ahead score, as punter Jack Kelly went all rugby on the Blue Streaks, taking the snap and then shoveling to Jackson Tyler who rumbled for the first down.
The drive ended up with a few shots into the end zone -- the most notable of which saw Schluter's three-yard pass over the middle in the back of the end zone nearly connect with senior captain Stephen Sajer -- but Summit had to settle for a Goldy chip-shot from 20 yards. The field goal came with two seconds left before the break, and the visitors took a 10-7 lead to the locker room.
Summit came out strong in the second half, and Jackson increased Summit's lead when he took a hand-off, started right, then punched through a hole, cut back to his left and surged 40 yards to The House. Goldy's PAT made it 17-7 Hilltoppers at the 9:12 mark and things were looking rosy.
Summit's world, however, got thorny less than 10 seconds of game time later, on a bizarro play that can best be categorized as 'did that just happen'?
Sensing Mr. Momentum had just hopped in the back seat of the Summit sedan for a joyride, Summit Head Coach Kevin Kostibos and his coaching staff rolled the dice and went for an onside kick. The move imploded as quickly as the cagey plan was hatched as the kick took a hometown hop right into the hands of Warren Hills up-back Nick Ortiz. Like Elvis, Ortiz said 'thank you very much' and motored 47 yards for a Blue Streak touchdown. The nine seconds of not-so-special teams madness narrowed Summit's lead to 17-13 as the PAT was missed.
From there it was a wrist-wrestling match of a finish, as in Summit nearly pinned Warren Hills on multiple occasions with big touchdown plays, with each scenario featuring the same two outcomes -- Hilltoppers celebrating in the end zone only to look back and see some yellow cloth starkly sitting on the green turf. The infraction du jour was holding, although one of the scores was called back for an illegal man downfield.
The result was that the game's outcome was still in the balance, and Summit found itself with the ball on its own 30-yard-line and faced with a fourth-and-less-than-a-yard situation with four minutes left in the game. Once again Kostibos & Co. rolled the dice, and once again it came up snake eyes as, needing about 30 inches for a first down, the Hilltoppers got 24.
Like a team in a tug-of-war contest on the beach fighting to hang on, Summit's 'D' dug its feet in and nearly held the day. Warren Hills had three straight tries from the Hilltopper four-yard-line blunted, but on fourth-and-goal, Gabrich found Hayden Van Solkerna on an outside-shoulder quick-hitter that gave them the lead, after the successful PAT, 20-17.
There were less than 30 seconds left, but Summit had three timeouts. Their quest to tie or win the game was given a big boost when Tyrone Hines nearly busted the ensuing kick-off return, flashing out to midfield. A Schluter pass to senior captain Andrew Miller bit off another chunk, and the Hilltoppers got a bit of good luck when Warren Hills was called for a 12-men-on-the-field penalty that bumped the rock down to the 15-yard-line. Summit took one crack at the end zone, didn't connect, and then tried for three.
However, on a night when they likely did enough right to win but also just enough wrong to lose, Summit will be left to rue one that got away, in a venue pretty far away.
"We took too many points off the board tonight, made mistakes that stopped ourselves, and let them hang around," said Kostibos. "Our defense was phenomenal again and our offense, especially in the second half, was moving the ball up and down the field."
On the decision to go for it on fourth down from their own 30, Kostibos said, "We needed a half-of-a-yard. If we get a first-down there the game is over. The bottom line is that when Warren Hills needed to make a play they did, and we didn't."
Summit, now 1-2 on the season, returns to Investors Bank Field to face Scotch Plains-Fanwood September 29. The rare Friday afternoon game kicks-off at 4 p.m.