SUMMIT, NJ - It's fair to say that there is a bit of brotherhood between the Summit High School Varsity Football team and their counterparts from Warren Hills High School -- forged through both tough, close battles on the gridiron and shared sadness and grief from tragic events that no young man -- or their communities -- should ever have to go through.
Their DNA is also similar -- both programs play the game the right way, for the right reasons, exuding grit, resilience, toughness and respect. And, while their playing styles and schemes are not exactly mirrored, each gives maximum effort, competing until the final whistle.
And so it should be no surprise that when the two teams met at Investors Bank Field, the game ended up being a essentially a one-possession affair inside the contest's final three minutes.
The difference on the day was big plays, with Summit and their slot back Matt Murdock making more of them -- nearly all of them, in fact. The senior captain's three touchdown game proved decisive, as the Hilltoppers built a big lead and then hung on to defeat the Blue Streaks, 35-20.
The moody morning weather gave way to pristine skies by kick-off, and Summit's defense, as they have so far this season, was stellar early and often. Consistently creating 'three-and-outs', they gave the offense the ball and, late in the first quarter, The Maroon & White broke through.
After a 40-plus yard run by senior Sam Zanelli put the ball deep in Warren Hills territory, sophomore quarterback Jackson Tyler -- once again starting in place of the injured Jake Froschauer -- lofted a ball high into the right corner of the end zone where junior wideout Stephen Sajer made a nice adjustment, coming back to the ball slightly, out-leaped his defender, and made the catch.
The 15-yard pass play was followed by senior Jack Johnson's PAT, and it was 7-0 Summit with 1:53 remaining in the opening quarter.
It was 14-0 in short order when, at the 10:24 mark of the second quarter, Tyler took the snap from center and through a quick slant-route dart to Murdock, who blazed 51 yards for the score. Johnson's PAT was good, and the Hilltoppers were in control.
Warren Hills got their offense in gear on their next possession, and methodically mixed some runs and short passes to move the chains. Quarterback Cooper Gabrich found Peter Warsen over the middle, in what appeared to be a blown coverage, and the receiver strolled into the end zone untouched from nine-yards out. The two-point conversion failed, and Summit led 14-6 with 6:13 to go before the half.
Summit was again able to get into scoring range late, but a fumble turned it over, and the half ended.
In the third quarter, Murdock struck again, this time taking a hand off and bursting through the right side and motoring 70 yards down the right sideline for the score. Johnson tacked on another PAT, and the Hilltoppers led 21-6.
Murdock's third game-changing play at the 2:01 mark looked to seal the deal, when he took a hand-off and started right, then broke left and rocketed 52 yards for a touchdown that -- after Johnson's fourth PAT -- made it 28-6.
Warren Hills, however, answered right back when -- after running back Taylor Hoover broke off a long run -- they scored from 13 yards out. This time, the two-point conversion was successful, and the Summit advantage narrowed to 28-14 with just 44 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The Blue Streaks made things even more interesting when they put together a drive that resulted in an 34-yard touchdown pass along the right sideline at the 7:24 mark. They again went for two, but failed, and it was 28-20.
Summit responded to the looming threat by grinding it down the field and, with 2:20 left, Zanelli scooted in from 17 yards out. Johnson's final kick of the day was like his previous four -- all good -- and the Hilltoppers had the insurance they need at 35-20.
A key play on the drive was a fourth-and-two conversion with Tyler running the option and pitching the ball to Murdock, one of "a couple of wrinkles," according to Head Coach Kevin Kostibos, that Summit was able to insert during a week of practice that gave Tyler the first team reps.
"At 28-6 I sensed that we relaxed a bit and, against a tremendous opponent like Warren Hills, you cannot rest no matter the lead," said Kostibos. "It is always a battle against them, and they came in with a great game plan and stuck with it. Matt Murdock showed again today that he is one of the best players in Union County, He is a phenomenal all-around player and someone who always steps up"
Next for Summit, now 3-0 on the season, is the first of two back-to-back road games, taking on Scotch Plains-Fanwood October 1 at 2 p.m.