WASHINGTON, NJ – The ride to Warren Hills High School by bus is easily over an hour’s time from the parking lot of Summit High School and it’s a safe guess that the Hilltoppers were in an excited mood as they made their pre-game journey Friday night to take on the Streaks in the second contest of the young 2011 season. There was most likely plenty of music pumping through individual iPods, surely plenty of anxious yet confident chatter amongst the players as their bus made its way out I-78 West and up 31 North toward Washington. And why shouldn’t the Summit players have been confident before the game? They had defeated Voorhees with little problem the week before by a score of 41-7 and last year, beat the Blue Streaks easily, 39-6. On paper, the Hilltoppers once again looked like heavy favorites, but as the old cliché goes, you don’t play the games on paper.

Or during pre-game bus rides.

Still, Summit jumped out to an instant lead when the extremely talented Kyre Negron took the opening kickoff back 80 yards for a score. Just like that, the Hilltoppers were up a touchdown and head coach John Liberato’s team had to be feeling good about their chances. Yet after Negron’s score, Warren Hills proved for the next 47-plus minutes that they are a far different team this year than the squad that went 1-9 in 2010 under head coach Larry Dubiel.

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Even though Dubiel has few experienced players on his team, one of them happens to be the player through which the entire Blue Streaks’ offense is run, quarterback Zach Martin. Dubiel tasked Martin with the starting quarterback job after last year’s starter Connor Cruts did not come out for the team this year. Cruts’ absence essentially thrust Martin into the biggest leadership position on the field. Coincidentally, the same thing happened at the wide receiver position to Tyrell Thompson after last year’s leading wide receiver Javon Moore also elected against playing this year. Against Summit on Friday night, it was the Martin-to-Thompson connection that gave the Hilltoppers fits and nearly sent Summit to its first loss of the season.

Down 7-0, Martin led an efficient Warren Hills drive that culminated in running back Matt Ellis’ 3-yard scoring plunge. Yet just as soon as the game was tied, Negron untied it again with one of the most dazzling plays in high school football this season.

Negron has matured both physically and mentally since last year’s semi-breakout sophomore season. While Liberato used Negron in different packages and at different positions in 2010, Kyre was still second and sometimes third on the depth chart to run the ball behind A.J. Iarussi and quarterback Ryan Bringewatt. Yet Negron so often displayed flashes of absolute brilliance last year that Liberato was inclined to comment after the Hillside game – a game in which Negron carried the ball only 12 times, but racked up 121 yards rushing and three touchdowns, the last of which put the game out of reach – that, “If Kyre continues to work hard, and I know he will both in the classroom and on the field, but if he continues to work hard, he could be one of the absolute best to have ever walked through the doors at Summit and put on this uniform.”

After being backed up to their own 5 yard line following the Warren Hills score, Bringewatt found Negron in the flat, just past the line of scrimmage for a dump-off pass. The best case scenario in a coach’s mind when that play begins to unfold is the hope that the running back (Negron) can make a few moves and pick up a first down to keep the chains moving and the possession alive. Imagine, then, the elation Liberato and his staff must have felt as they watched Negron turn the ball up the field with lightning speed and transform a simple dump-off into a 95-yard touchdown.

While Negron’s amazing catch-and-run obviously electrified his teammates, on the other side of the field, Martin was patiently waiting his turn and when he regained possession, the Blue Streaks’ quarterback again led his team methodically down the field for another game-tying score. After another impressive drive that put his team again inside the Summit 10 yard line, Martin called his own number and plowed his way into the endzone on a 7-yard scoring jaunt.

At this point it looked like the shootout was on and indeed, the first half continued to be played at a frantic, breakneck pace during which each team seemed to eat up huge chunks of yardage with each play. Both defenses were worn down by halftime and the score at the break was 21-21, thanks to alternating touchdowns again: a 19-yard scoring catch by Mike Badgley from Ryan Bringewatt for Summit and the first of two Martin-to-Thompson touchdown passes for the Blue Streaks, this one from five yards out.

Evidently during the break, both head coaches stressed the need for the defensive units to batten down the hatches as only 17 total points were scored in the final 24 minutes as opposed to 42 in the first half of play. Martin hit Thompson from 30 yards out for a third quarter score that gave Warren Hills its first lead of the night, 28-21, but A.J. Iarussi provided the answer for Summit, a bruising 5-yard TD run late in the third period which tied the game at 28 apiece.

Summit’s senior quarterback Ryan Bringewatt was instrumental all evening, but especially on the third quarter drive that ended in Iarussi’s aforementioned touchdown run. In a classic, frenetic back-and-forth affair like the one Summit and Warren Hills played Friday night, both quarterbacks displayed plenty of poise and maturity. For Bringewatt, his dual-threat capability kept Summit continually advancing and he was able to keep the Hilltoppers’ drives alive as much with his legs as with his arm. In fact, Bringewatt carried the ball 20 times for 124 yards, a robust average of 6.2 yards per carry. He also threw for 142 yards and two scores, though 95 of those yards came courtesy of Negron’s thrilling touchdown catch-and-run in the first half.

Summit’s defense – led once again by middle linebacker and one-man tackling gang Stefano Stadlinger – essentially shut down Warren Hills for the entire fourth quarter and not only gave the Hilltoppers a chance to win when Badgley booted the eventual game-winner from 22 yards out, they also preserved the three-point lead which eventually became Summit’s oh-so-slim margin of victory.

When the final buzzer sounded and the Hilltoppers made their way off the field into the opposing locker room to hit the showers, the sense of relief was evident everywhere. The Hilltoppers had gone toe-to-toe with a rapidly improving Blue Streaks team and avoided their first loss of the season in what could have easily turned into a lethal trap game. Though several mistakes were made and there are still problems for both the coaching staff and the players to iron out, the fact of the matter is that the Hilltoppers headed back home to Summit victorious, sitting at 2-0 for the third straight season and because of that, the bus ride home was probably a tad bit louder, happier and more boisterous than the one to Washington to begin the evening.

One could safely say that everyone aboard the rolling celebration back to Kent Place Boulevard certainly preferred that environment to what would have surely been a somber, silent alternative.

Hey Summit Football Fans: Don’t forget to watch the "Football 2011 Wrap-up" show on Hilltopper TV (Comcast Channel 964 or Verizon FiOS Channel 28).
The half hour Show is on every Wednesday and Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. The show is also simutaneously streamed on the High School website: (http://www.fc.summit.k12.nj.us/~csteiner/ ).

The Week 1 Wrap-up for the Voorhees game can also be found here: http://vimeo.com/29060187