EAST RUTHERFORD — The night was seemingly destined to be Union’s.
The Farmers’ dream season appeared to be heading towards the dream ending. Everything was going Union’s way against Ridgewood in the North Group 5 regional championship Friday night at MetLife Stadium. With star senior quarterback Andrew Sanborn turning in a performance for the ages, Union found itself inches away from a perfect 13-0 record in arguably the greatest season in the program’s storied history.
This had to be Union’s night.
But then it all changed in the second half.
Ridgewood mounted a stunning rally to erase a 25-13 Union halftime lead, as the Maroons ultimately came out on top in a see-saw second half to win, 41-37. Reuben Pillai scored on a five-yard run with 28 seconds left in the game to give Ridgewood the lead for good, just two minutes of game time after a Sanborn to Elijah White touchdown pass had given Union a 37-34 lead.
Union’s explosive offense was never quite slowed down, except for two costly fumbles in the second half that helped fuel Ridgewood’s rally. And in games like this against program’s like Ridgewood, mistakes like that will always come up costly.
“In games like this, if you turn the ball over like that in those situations, it’s going to put you in a bad spot,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr., who engineered Union to its first state title since 1993 last weekend. “That’s kind of what happened tonight. We turned the ball over and put our defense in a bad spot. Our offense moved the ball pretty well, but those two turnovers killed us. And in a game like this, against a really good team like that, that’s what’s going to get you.”
Not to be overshadowed by the devastating result is the legendary night that Sanborn put forth. In the final game of his legendary high school career, Sanborn completed 25-of-40 passes for 383 total yards with four touchdowns. Late in the second half, he became one of very few quarterbacks in state history to eclipse 7,000 career passing yards.
After Friday night, there is little doubt that Sanborn will go down as one of, if not the, greatest Union football players of all time. He has also etched his named among the greatest quarterbacks in state history, as fewer than 10 players have ever thrown for over 7,000 yards in New Jersey.
“It’s Andrew Sanborn,” Grasso, Jr. said. “He’s a legendary player at Union High School and he’s a legendary player in the state of New Jersey. Even at the end there, I thought we had a shot — a couple more plays there. But hats off to Ridgewood.”
Ridgewood couldn’t be stopped on the ground and amassed 380 rushing yards. The bulk of that came in the second half, and specifically, the fourth quarter, which saw Ridgewood score three touchdowns in the span of six minutes.
“That’s kind of just the way the game went — they kind of wore us down,” Grasso, Jr., said. “We were on the field too long; we had a couple long fourth down plays that we let them get, and we should’ve been off the field. We were happy with our plan — we put them in bad spots, but they just made a couple big plays on long yardage.”
After throwing three touchdown passes in the first half to stake Union to a 25-13 lead, Sanborn had the Farmers on the verge of glory. But unfortunately for Union, things did not come as easily in the second half, which by all accounts might have been the craziest half of football the Farmers played in all season — except maybe their first half in Bridgewater-Raritan back in October.
Just under three minutes into the second half, Ridgewood let it be known that it wasn’t going away lightly, as Gabe Santiago cut Union’s deficit to 25-19 with a 10-yard touchdown run. That lead held into the fourth quarter, but Ridgewood soon climbed ahead, 26-25, when Pillai entered the end zone on a five-yard run with 11:23 left in the game.
There was still plenty of time, however, and Union found itself back ahead when Christian Murrell bounced off a tackle and spun into the end zone for a two-yard run with 8:18 left in the game, giving the Farmers a 31-26 lead. But again, Ridgewood responded, and jumped back ahead, 34-31, after Sean Emmanuel ran for a one yard touchdown and the Maroons converted the ensuing two-point conversion with 6:36 left in the game.
Union quickly got things going again, though. On the Farmers' ensuing drive, Sanborn completed big passes to Igbinosun and Ahmirr Robinson to pit Union in the redzone. Then on 1st-and-10 from the Ridgewood 12, Sanborn hooked up with White on a fade route in the back of the endzone as Union jumped back ahead, 37-34.
Ultimately, Union scored to quickly, though. Ridgewood still had 2:20 left to construct another touchdown drive, and did so. Pillai broke free for a 31-yard run on the first play from scrimmage on the Maroons' ensuing possession, then a pass from Tarleton to Tommy Bourque put Ridgewood at the Union five.
That's where Pillai would run it in to the ednzone on the very next play to give Ridgewood the 41-37 lead with 28 seconds left. Union did drive down the field on a pair of desperation heaves, but Bourque would then come up with an incredible interception with two seconds left to seal the deal.
"We were a little gassed out, and they outlasted us," said Grasso, Jr. "Once again, if we don’t turn the ball over those couple of times, our offense played really great all season and really played great tonight. But when we turn the ball over, we put our guys in bad spots, and that’s what killed us."
As evident by the results, Sanborn was good as ever and his feats helped Union get ahead early.
After marching downfield on the first drive of the game, Sanborn gave the Farmers a 6-0 lead when he hooked up with Jalen Carter on a 23-yard touchdown pass in the front left corner of the end zone. Ridgewood would respond on its ensuing drive, but its PAT also failed, so the score remained tied at six.
Union would then jump ahead with 7:35 left in the half when Desmond Igbinosun gashed the Ridgewood secondary on a 50-yard touchdown run to make it 13-6. Then on the Farmers’ next drive, Sanborn found White on a short pass to cross midfield, and White quickly turned it into another gear, breaking tackles on an east-to-left run for a 68-yard touchdown.
Ridgewood cut that deficit to 19-13 on a one-yard quarterback keeper from Liam Tarleton after Pillai got the Maroons into the redzone on a 62-yard breakaway run. However, the Farmers once again responded on their next drive, as Sanborn found a wide-open Kayir McBride in the end zone with nine seconds left in the half to give Union a 25-13 advantage entering the locker room.
“Our offense, all season, whatever a team gives us, we try to take,” Grasso, Jr., said. “We’ve been successful in that and I thought we were successful tonight. I think they’re really good up front, and we had a tough time running the ball.”