UPDATED WITH FULL STORY/PHOTOS
WESTFIELD — In a game marked by the battle of the two best quarterbacks in Union County, it was the right leg of one kicker that stole the show.
Seniors Andrew Sanborn of Union and Hank Shapiro of Westfield are both three year starters under center and the centerpieces of their respective teams, which have formulated quite a competitive rivalry over the years. Entering Saturday’s highly-anticipated matchup between Union and Westfield, Sanborn vs. Shapiro was certainly the selling point — but the turning point was Union senior kicker Ricardo Casas.
Casas had ice in his veins and nailed a game-winning 27-yard field goal with 2:46 left in the fourth quarter to sever a 7-7 deadlock and give Union (3-0) a 10-7 victory over Westfield (1-1). That delivered Union its first victory at Westfield since 2013 and gave the Farmers their best start through three games since 2016 in what the program hopes is the first of many milestones this fall.
“He’s a dog,” Sanborn said about his team's kicker. “He’s really good and we trust him a lot. He doesn’t get the chance to show it that much, because usually, we’re not in that predicament where we have to kick a field goal. When it comes down to the pressure, we trust him and put the ball in his hands.”
Union rallied for 10 unanswered points in the second half after trailing, 7-0, at halftime. Casas had first tied it up on his PAT with 5:03 left in the third quarter, after Aaron Myrick caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Sanborn. That capped off a very methodical 13-play, 58-yard half-opening drive in 6:57 on which Union pounded the ball, wore down Westfield’s strong defense, and scratched to erase the early deficit.
Sanborn nor Shapiro were as completely dominant as they have the ability to be, largely a compliment to both teams’ stingy defenses. But nonetheless, these star seniors both showed their talents as Sanborn threw for 150 yards with a touchdown, while Shapiro got into a rhythm in the pocket and threw for 195 yards with a rushing touchdown.
Westfield played back defensively to neutralize Union’s explosive passing game, containing start receivers Ahmirr Robinson and Desmond Igbinosun, which opened up the run and underneath game, where the Farmers thrived. Running backs Diante Wilson and Christian Murrell combined for over 175 rushing yards, while Sanborn executed the short passing routes to perfection.
“They gave us no choice because of the way they played," said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. "We knew we had to move the ball either on underneath passes or running the ball. We moved a sophomore lineman to fullback this week — Nick Rua — and he really made a difference physically, up front, by kicking guys out and lead blocking. I give him a lot of credit; he deserves it. Our running backs, we know they’re good, they just need an opportunity.”
Union’s defense brought the blitz out in the second half to shut down Shapiro and Westfield’s strong offense, which was rolling early on. That strong defense held Westfield scoreless for the final 31:56 and kept the tie intact to set Union up for a chance to win the game down the stretch.
With the game still tied at seven and time running down in the fourth quarter, that Farmer D came up with a key three-and-out back at the Westfield six to force a punt. Union recovered the punt and brought it back to its own 39, but quickly found itself in scoring territory. Wilson first broke free for a 32-yard run to cross the 50, then on the very next play ran for 18 yards to put Union in the red zone at the Westfield 15. However, the Farmers were unable to enter the end zone, driving as close as the 12 before a false start on 4th-and-1 forced the Farmers to attempt the field goal.
But that was no problem, as Casas — lined up from 27 yards out on the left hash — nailed a booming kick through the uprights to give Union the lead and eventual win.
“I knew if they got me out there, I could make it,” Casas said. ““All the work that we put in gave me confidence. These are my brothers, and I’ve gotta make that kick to keep going and see next week.”
Casas may be unheralded, but is certainly invaluable to this Union team.
“He’s a good kid, man,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. “You think about last year, he made an extra point with 30 seconds to go to tie Linden. I don’t know if he doesn’t even understand the gravity of the situation or what, but he loves being on this team and works his butt off. He had a great offseason working out — I know for a kicker it sounds funny — but he really did. He’s a big part of our team, and we need him and we trust him.”
Westfield looked great early on and jumped ahead, 7-0, with 7:56 left in the second quarter when Shapiro pushed the pile and ran six yards for a touchdown to complete a 14-play, 80-yard drive on which no play was greater than 10 yards. That may have been strategic so as to keep Union's defense on the field longer, thus tiring them on a hot afternoon on the newly-installed turf at Gary Kehler Stadium.
But Union’s defense sured it up after that, pitching a shutout from then on out. Westfield threatened on its first drive of the third quarter, but advanced only as far as the Union 19 before an illegal block in the back and two incompletions gave Union the ball back.
“My offensive line did a great job in the first half for sure, but in the second half Union brought the blitz, and you can’t block everybody,” Shapiro said. “I’ve gotta find my hot reads better. Their secondary played awesome throughout the game."
“You love to play [Westfield], but you hate to play them at the same time," added Grasso, Jr. "They do such a great job. They take away things, and you have to really think and adjust. You’ll have a headache after a game like this, because you’ve gotta do so much adjusting to figure out what you need to do to be successful.”
Union's adjustments came right out of the half, as the offense that had struggled to find a rhythm in the first half scored on its first drive of the second (Myrick's TD) to get right back.
Two 12-yard completions to Robinson -- the second of which put the Farmers on the Westfield 6 -- and 10 rushing plays advanced the Farmers 58 yards on the drive that finished with Sanborn rolling out right and finding Myrick for a subdued touchdown celebration.
“That first half, we came out slow," Sanborn said. "We’re pretty good on offense and they did a good job of stopping us. But we came back out after halftime and we just showed them what ‘The U’ is about.”