CEDAR GROVE — The game that transpired between Cedar Grove and Hanover Park Friday will be talked about for years. When fans someday recall Cedar Grove football during the late 2010s, Friday’s game will almost always be brought up.
Cedar Grove senior quarterback Mike Lever will be the center piece of those reminiscings.
Lever threw for 379 yards and five touchdowns while completing 22-of-33 passes and rushed for 180 more in Cedar Grove’s 69-67 come-from-behind thriller over Hanover Park. Fittingly, Lever accounted for the game-winning touchdown when he hooked up with John Guaimano on a 28-yard TD pass to give the Panthers a one-possession lead that held with 6:01 left.
For these feats, Lever is this week’s the TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove Panther Athlete of the Week.
“Mike was as good as a high school QB could be the other night,” Cedar Grove Head Coach and Athletic Director Rob Gogerty said. “He stayed calm under pressure and never let nerves or the situation get to him. I kept telling him during the game to win the game for us, I really believed he would and he just kept answering the call.”
The call for Lever and Cedar Grove came in the third quarter, when the Panthers found themselves trailing, 41-32, after blowing an early 20-6 lead. That quickly changed under Lever’s leadership.
“I believe the quarterback is supposed to sort of [be] a coach on the field and control the game,” Lever said. “When we went into halftime losing, I knew I needed to step up my game and I needed to get others to elevate their game as well, so we came out of halftime fired up and we just never stopped from that point on.”
The rally started when Lever threw an 11-yard scoring pass to Michael Guarino, then hit Harry Dorman with a 25-yarder as Cedar Grove clawed its way back to make it a more manageable 54-48 heading into the fourth.
Then the madness happened.
Hanover Park struck for a TD to open the quarter and make it a two-possession game, but Lever picked the Panthers right back up with a 33-yard TD to Guarino, then scored the two-point conversion on a keeper carry. After Hanover Park scored again — but failed on the 2-point attempt — Guarino took the ensuing kickoff 86 yards to the house, making it a one-point (67-63) game.
Lever would pilot the next drive and win the game on his 28-yarder to Guaimano, finishing the highest-scoring game in New Jersey since 2003.
“The offense got together in the fourth quarter and knew what needed to be done and did it,” Lever said. “The line was giving me great time in the pocket and my receivers were making great plays, and we just knew that’s what needed to be done. It was pure determination.”
Cedar Grove was in a similar situation against the same opponent on opening night last year, when it blew a third quarter lead and lost, 35-30. Lever wasn’t letting that happen again.
“The fourth quarter was a flashback for our team from the time we played Hanover Park last year,” Lever said. “I knew we couldn’t let that happen again, we worked way too hard just for a repeat of last year.”
Lever also threw a 9-yard TD to Guaimano in the first quarter and later rushed for six points in the second quarter.
What’s amazing about Lever’s feat is that it came in only his second game as a starting varsity QB. He started on defense and split time as a wide receiver and running back last year, when Sammy Ventola had the reigns under center.
But over the summer after Ventola graduated, Lever adjusted to the Panthers’ revamped offensive style. He was the backup under Ventola, and his offseason improvements as a QB not only landed him the starting job, but set him up for success evident on Friday.
He’s been front and center in both Friday’s win and the opening day victory against Newark Central, and will look to continue when 2-0 Cedar Grove visit’s Glen Ridge Saturday.
“The success he’s having is no surprise for me because I saw the work he put in during the preseason to get ready for it,” Gogerty said. “I am proud of Mike and the team for continuing to battle through adversity and step up to refuse to lose the game. The plays they made will hopefully carry over to the rest of the season and I think the more experience we get the better we will get as the season continues.”
TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove is an online newspaper serving the Townships of Verona and Cedar Grove. TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove is accredited by the New Jersey Press Association, and is a locally owned news organization serving the community.