WESTFIELD, NJ — Before Saturday’s season opener against Linden, Westfield head coach Jim DeSarno preached to his players to play with some swagger, be aggressive and take some shots downfield.
His Blue Devils sure responded.
This season represents a new beginning for the Westfield football team, with last year’s uncharacteristic struggles in the rear view mirror. Gifted with a new field and ripe with optimism, the Blue Devils came out on Saturday motivated as ever and posted a tremendous well-rounded effort in a 28-14 victory over the Linden, which had ended Westfield’s state-best 38-game winning streak in their previous meeting on opening night last season.
Seniors Hank Shapiro and Griffin Rooney went off to spark the potent Blue Devil offense, which scored one touchdown in each quarter. Shapiro completed 13-of-16 passes for 234 yards with three touchdowns — two passing and another rushing. His favorite target was Rooney, who hauled in over 150 yards receiving — with a long of 71 — and a TD.
Fellow seniors Tim Alliegro and John Czarnecki added scores — Alliegro a rushing TD and Czarnecki a shovel pass reception into the end zone — and the Blue Devils’ stingy defense took care of the rest on a successful christening of the renovated Gary Kehler Stadium.
“Coach DeSarno told us going into this game that we want to take shots, be aggressive, and play with swagger this year,” said Shapiro, who verbally committed to Division I Lehigh University this offseason. “We want to have a new mentality with a new field and a new team, and really kind of forget about last year. I think we really accomplished that today.”
Westfield quickly erased memories from a challenging 2018 season with explosive play in the first half, setting the tone for a successful afternoon ahead.
DeSarno’s advice to take shots downfield was taken quite literally and proved successful right from the onset. On Westfield’s first drive of the game, Shapiro hooked up with Rooney on a monstrous 71-yard reception, taking Westfield from its own 23-yard line right to the Linden two. A few plays later, Alliegro was in the end zone with a two-yard touchdown run to cap off the 87-yard drive with 7:32 remaining in the opening quarter. After the PAT form Mack Prybylski, the Blue Devils then owned a 7-0 lead that they’d never relent.
Rooney truly dazzled on the next Blue Devils score late in the second quarter. First, he ran a tremendous route near the right sideline and made a spectacular leaping one-handed grab in press coverage on a 24-yard Shapiro pass to put Westfield at the Linden 20-yard line. Moments later, the duo hooked up again, as Shapiro found Rooney in the back right corner of the end zone the extend the lead to two touchdowns with 2:50 left in the half.
“When we see we have the press coverage on Griffin, I know he can make a play,” said Shapiro. “I had time, and I know if I can put the ball in a spot where he can make a play, that’s what we’re going to do. Then he ran an awesome route on the boot pass we did there. He’s really awesome.”
Of course, those plays were made possible by the great time in the pocket Shapiro was given from his offensive line. Up front today included Declan McCauley, Jacob Harnisher, Kevin Scheper, Greg Claiborne and Henry Meiselman.
“It starts off with the offensive line giving me time to be able to have time to find Griffin,” Shapiro said. “Being able to find him, that makes things a lot easier for me, knowing I can throw him the ball and he’s going to make the play.”
In a Westfield offense that struggled to score at times last season, Rooney was one of the brightest spots. A three-year varsity player, representing one of the final shadows of the Blue Devils’ three-peat state championship dynasty of 2015-17 along with Shapiro and Alliegro, the senior will be an integral part of the Blue Devils’ offensive success this season.
Saturday was a nearly perfect start.
“I knew Hank was going to give me a good ball on every route, so all I had to do was have that ‘Nobody can guard me mentality,’” Rooney said. “All I had to do was run by them, Hank threw a good ball, and I just had to run with it.”
“Coach said that we’ve got to take shots if we want to win, and I think we took a lot of shots,” Rooney added. “A lot of those shots were successful. If we can keep that going, I don’t think anybody can stop us.”
Linden made things interesting when it cut Westfield’s 14-0 halftime lead in half on Nashawn Holmes’ 45-yard scoop-and-score fumble recovery less than two minutes out of the intermission. However, Westfield responded right away to take control of the game. On the Blue Devils’ ensuing drive after the fumble, Shapiro’s arm helped get Westfield downfield and inside the Linden one-yard line, then his legs got them into the end zone one a one-yard TD dive with a minute remaining the quarter.
Shapiro would later toss a 14-yard shovel pass to Czarnecki up the middle of the line for a touchdown to seal the deal with 9:58 left in the fourth quarter. A 30-yard reception from Rooney had put Westfield inside the red zone. That drive was started when Reid Colwell came up with a fumble recovery at Linden’s 40.
Colwell was just one of many defensive standouts for the Blue Devils. During its dynasty, Westfield’s pride was its stingy defense, and Saturday showed that the defensive-minded culture is still alive and well with the Blue Devils.
The defense essentially pitched a shutout, as Linden’s lone offensive touchdown came with just 1:21 left in the game. That came on a 10-yard pass from Zion Marshall to Jaden Pierre.
“Defensively, I was really pleased with our efforts and how active we were,” said DeSarno. “I thought we played faster defensively. That was the one thing that we really focused on in camp — just playing faster.”