EAST RUTHERFORD— River Dell came into the North 1, Group 2 state championship game having turned the ball over only six times all season.
“Starting with me,” said Hawks head coach DJ Nimphius, whose team threw four interceptions and lost a fumble, “We made too many mistakes to win a football game against a team of that caliber.”
After taking a 14-12 lead with 2:09 remaining before halftime, River Dell was outscored 20-0 in the second half, falling to West Essex 32-14 at MetLife Stadium on Dec. 3.
River Dell took the 14-12 lead after junior quarterback Tim Barnes (7-for-13, 101 yards, two touchdowns) threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Barry, who hauled the ball in at the 15-yard line and ran the ball in untouched.
The momentum seemed to have shifted completely after Sean Boland (2-for-7, 60 yards) threw one of his two interceptions, getting picked by West Essex defensive back Anthony Pompei, who returned the ball from the River Dell 37-yard line to the 11.
“We thought we’d take a shot; we thought we saw something,” Nimphius said. “It was a very bad call on my part.”
On first down, West Essex quarterback Paul Haramis found Tom Filipow in the back of the end zone for the 11-yard score. Haramis would hook up with Pompei for the two-point conversion to make it 20-12.
“You don’t want to blame everything on one play,” River Dell senior running back/defensive back John Budka said, referring to the interception. “We knew what we had to do but we struggled in the second half. We can’t blame the interception or anything like that.”
With 7:12 remaining before halftime, Nimphius called for a fake punt on fourth and eight.
On the fake, West Essex defensive back Ralph Velardi picked off Ryan Duran’s throw, which was intended for Barnes.
Velardi scored on a 39-yard reverse with 10:54 remaining in the fourth quarter, and Stephen O’Neill scored his second touchdown, from 13-yards out with 2:20 left in the game.
“We put a lot into this,” said Barnes, who carried the ball 12 times for 56 yards and caught two passes for 20 yards. “I made some bad decisions. I put it on myself.”
“I think defensively we stayed the course,” Nimphius said. “Special teams wise, I think we were poor – and that cost us.
“We didn’t finish in the red zone a few times. That has kind of been our albatross all year.”
Barnes fumbled on River Dell’s first possession. West Essex got on the scoreboard first with a seven play, 48-yard drive, capped off with a 24-yard pass from Haramis to Velardi.
River Dell would answer back with a five-yard pass from Barnes to Duran, who also had 10 tackles on defense.
With 9:33 remaining before the half, O’Neill scored his first touchdown from 17 yards out. The West Essex drive was kept alive by a fake punt: a direct snap to Anthony Farro, who carried the ball for 23 yards.
“This was my last high school game,” said Budka, who suffered a broken collarbone earlier in the year. “I wanted to get out there with my friends for one last time. It’s sad I’ll never play with these guys again. This is likely my last game ever. Gotta move on.”