Northern Highlands scored on the opening possession of overtime and blocked the extra point attempt by North Hunterdon to win the North Jersey Group 4 semifinal and advance to Rutgers and face Millville in two weeks.
Highlands got going on an interception by Charlie Sparago, who returned it 20 yards to the North Hunterdon 21, followed by a 10-yard touchdown pass from Nate Johnson to Danny Smiechowski. After North Hunterdon blocked a Highlands punt in the second quarter, Kente Edwards scored on a 18-yard touchdown run. Highlands went back in front when Johnson scored on a 1-yard sneak with 43 seconds left in the half. North Hunterdon moved quickly on a pass from Luke Martini to Danny DeLusant for 27 yards to the 9, but the drive was stifled by a Zach Chostaka interception on the 1-yard line with 13 seconds left.
North Hunterdon drove late in the third quarter behind passes to Derek Vaddis and DeLusant for 30 and 13 yards, respectively. The Lions finished the drive early in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard touchdown by Edwards. North Hunterdon drove well into Highlands territory again, but Chostaka had his second interception to end that threat. The Lions threatened again when Martini and DeLusant hooked up for 41 yards into Highlands territory. Three completions to Vaddis brought the ball to the 13, but their field goal attempt with 12 seconds left was wide left, sending the game to overtime.
In overtime, Highlands opened with the ball on the 25. Two runs by Sparago brought them to the 14 and Johnson found Freddie Kanning on the following play, who spun off a tackler and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown. North Hunterdon’s turn brought them 2 yards, followed by an incomplete pass that ended with a personal foul by the Highlands defender, giving North Hunterdon a first down on the 12. Edwards ran for 11 yards, followed by his 1-yard touchdown on the following play. The extra point was blocked, the game was over, and Northern Highlands was the North Jersey Group 4 champion.
Personally, I was behind the end zone, unaware the kick was blocked until the next morning. I thought the kick was shanked to the left. No matter, the game was over.
Northern Highlands has won in overtime the last two weeks and if their game with Millville ends this way, they will earn the nickname, the Cardiac Highlanders.
The key for Highlands was the turnovers they created: three interceptions and a fumble recovery. Chostaka has a knack for being in the right place creating turnovers between the two interceptions in this game, last week’s forced fumble in overtime, and an interception against Irvington the week before. They have others on defense who make plays such as Smiechowski and defensive end Jack Inserra. Their big playmakers on offense were kept in check in Sparago and wide receiver Zach Madison, but Luke Saturn stepped up, catching 6 passes and Kanning came up with the touchdown in overtime.
North Hunterdon had their chances, but the turnovers hurt. More than that, bad shotgun snaps in the first half killed them; there were at least four of them that were over Martini’s head. Those snaps were momentum killers and the game may have been different without them. Add the missed field goal and the blocked extra point and that is why their season is over. In a losing cause many of us were impressed with the running of Edwards and the receiving of Vaddis. DeLusant also came up with some good receptions. As mentioned before, the Lion defense kept Charlie Sparago and Zach Madison in check. It was close, but not enough.