|Ups and downs: first-round football playoff review|
Playoff football arrived on a rather subdued note in northwest New Jersey this weekend. Out of 13 games involving NJAC teams, only two were decided by less than 17 points. Just one league team earned a road victory, while two of the conference's division champs experienced an early exit from the postseason.
All in all, it made for a mildly disappointing start to the playoffs. But with seven NJAC teams still playing, and at least two teams guaranteed spots in the finals, a lot of potential excitement lies ahead.
Here's a look back at the opening round and a peek at what lies ahead:
TOUGH EXITS: The top story of the weekend, unfortunately, was the early ouster of two of the NJAC's top teams this year, Sparta and Mountain Lakes. Both teams drew very difficult first-round opponents, and both suffered surprisingly big losses.
Sparta, the second seed in North 1, Group III, got the unfortunate luck to face a resurgent Old Tappan squad with a healthy Devin Fuller, the Golden Knights' spectacular senior quarterback. Old Tappan opened the season 1-3 with Fuller not at 100%, but has now won five straight games.
That Sparta lost to the Knights can't be considered a shock; many experts picked Old Tappan to win the game. But no one ever expected the Spartans to give up 40 straight points in what ended up as a 40-14 defeat. The loss doesn't erase all the good things Sparta did in going 9-0 during the regular season, but it is certainly a major downer.
Meanwhile, the Mountain Lakes-Saddle Brook matchup in North 1, Group I was expected to be a real donnybrook. Instead, it was a huge statement game for the Falcons, who remained undefeated by pounding the Herd 30-7.
This Mountain Lakes team was clearly not as talented as the squad from just a couple of years ago, but the Herd still managed to go 8-1 in the regular season with its only loss in the Blizzard Bowl to Pequannock. That loss proved to be doubly costly for Mountain Lakes; it forced the Herd to share the Independence Division title with Butler, and it knocked them down from the top seed to the #4 position in the playoffs. That meant they had to face the powerful Saddle Brook squad, which now looks like the favorite to win the sectional title.
LATE HEROICS FOR THE COUGARS: The only NJAC team to defeat a higher-seeded opponent was Chatham, which did so in dramatic fashion in its North 2, Group II game at Bernards.
Down 7-0 late in the fourth quarter, Chatham put together its best drive of the night and scored with 1:18 left to play on a quarterback sneak by Sam Failla. The Cougars then forced Bernards to punt and Corey Heideran made a big return into Mountaineers' territory. Dave Fiumara booted a 33-yard field goal in the final seconds to pull out the 10-7 victory.
The prize for sixth-seeded Chatham? A return visit next Saturday to neighboring rival Madison, which clobbered the Cougars 45-8 in a regular-season matchup.
THE BUTLER DID IT (AGAIN): Butler struggled on offense for much of its first-round North 1, Group I game with rival Pequannock. But the Bulldogs still did enough to pull out a 17-14 win, their fourth straight victory over the Panthers.
Mike Tenned continued his remarkable senior season for Butler, scoring a touchdown and also making several big plays on defense, including an interception. The Bulldogs took a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter, but had to hang on as Pequannock made things interesting in the final minutes.
Butler will be back at home again on Friday night, hosting another squad of Panthers, this time third-seeded Glen Rock. Both teams use a no-huddle, spread offense, but the Bulldogs use the running game more frequently. It should be a high-scoring, close contest.
HOLDING SERVE AT HOME: Four NJAC teams looked to be strong favorites in their first-round games, and all four lived up to expectations. Delbarton, Madison, Parsippany Hills and Lenape Valley all scored easy victories.
Things get a lot tougher for three of the four this week. Parsippany Hills, which blanked Nutley, must hit the road to face conference rival West Morris, which had a first-round bye in North 2, Group III. That's a rematch of a game won by the Wolfpack by a touchdown in September. Lenape Valley, off a solid win over Pascack Hills, will also be on the road to play West Essex, the top seed in North 1, Group II. The Knights are 9-1 and comfortably defeated a solid Morris Hills team in the first round.
Delbarton gets to play at home again after manhandling Monsignor Donovan, and again will host a Shore Conference foe. But this time the Green Wave takes on Red Bank Catholic, the Shore's top team this season, and one which was extremely impressive in dismantling Pope John in a first-round game. This will be much sterner test for Delbarton.
Only Madison, which after rolling past Hackettstown gets another rematch with a team it beat easily in the regular season, would be considered a heavy favorite once again this week.
END OF THE ROAD: While Chatham pulled out its road win, five other NJAC teams came up short on Friday night on the road. Most of those teams can be described as "just happy to be there," but they couldn't have enjoyed the actual games very much.
Only Roxbury threatened to win its game, leading 3-0 at halftime on the rooftop at Union City. But the Soaring Eagles took charge in the second half and posted a 20-3 triumph in North 1, Group IV.
Morris Hills trailed West Essex by a single point midway through the second quarter, but the top seed dominated from that point on. Hopatcong (which lost to Ramsey) and Vernon (beaten by Wayne Hills) were never really in their games.
The biggest surprise was the way in which Pope John lost to Red Bank Catholic. The Lions appeared ready for the playoffs after a narrow defeat to East Orange the previous week, but ended up on the wrong side of a 42-6 score line.
CONSOLATION PRIZES: Eighteen NJAC teams took part in consolation games over the weekend, with the league posting an overall 8-10 record.
Highlights for league teams included wins by Morris Knolls (over Ridgewood), Morristown (against Belleville) and Wallkill Valley (at Dumont). Also, Mendham rolled past Newark East Side to earn its first and only victory of the season.
Other teams earning consolation wins were High Point, Kittatinny, Morris Catholic and Newton.
SEMIFINAL SCHEDULE: The seven remaining local teams compete in a total of five games this coming weekend, with two contests featuring all-NJAC matchups.
On Friday night, West Morris hosts Parsippany Hills, Butler is home to meet Glen Rock, and Lenape Valley travels to face West Essex.
On Saturday, Madison plays at home against Chatham, while Delbarton hosts Red Bank Catholic.