WASHINGTON – Linden’s improbable run to the program’s third state championship game and first in 27 years came to a sudden end Friday night.
After a scoreless first half that included five punts – two by the Tigers and three by the Blue Streaks – it was host Warren Hills that got on the board first, striking through the air on fourth down late in the third quarter.
Then after Warren Hills stopped Linden deep in its own territory, the Blue Streaks went up by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Linden answered with its only score with just over two minutes left, but it was too little too late.
Warren Hills produced the game’s final touchdown with 1:57 remaining and then ended the contest when senior Nhamdi Okoro – who scored the game’s first TD to put the Blue Streaks ahead for good – intercepted a pass, ran down the right sideline and was pushed out of bounds.
It all added up to sixth-seeded Warren Hills defeating seventh-seeded Linden 21-7 in Friday night’s North 2, Group 4 semifinal.
The other semifinal will take place Saturday at 1 p.m. at Matthews Field when top-seeded Irvington (7-3) hosts fourth-seeded West Morris (6-4).
The championship game will take place next weekend at a site to be determined Sunday. This is only the third championship game Warren Hills (5-6) has reached and it first in North 2, Group 4.
Warren Hills lost the 1984 North 2, Group 2 final at Dover 26-17 and in 2000 the Blue Streaks captured North 2, Group 3, defeating top-seeded West Morris 21-14 in the final.
“We’re all blessed to be playing on this stage,” said the tall and lanky Okoro (6-1, 180), who caught three passes for 71 yards and one TD – all in the second half.
Warren Hills defeated Linden for the first time in four tries. Linden blanked Warren Hills 35-0 at home last year and before that beat the Blue Streaks 21-8 at Warren Hills two years ago.
Linden had a three-game winning streak snapped and saw its comeback season conclude at 4-7. Linden won its last three games in second-half, comeback fashion and made another valiant effort to do so Friday night.
The Tigers were able to walk off the field with their heads held up high as the final score was not for a lack of effort.
“Our kids kept fighting,” said fifth-year mentor Deon Candia, who guided Linden to the playoffs for the first time as its head coach. “Warren Hills played well and did a good job of applying pressure.”
Linden also sought its third championship game. The only two the Tigers reached were both in North 2, Group 3. In 1983 Linden lost to Randolph and in 1985 the Tigers defeated West Morris.
“Warren Hills was a little hungrier and was able to change gears on us,” Candia said. “You have to give them credit for the way they played.”
The play of the game took place with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. After Warren Hills put the first points on the scoreboard with 1:23 left in the third quarter, Linden took its next possession and immediately marched right down the field, quickly seeking to tie things.
Linden reached the Warren Hills 14 and on third-and-one chose to run the ball to gain what would have been the drive’s fourth first down.
Linden junior quarterback Dazzmen Johnson rolled left, but found no running room. As Warren Hills defenders swarmed in on him it was junior linebacker Steve Cleaver who got to Johnson and sacked him for a huge 11-yard loss at the 25.
Not only was Linden now faced with a fourth-and-12 from the Warren Hills 25, but Johnson was knocked out of the game with a high ankle sprain.
Cleaver was all over the field making numerous key tackles. None were bigger than this one.
“I take the full blame for that call,” Candia said. “We were running the ball well there. It was a bootleg and they were disciplined and didn’t allow us to get outside.”
Linden attempted a reverse on fourth down that did not go well. The Tigers lost 18 yards on the play, with Warren Hills taking over at its own 43.
After Linden was held to 79 yards of offense – 63 rushing and 16 passing – and Warren Hills to 67 – 38 rushing and 29 passing – in the first half, it was time for both teams to make their moves in the second half or go home.
However, it wasn’t until Warren Hills had the ball a third time in the third quarter was the game’s first score realized. Actually, on the punt return before that possession, junior Tai Adetula returned it down the right sidelines 45 yards for six points. Unfortunately for Warren Hills, the touchdown was called back because of a block in the back up field.
Warren Hills then began on its own 40. Two plays later, senior quarterback Zachary Martin connected with Okoro down the right sideline for a 35-yard gain.
Linden junior defensive back Antoine Morgan, who ended Warren Hills’ first second-half possession with an interception of a pass over the middle, batted away consecutive Martin passes for incompletes right before Okoro came down with his touchdown – against Morgan, who is also 6-1 – in the left corner of the end zone on fourth-and-12 from the Linden 14.
“I saw double coverage, so we switched up formation,” Okoro said. “Then I saw 23 (Morgan) covering the outside space pretty good.
“I then went out, in and out again. Zach threw an amazing ball and I was able to go up and get it.”
Morgan and junior linebacker Izaia Bullock covered Okoro at different times. In the second half, Bullock came up with a touchdown-saving tackle.
“We knew he (Okoro) was a good athlete,” Candia said. “It wasn’t bad coverage at all. He just got up and got it.”
After Linden was prevented from tying the game, Warren Hills added to its lead when senior tailback Xavier Adetula broke free and found the end zone – untouched – from 14 yards out to put the Blue Streaks ahead 13-0.
With junior Troy Myers now leading Linden’s offense from behind center, the Tigers began at their own 41 with 5:50 left. Three-and-a-half minutes later, Myers scrambled and then found running room on the left side and dove into the end zone for a 10-yard TD run.
Thanks to Warren Hills already calling all of its three second-half timeouts, Linden was able to pull to within 14-7 and there was still 2:17 remaining.
However, another Tiger comeback was not to be as Warren Hills senior tailback Travis Hepworth burst through the middle and was not touched as he raced to a 46-yard touchdown run.
“We were 1-6 and what do you tell kids when you’re 1-6? “The kids kept on showing up,” Candia said. “Attendance was great and that showed a lot. Our kids have good character and made the most of this opportunity.”
NOTES: Warren Hills finished 5-2 against Union County teams this season, including 2-0 in the playoffs.
Hepworth produced one interception in each half and had a third one called back because of a Warren Hills penalty.
Linden sophomore tailback Juwan Dolbrice rushed for a game-high 40 yards on 12 carries in the first half. In the second half he carried the ball 15 times for 82 yards, finishing with game totals of 27 carries for 122 yards.
“Juwan made a name for himself this year,” Candia said. “He found his niche. He’s getting there and getting more confidence.”
Producing sacks for Linden in the first half and second half was junior Sha-Quan Champagne, in the first half was senior Joseph LeBlanc and also in the second was sophomore Khalil Burns.
Producing sacks for Warren Hills in the second half were senior Cory Dickerson, who had two, and Cleaver.
Myers completed two-of-seven passes for 13 yards and one interception.
Martin completed five-of-10 passes for 104 yards, one touchdown and one interception. In the first half, Martin completed two-of-six passes for 29 yards.
Hepworth carried the ball nine times for 107 yards and one touchdown in the second half after leading Warren Hills at the half with 20 yards on eight attempts.
NORTH JERSEY, SECTION 2, GROUP 4 SEMIFINAL
7-LINDEN (4-7) 0 0 0 7 – 7
6-WARREN HILLS (5-6) 0 0 7 14 – 21
WARREN HILLS – Nhamdi Okoro 14 pass from Zachary Martin,
Stephen Brundage kick (WH 7-0)
6 plays, 40 yards, 2:03 used
WARREN HILLS – Xavier Adetula 14 run, Stephen Brundage kick
5 plays, 43 yards, 2:07 used
LINDEN – Troy Myers 10 run, Corey Ampey kick (WH 14-7)
12 plays, 59 yards, 3:33 used
WARREN HILLS – Travis Hepworth 46 run, Stephen Brundage kick
2 plays, 55 yards, :15 used