CLARK – A month ago Johnson found itself in overtime against non-division foe Governor Livingston. The Crusaders were 0-3 at the time and against GL they were ahead by two touchdowns at the half.
After the host Highlanders came back to tie the game, Johnson senior running back Matt Pedicine scored in overtime. Then the Crusader defense stood tall and prevented GL from scoring again.
Finally, after three losses that totaled 14 points – two by a single touchdown and one by a single point – Johnson was in the win column.
Four more games after that, the Crusaders reversed a 1-3 start by going 3-1 in their next four battles.
As a result, Johnson is now in the Central Jersey, Group 2 playoffs.
Johnson’s final playoff tuneup prior to going back on the road next weekend was a 43-0 blanking of non-division opponent Somerville Friday night at Nolan Field.
Johnson’s first shutout of the year put the Crusaders at .500 for the first time at 4-4.
Pedicine scored two of Johnson’s six touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Anthony Rizzuto scored the game’s first six points on its initial play. He broke free at the line of scrimmage and then sprinted down the right sideline for a 65-yard rushing touchdown.
“Once we got the first win against GL we knew what kind of team we had,” said Rizzuto, who did not play in that contest.
Johnson began the season with a 14-7 loss at Bernards and then fell at home to Voorhees 32-26 and to Delaware Valley 21-20.
All three of those teams are also going to the playoffs.
“We saw that we could really hang with some pretty good teams,” Rizzuto said. “We didn’t get our heads down.”
In a season where only a team’s first eight games count toward playoff qualifying, not many are able to make if after a 0-3 start.
“It was the little things, doing all the little things right and staying together as a team,” Rizzuto said.
After a 20-7 loss at Roselle, Johnson has now won three straight, including last week’s road win over playoff-bound Belvidere 28-14.
Johnson wanted to cement Friday night’s win over Somerville (0-9) right away and not take anything for granted. The Crusaders scored two touchdowns in the first quarter and four more in the second – all six coming on the ground.
“They were a team with nothing to lose, so we knew they were going to come out fired up,” Rizzuto said. “Once we got that first one (touchdown) we got the momentum rolling.”
Johnson will be joined in the Central Jersey, Group 2 playoffs by Roselle, Rumson-Fair Haven, Bordentown, Cinnaminson, Delaware Valley, Spotswood and Lakewood.
Roselle (5-2) will clinch the top seed with a home win over Bernards (7-0) Saturday.
Johnson will be one of the lower seeds, probably sixth or seventh depending on what happens the rest of this weekend.
“We now have more wins under our belt,” Rizzuto said. “We just have to continue to execute.”
It took first-year head coach Anthony Del Conte, a 2006 Johnson graduate and former Crusader gridiron standout, four games to notch his first victory. However, in his first season at the helm, he will be leading the Crusaders into the playoffs next weekend.
“There was a point when the season could have gone the wrong way,” Del Conte said. “The seniors really stepped up.”
Johnson’s seniors were honored before Friday night’s game. They include captains Jason Brougham, Michael LaBianca, Andrew Lameira and Jacob Lopez, in addition to Mark Barranger, Michael Basso, Frank Gallina, Kyle Glassen, Matthew Pedicine, Bryan Rengifo and Blake Stephens.
“The seniors stepped up and said, ‘you know what, this is our team,’” Del Conte said. “They took the bull by the horns and pointed this team in the direction for success. It’s all on them, it really is.”
A big-time threat to break the game open on both sides of the ball is Barranger at running back on offense and in the secondary on defense. He is also a dangerous player on special teams, getting down field fast and with a vengeance.
“I have a great group of kids here, they’re hard-working, motivated and it’s paid off,” Del Conte said. “It took us a little while to get going, but the kids didn’t quit and here we are.”
NOTES: Other highlights from Friday night’s win included a sack by Gallina for a six-yard loss in the first quarter and a fumble recovery by the standout lineman in the second.
Coming up with interceptions for the Crusaders in the second half were sophomore Ryan Koppel on the first play of the third quarter and sophomore Nick Fischetti in the fourth.
Sophomore Vin Crisafi played quarterback in the second half for Johnson and also produced a fine left-footed punt for excellent yardage.
MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE-INTERDIVISION GAME
Somerville (0-9) 0 0 0 0 – 0
Johnson (4-4) 15 28 0 0 – 43
Johnson – Anthony Rizzuto 65 run, Mitchell Becker kick (J 7-0)
1 play, 65 yards, :21 used
Johnson – Mark Barranger 9 run, Matt Pedicine run (J 15-0)
4 plays, 23 yards, 1:50 used
Johnson – Matt Pedicine 8 run, Mitchell Becker kick (J 22-0)
5 plays, 41 yards, 2:14 used
Johnson – Matt Pedicine 52 run, Mitchell Becker kick (J 29-0)
4 plays, 55 yards, 1:38 used
Crusaders capitalized on a turnover – an interception by Mark Barranger.
Johnson – Jason Brougham 55 run, Mitchell Becker kick (J 36-0)
Johnson – Blake Stephens 26 run, Mitchell Becker kick (J 43-0)
Crusaders capitalized on a turnover – an interception by Wes Giannobile.
UNION COUNTY SCOREBOARD
FRIDAY NIGHT, NOV. 7
Johnson 43, Somerville 0 – at Johnson
Elizabeth 28, Linden 19 – at Elizabeth
Cranford 52, North Plainfield 20 – at Cranford
New Providence 31, Brearley 8 – at New Providence
Phillipsburg 61, Scotch Plains 0 – at Phillipsburg
Dayton 20, Pingry 17 – at Pingry
Roselle Park 38, Manville 22 – at Roselle Park
Hillsborough 36, Plainfield 14 – at Hillsborough