SUMMIT – Just because a team comes to town with a record under .500 it doesn’t mean that the game will be easy.
Summit found that out Saturday at Tatlock Field, with visiting Morris Hills giving the Hilltoppers all they could handle in a North 2, Group 3 quarterfinal.
As a matter of fact, Morris Hills had leads in both halves.
After the Knights took their second lead midway through the third quarter, it took a bit of trickery on Summit’s part to take the lead again.
On third-and-nine from the Morris Hills 30 with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter, it was an option pass thrown by senior Andrew Helmer to a wide-open Vincent Bonomo in the middle of the end zone that fooled the Knights.
The touchdown pass also gave Summit the lead for good as the Hilltoppers went on to post a 29-17 come-from-behind victory to advance to next weekend’s semifinals.
Here’s Helmer on his game-winning touchdown pass after receiving a toss at the right side from senior running back Chris Zanelli: “We’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks in practice and I’ve been begging coach to run it in the game. Today, luckily, he called it. I kind of through a duck, but it got there.”
Second-year Summit head coach Kevin Kostibos thought the play had a very good chance of succeeding.
“Andrew Helmer is a fantastic athlete,” Kostibos said. “You have to put the ball in the hands of one of your best players.
“We worked on it for awhile. Vinnie (a senior) was wide open and he (Andrew) threw a great ball. Vinnie’s only caught three or four passes the entire year and most for touchdowns, so we have success when we throw it his way.”
Summit scored touchdowns on all three second-half possessions, minus the play of senior quarterback Peter McKinlay, who missed the second half with a concussion.
Kostibos said it was a minor concussion and that McKinlay would be evaluated in regards to determining whether or not he will be able to play again this season.
Second-seeded Summit, which won its sixth straight to improve to 9-1, will host third-seeded Parsippany Hills next Saturday at 1 p.m. in the semifinals. It will be the third straight year that Summit and Parsippany Hills will be facing each other in the North 2, Group 3 playoffs, with Summit winning 30-13 at home in the semifinals two years ago and 16-13 at Kean in the final last year.
Parsippany Hills, like Summit, came back Saturday to oust sixth-seeded Orange 35-34 in Parsippany. The Vikings won their third straight to improve to 8-2.
Morris Hills, which drove down the field with its first possession that ended with Helmer intercepting a pass right in front of the end zone, lost its third straight to finish 4-6.
Sparked by the outstanding running of senior back Isaiah Turner, who came back from an injury, the Knights led 11-8 at intermission, scoring the last 11 points of the first half.
“This team gave us a huge challenge,” Helmer said. “We weren’t sure if No. 2 (Turner) or No. 3 (senior WR Kyle Gaeb) were going to play because we knew that they did not play in recent games. We saw that they were back and that they would be up for the challenge and they’re great players, but I think we did a pretty good job playing against them.”
Summit had to play the second half without McKinlay and Will Huck, who was out with a shoulder injury.
“We wanted to give them another 48 minutes, so we were talking in the locker room (at halftime) that we wanted to give them another game,” Helmer said. “Everyone came out in the second half and we rolled.”
After Summit drove down the field with the second-half kickoff and put seven points on the board to take its second lead of 15-11, the Knights came right back with their second touchdown to take their second lead of 17-15.
Zanelli, who put the team on his back, literally, carried the Hilltoppers to the playoff triumph, scoring two touchdowns in the second half.
In addition, he became Summit’s all-time leading rusher, surpassing leaders AJ Iarussi (3221 yards, Class of 2013) and Torrie Fogg (3188 yards, Class of 1994). All three won state championships, Iarussi one, Fogg two and Zanelli two (so far).
Summit has now won 25 straight at Tatlock Field and has a playoff winning streak of seven. The last time the HIlltoppers lost at Tatlock Field was to Orange 37-34 in overtime in a 2010 North 2, Group 2 quarterfinal.
Zanelli rushed for 146 yards on 20 carries in the second half after gaining just 35 on seven in the first.
“They were doing a good job stalling us in the first half,” Zanelli said. “We didn’t really get any momentum or anything going on offense.
“In the second half we started clicking. I was finding holes and the offensive line was doing a great job blocking. We just put it together in the second half.”
Zanelli thought the first second-half touchdown was huge for building momentum, but then Summit had to come back once more.
“It was teetering back and forth,” Zanelli said. “We just said in the huddle that we’re not going to be denied and that we were going to live to see another day and we did that.”
Turner carried 14 times for 107 yards in the first half – with a Wing-T sweep that Summit is not accustomed to seeing that proved to be quite effective – while he gained 52 yards on 10 attempts in the second.
“In our league we don’t see too much Wing-T as opposed to the NJAC,” Kostibos said. “That offense is incredibly hard to try to replicate. They run it very well and Mike (head coach Sabo) does a great job.
“They came to play. They knew exactly what they wanted to do. They stuck to their guns and said, ‘here’s what we’re going to do and try to stop it.’
“We were lucky enough to come out on top.”
In order to advance to a fourth consecutive semifinal, Summit had to reach deep down at times to take control.
“I think good football teams can overcome adversity,” Kostibos said. “The playoffs are completely a different monster. Everyone comes to play. The first nine games really go out the window now.
“They really took it to us. The guys who were hurt came back and rushed the football and we were lucky enough to grind it out and pull it out at the end.”
It turned out that Summit had to find a way to get the victory minus a key player – its quarterback – which was someone the Hilltoppers were not going to get back.
“The kids rallied around,” Kostibos said. “Our quarterback went down and we had to find a way to win. We relied on kind of what got us here, running the football, and gave it to Spencer Sink (No. 20) and Chris Zanelli.
“We had a couple of tricks up our sleeves with the toss pass and sometimes you kind of need those things. We made a stop when we had to and we won the football game.”
Sophomore quarterback Daymon Fleming scored both Morris Hills touchdowns on the ground.
Drew Mulholland scored the game’s first points when he caught a 30-yard touchdown pass thrown by McKinlay in the first quarter.
NORTH 2, GROUP 3 QUARTERFINAL
Morris Hills (4-6) 3 8 6 0 – 17
Summit (9-1) 8 0 14 7 – 29
Summit – Drew Mulholland 30 pass from Peter McKinlay,
Chris Zanelli run (S 8-0)
9 plays, 67 yards, 2:28 used
Summit capitalizes on turnover – an interception by Andrew Helmer.
Morris Hills – FG Damian Gonzalez 24 (S 8-3)
13 plays, from own 29 to Summit 7, 4:21 used
Morris Hills – Daymon Fleming 1 run, Isaiah Turner run (MH 11-8)
8 plays, 39 yards, 3:09 used
Summit – Chris Zanelli 3 run, Paulo Umana kick (S 15-11)
5 plays, 15 yards, 2:03 used
Morris Hills – Daymon Fleming 4 run, kick failed (MH 17-15)
9 plays, 73 yards, 3:57 used
Summit – Vincent Bonomo 8 pass from Andrew Helmer,
Paulo Umana kick (S 22-17)
9 plays, 66 yards, 4:34 used
Summit – Chris Zanelli 1 run, Paulo Umana kick (S 29-17)
11 plays (all runs), 76 yards, 7:08 used
UNION COUNTY SCOREBOARD
FOR SATURDAY, NOV. 15
North 2, Group 5
Westfield 24, Bridgewater-Raritan 14 – at Westfield
North 2, Group 3
Summit 29, Morris Hills 17 – at Summit
North 2, Group 1
Shabazz 39, New Providence 10 – at New Providence
Central Jersey, Group 2
Roselle 26, Lakewood 8 – at Roselle
FINAL 2 UNION COUNTY CONSOLATIONS:
Ewing 14, Rahway 7 – at Ewing
Pemberton 20, Hillside 12 – at Hillside