Here is a look back at my story from when Westfield last lost – on Friday night, November 21, 2014 – at Linden:
LINDEN – With playmakers such as Kyle Phipps and Juwan Dolbrice, Linden can score from anywhere on the field at any time.
Sometimes it’s all that’s needed.
In a weird way it was Friday night at Cooper Field.
Led by touchdown runs of 58 yards by Phipps and 41 by Dolbrice in the second quarter, top-seeded Linden held on – the Tigers did not score in the second half – to turn back never-say-die fourth-seeded Westfield 14-6 in a North 2, Group 5 semifinal.
As a result, Linden reached its first state championship game – and only third total – since 1985.
In two weeks the Tigers, now 9-1, will be going for their second state championship in the playoff era and first since they captured North 2, Group 3 in 1985.
Westfield, which was seeking its fourth state championship game and which reached a sectional semifinal for the third time under head coach Jim DeSarno’s tenure, slipped to 6-4.
The Blue Devils were sparked by a 129-yard performance on 26 carries by junior running back Jack Curry.
When these teams clashed in a Mid-State 38 Conference-Watchung Division game back on Oct. 2 at Cooper Field, Linden went for two points in overtime and got it to garner a 15-14 victory.
This playoff triumph by Linden, its fourth in the past three seasons, was just as challenging.
Westfield made it that way by halting two Linden possessions deep in Westfield territory, courtesy of two interceptions in the first half by junior defensive back Brett Robertshaw.
It took Linden its fifth possession to break the scoreless deadlock and it was a magnificent run by Phipps that gave the Tigers the lead for good. On first and 10 from the Linden 42, Phipps found his way through the line toward the left sideline.
After a bit of contact, Phipps – for a number of steps – kept his balance and did not hit the ground. Then he popped up and continued to race down the left sideline and into the end zone for a 58-yard touchdown run that put Linden ahead 6-0.
“We practice what the coaches preach and that’s to stay low to the ground,” said Phipps, who carried the ball 15 times for a hard-fought 118 yards.
“It was an incredible run,” Linden head coach Deon Candia said. “A lot of that stuff, like balancing, we practice.”
Just under three minutes later, Dolbrice broke contain up the middle and on a quarterback keeper raced 41 yards for six points. Corey Ampey kicked both extra points to give Linden a 14-0 advantage.
“The two interceptions were my fault,” said Dolbrice, who is considered one of the best two-sport athletes in the state.
Dolbrice rushed for 105 yards on 18 carries, but only completed one of seven passes for six yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
“I had to calm down and then we got back to the running game,” Dolbrice said.
“Juwan is such a great athlete and thinker, he has a great sports IQ,” Candia said. “He never hangs his head down. He’s not just a great quarterback. He’s a great leader as well.”
Westfield, after stopping Linden 3-and-out to start the second half, reached the Tiger 5-yard line on a 14-play drive that was halted with an incomplete pass in the end zone on fourth down.
The Blue Devils reached the end zone for the only time with 4:56 left on a five-yard run by senior fullback Jackson Simcox, who rushed for 26 yards on six carries during the 10-play march.
Westfield had one chance to go down the field and attempt to tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion. On fourth-and-six from its own 43 with 1:23 remaining, a pass was broken up by Phipps to cement the Linden victory.
“We had a good defensive stand,” said Dolbrice, who is also a standout cornerback. “We knew we might struggle on offense so we had to step up on defense.”
Linden’s two lowest point totals of the year came in its two home wins over Westfield. The Tigers, who will next play at Union on Thanksgiving, finished a perfect 6-0 at Cooper Field.
“This was a tough game,” Phipps said. “No. 44 (Simcox) is a great player and No. 27 (Curry) runs very well. Westfield has great all-around players.
“Usually we come out smacking people around, but Westfield was one of the toughest teams on our schedule this year.”
Westfield, which received a passing performance by junior quarterback Zack Kelly of 10 completions in 29 attempts for 44 yards, will wrap its season at Plainfield on Thanksgiving.
“I give our kids a lot of credit, they – obviously – didn’t quit,” said DeSarno, in his ninth year at the helm of the Blue Devils and who was once an assistant coach at Linden under head coach Bucky McDonald. “We moved the ball, but just couldn’t get it in, which is a credit to Linden.
“They made two big plays in the first half and that was the game right there. Curry and Simcox ran well for us, but Linden did a good job in the secondary defending the pass.
“They’re 9-1 and played like it. They overcame their early mistakes and we didn’t capitalize on them.”
Candia, in his seventh season at the helm of the Tigers and a 1991 Linden graduate who played for Bucky McDonald, felt that being at home in the playoffs this year – as opposed to on the road in the first two rounds the last two seasons – was a big advantage for his team.
“This was a hurdle to get over,” Candia said. “We put ourselves in a position to do better than last year. The kids fought their hearts out.”
Candia probably didn’t figure that a victory would come without any second half points, but then again – like he says – this is playoff football.
“(Westfield) Coach DeSarno does a great job, they make good adjustments and it was tough for us,” Candia said. “This is playoff football and we knew it would be a different type of game. They gave a great effort and we just came out on top.”
Now Linden gets to prepare itself for a game the program has waited to get back to for a long time – that of a sectional final, which will be the third one in North 2, Group 5.
“This is a great feeling, a big lift for our program,” Candia said. “It’s big in terms of selling the kids.
“The things we as coaches talk about in the off season are paying off now.”
“It’s great to be part of history,” Phipps said. “We have to get the ring now.”
NORTH 2, GROUP 5 SEMIFINAL
4-Westfield (6-4) 0 0 0 6 – 6
1-Linden (9-1) 0 14 0 0 – 14
Linden – Kyle Phipps 58 run, Corey Ampey kick (L 7-0)
4 plays, 74 yards, 2:23 used
Linden – Juwan Dolbrice 41 run, Corey Ampey kick (L 14-0)
3 plays, 55 yards, 1:49 used
Westfield – Jackson Simcox 5 run, kick failed (L 14-6)
10 plays, 52 yards, 2:30 used