Hillside football moves to 4-0 after mistake-filled 23-13 triumph at Bernards; Biggins, Willis, Melendez score

Comets can clinch Valley Division title outright next week

PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Hillside’s captains, from left, are senior Brian Ugwu (No. 1), senior Najee Peele (No. 28), senior Mateus Ramos (No. 10) and junior Gavin Melendez (No. 12).
PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Shadon Willis (No. 4) ran for a touchdown and also came up with an interception, both in the second half.
PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Hillside third-year head coach Barris Grant has now guided the Comets to 17 wins in 26 games.
PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Hillside will next play at Johnson on Oct. 5. Johnson is 2-2 and on a two-game winning streak. The Crusaders have the weekend of Sept. 28-29 off.
PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Hillside became the second team in Union County – New Providence was the first – to start 4-0 this season.

BERNARDSVILLE – Hillside got to 4-0 as it expected, but the Comets sure did not perform in a way they are all too proud of.
Hillside committed 15 penalties – seven in the first half and eight more in the second – and turned the ball over three times.
In spite of those errors – both mental and physical – the Comets came out on top by virtue of their superior talent.
Hillside led from start to finish – although not in the dominating fashion the Comets envisioned – en route to a 23-13 win at Bernards in Friday night’s battle of 3-0 South, Group 2 squads.
Hillside improved to 4-0 overall and leads the Mid-State 36 Conference’s Valley Division at 3-0. Bernards, which had a five-game winning streak snapped, slipped to 3-1 overall and 1-1 in the Valley.
Hillside will win the Valley Division outright and undefeated at 4-0 if the Comets beat their final division foe – Johnson – next Friday night at Nolan Field in Clark.
Johnson defeated visiting Hillside last year in the regular season to win the Valley Division at 5-0, while Hillside was second at 4-1. Hillside then returned to Clark and defeated Johnson in the Central Jersey, Group 2 semifinals on its way to the championship.
Hillside increased its Union County-leading winning streak to eight and has won its last seven games away from home.
“We didn’t want to let them score,” said junior free safety Nahree Biggins, who scored Hillside’s first touchdown and who also came up with an interception in the first half. “I thought we played well on defense and stuck to our game plan.
“We wanted to stop No. 6 (Lucas Ritchie). We kind of did because he didn’t score.”
At the onset Hillside looked like it was on its way to a victory similar to last year’s 42-0 win over Bernards at home. After a 10-yard pass completion by Bernards quarterback Terry Gouldin to wide receiver Jackson Tantleff looked like it was good for a first down, Tantleff was hit, with Hillside senior safety Boris Nicolas-Paul recovering the fumble.
Hillside senior running back Brian Ugwu gained 17 yards to the right and then Biggins also went right, his seedy run – untouched – covering 37 yards for the game’s first points.
To the surprise of many, that was the only touchdown Hillside would score in the first half. The only other points scored in the first 24 minutes came on a safety when Bernards sophomore punter Steven Lopez wisely kicked the ball out of the end zone after the snap went over his head.
Hillside was unable to establish the run or the pass in the first half and often times set itself back with costly penalties.
“We have to be more aware,” Biggins said. “The penalties were our fault, not the coaches’.”
When the second half arrived Hillside was ready to make amends for a sloppy first 24 minutes. However, the Comets were flagged for more penalties in the second half.
“We wanted to push the lead more and execute our game plan,” Biggins said. “We were told from the start of the season that teams playing us, this is their Super Bowl. They will all be going all out to beat us.”
At the half, Ugwu had 28 yards rushing on three carries, junior running back James Louis four on four and Biggins 33 on four, including his touchdown.
Gouldin was 11-for-16 passing for 68 yards and one interception. Sophomore running back Cookie Desiderio gained 48 yards rushing on nine attempts.
Lopez had a 22-yard field goal go wide left in the second quarter.
A roughing-the kicker penalty enabled Bernards to extend its first possession of the second half, with the Mountaineers falling short of reaching the end zone at the Hillside three-yard line. On fourth-and-goal from the three Gouldin was stopped at the three by Hillside senior defensive end Mateus Ramos. Earlier in the possession, Lopez missed a 37-yard field goal wide left, which was the play he was roughed up on.
Hillside responded with its second touchdown, going 97 yards in four plays. The drive began when junior running back Jahon Moore bulled his way up the middle – dragging tacklers along the way – for a 25-yard gain. Moore carried five times for 52 yards and proved quite difficult to bring down.
“Jahon Moore is an old-school power back,” Hillside third-year head coach Barris Grant said. “He electrified that drive.”
After Ugwu was held to two yards and the next play was an incomplete pass, Hillside junior quarterback Gavin Melendez found senior wide receiver Shadon Willis open on the right. Willis caught the pass on the flank at the 30 and then just out-ran everyone, sprinting down the right sideline for six. Hillside’s extra point was blocked, with the Comets now leading 15-0.
Hillside’s 11th penalty – this one on Army-bound Nicolas-Paul, extended the next Benards drive, giving the Mountaineers a first down at its own 40 instead of fourth-and-five from its 25.
Bernards capitalized, with Desiderio finding running room. He ran up the middle for 18 yards to the Hillside 42 and then gained 21 yards along the right side to the Hillside 21. After gaining eight more to the Hillside 13, Desiderio capped the drive with an eight-yard touchdown run up the middle. That gave him 110 yards on 18 carries and pulled the Mountaineers to within 15-7 with 1:08 left in the third quarter.
Hillside responded again and put together a seven-play, 60-yard drive that culminated with Melendez scoring from the one-yard line. Nicolas-Paul had a 29-yard run down the right sideline and Willis a 22-yard run at left, each giving Hillside first downs. Nicolas-Paul also picked up the hold on the ensuing extra point attempt and threw a shovel pass over the middle to Emmanuel Sass for a two-point play that put the Comets ahead 23-7.
Hillside held Bernards at the Hillside 21-yard line, three yards short of a first down, and took the ball back with 6:27 remaining. However, Melendez fumbled the ball away on first down, with Bernards senior defensive end Sam Cunningham recovering.
Bernards went 18 yards in four plays to reach the end zone for the final time. Junior slotback Joey Billotti ran the ball in from five yards away for the game’s final points. The touchdown came after a bizarre play in which a Hillside player kicked the ball forward – Hillside was called for a penalty on the play – instead of trying to pick up the fumble.
Bernards went for two points after the touchdown, but freshman running back Michael Leanza was stopped just short of the goal line.
Hillside lost another fumble with 2:25 remaining. Three plays later Willis intercepted Gouldin’s final pass.
Louis finished with 24 yards on five carries. His only rush of the second half was good for 20 yards.
Desiderio rushed for 119 yards on 20 carries, including his touchdown.
Ugwu finished with 34 yards on six carries.
Hillside senior defensive end Aboubakar Diaby had a solid game, with several tackles for losses.
Tantleff, in addition to his production as a wide receiver, prevented Hillside from scoring a touchdown in the second quarter when he came down with an interception in the right corner of the end zone.
“It’s exciting to be 4-0, but I just want to see what we will do more as a team,” Biggins said.
“We had to calm down at times and just play football,” Ugwu said. “We beat them 42-0 last year and I think a lot of us took them lightly. Their game-plan was heavy against me. Fortunately for us we have other players that make plays.”
“We have a mature team and we had to be resilient,” Grant said.
Grant recognized the penalties and turnovers and viewed them this way: “we dealt with adversity with the turnovers, especially the last two at the end.
“Fifteen penalties and three turnovers is not the way you want to win. It’s really a recipe for losing.
“Our kids fought through the penalties. We’re going to get some because our kids play fast. I’m more concerned about the self-inflicting turnovers.”