CLARK, NJ — There’s a certain amount of pride, tradition and even glory when the Crusaders march in line, side by side from their locker room to Nolan Field.
Then, when they sprint past the cheerleaders and break on through to the other side of the field, they expect to inflict harm onto their opponent. The game plan drawn up by the coaching staff is designed to result in, by game’s end, Arthur L. Johnson High School’s football team producing more points on the scoreboard than the team they are lining up against.
That had not happened in a season opener or, more precisely, in a home opener in five years.
On Thursday, Sept. 1, the Crusaders were excited, anxious, hungry and, most importantly, ready to halt a streak that included the trials and tribulations of having to deal with COVID-19 issues the past two seasons.
ALJ was unleashed that night, and the Crusaders scored six touchdowns en route to a more-than-convincing 42-6 triumph against Governor Livingston High School out of Berkeley Heights. The Crusaders led 28-0 at the end of the first quarter and 35-0 at the half, with the second half beginning with the mercy rule clock, meaning running time with no stoppage at the end of each play.
It was the first time Arthur L. Johnson won its season opener and home opener since defeating visiting New Providence High School, 41-3, to open its 2017 campaign. That was also the last year ALJ finished better than .500, with the 8-3 Crusaders narrowly missing the Central Jersey, Group 2 state championship game.
“Our kids just did what they were coached to do,” said Arthur L. Johnson football head coach Anthony DelConte, at the helm of the Crusaders since 2014 and a former ALJ standout player who graduated from the Clark school in 2006. “What this program has been through the past few seasons, we’re tired of it here in Crusader nation. We need to change it. It’s a mentality change to turn this thing around.”
Governor Livingston entered 0-1 after opening with a 29-9 loss at New Providence on Friday, Aug. 26. Before the Highlanders knew it, they were behind by double digits once again, this time in the first quarter.
Sophomore quarterback Robert Gallagher made quite a debut, running Arthur L. Johnson’s vaunted triple-option offense. He connected on three touchdown passes, opening the scoring with a 52-yard scoring strike to sophomore tailback Ryan George.
Then, one of ALJ’s defensive standouts, junior linebacker Emilio Menicucci, recovered a fumble in the end zone to give the Crusaders a two-touchdown lead. Menicucci also recovered another GL fumble later in the game to give Arthur L. Johnson the ball back.
DelConte said that senior ends Jason Greenbush and Steven McCaffery, and senior linebacker Matthew Jean-Louis also sparked an Arthur L. Johnson defense that held the visiting Highlanders scoreless through the first three quarters.
“They all played very tough and physical football,” DelConte said.
Senior middle linebacker Vincent Pisano was credited with a team-high 10 tackles.
“Those seniors showed on opening night that they won’t stand for this anymore,” DelConte said. “They made a statement.”
Scoring two touchdowns was senior slot player Antwone Smikle, as he reached the end zone twice in the first quarter. He first scored on a 63-yard run and then caught a 56-yard touchdown pass from Gallagher. Senior placekicker Brett Makowsky followed with his fourth extra point of the first quarter to put the Crusaders up 28-0.
Gallagher’s third touchdown pass, which came in the second quarter, covered 22 yards, with Greenbush making the catch and reaching the end zone.
Sophomore Ryan Volmut scored Arthur L. Johnson’s final touchdown on a 7-yard run in the third quarter. Makowsky followed with his sixth perfect extra-point kick.
Volmut carried the ball seven times for a team-high 73 yards. Smikle gained 68 on six carries, and George had nine carries for 49 yards.
Gallagher completed three of five passes for 130 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
“We executed and made plays on offense, but there is still a lot to fix,” DelConte said. “Our offensive line played really well.”
Arthur L. Johnson is now preparing for its next game, at Bound Brook High School, scheduled for Friday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. Bound Brook opened with a 27-0 loss at Middlesex High School on Friday, Sept. 2.
This is another nondivision Big Central Conference game for the Crusaders, who are situated in the Patriot Silver Division. Bound Brook is in the Patriot Gold Division.
Arthur L. Johnson’s first division game will be at home against Metuchen High School on Friday, Sept. 16. ALJ’s two wins in last year’s 2-7 season were both against Metuchen.
“I’m proud of our guys,” DelConte said. “The word is ‘coachable,’ and that’s the key.”