HILLSIDE, NJ — With the season on the line, a bit earlier than the Hillside Comets expected, senior quarterback Caleb Salters knew he had to make a play late in the fourth quarter or that was it.
Hillside High School was that close to being bounced from playoff football pre-November and in the first round of the new section the Comets were competing in.
With just 1:23 remaining in the fourth quarter and Hillside out of timeouts, the Comets were faced with fourth-and-5 from the Parsippany Hills High School 44-yard line. Salters, who for the first time this season threw three interceptions, with two of them leading to Parsippany Hills touchdowns, knew he needed to at least get those 5 yards to make a first down. There was still enough time on the clock for Hillside to then spike the ball on first down, if the Comets were able to do that.
However, the strategy was to accomplish even more than just getting a first down.
“The play was set up for me to look downfield if I saw a receiver open,” Salters said.
That receiver, positioned on the right side of the field against single coverage, turned out to be junior Darvens Tunis, who had two catches earlier.
“I did look to the left first, but Darvens was really my first option,” Salters said.
Tunis got a step on the Viking cornerback and came back just a bit to catch a Salters pass right in his chest and then run the final 10 yards with the ball, untouched, into the end zone.
Those 6 points, although Parsippany Hills came close to scoring again the last time it had the ball, turned out to be the game-winning points, as second-seeded Hillside came back from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat seventh-seeded Parsippany Hills, 33-28, in the North 1, Group 3 first-round game played at Hillside’s John Zappulla Field on Saturday, Oct. 29.
As a result, the 8-1 Comets, now on a five-game winning streak, are preparing to host third-seeded River Dell Regional High School (5-4) in the semifinals on Saturday, Nov. 5, another 1 p.m. kickoff at Hillside. The winner will advance to the North 1, Group 3 sectional state championship game at the highest seed remaining on Nov. 11 or 12.
“I saw the corner shading me and then I was able to get ahead of him,” Tunis said of his game-winning touchdown reception.
“We knew that we had to at least get a first down there,” Hillside football head coach Barris Grant said. “Darvens made a fine catch. He’s been our leading receiver the past three weeks.”
Hillside scored the game’s first two touchdowns, on an 80-yard interception return by junior Marcus White and on senior running back Kyon Simonson’s first of three scores, to take a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.
Parsippany Hills then came back to tie the game in the second quarter with two touchdowns and just missed scoring a third on the final play of the first half, when the Vikings reached the Hillside 1-yard line on a 41-yard screen pass.
Parsippany Hills then took the lead by adding two more touchdowns in the third quarter, the first as the result of an interception and the second after a blocked punt, for a 28-14 advantage. After falling behind by two scores, Parsippany Hills scored 28 unanswered points.
Then Hillside, all in the fourth quarter, scored the game’s final 19 points. The first two touchdowns were on long drives consuming 87 and 90 yards, with strategic timeouts made along the way.
“Losing was never an option, even when we were down 28-14,” Salters said. “We didn’t have our heads down. We stay together as a team and stick together as a family.”
Simonson, headed to West Point to play football in college at Army, led all rushers with 191 yards on 27 carries and three touchdowns.
Senior lineman Zaimir Hawk paced the Comets in tackles with 10, five solo and five assisted.
“The difference was Zaimir Hawk and Kyon Simonson,” Grant said. “It’s not rocket science. They were not ready to lose.”
The fact that Parsippany Hills is a passing team and the Vikings were held to 75 yards rushing helped the Comets stay fresh into the final quarter.
Here Grant explains: “They throw the ball a lot, and, on incompletions, the clock stops and you get more of a breather, compared to a team that just runs the ball down your throat.
“With under five minutes, they could not pass the game away. They gave a great effort and they will be back next year.”
Notes: The other North 1, Group 3 semifinal has top-seeded Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan (8-1) hosting fourth-seeded Sparta High School (6-3) on Friday, Nov. 4, at 6 p.m.
River Dell, which has won two straight, lost its season opener at Parsippany Hills, 34-6, on Thursday, Sept. 1, and also lost to Old Tappan, 45-6, at home on Friday, Sept. 30.
Former New York Giants Super Bowl–winning head coach Bill Parcells played his high school football at River Dell.
“It’s the Wild West, the league they play in up there,” Grant said about River Dell’s schedule. “Every week now is a one-week Super Bowl.”
North 1, Group 3 first round
No. 7 Parsippany Hills Vikings (4-5) 00 14 14 00 – 28
No. 2 Hillside Comets (8-1) 07 07 00 19 – 33
Hillside: Marcus White 80 interception return, Giovanni Lavoura kick (H 7-0).
Hillside: Kyon Simonson 16 run, Giovanni Lavoura kick (H 14-0).
9 plays, 74 yards, 4:08 used.
Parsippany Hills: Joseph Ciccotelli 2 run, Joshua Griffith kick (H 14-7).
7 plays, 45 yards, 3:24 used.
Drive started at Hillside 45 following a 15-yard Hillside clipping penalty on the kickoff.
Parsippany Hills: Joe Reilly 3 pass from Jake Simoni, Joshua Griffith kick (14-14).
4 plays, 30 yards, 1:55 used.
Parsippany Hills capitalized on a turnover — an interception of a tipped pass by Joshua Smith.
Parsippany Hills: Julio Tatis 15 pass from Jake Simoni, Joshua Griffith kick (PH 21-14).
8 plays, 6535 yards, 4:15 used.
Parsippany Hills capitalized on a turnover — the second interception by Joshua Smith. This time Smith caught the ball in front of a Hillside receiver at the Parsippany Hills 8-yard line and returned it down the left sideline to the Viking 35.
Parsippany Hills: Julio Tatis 6 run, Joshua Griffith kick (PH 28-14).
1 play, 6 yards, :05 used.
Parsippany Hills capitalized on a blocked punt by Connor Johannesen that was recovered at the Comet six by Tyler Lutkowski.
Hillside: Kyon Simonson 18 run, Giovanni Lavoura kick (PH 28-21).
12 plays, 83 yards, 3:42 used.
Hillside: Kyon Simonson 4 run, kick failed (PH 28-27).
13 plays, 90 yards, 4:32 used.
The extra point was blocked, with his right hand, by Kevin Maass.
Hillside: Darvens Tunis 44 pass from Caleb Salters, run failed (H 33-28).
4 plays, 49 yards, 1:00 used.
Hillside’s Isaiah Smith got a hand on the previous Parsippany Hills punt, which prevented it from going farther than its own 49, which was where Hillside took over for what turned out to be the game-winning drive.
Photos by JR Parachini