DENVILLE, NJ — The goal for Linden High School’s football team this year was to get back to the playoffs.
After winning the North, Group 4 Regional Invitational Tournament championship a year ago, that mission was accomplished.
The Linden Tigers worked their way through a nine-game regular season schedule to the tune of 6-2-1, which included finishing second in the Big Central Conference’s final Liberty Gold Division standings.
Linden then traveled to Morris County to face a Morris Knolls High School team that had reached the playoffs the past two seasons. The Golden Eagles from Denville, guided by head coach Bill Regan since 1975, won a playoff game last year and are seeking to go a few steps further.
The game on Saturday, Oct. 28, at Morris Knolls’ Caruso Stadium was a defensive struggle for the entire contest. After a scoreless first quarter, Morris Knolls managed to score single touchdowns in the second and third quarter and add a field goal in the fourth before Linden would reach the end zone, just once before the final whistle.
Linden hung tough defensively but, unfortunately for the Tigers, could not muster enough offense to stay with Morris Knolls.
In a North 1, Group 4 first-round clash it was host Morris Knolls, the fourth seed, that prevailed against fifth-seeded Linden, 17-7.
Morris Knolls improved to 6-3 and advanced to the semifinals to play at top-seeded Ramapo High School, 9-0, on Friday night, Nov. 3.
Linden finished 6-3-1 and won six games for the first time in five years.
In the first quarter, the Golden Eagles had a long drive for their first possession, but did not score when a missed field goal ended the drive.
After Linden was stopped again offensively, Tiger senior linebacker Alex Donic came up with an interception of a pass thrown over the middle. Unfortunately for Linden, it was negated because of a roughing-the-passer penalty. That was the drive that Morris Knolls eventually scored on to take the lead for good at 6-0 in the second quarter.
Linden’s final touchdown of the season was a 24-yard pass from Tequan Thomas to Elijah Butler in the fourth quarter.
“Heads up and chest out,” Linden head coach Albert Chiola said. “We’re especially proud of the seniors. You left it all on the field.”
One of those seniors who will play on the next level is senior linebacker Myles Hamilton, who Chiola called a “monster in the middle.”
Hamilton had a key solo tackle on Morris Knolls’ first drive to push the Golden Eagles back.
Thomas, also intending to play in college, completed 10-of-14 passes for 84 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Linden won its first two games, including a season-opening 27-22 decision against Frank J. Cicarell Academy, Elizabeth at Kean University, before falling at Woodbridge High School, 20-19. As a result, Woodbridge ended up winning the Liberty Gold Division at 4-0, while Linden was 3-1.
Linden then rebounded to win its next three games to improve to 5-1. The Tigers then traveled to Summit High School to face the host Hilltoppers, who also had just one loss at the time. Summit prevailed 30-20 at Tatlock Field to give Linden what would be its final regular season setback.
Linden came back to win a big game the next week at Cranford High School, 16-13, which was its first win against the Cougars in some time.
Somerset County power Montgomery High School then came to Linden’s Cooper Field with an 8-0 record. Linden had a two-touchdown lead at the break, but Montgomery came back with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime.
Three overtime periods were played, with both teams scoring touchdowns in the first OT and then again in the third OT, after both did not score in the second extra session. The game ended as a 42-42 tie.
Linden’s game against Morris Knolls was its fourth that the Tigers limited an opponent to 17 points or less. It just turned out that, at home, Morris Knolls was a bit better than Linden.
Next year will be the 10th anniversary of Linden’s 2014 squad that captured the North 2, Group 5 sectional state championship with a 27-20 win against Elizabeth at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. Linden again will be seeking to win its first playoff game next year since the 2014 team was successful.
Photos by JR Parchini