CRANFORD – A “special” special teams effort helped lead Cranford to a convincing 34-21 Mid-State 38 Conference home win Friday night over a much-improved Hillside squad that sought to enhance its playoff seed.
Both teams are now 5-3, with Cranford bolstering its chances of qualifying for the North 2, Group 3 playoffs. Hillside has already clinched a first-time berth in Central Jersey, Group 2.
Here’s what made Cranford’s must-win at Memorial Field so “special.”
Special teams highlights included:
Cranford, specifically Josiah Cadet, recovered a fumble when John McAleavey’s punt bounced off the foot of a Hillside player that was back ready to return the kick. That play came with just over a minute remaining in the second quarter and Cranford clinging to a 14-7 lead.
Cranford senior placekicker Valentino Ambrosio kicked a 24-yard field goal midway through the third quarter to extend Cranford’s lead to 17-7.
With Cranford ahead 24-14, the Cougars blocked a punt, with Rob Schork knocking the ball down and teammate John Markase there to recover. That play led to another Cranford field goal. “Joe Hubert (Cranford defensive coordinator) put that in this week and we practiced it,” Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier said. “He saw something and thought we could block one.”
Ambrosio this time nailed a 45-yard field goal, splitting the uprights with plenty to spare. It was his second longest field goal – he made a 48-yarder vs. Rahway last year – and was his eighth in 10 attempts this season. The kick upped Cranford’s lead to 27-14 with 8:30 remaining.
“It was a good snap (Cole Blazek, No. 84), a good hold (Dan Curren, No. 5) and I put my head down and really hit it,” Ambrosio said. “Once I see it’s a clean ball I don’t even look up, I know it’s going to be good.”
After Hillside pulled to within 27-21 following Tajae Irby’s third touchdown pass, Cranford’s Joshua Cadet (No. 19) returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, covering 80 yards of bursting through a hole up the middle and sprinting past every Hillside defender. “I think that was our first since Luke Christiano’s against North Plainfield,” Rosenmeier said.
Also, Ambrosio had seven kickoffs reach and/or go through the end zone for seven touchbacks.
“The touchbacks are huge deal, constantly pinning a team down,” Rosenmeier said. “They make a huge difference.
“It’s disheartening for a team to always be starting from their own 20.”
“The field goals are nice, but to be able to kick the ball out of the end zone is awesome too,” Ambrosio said.
“I think he’s only had two that didn’t go through the end zone so far this year,” Rosenmeier said. “He had 44 in 10 games last year.”
Ambrosio, who transferred to Cranford last year after playing his first two years at Roselle Park, followed up pretty good Cranford kickers in Troy Kettler and Joe Norton.
“They were both solid, but we’re spoiled enough that when Valentino doesn’t kick the ball through the end zone, it’s a surprise. He’s disappointed.”
Cranford scored the first two times it had the ball, with senior quarterback Dan Curren completing the first drive with a five-yard touchdown pass to Jake Bradford and then senior running back Anthony Araujo ran in from three yards out for the first of his two scores.
Cranford was quickly up 14-0, but that did not deter Hillside, which has won five games for the first time since 2008.
The Comets regrouped and came back in the second quarter when Irby completed a 17-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Nahree Biggins, who had to come back a bit to catch the ball and then run past Cranford defenders back into the end zone. Irby, who completed 17-of-25 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns, did well to escape a heavy rush at his right side.
Cranford held talented, 6-3 Hillside junior running back Brian Ugwu to just 50 hard-fought yards on 17 attempts.
“We made some adjustments after they scored and played hard all the way to the end,” said Cranford standout senior middle linebacker Dylan Budnik. “Hillside is good and we knew they would be tough.”
The Comets, which came in not having defeated Cranford since 2009 and not at Cranford since 2008, pulled to within three in the third quarter and six in the fourth behind Irby’s other two touchdown passes.
Irby’s second touchdown pass covered 75 yards, with receiver Shadon Willis catching the ball over the middle, breaking through a hole at left and then running down the middle into the end zone.
Irby had success hitting his receivers straight ahead or at times sideline-to-sideline on slant passes that the Cranford defense had to find a way to minimize.
“We had to stop the run inside and I think we did a good job of doing that and then our next concern was guys in space,” Rosenmeier said. “When they did that they put points on the board.”
Curren did a fine job of leading Cranford’s offense and carried the ball 19 times for 69 yards. James Shriner led Cranford in rushing with 72 yards on eight attempts, while Araujo finished with 29 on 15.
Consecutive scoring drives in the second half were sparked by two fine catches made by Cranford sophomore Thomas Korzeneski. The first catch covered 77 yards, with a wide-open Korzeneski catching the ball over the middle at his own 40 and then racing all the way down to the Hillside eight-yard line before he was stopped by a Comet tackler.
The second catch saw him jump up and grab the ball in traffic for a 25-yard gain to the Hillside 31.
The play before that catch, Hillside junior strong safety Boris Nicolas-Paul could not hold on to what would have been an interception that he easily could have run in for six points and a 20-17 Hillside lead.
Players from Hillside that made several key tackles included junior end Marcos Ramos, senior middle linebacker Kwabena Ennin-Frimpong and Nicolas-Paul. Ennin-Frimpong had a sack of Curren for an 11-yard loss on the final play of the first half.
Players from Cranford that produced big tackles were senior right linebacker Ahmad Rasheed, Markase, outside linebacker Shriner, Budnik, senior outside linebacker Tim Joyce and junior outside linebacker Matt Doran.
MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE-NON-DIVISION
Hillside (5-3) 00 07 07 07 – 21
Cranford (5-3) 14 00 03 17 – 34
Cranford – Jake Bradford 5 pass from Dan Curren,
Valentino Ambrosio kick
12 plays, 41 yards, 5:32 used
Cranford – Anthony Araujo 3 run, Valentino Ambrosio kick
6 plays, 63 yards, 2:30 used
Hillside – Nahree Biggins 17 pass from Tajae Irby, Hugo Carrico kick
6 plays, 28 yards, 2:52 used
Cranford – FG Valentino Ambrosio 24
8 plays, from Cranford 13 to Hillside 7, 3:05 used
Hillside – Shadon Willis 75 pass from Tajae Irby, Hugo Carrico kick
2 plays, 80 yards, :54 used
Cranford – Anthony Araujo 3 run, Valentino Ambrosio kick
10 plays, 69 yards, 4:27 used
Cranford – FG Ambrosio 45
4 plays, from Hillside 31 to Hillside 29, 1:35 used
Possession set up by Rob Schork blocked punt and John Markase recovery.
Hillside – Nahree Biggins 3 pass from Tajae Irby, Hugo Carrico kick
9 plays, 80 yards, 3:41 used
Cranford – Joshua Cadet 80 kickoff return, Valentino Ambrosio kick