CRANFORD, NJ — The home team was already trailing by more than one possession as the fourth quarter passed its midway point on Friday, Sept. 10.
Mistakes in all three phases — offense, defense and special teams — cost Cranford, favored to win and making its 2021 debut, dearly up to this point.
Then North Hunterdon returned an interception 45 yards, with the same player catching his breath to kick the extra point and give the Lions its biggest lead of the game at 16 points.
Exactly five minutes remained.
“Did I think there was enough time? Honestly, no,” Cranford senior running back Colin Murray said.
“At that point, I thought that was it,” Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier said.
Rosenmeier’s players didn’t. That was the difference.
Cranford came back with two eight-point touchdowns — neither one aided by a turnover — to dramatically tie the game with 1:39 remaining.
North Hunterdon then reached as far as the Cranford 14 on a pass over the middle from Luke Martini to John Sauchelli that was good for 31 yards and a Lion first down with 37 seconds remaining.
Two plays later, Cranford senior Will Gallagher, who caught Cranford’s final fourth-quarter touchdown and then two-point pass from fellow senior Shane VanDam to tie the game, broke through the line and blocked North Hunterdon’s attempt at a 32-yard field goal to win the game on the final play of the fourth quarter.
“Once we got to overtime, I knew we were going to win,” Murray said.
North Hunterdon had the ball first in OT, with a pass interference call going against Cranford that allowed the Lions one more play on fourth down. This time, it was eight yards to go from the 11.
Martini went back to pass and threw a ball to Hunter Paulter in the right corner of the end zone. However, Cranford junior Liam Godwin had him covered, and the pass went incomplete.
Now it was Cranford’s ball in OT. Murray carried for five yards up the middle on first down.
He then carried the ball into the night, rambling 20 yards up the middle to complete perhaps the greatest comeback in Cranford football history.
Cranford pulled out an improbable 43-37 overtime triumph against visiting North Hunterdon in Friday night’s Big Central Conference–Division 4 clash.
Cranford, which also overcame going for it on fourth down and not getting a first down and missing a field goal that would have given it a lead in the third quarter, trailed by the scores of 7-0, 10-7 and 17-14 in the first half and 23-14, 23-21, 30-21 and 37-21 in the second.
Murray carried the ball 26 times for 120 yards and four touchdowns. The only quarter Murray did not score a touchdown was the first.
“This is the best moment of my life,” Murray said.
He explained his winning touchdown: “The play is called ‘Follow.’ The H-back blocks and you follow him. The H-back on the play was Lukas Ruby.”
“Our seniors, players like Will Gallagher, Shane VanDam and Colin Murray, really stepped up tonight,” Rosenmeier said.
Another senior, Matt Fries, made a touchdown-saving tackle on North Hunterdon’s second-to-final fourth-quarter possession. He brought down a North Hunterdon runner to put the Middlesex County school at fourth-and-8 from the 50 and it had to punt.
Rosenmeier has guided Cranford to more than 100 wins since he took over in 2005 and to 83 victories from 2010 to 2020. However, he said he never witnessed any of his teams come back in the fashion this one did.
“I give the kids credit, because I thought they were ready to quit,” Rosenmeier said. “They showed me that they were not ready to quit.
“We were on the edge of shutting down and they kept going, kept making things happen. This game was a lot like our preseason, where we played well in spurts.”
North Hunterdon scored the game’s first of 11 total touchdowns on its third possession, breaking a 70-yard run that began through a hole at its own 35 and continued down the right side.
Cranford immediately came back on its next drive, with Lucca Limeira reaching the end zone from 2 yards out.
A little more than six minutes later, North Hunterdon took its second lead at 10-7 on a 22-yard field goal with 3:31 remaining in the half.
Cranford took its first lead of the season on Murray’s first touchdown, a 4-yard run. The big play of the drive was a 41-yard pass junior Jake Carter reeled in over his shoulder to give Cranford a first-and-goal at the North Hunterdon 4. On Cranford’s first scoring drive, Gallagher caught a similar pass, good for 38 yards, near the same part of the field that Carter made his.
Getting the ball back with 1:37 left in the second quarter, Martini shook Cranford up a bit by driving the Lions down field once more before intermission. On a scoring drive that took 11 plays and covered 77 yards in just 1:48, Martini completed seven of 11 passes for all 77 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass. That put North Hunterdon back ahead for the third time at 17-14 with just nine seconds left to close the half.
Martini completed 20 of 32 passes for 310 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Cranford received the second-half kickoff and, after gaining one first down, was faced with fourth-and-2 from its own 39. Godwin was back to punt. He caught the snap and then tried to run for the first down instead. However, he was tackled for a loss at the Cranford 37, with North Hunterdon taking over in excellent field position.
Three plays later, Martini completed a touchdown pass to Sauchelli that covered 19 yards. However, North Hunterdon missed the extra point, which eventually came back to cost the Lions.
The Cougars pulled to within 23-21, when Murray scored his second touchdown, this one also on a 4-yard run, with just under two minutes to go in the third quarter.
North Hunterdon had a third-and-1 from its own 24 on its next drive, when Cranford junior linebacker Shane Kanterman stuffed the North Hunterdon running back with a first-hit tackle that resulted in a 3-yard loss and forced the Lions to punt on fourth down.
Cranford then drove to North Hunterdon’s 22. On fourth-and-1, Murray went around left end for a 22-yard touchdown run that was called back because of a Cranford holding penalty. Cranford did get the first down on the very next play, when VanDam hit Gallagher for a 15-yard reception to the North Hunterdon 18.
VanDam completed 17 of 23 passes for 310 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Four plays later, Cranford was about to attempt a 28-yard field goal that would have given it back the lead, but the snap to the holder was not executed properly and no kick was made.
North Hunterdon quickly capitalized by scoring again the next time it had the ball, this time, Martini hitting Paulter for a 64-yard touchdown as a Cranford defender slipped. That put the Lions up 30-21 with 5:38 to go.
Then they returned the interception for their final touchdown and a 37-21 lead as the time of play remaining on the scoreboard read 5:00.
Cranford drove 42 yards, and scored a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to pull to within 8, and then marched 80 yards, scored a touchdown and the second all-important two-point conversion to tie the game.
“We knew we were going to have a battle on our hands,” Murray said.
On the touchdown drive that gave North Hunterdon a 17-14 lead, Gallagher almost came up with an interception to thwart it. He was Cranford’s leading receiver, with seven catches for 141 yards and his one touchdown.
“When we were in 7-on-7s, one of the other teams was North Hunterdon,” Rosenmeier said. “We were aware of what they could do. Both quarterbacks threw the ball well. We have a lot of new faces on defense, and it showed at times tonight.”
Photos by JR Parachini