CRANFORD, NJ — Early on during the North 3, Group 2, final on Friday, Nov. 19, Cranford was trailing Sparta and, at that point, realized this was not going to be the cakewalk its previous two playoff games were this season.
The Cougars didn’t panic. There was no need. Why?
They had senior Colin Murray to whom to give the ball.
Murray broke free to the outside and scampered for 23 yards. He then found room on the right side again to gain 23 more. Murray was then fed the ball in I formation and burst up the middle for a 5-yard touchdown run, his first of two and what turned out to be the game-winning score.
That touchdown, still in the first quarter, put Cranford ahead for good. Murray continued to be troublesome for Sparta the rest of the way.
Murray would carry the ball 41 times for 330 yards to help lead top-seeded Cranford past third-seeded Sparta, 45-21, in the North 2, Group 3, state championship game, for the first time at Cranford’s Memorial Field.
Murray surpassed 2,000 yards on the season; he now has 2,045 to be exact, and he now has 31 touchdowns going into Cranford’s season-ending regional championship game this weekend against North 1, Group 3, state champion West Morris.
Cranford reached 11-0 status for the third time in program history, while Sparta saw another fine season conclude at 8-4. The Spartans reached the sectional semifinals this year for the 10th straight season and was playing in a sectional final for the first time since last winning one in 2014.
Cranford won a state championship and captured North 2, Group 3, for the first time since 2015. The Cougars now own three North 2, Group 3, state championships in the playoff era in four title-game appearances: 2011, 2014, 2015 and this year.
Murray had 224 yards on 21 carries in the first half alone. His second touchdown, coming on a 67-yard run in the second quarter, is a score Cranford will admire on film for some time.
On second-and-15 from the Cranford 33 with just over two minutes to go in the first half and Cranford ahead 17-14, Murray was first hit behind the line of scrimmage. He didn’t go down.
Murray was then smacked as he gained momentum off initial contact. What he did then was pull out a wrestling move of his own and spin off the second group of tacklers. Murray then found running room down the left sideline for what turned out to be Cranford’s third touchdown of the first half, putting the Cougars back ahead by 10 right before intermission.
“I didn’t know what happened on that play,” Murray said. “I just do whatever I have to do. I found a little running room and then just used tunnel vision after that.”
The recipe is very simple. If you don’t tackle Murray, you are not going to beat Cranford.
“The difference was Colin Murray,” Sparta head coach Frank Marchiano said. “He’s without a doubt the best back we faced.”
Cranford’s most-of-the-time unmovable offensive line of, from left, Kyle Fay, Matt Fries, Ryan Heesters at center, Kevin Shriner and Geoffrey Gretta were a handful to deal with for the visiting Spartans.
“We knew all about their offensive line, but it was mostly him,” Marchiano said, referring to Murray. “I think he had more yards before contact than after, if there is such a stat. At times, with a couple of kids, we just couldn’t stop him.”
“We knew that they had a similar defense to Demarest and Pascack Valley, so our job was to come out and dominate once more,” Fries said. “That’s what we’ve been doing all year, ground and pound.”
Sparta committed seven turnovers, five interceptions and two lost fumbles. Cranford capitalized on four of them, including three interceptions by senior Will Gallagher that led to 17 Cranford points. A fumble recovery by Murray on Cranford’s kickoff following its fifth touchdown led to Cranford’s final seven points.
Sparta managed to score through the air to take its only lead at 7-3 on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Austen Frattura to Brady Doyle in the first quarter and then pulled to within 17-14 in the second quarter, after running back Justin Smith scored from 5 yards out.
“I think our defense was the key to this game,” said Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier, who has now led the Cougars to all three of its state championships in the playoff era. “Sparta had us on the run at first and they can score at any time, which kept us a bit nervous.
“We stuck with our game plan and were then able to get better hands on their receivers.”
Cranford senior defensive back Angelo Fiorenza produced Cranford’s first tackle for the second straight week. Fiorenza was also in on several other key stops.
Cranford’s other turnovers were a fumble recovery by junior Liam Godwin off a fumble caused by junior defensive back Ryan Lynskey in the first quarter, an interception by Lucca Limeira in the third quarter and one last pick by Godwin in the fourth. Limeira, with two hands, tipped the ball right into Gallagher’s hands for Gallagher’s third interception, which came in the third quarter and led to Cranford’s first of two touchdowns in the fourth.
Cranford’s lone turnover came in the second quarter, an interception by Sparta cornerback Chase Geer, which gave the Spartans a possession to take back the lead when they were down 17-14. However, the drive was halted when Gallagher jumped up and came down with his second interception in the end zone, preventing Sparta wide receiver Matt Schweizer from hauling in what could have been a touchdown pass. That would have given the Spartans back the lead for the second time, had Schweizer caught Frattura’s pass.
Cranford senior quarterback Shane Van Dam misfired on his first five pass attempts before hitting Gallagher for a 16-yard gain. Van Dam then rolled left and lofted a beautiful spiral that landed right in Gallagher’s arms, as Gallagher beat single coverage for a 28-yard touchdown reception that gave Cranford, for the first time, a 10-point advantage.
Frattura played well, despite throwing five picks. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 230 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions. Mike McGovern completed one of two passes for 21 yards.
For the game, Van Dam completed four of 14 passes for 74 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He threw all but one of his passes in the first half, with the lone one he tossed in the second going for a completion of 10 yards.
On the ground, Van Dam gained 37 yards on nine carries, with his two scores. Most of his yardage running the ball came in the second half.
Gallagher caught three passes for 64 yards in the first half.
Smith carried the ball 19 times for 83 yards and his one score. He was limited to 15 yards on seven carries during the game’s final 24 minutes.
Murray carried the ball for the first eight plays on Cranford’s opening second-half possession, gaining 55 yards and moving the chains three times to give the Cougars first and goal at the Sparta 10. After two Limeira runs for a total of 5 yards, Van Dam ran the ball in the end zone from the 5-yard line for the first of his two second-half rushing touchdowns.
Cranford captains for the game were standout senior two-way lineman Lukas Ruby, Van Dam and Shriner.
Photos by JR Parahini