EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — Looking at state championship teams Cranford and West Morris and how potent their offenses were all season long, it would have come as no surprise to anyone that 10 touchdowns would be produced in their matchup six miles outside of New York City.
However, no one probably would have predicted that one team would have scored eight. No one outside Long Valley, at least, would have been that bold.
Don’t sell the Wolfpack offense short. All it did was score 21 points — three touchdowns — more than its impressive 32-point average.
Cranford High School, averaging 39 points, was limited to just two scores.
West Morris Central High School moved the ball up and down the field all game long and even scored on defense with an interception return. After Cranford answered the first West Morris touchdown, the undefeated Cougars simply didn’t have any more for a Wolfpack team that did not come into the game perfect by any means but was determined to put pressure on for the entire 48 minutes.
Sparked by a three-touchdown game from Noah Turner, a touchdown on a run and pass reception by talented junior running back Stefano Montella and two touchdown passes and one rushing from senior quarterback Trevor Hillier, North 1, Group 3, state champion West Morris went on to defeat North 2, Group 3, state champion Cranford, 53-14, in the third and final North, Group 3, regional championship game at MetLife Stadium on Friday, Nov. 26.
Ramapo won the other two, in 2018 and 2019. There were no playoffs last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next year, for the first time, the state will play down to a group champion, with group semifinals and then group finals to follow the sectional state championship games.
It was the first regional championship for West Morris, which concluded with a 10-3 record after winning North, Group 3, for the first time.
Cranford, which captured North 2, Group 3, for the third time and for the first time since 2015, saw its magnificent 2021 season conclude at 11-1. Cranford won 10 times by double digits, including after coming back late in the fourth quarter to win its season opener in overtime.
“Sometimes, in these Super Bowl-like games, it can be a heavyweight fight that goes the distance or ends with a quick knockout,” Cranford football head coach Erik Rosenmeier said. “Sometimes you get hit on the chin and you can’t get up.”
Cranford came back to take its only lead, 7-6, in the first quarter when senior quarterback Shane Van Dam scored on a 3-yard run and then junior placekicker Liam Godwin kicked the extra point.
However, West Morris, sparked by its vaunted Wing-T attack, would score touchdowns three more times in the first half without allowing any more Cranford scoring, to hold a 26-7 advantage at intermission.
“At halftime, I said we had been here before,” Rosenmeier said, referring to the Cougars being behind by almost that much in their first game of the year. “If we could have gotten the game to 26-14 by scoring the first time we had the ball in the second half, then I think we would have been OK. However, we fumbled away the second-half kickoff.”
Cranford’s final score of the year was a 37-yard touchdown pass Van Dam completed to fellow senior Will Gallagher for the last score of the third quarter. The Cougars pulled to within 40-14, but it was much too little too late.
West Morris made sure there would be no miracle comeback in the fourth quarter, when Turner scored his final two touchdowns.
Talented Cranford senior running back Colin Murray, who came into the game with more than 2,000 yards rushing and 31 touchdowns, was limited to 80 yards on 20 carries and no touchdowns.
“There were a few runs where they just got him, just got to his feet to bring him down,” Rosenmeier said. “In other games, he broke those and ran all the way, and that demoralized teams. It didn’t happen against West Morris.
“We couldn’t tackle and we turned the ball over three times,” Rosenmeier added. “I give credit to West Morris. They were motivated, and, as a result, they executed on offense and defense. They extended three drives by converting on fourth down. We couldn’t get the ball back.”
Although the team was naturally down after the game, Rosenmeier and his coaching staff kept preaching to their players all of the positives that came from this state championship season.
“We took it on the chin, couldn’t regroup and it was an unfortunate way to end the season,” Rosenmeier said. “We’re not going to dwell on it for long.
“Our focus will be on our first 11 games and reaching our goal of winning a state championship,” he continued. “That was our goal, despite what happened in this game. Yes, we would have loved to have finished undefeated, but it wasn’t to be.
“We peaked when we got to the playoffs and let it all hang out when we played Sparta,” said Rosenmeier. “Do I think West Morris is 30 points better than us? No.
“However, I don’t think we’re 30 points better than Sparta, who turned the ball over seven times against us,” he continued. “I don’t think we’re 30 points better than Demarest or Pascack Valley, the first two teams we played in the playoffs, either.”
NOTES: Cranford is now 0-2 in games played at MetLife, including the 2014 North 2, Group 3, state championship game it lost to Parsippany Hills, 20-13.
“We averaged 40 points that year and 40 this year and came here and both times scored only two touchdowns,” Rosenmeier said. “Go figure.”
When Cranford won its first state championship, capturing North 2, Group 3, in 2011 with a 10-1 final record, the only loss the Cougars suffered that season came by a similar score, 52-21, at home to Summit in the team’s eighth game.
“The difference with that is, when we lost that game 10 years ago, it wasn’t our last game,” Rosenmeier said. “We were able to come back and win the rest of our games after that.”
After falling to Summit for its only loss in 2011, Cranford beat Delaware Valley, 41-7, at home and then won at favored Colonia, 34-7, in the North 2, Group 3, semifinals, after receiving a first-round bye. Cranford then blanked Parsippany Hills, 21-0, at Kean University in the North 2, Group 3, state championship game.
There were no regional championship games that followed the state championship games back then.
When Cranford won its first two state championships in 2011 and 2015, the season ended, with everyone happy going into winter.
The team was happy to win another state championship this year and elated to do so for the first time on their own home field. However, the season ended with the disappointment of a final game loss.
Photos Courtesy of David McCarthy