PISCATAWAY, NJ — An unusual first half on Sunday, Sept. 5, at Rutgers Stadium saw Hillside with only 10 plays on its resume to 36 for a Bernards team that drove down the field but could not reach the end zone.
Strangely up by a touchdown at the half — Hillside had the ball only three times in the first two quarters — the Comets still sought to build on that momentum when they received the ball first opening the third quarter.
However, Hillside lost the ball on a fumble during its first possession of the second half and then turned the ball over again the next time it was on offense.
Bernards junior defensive back Enzo Britez intercepted a pass thrown by Hillside junior quarterback Caleb Salters on the left side that led to his team’s first score, which tied the game midway through the third quarter. That was Salters’ first incomplete pass after starting the game seven-for-seven for 155 yards and one touchdown.
Bernards, executing on the line despite a size disadvantage, continued to run the ball in the second half, after senior back Michael Leanza had more than 100 yards rushing in the first 24 minutes.
Mixing the run with the pass on its first possession of the fourth quarter, Bernards reached the end zone for a second time, to take the lead with a little more than eight minutes to go.
The Mountaineers then held Hillside to just one first down and, with Leanza once more leading the way with his power running game, took more than six minutes off the clock with their final drive.
That left Hillside with less than a minute remaining for its final possession. The Comets did not come close.
Sparked by an MVP performance by Leanza, he rushed for a game-high 150 yards on 37 carries, Bernards came back in the second half to beat Hillside 14-7 in this thrilling Big Central Conference–Division 2A game, as part of the second ever Rumble at the Raritan at Rutgers Stadium.
“Offensive line, this is for you,” said Leanza, as he held up the MVP trophy he was awarded.
“Michael is one of the best running backs in the state, and he really showed it here at Rutgers today,” Bernards head coach Jon Simoneau said.
Bernards, which evened its record at 1-1, defeated Hillside for the first time since 2016. Hillside, now 0-1, lost its first season opener since 2017. That 2017 team won the Central Jersey, Group 2, state championship on this same field.
“The turnovers in the second half and being on the wrong side of the penalties, which we usually are when we play Bernards, was the difference,” Hillside head coach Barris Grant said. “Hats off to Bernards. They always play us hard.”
Hillside was penalized 13 times for 92 yards.
“We have some big kids, but they’re young, and mistakes will be made,” Grant said.
Bernards took the opening kickoff and marched from its own 25 to Hillside’s 5-yard line, before Leanza was stopped for a 1-yard loss on fourth and 2 when Hillside senior middle linebacker Caleb Ramos brought him down.
The Mountaineers possessed the ball for 9:38 on a drive that included three time-outs, two by Bernards and one by Hillside. The Mountaineers came away with nothing.
Hillside, which had the ball just once in the first quarter, struck for its first points of the season on a long touchdown pass as the result of broken coverage. Salters dropped back and hit wide-open junior wide receiver Justin Mays in stride as Mays made a fine, two-handed, over-the-shoulder catch. Mays caught the ball at the 50 and then raced down the left sideline untouched and into the end zone.
Bernards attempted to cut into Hillside’s 7-0 lead in the second quarter, but Simon Bramwit’s attempt at a 41-yard field goal fell a bit short.
At the half, Leanza had 108 yards on 19 carries. On Bernards’ first long drive of the game, Leanza gained 46 yards on 10 attempts.
Salters, at intermission, was five-for-five passing, for 116 yards and one touchdown.
Hillside had 134 yards of total offense in the first half, even though it had the ball for just 10 plays. However, the Comets were also penalized seven times for 50 yards.
Bernards outgained Hillside offensively in the first half but was behind on the scoreboard.
“We stuck to our game plan in the second half and just continued to go after them,” Simoneau said.
A three-turnover sequence at the start of the second half saw Hillside lose a fumble to Bernards sophomore defensive back Jake Caldwell. Then, four plays later, the Mountaineers gave the ball up on a fumble that was gained by Hillside junior cornerback Sakai Degannes.
On first and 10 from his own 47 with 7:19 remaining in the third quarter, Salters was picked off by Britez. It took the Mountaineers just three plays to capitalize with lefty-throwing sophomore signal-caller Connor Laverty scrambling to find senior receiver Brady Walsh open for a 21-yard touchdown pass. Bramwit’s extra point tied the game at 7-7 with 5:59 left in the third.
Sophomore Chris Dietrich started the game under center for Bernards, followed by Walsh and then Laverty at the quarterback position.
“That’s not unusual for us at all to have three different guys play quarterback,” Simoneau said.
On that game-tying drive, Laverty completed two-of-two passes for 66 yards.
It was Dietrich who scored the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard run up the middle with 8:36 to go, to cap a nine-play, 47-yard drive that took more than three minutes.
The big play of the march was Dietrich hitting sophomore wide receiver Aidan Brown over the middle at the Hillside 2 for a 30-yard pass that resulted in a first-and-goal at the Hillside 2-yard line. Brown split two Hillside defenders and held onto the ball, after getting hit hard as he came down with it.
“We learned today that you have to finish,” Grant said. “You have to play all four quarters. We didn’t have the ball that much in the first half, so we really wanted to establish ourselves in the second half and couldn’t because of the turnovers.
“Bernards already played a game, and I think that experience helped them.”
Bernards opened on Saturday, Aug. 28, at Ocean City against Penns Grove and was defeated 40-20.
“This was also a big game because it was a division game,” Simoneau said.
Early last year, Hillside defeated Bernards 14-9 at home for its fourth straight win against the Somerset County school. That was the only loss the Mountaineers suffered a year ago, before finishing with eight straight wins for an 8-1 final record. Hillside went 4-2 last year, after three straight state championship seasons in Group 2.
“We had a real tough week, which made this win even more special,” Simoneau said. ”Our offensive line coach, Andrew Maurizio, lost his house in the flooding, and our school was used to shelter for Manville.
“We were still able to jell and fight through adversity. It was a week that felt like a month.”
Salters had a solid game at quarterback for his junior-season debut. He completed nine of 16 passes for 187 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He looks to have all the tools necessary, including a strong arm, to lead Hillside to multiple victories ahead.
The Comets are off next weekend and will then play at North Plainfield on Friday, Sept. 17. Bernards is also off next week and will then play at Gov. Livingston, also on Sept. 17.