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Rutherford ends 51-year sectional title drought, wins N2G2 Championship

Rutherford won the North 2, Group 2 title at MetLife Stadium.

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On November 3, the Rutherford Bulldogs emerged with a dramatic 14-7 overtime win over Hasbrouck Heights in the NJIC Championship game, thus ending the Aviators 18-game undefeated streak. Fast forward to November 30a much bigger title was at stake, the North 2 Group 2 championship at MetLife Stadium. Rutherford was attempting to win its first sectional title in 51 years and complete just the second undefeated season in Bulldogs (11-0) school history.

To accomplish that feat would be a hurdle against the Hackettstown Tigers (8-4). The Tigers came in to the championship matchup with an offensive juggernaut averaging 33.1 points, defense only allowing 16.3 and potent rushing attack averaging 289 yards per game. Meanwhile, Rutherford has been solid on both ends, averaging 29 points and limiting opponents to nine points per game.

Coming into the game, Rutherford junior running back Abellany Mendez had amassed 936 rushing yards and leading the team in touchdowns with 16 (10 on the ground). Mendez contributed in many facets Thursday night, including an electrifying 72-yard touchdown down the right sidelines in the first quarter that put Rutherford up 7-0.

“I told my team I was going to work hard for them and hustle on every play,” said Mendez. “My lineman blocked well and I saw a hole.”

“He is a great athlete and overall competitor and great high school player,” said Rutherford Head Coach Andrew Howell said of Mendez. “Another first-team, all-county player that had to play like that tonight.”

Receiving the second half kickoff, Mendez made another significant impact with a return to the Bulldogs 47-yard line. Billy Finn played the catalyst on the drive catching a 14-yard pass from Russell and gaining 15 of his 41 yards in the game. On 3rd & 9 at the Tigers 24, Russell tossed a pass to wide-open Mendez in the flat and did the rest sprinting down the left sidelines for the touchdown with 8:39 left and extending the margin to 21-13. Mendez finished the game with 10 carries for 96 yards and five catches for 49 yards.

Not just a force on the offensive side of the ball, Mendez flashed his defensive skills jarring the ball loose on a handoff from Gagliardi to Castro with Tyler Aponte recovering the ball. Hackettstown refused go away twice moving the ball deep into Rutherford territory in the fourth quarter. On fourth and two at the 44, linebacker Nick Ippolito tackled Gagliardi short of the first down marker.

“We stressed in the locker room we had the lead, up by one and still getting the ball we really put a nice drive together and that was critical,” Howell said. “We made adjustments on defense and they stepped up in the second half and got the job done.”

Starting out at the six-yard line with 4:41 remaining, the Tigers offense found its rhythm with Castro gaining 11 yards on the ground. Displaying some trickery with a flea-flicker, Gagliardi pitched the ball to Anthony Caputo who rifled a 23-yard pass to Christian Maciak. A crucial pass interference call on Rutherford moved the ball to the Bulldogs 22-yard line but once again Mendez made his mark deflecting the ball away on a Gagliardi pass in the end zone. On 4th and 11 at the 23, defensive linemen Vinny Nikolic forced Gagliardi into throwing an incomplete pass setting off a jubilant celebration on the Rutherford sidelines.

“I have to give credit to our assistant coaches and amount of hours they put in,” said Howell. “The scout team simulating their offense all week and took every single one of these guys. Not the first time we faced adversity and found a way to win and these kids are gamers and rise to the occasion and certainly did it one more time tonight and on one of the biggest stages you can imagine. This town deserves it, a lot of great kids in the school and town. A great place to live and go to high school and definitely deserve it.”

Despite coughing up the ball twice in a span of 2:27, Hackettstown responded on 11-yard touchdown run by Tj Sciaretta with 20 seconds remaining in the quarter. Getting the ball back with 12 seconds left the 25-yard line; Bulldogs quarterback Kyle Russell engineered an impressive 16-play drive that chewed up 7:21 of the clock. Completing passes to Joe Ivanovic for 39 yards and 11 yards to Mendez moved the ball deep into Tigers territory.

Faced with a fourth and 1 at the seven, running back Billy Finn plowed straight through the line for a three-yard gain. Hackettstown defense stopped the first two running plays but on third down Finn capped off the drive diving ahead for the score putting Rutherford back on top 14-7 with 4:51 left.

After a kickoff out of bounds, the Tigers offense responded with a statement of its own. Quarterback Nick Gagliardi aired out a 22-yard pass to Matt Macaulay. On the very next play, running back Matt Castro broke loose for a 25-yard scamper. With first and goal at the Rutherford three, Gagliardi scored on the QB keeper with 1:36 left but the extra point was no good as Rutherford took a 14-13 lead at halftime.

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Since July of 2014 Sunil Sunder Raj has been with In The Zone. Sunil has experience covering minor league baseball, high school and college sports. A beat writer for the Rockland Boulders for six years, Ramapo College men’s basketball for four years, NJIT men’s basketball and Seton Hall women’s basketball. Now focusing on feature articles about athletes, coaches and sports media professionals. A graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism.
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