By Andy Loigu
After Hackettstown disappointed a large Homecoming Day crowd on Saturday, in a 21-17 loss to Dover in a football game they seemed to have under control, they now have to shake it off and prepare to go on the road to face 5-0 Hanover Park on Friday evening.
The Hornets have been road warriors so far this season, with their five wins all coming away from home. Their game against Hackettstown is their home opener.
Running an up-tempo offense which uses a no-huddle system, Hanover Park poses a major challenge for Hackettstown and presents a dramatic contrast to the methodical Dover team, which coach C.J. Robinson’s squad just faced.
With many returning players, expectations are higher at Hackettstown than they have been in recent years. After five games the Tigers are 3-2. They came very close to being 4-1.
Hackettstown took a 17-14 lead in period four against Dover when Nick Renne powered his way to paydirt with a one-yard push up the middle. Joey Mahal booted the extra-point conversion kick. The scoring drive featured a 64-yard pass from quarterback Ryan Gallagher to Patrick Sullivan, which put Hackettstown on the one-yard line. It was Gallagher’s second completion of the day. He completed 2-of-6 passes for 87 yards.
Following the kickoff, visiting Dover had to start at its own 28. After two running plays lost yardage, Dover faced a third-and-13 at its own 25.
They dug deep into their playbook and came up with a flea-flicker play, a double pass, which produced a first down when tailback Dwayne Brown found a wide-open fullback Dan Castro. The 36-yard gain and first down put Dover deep into Hackettstown territory. Five plays later, on third-and-three, Castro ran it in for what proved to be the winning touchdown from 18 yards out.
After that, in the final 6:33 of the game, both teams had their chances. Each team went three-and-out and Hackettstown had one more possession to try and win the game with 2:42 remaining.
Hackettstown tried a halfback option pass, but it went incomplete. An explosive 28-yard run by hard charging Mike Castellano gave Hackettstown a first down at the Dover 41.
However, a sack and three incomplete passes followed and Hackettstown lost the ball on downs.
Dover went into victory formation and took a knee.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Dover’s second-year coach Nick Gregorio about the flea-flicker call and an earlier faked punt, which proved to be the key plays to set up his team’s late victory. The faked punt produced a 21-yard gain and was the springboard to a touchdown which gave Dover a 14-10 lead with 46 seconds left in the third quarter. Mobile junior quarterback Adrian Vargas, who executed the faked punt, finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. Senior Cristian Martinez booted the second of his three extra point kicks.
Dover turned the ball over twice in the first half but protected it in the second half.
Dover, 6-4 last season, was staring the prospect of a 1-4 record in the face. A loss may have put their hopes for a state playoff bid in serious jeopardy. With the win, Dover hosts Parsippany on Friday evening and hopes to pull its record up to 3-3.
In the first period, Hackettstown recovered a fumble at the Dover 30 and had a golden opportunity to get out in front early. However, they were stopped cold on a fourth-and-one play at the Dover 20.
After a scoreless first period, Hackettstown made the home crowd happy with Anthony Gonzalez scoring the game’s first touchdown with a seven-yard run. A fumble recovery by Joe Renne set up the play.
However, Dover’s most dangerous player, Brown, broke several tackles and returned the kickoff to the Hackettstown 13. Four plays later, looking like the famous Hall of Famer Jim Brown, Dover’s Brown bounced off a tackler and darted into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown which tied the score.
Hackettstown answered with an eight-play, 71-yard drive, which was finished with a 22-yard field goal by Mahal, giving Hackettstown a 10-7 halftime lead. A 38-yard run by Castellano, breaking several tackles, got Hackettstown to the 11-yard line.
Another field goal try by Mahal was blocked by Dover’s Scott McClean, ending Hackettstown’s first possession of the second half.
Castellano was Hackettstown’s leading rusher with 70 yards in seven carries. Combined, Castellano, Joe Renne, and Nick Renne carried the ball 20 times from scrimmage and gained 123 rushing yards for the day.
On defense, Christian Rodriguez led Hackettstown with eight tackles, followed by Gonzalez with seven.
“We need to get the offense more balanced and simply execute better,” Robinson said. “We didn’t turn the ball over today, and against a team with a big and active defensive line, that’s a positive thing. We have some real tough games coming up, but we know we can compete if we do the right things.”
Hanover Park has one of the top pass catchers in Morris County in Tom Radomski, a 6-3 speedster who also has a high vertical leap. He is dangerous inside the 10 yard line, coming down with high lobs. He also stretches the field with his speed.
“We’ve built our flexible 3-5 defense to be able to handle offenses that play fast, like this Hanover Park team. Now it is time to step up and do it. We have good athletes on our team who can make plays.”
While the Hackettstown coaches and team know they have to play three games yet, before they can start concentrating on Warren Hills, the Hackettstown High School community is already making plans for a big celebration of the 90-year rivalry with the Blue Streaks. The Nov. 6 game, with Warren Hills visiting Hackettstown this year, promises to deliver on nostalgia and ceremony.