By Andy Loigu
With a 47-27 win at Caldwell, the Hackettstown Tigers reached their first sectional final in football since Reggie Jackson played for the Yankees in the World Series.
And now they are scheduled to face “host” Rutherford at MetLife Stadium on Thursday Nov. 30 at 5 p.m. Rutherford is ranked No. 1 in the Tigers’ state bracket, Hackettstown is at No. 6. The Tigers will attempt to win their first sectional title since 1981 against Rutherford, a semifinal winner over Lenape Valley.
Against a razzle dazzle offense that had thrown for 1,165 yards out of the shotgun formation in its previous 10 games, the party crashing Tigers made five interceptions against Caldwell. Christian Maciak made three of them. “Christian is one of the hardest working guys on the team,” said Hackettstown coach CJ Robinson, who added, “We feel like we can play with anybody.”
The visiting Tigers scored first and held a 14-13 lead when the defense stopped Caldwell on fourth down and goal to go at the one-yard line. Caldwell’s next drive was stopped on an interception by Sean Burke, which he returned past midfield. Quarterback Nick Gagliardi passed to Matt Macaulay for a first down and then placed a perfectly thrown pass to closely guarded Eddie O’Melia in the back right side corner of the end zone with 18 seconds left in the half for a 21-13 lead.
The Hackettstown Tigers never looked back. Their lead extended to 28-13 after Maciak zigged and zagged his way to a pick six, returning an interception 50 yards for a touchdown. The lead was 35-20 following a 63-yard breakaway run for a touchdown by TJ Sciaretta, dashing along the left sideline.
In the fourth period, a sack by Macaulay forced a punt and the Tigers set up shop with advantageous position at midfield. Gagliardi then looked like he was shot out of a cannon when he took the snap and burst straight ahead through a wide opening for a 43-yard touchdown and 41-20 lead.
Maciak’s third interception and the Tigers’ fifth came with 6:31 left to play and every Tiger first down would be big, now, taking precious time off the clock. The coup de grace would be another touchdown by Gagliardi, who ran the triple-option masterfully.
Rootin Tootin Max Newton
Watching the Tigers win in the playoffs with an option offense brought back memories of Rootin Tootin Max Newton at the Hackettstown helm when the Tigers had to go on the road in the 2005 playoffs, capping the coaching career of Art Piancone.
“Before every home game as we walked out of the locker room, we would see (the memorial honoring) Chot Morrison and be reminded of the rich history that Hackettstown football has,” Newton remembered. “We made a pact that we wanted to etch our name into the history books and achieve three goals, win the conference, beat Warren Hills (for the first time in 12 years) and make a run at a state title.” The Tigers achieved all three goals.
When the Tigers made the playoffs as a seventh seed in the section, they had to travel to three-time defending champion West Essex as a major underdog, but Newton said the Tigers adopted a “why not us mentality.”
They played on grass, dirt, and mud in those days (the new field was installed in 2009) and Newton described the experience of stepping onto a turf field for the first time as being “a scene out of Hoosiers.” This writer can relate. Fifty years ago with the Lakewood Piners basketball team, we arrived at palatial Atlantic City Convention Hall to play for the Group 3 basketball title. In my role as the unofficial team humorist, I looked up and said, “how would you like to be the guy who has to go up there to change a lightbulb?”
The Tigers broke the ice at West Essex and scored first, a major confidence builder, as Bryce Chapman took Newton’s perfectly timed option pitch and flew in for a 20-yard touchdown.
The Tigers led by four points into the game’s final minute and faced fourth and two-to-go on their own 12. Piancone decided the smart move would be to take a safety and play defense with better field position. Newton took the snap and took over 10 valuable seconds off the clock by dancing around before getting tackled in the end zone.
After the free kick, Rich Peter covered the curl/flat and quarterback scramble to perfection, while Brandon Bishop was bringing the heat with a relentless pass rush. Three-sport athlete Rob Waldele, the safety, closed off the deep pass routes. It came down to a field goal attempt for West Essex and I’ll always remember an excited Harlin Jeffries, my WRNJ radio broadcast partner in those days, with the call, “WIDE RIGHT, WIDE RIGHT.”
With three seconds left, all the Tigers needed to do, to advance, was go into victory formation and Mighty Max did the honors, taking a knee. Thanks, Max, for sharing those memories.
Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.