EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –
When the Wayne Hills (Wayne, N.J.)
football team sprinted out of the MetLife Stadium tunnel Saturday night, a chorus of boos rained over the Patriots. Just as the courts and chat-room posts had in the days and weeks building up to their latest state title quest, public opinion ruled against the perennial New Jersey prep power.
This made the end result all the more satisfying for Jeff Gignac
, who made no effort suppress his satisfaction while clutching Wayne Hills' latest state-title trophy. After all, his 25-yard scoring catch over Devin Fuller
, the state's top player, with 3:09 left lifted the Patriots to an unlikely 15-12 victory over Northern Valley (Old Tappan)
to win their seventh NJSIAA North 1, Group 3 championship in eight seasons.
"We knew we had more to prove," said Gignac, who caught eight passes for 140 yards. "Most of the people felt we couldn't win this game because we didn't have nine players. And that's what we did – we won it."
Before Saturday night, all the talk about Wayne Hills (11-1) centered around nine players being suspended for their alleged roles in an Oct. 29 incident in which they were charged with aggravated assault against two students from crosstown rival Wayne Valley High School. This unquestionably explained the pre-game booing – and also perhaps why several fans filed in behind the Old Tappan (7-5) bench and cheered the Golden Knights.
Since news of the incident broke, longtime Patriots head coach Chris Olsen closed ranks around his team while bracing them for a role they have rarely faced over the past decade: underdog.
"Their attitude, their eagerness to want to do well and practice hard makes you think as a coach, 'Hey, what the hell are you feeling bad about? You've got 60 kids out there that are dying to work. Let's go, man, let's stop feeling sorry for ourselves and let's go,'" Olsen said.
Before the Patriots rallied, though, Old Tappan set up their comeback by controlling the first half. Fuller rushed for 104 of his 186 yards in the first half, scoring on electrifying runs of 18 and 7 yards, respectively, as the Golden Knights took a 12-0 lead into the locker room.
Meanwhile, the Patriots sputtered on each of their first-half possessions, prompting Kevin Olsen
, Wayne Hills' junior quarterback and the coach's son, to think aloud that, "We knew that our offense had to put up some points."
After the Patriots' defense stopped Fuller (10-for-13, 141 yards, 2 interceptions) and the Golden Knight offense to start the second half, the junior directed an 86-yard drive that ended with Gignac scoring on a 4-yard reverse that pulled the embattled, but suddenly emboldened, squad within 12-7.
Then the Patriots' defense made Fuller look vulnerable in the second half, forcing him to fumble twice and throw a last-second interception. However, the senior helped lead the Golden Knights into the red zone, connecting with Zachary Frohlich for a 14-yard gain before the Wayne Hills defense dislodged the ball near the Old Tappan sideline and senior Erik Moskal scooped it up.
Ten plays later, Kevin Olsen rolled left and found Gignac in the left corner of the end zone, heaving up a pass that saw the senior receiver snare the ball before Fuller could turn around for what ultimately proved to be the game-winning score. A two-point conversion pass from Olsen to Mike Guarino made it 15-12 with 3:05 remaining.
This gave Fuller time to engineer some last-minute magic – just as he did a year ago at MetLife Stadium, leading Old Tappan back from 14 points down before Wayne Hills won, 24-21, on a play known in these parts as the "Holy Lateral."
A comeback was not in the cards, however, as Fuller was drilled by senior Dom Santoro
. Moskal found himself in position once again to pounce upon the loose ball, ultimately securing perhaps the most unlikely championship of the Patriots' current dynasty.
"This is the best one so far," Moskal said. "We defied the odds, came together as a family. Just an amazing feeling. Unbelievable."