End of the Road: Hopewell Valley Ends Ocean’s Unbeaten Run in CJ-III Semifinals
OCEAN — Throughout Ocean’s undefeated run heading into Friday night’s NJSIAA sectional semifinal game, the Spartans had been one of the Shore Conference’s best defensive squads, holding six of their nine opponents to seven points or fewer. Ocean, however, had not faced an offense with the ability to attack it equally on the ground and through the air.
Hopewell Valley was that team.
Behind 172 yards rushing from senior running back Andrew Yuska and 183 yards and two touchdowns from senior quarterback Austin Fellows, the Bulldogs (9-1) came to Carelli Field and stunned the previously unbeaten Spartans, 30-14, in the semifinals of the Central Jersey Group III playoffs. Drew Wiley and Mark Wenner caught touchdown passes, Bryce Caton added a field goal and a defense spearheaded by Matt Graziano and Lane Meyer held Ocean to 110 yards of offense to lead the Bulldogs to their first sectional final in program history.
Cole Mehr comprised nearly all the offense for Ocean (9-1) with 79 yards rushing and a touchdown and an 80-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at the end of the first half. Sophomore running back Tyler Thompson was never allowed to find a rhythm and finished with 43 yards on 14 carries. The Bulldogs gave quarterback Royal Moore no room either, holding the junior to 11 passing yards while sacking him four times.
Hopewell Valley is the fourth Mercer County team to reach a sectional final, according to Bulldogs head coach Dave Caldwell. He also said he believes they are the first Mercer County team to win a playoff game on the road versus a Shore Conference opponent since the 1980s.
“You could tell (on film) they were a complete football team,” Ocean head coach Don Klein said of Hopewell Valley. “Their ability to hurt you on the ground and through the air is pretty balanced and defensively they have guys who can get after you. I knew we were up for a challenge. We felt we were the two best teams in the bracket.”
Hopewell Valley showed it could move the ball effectively on its first drive when it drove the ball from its own 31-yard line across midfield, but an interception by Moore and a return to the Bulldogs’ 33 put Ocean in a spot to take an early lead. The Spartans could only move to the 27, however, and Hopewell took over on downs when Ocean couldn’t convert a fourth-and-15. It took just two plays for Hopewell to make Ocean pay when Wiley got behind the defense and Fellows hit him in stride for a 66-yard touchdown. Bryce Caton’s extra point made it 7-0 with 5:29 left in the first quarter.
Ocean would answer late in the second half to tie the score at seven. After a pass deflection by Mehr stopped Hopewell on fourth down, Ocean took over at its own 40-yard line. Mehr broke a 46-yard run on second down, and a sideline penalty against Hopewell gave the Spartans first-and-goal from the eight. On fourth down from the two-yard line, Mehr took the handoff and scored to knot the score at seven.
With 4:28 left in the half, the Bulldogs went back to work on retaking the lead. Starting from their own 29-yard line, the Bulldogs went 71 yards in eight plays, and scored when Fellows connected with Wenner for a 23-yard touchdown pass on third-and-11. Yuska carried five times for 26 yards on the drive and also caught a screen pass that went for 27 yards. Caton’s extra point gave Hopewell a 14-7 lead with 19.6 seconds left in the half.
“They’re aggressive and geared to stop the run,” Caldwell said of Ocean’s defense. “We’ve been a 50-50 team all year, and we felt if we could protect the quarterback we could pass the ball well.”
The ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, giving Ocean the ball at the 40. The Spartans elected to have the Bulldogs re-kick, and that decision paid off when Mehr fielded the kickoff near the visiting sideline and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown with just 6.8 second remaining. Matt Fisher’s extra point enabled the Spartans to head to the break tied at 14 despite a 2-to-1 yards advantage for Hopewell Valley.
Ocean had the momentum with its late score and receiving the ball to start the second half. Hopewell tried an onside kick that Ocean recovered to give itself good field position at the 45-yard line. But on the second play of the second half, Wenner intercepted Moore and returned it 35 yards to the Ocean 35. That’s where the Bulldogs started their third scoring drive to take the lead for good. It took Hopewell 10 plays to move 35 yards, but they did it by converting a key third-and-11 and later a fourth-and-two that Yuska gained by only the length of one chain link. After converting the fourth-down run, Yuska scored on a run up the middle to give Hopewell a 21-14 lead with 7:47 left in the third quarter.
Ocean would gain just one first down the rest of the way as Hopewell Valley’s defense clamped down. The Spartans turned it over on downs at the Bulldogs’ 33 on their next drive, and a 57-yard run by Yuska set up Caton’s 24-yard field goal that pushed their lead to 24-14 with 2:29 left in the third.
“On offense we moved the ball but would bog down with a penalty or a missed assignment,” Klein said “We didn't play our brand of football. I would have liked to see what we could have accomplished without those mistakes.”
Hopewell would add a late touchdown run by Joe Immordino to make it 30-14 and clinch the Bulldogs’ first trip to a sectional final. This is the first season Hopewell Valley has qualified for the playoffs in program history. The Bulldogs will meet the winner of Saturday’s game between Lawrence and Carteret. If Lawrence wins, the two teams, who also play on Thanksgiving, will play twice in two weeks with the second game being for a state championship.
Ocean was looking to get to its ninth sectional final and first since winning the Central Jersey Group III title in 2005. Ocean won the Shore Conference Class B North division title and closes out its season on Thanksgiving vs. Monmouth Regional.
Central Jersey Group III
Hopewell Valley 30, Ocean 14
Hopewell Valley (9-1) 7 7 10 6 – 30
Ocean (9-1) 0 14 0 0 – 14
HV – Austin Fellows 66-yard pass to Drew Wiley (Bryce Caton kick)
O – Cole Mehr 2-yard run (Matt Fisher kick)
HV – Austin Fellows 23-yard pass to Mark Wenner (Bryce Caton kick)
O – Cole Mehr 80-yard kickoff return (Matt Fisher kick)
HV – Andrew Yuska 5-yard run (Bryce Caton kick)
HV – Bryce Caton 24-yard field goal
HV – Joe Immordino 5-yard run (kick failed)
Rushing – HV: Andrew Yuska 25-172, Joe Immordino 2-7, Mike Gies 3-4, Drew Wiley 1-3, Kyle Horihan 1-1, Austin Fellows 1-(-6); O: Cole Mehr 6-79, Tyler Thompson 14-43, Dan Loizos 1-1, Royal Moore 11-(-24).
Passing – HV: Austin Fellows 8-19-1 183, Mark Wenner 1-1-0 17; O: Royal Moore 2-9-1 11, 0-2-0 0.
Receiving – HV: Drew Wiley 2-74, Mike Gies 4-54, Mark Wenner 2-45, Andrew Yuska 1-27; O: Cole Mehr 1-13, Tyler Thompson 1-(-2).
Interceptions – HV: Mark Wenner 1-35; O: Royal Moore 1-47.