PISCATAWAY — With a championship hanging in the balance and a history waiting to be embraced, it was only fitting to have Rumson-Fair Haven’s defense on the field to clinch it all.

An interception by senior Mike O’Connor with 43 seconds left in regulation sealed the Bulldogs’ 27-22 win over South Plainfield in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III championship game on Saturday night at Rutgers University’s High Point Solutions Stadium. The win gave Rumson its fourth straight state title to put them in a select group of three Shore Conference programs to have won four state crowns in a row.

 

 

 

Senior running back Matt Vecchiarelli ran for 196 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries and O’Connor, the Bulldogs’ quarterback, ran for 105 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Rumson’s offensive line paved the way for a whopping 314 yards rushing on 46 attempts.

Senior linebacker Mike Ruane closed out his fantastic career by making a game-high eight tackles with two tackles for a loss and a sack to lead a defense that played outstanding despite allowing 22 points. South Plainfield scored two touchdowns off blocked punts that put the ball inside the Rumson 25-yard line. The Tigers’ gained just 54 yards rushing and finished with 157 total yards.

Rumson beat South Plainfield 27-22 in the Central Jersey Group III championship game to win its fourth straight state title. (Photo by Robert Samuels)

Rumson joins the 2003-2006 Middletown South teams and the 1998-2002 Manasquan teams as the only Shore Conference programs to win four consecutive NJSIAA state sectional championships. The state title is the fifth overall for Rumson, all of which have comes since 2010.

"It's definitely special and it means a lot for all the guys, especially the seniors," Ruane said.  "It came down our will to win and not be denied. It's great, I can't describe it any other way. It's awesome what we've done and that we're in that conversation with the greats."

"It's not something that happens every day," said Rumson head coach Jerry Schulte. "It's a testament to the program we have. It's not just a team, it's a program. The kids find a way to win."

To enter the record book the Bulldogs (9-3) had to rally from a 14-0 deficit in the first half. It all started with a 80-yard touchdown run by Vecchiarelli on the first play following South Plainfield going up two scores.

 

"I think that was the starting point for us coming back," Schulte said. "Once you see that you say, 'ok, we've got this'." From there the Bulldogs defense put the clamps on South Plainfield while the offense chipped away. Entering the third quarter trailing 14-7, Rumson started the second half by driving 59 yards in 10 plays to tie the game at 14. O’Connor had a 27-yard run that moved the ball to the South Plainfield 20-yard line and Vecchiarelli polished off the drive with a two-yard touchdown run.  

After forcing South Plainfield to punt, Rumson took its first lead of the game on a 56-yard touchdown run by Vecchiarelli to go up 20-14 with 18 seconds left in the third quarter.

"We were confident in the locker room at halftime," O'Connor said. "We just had to play our game and good things would happen. We knew we didn't do that in the first half."

"We've been there before," Vecchiarelli said. "We played Somerville (in the semifinals) and were down 13-0. We keep our heads high and just grind it out."

 

A sack by Ruane on third down forced South Plainfield to punt again, and the kick was shanked to give Rumson the ball at the South Plainfield 37-yard line. Senior tight end Colin Pavluk came up with a clutch fumble recovery on a fourth-down run by O’Connor that gave Rumson a first down at the South Plainfield 22-yard line. Four plays later O’Connor broke free for a 17-yard touchdown run to put Rumson up 27-14 with 6:40 left in the game.  

South Plainfield went three-and-out, but the Tigers special teams kept them in the game by blocking their second punt of the game to take over at the Rumson 24-yard line. A hook-and-lateral play for 17 yards moved the ball to the 2-yard line, and Ryan Marston pushed his way into the end zone on a quarterback sneak. The Tigers then pulled off a fake extra point pass for the two-point conversion, and suddenly it was 27-22 with 3:20 left.

A 35-yard run by O’Connor on the first play of the ensuing series put Rumson at the South Plainfield 31-yard line, but the Tigers’ defense rose up to stop O’Connor inches short of a first down on a fourth-down run from the 23-yard line. That gave South Plainfield one last chance to drive for the win, but instead it was O’Connor diving to intercept a pass over the middle to clinch the state championship.

"I'm just playing center field in those situations and was just there at the right time," said O'Connor, who rarely gets plays on the defensive side of the ball. "I thought I got (the first down) and I was pretty pissed when they marked it short. I just wanted to get the ball back."

O'Connor's interception was an apropos way to close out a historic victory for Rumson. Its defense has been front and center for many of the Bulldogs' postseason wins during their run of five titles in seven years, and even its quarterback got involved on that side of the ball.

"I think we're just a relentless defense and offensively we ground and pound," Ruane said. "We have a will not to lose. We set out in the summer and say we're playing in December and we're getting that ring. Tonight we're coming home with our four rings."

 

Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights. 

 

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