Back in Black: Point Boro throttles Willingboro to win NJSIAA South Jersey Group 2 sectional championship
POINT PLEASANT -- In the wake of Point Boro’s biggest win in 16 years, senior quarterback Charlie Vitale tried to process what he and his teammates had just accomplished. After having nearly all the answers for the 48 minutes on the field, he was finally stumped.
“I’m speechless,” Vitale said. “I mean, this is incredible. There’s nothing like this.”
Since preparation began for the 2021 season last December, Point Boro’s entire program has operated with the singular goal of bringing championship hardware back to The Boro. On Friday night on their home turf of Al Saner Field, the Panthers finally got to hear the five words they’ve worked tirelessly to earn after a championship game.
“Point Boro Football is Back!”
Junior running back and linebacker Tyler Gordon ran for two touchdowns and returned an interception for a touchdown, Vitale had a touchdown pass and a touchdown run, and Point Boro’s defense was sensational to deliver the Panthers a resounding 32-8 victory over Willingboro in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 2 sectional championship game.
It is Point Boro’s fourth sectional title in program history and its first since 2005. The Panthers now advance to the NJSIAA Central/South Regional Championship game where they will face Central Jersey Group 2 champion Haddonfield. Since Haddonfield plays on Thanksgiving, the regional championship game will be played the weekend of Dec. 3 at either Rutgers University or MetLife Stadium.
“From December when we were in the weight room you could tell the atmosphere was different,” said junior linebacker Connor Reynolds. “We knew that we were going to do something special. We got here and we finished the job, and it’s just a great feeling.”
“There’s probably about 150 people on this field right now,” Gordon said in the midst of Point Boro’s fans storming the field. “This isn’t an everyday thing. It’s a great feeling that is going to stay with everyone on this team for the rest of their lives.”
Gordon had touchdown runs of 3 and 8 yards before returning an interception 25 yards for a touchdown with 6:46 left in the game to effectively wrap up the championship. Vitale threw a 68-yard touchdown pass to junior slotback Connor Cilento in the first quarter and ran for an 8-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Point Boro’s defense was magnificent in holding a punishing Willingboro offense to just 106 yards, including 80 yards rushing. Willingboro had 60 yards on its first drive of the game, which resulted in a touchdown and two-point conversion for an 8-0 lead, but after that the Chimeras managed just 46 yards of offense and three first downs. Willingboro boasts a menacing running back in 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior Nasir Abney but the Panthers held him to just 48 yards rushing on 12 carries.
“First off, have to credit our defensive coordinator Shane O’Connor and all our defensive coaches,” Point Boro head coach Brian Staub said. “Next, we have to credit our scout team offense. We preach 1 through 61 day-in, day-out and they’ve done an unbelievable job replicating everyone’s offense. And lastly, it was everyone doing their job, their 1/11th. They’ve been doing it all year.”
From the midway point of the first quarter it was all Point Boro, but -- ironically for a team that runs the triple-option -- it took a huge play in the passing game to get the Panthers going.
Willingboro had stopped Point Boro three-and-out on the game’s opening series and then marched 60 yards to go up 8-0 on a 35-yard touchdown run by Bryson Bright and a 2-point conversion run by Abney. A false start penalty pushed Point Boro back on first down of the ensuing drive and three plays later they faced a third-and-9 from their own 32-yard line. If the Panthers went three-and-out for the second straight series who knows how that could have changed things, but Vitale and Cilento made sure that didn’t happen.
Vitale’s third-down pass down the seam threaded the needle to hit Cilento in stride just before the safety closed on the ball and Cilento did the rest to race to the end zone for a 68-yard touchdown. The extra point missed its mark and Point Boro still trailed 8-6, but it was a game-changing play nonetheless.
“It was ‘sleep’, so that means no play, we’re just trying to get them to jump offsides,” Vitale said. “Coach maybe had some help from the box, we put the play in, and we just executed it.”
“That was obviously big,” Staub said. “They are a very good team, tough, fast, and they were controlling the line of scrimmage a bit. We’ve shown big-play capability all year, Connor Cilento is one of our better playmakers, and Charlie put it right on him.”
“It’s always a momentum boost when you get a big stop or a long touchdown, especially in these types of games,” Gordon said. “You need that momentum.”
Willingboro gained a first down on its next drive and moved to Point Boro’s 47-yard line, but that’s where the Panthers' defense buckled down for its first huge stop of the night. On third-and-4, Abney was stuffed for no gain to bring up fourth down. Willingboro elected to go for it and again handed off to its bruising back, but Point Boro stonewalled him after a three-yard gain to turn the ball over on downs.
From there, Point Boro’s triple-option attack started to find its groove with a little adjustment thrown in. Starting from their own 44-yard line, the combination of Vitale, Gordon, and Croce methodically moved the ball down the field and into the end zone for a 12-8 lead. The 56-yard drive spanned 12 plays, chewed nearly seven minutes off the clock, and ended with Gordon plowing in for a 3-yard touchdown run.
“We kind of simplified it a little and it’s something we’ve had in our back pocket all year,” Staub said. “We went big personnel and we went hard-nosed football; let’s get north instead of a true triple and let’s get three, four, five yards consistently. Willingboro had a good gameplan but we just kept grinding.”
A thunderous sack by Reynolds on Willingboro’s next drive helped force a punt and Point Boro took over at the Chimeras 44-yard line with 3:05 left in the first half. It was clear Vitale had a good read on Willingboro’s defense but with just three minutes left they had to go to the air a bit more. The drive stalled at the 24-yard line and a 41-yard field goal attempt by Brayden Forfar was about a yard short on the final play of the half.
With Willingboro winning the coin toss and deferring its choice to the second half, the Chimeras were set to receive and trailed by just four points. It was still anyone’s game at this point, but once again, Point Boro’s defense showed its teeth.
Willingboro gained one first down on the opening series of the third quarter but was then forced to punt. Point Boro drove to the Willingboro 33-yard line on the next possession but the Chimeras stepped up this time to drop Vitale for no gain on fourth-and-3 to turn the ball over on downs. That could have been the momentum boost Willingboro needed, but the Panthers’ defense responded with a three-and-out to get the ball right back to its offense.
That ended up being the last gasp for Willingboro, which gained just eight yards on 11 plays the rest of the game. Keeping Abney in check forced the Chimeras to the air where quarterback Chris Schoemer was held to 3 of 16 passing for just 26 yards, although he was victimized by a few drops, as well.
“Causing piles was the main thing,” Reynolds said of their plan against Abney. “He’s one hell of a good back and he’s big. The thing we wanted to do was make sure he had nowhere to go. We knew what we needed to do and we played so hard. We were violent, we were aggressive, and we went out there and executed.”
“The plan was to stop 15 (Abney), 5 (Bright), and 6 (Mekhi Gibson),” Reynolds said. “We knew their passing game wasn’t great and they would be run-heavy. We played our gaps, filled hard, and just dominated.”
“Our defense has quietly been one of the best in the Shore and we take great pride in that,” Staub said. “It starts with coach O’Connor just dialing it up. We went with a four-man front for the last two weeks and we have dudes up front. They’re clogging the holes and our linebackers are scraping and filling the allies.”
Point Boro stretched its lead to 19-8 by driving 55 yards in six plays late in the third quarter/early in the fourth quarter. Vitale had runs of 10 and 16 yards, sophomore slotback Matt Oliphant took a screen pass 16 yards, and Gordon surged in for an 8-yard touchdown with 10:22 left in the game.
Trailing by 11 and with Point Boro’s offense draining clock every time it took the field, Willingboro was in desperation mode and decided to go for it on fourth-and-9 from its own 28-yard line. Schoemer’s pass fell incomplete and Point Boro took over eight yards from the red zone. A 15-yard run by Gordon then set up Vitale for an 8-yard touchdown run and a 25-8 advantage with 7:47 left.
The championship vibes were palpable on the Point Boro sideline, but that was nothing compared to the energy 61 seconds later when Gordon delivered the exclamation point.
On second down from the 30-yard line, Gordon perfectly diagnosed a quick wide receiver screen, sprinted up from his linebacker position, and intercepted the pass for a 25-yard pick-6 that gave the Panthers a 32-8 lead and sent the sideline and the crowd into a frenzy.
“We had a plan to stop (Gibson) and when he lined up outside I thought it was going to be some type of screen,” Gordon said. “We hadn’t seen them in quads and I knew something funky was up. I’m pretty sure the play before they were going to run it but something happened (Schoemer fumbled the snap). On the next play as soon as I saw the quarterback turn I knew it was going that way.”
“That was the nail in the coffin and I’m so happy it was Tyler Gordon,” Staub said. “He’s one of our better football players and he doesn’t get as much recognition as he deserves. He had a special night and I’m so proud of him.”
The only thing left from there was the celebration. Willingboro took a knee from its 15-yard line with 35 seconds left and that did it. After three straight sub-.500 seasons, Point Boro is a state sectional champion once again.
“We knew what we had coming up and at the end of last year we challenged every underclassman; are you ready to go on a relentless pursuit day-in and day-out, attack the weight room, eat the right foods, do everything you can? They brought it every single day.”
It all came together on a memorable night on a field named after the man who put Point Boro football on the map with its first two sectional titles. There’s something special about small-town football and Friday night was a perfect example.
“It’s a special community, so tight-knit,” Staub said. “We were so angry and upset the last couple years because we weren’t living up to their standards and expectations, and we want them to have high expectations. This win is for the entire Point Pleasant community. We’re going to enjoy this but we’re looking forward to another game in two weeks.”
“There’s nothing like winning a state championship on your home turf with all your brothers, with all your family and the whole community coming to the field to watch us win,” Vitale said. “This is amazing,”
Point Boro vs. Willingboro in the South Jersey Group 2 Championship Game
Point Boro 32, Willingboro 8
|Point Boro (10-1)
W – Bryson Bright 35-yard run (Nasir Abney run)
PB – Connor Cilento 68-yard pass from Charlie Vitale (kick failed)
PB – Tyler Gordon 3-yard run (pass failed)
PB – Tyler Gordon 8-yard run (Brayden Forfar kick)
PB – Charlie Vitale 8-yard run (kick failed)
PB – Tyler Gordon 25-yard interception return (Brayden Forfar kick)
RUSHING – W: Nasir Abney 12-48, Bryson Bright 5-39, Mekhi Gibson 1-1, Chris Schoemer 3-(8); PB: Jake Croce 16-75, Charlie Vitale 16-68, Tyler Gordon 6-32, Connor Cilento 4-16, Matt Oliphant 1-11.
PASSING – W: Chris Schoemer 3-16-1, 26; PB: Charlie Vitale 4-5-0, 103; Matt Oliphant 0-1-0, 0.
RECEIVING – W: Mekhi Gibson 2-16, Nasir Abney 1-10; PB: Connor Cilento 2-82, Matt Oliphant 1-16, Jake Croce 1-5.
INTERCEPTIONS – PB: Tyler Gordon 1-25.