Home Cook-ing: Danny Cook’s Clutch Interception Sends Rumson-FH to the Group 2 Final
RUMSON – Senior Danny Cook entered Friday night’s NJSIAA Group 2 semifinal as a sparingly-used backup for Rumson-Fair Haven who nearly quit the team this season.
He exited it as a Bulldogs folk hero.
The senior cornerback tipped a pass and then came down with an interception in the back of the end zone with 49 seconds remaining to seal a heart-stopping, 35-28 win over Willingboro at Borden Stadium in an instant classic.
“I didn't get a lot of playing time the whole season until this game, but I knew the whole game, they were planning on me going in,” Cook said. “And the whole game I said, 'I go in, I get a pick.'
“I knew (Willingboro) was going to test me. I'm the new kid out there. Big mistake.”
It was Cook’s first career interception, and it came off one of the best quarterbacks in New Jersey in Willingboro sophomore Lamar Best. His heroics sealed a second straight trip to the Group 2 final for the Bulldogs (8-4), who will face undefeated Westwood in the championship game at 5 p.m. on Nov. 27 at SHI Stadium at Rutgers University.
“It's one of those things as a coach that gets you choked up talking about a kid like Danny Cook,” Rumson head coach Jeremy Schulte said. “He's one of those kids that at any point during the year, he could have quit. I wouldn't have been happy about it, I know our other coaches wouldn't have been happy about it, but we kind of would've understood because we knew he wasn't getting the playing time that he wanted. But he never once quit.
“I don't think he's missed a practice all year. He's at every film session, every lift. He's just a team-first guy. Making a play like that just exemplifies the entire program. Just watching everybody go ballistic when he caught that pass just showed how much they love him. I'm so, so proud of that kid right now.”
Cook was the last of numerous heroes on Friday night for Rumson, which beat the Chimeras (10-3) in the Group 2 semifinals for the second straight season. They withstood the onslaught from Best, who finished with 253 yards of total offense, ran for three touchdowns and threw for another.
It also marked the second straight game that Rumson has made the game-winning play on defense inside the final two minutes after getting a fourth-and-goal stop to beat Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 final last week.
Cook made sure the Bulldogs had the final say on Friday night by coming up with their second turnover of the game.
“It's hard to put into words,” senior wide receiver Nick Rigby said about Cook’s interception. “He's always been a great player, No. 15. He just waited for his moment, and there it was, man. Unbelievable play.”
Rumson took a 35-28 lead on a seven-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Kellen Murray before Willingboro blocked the extra point with 2:47 left in the game. Senior running back Alastair Orr, who finished with 133 yards rushing on 20 carries, ran for 50 yards on six carries to spearhead the 8-play, 82-yard drive that extended the Bulldogs' lead to seven.
“I think we just trusted what was working, and I was just happy I was in a position to make plays,” Orr said.
Best and the potent Willingboro offense then drove to Rumson’s 14-yard line in six plays, putting them right at the doorstep down by seven. It looked like the game might come down to a 2-point conversion attempt because Willingboro does not have a kicker and goes for two after every score.
Best threw an incompletion on first down and then whipped a pass intended for sophomore standout Terrance Knighton. Cook smacked it up into the air and then dove to secure the interception.
“I tipped it, saw it up there, was really close to being out (of bounds) and almost dropped it,” Cook said. “I one hundred percent caught it. I'm just so happy.”
Cook received the most playing time of any game this season because he was on the field in Rumson’s nickel and dime packages against Willingboro’s prolific passing attack. He has seen time at outside linebacker, safety and cornerback.
His final play capped a seesaw game in which neither team led by more than eight points.
The Bulldogs struck first with a six-play, 41-yard drive that ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Owen O’Toole to senior tight end Jackson Gallagher for Gallagher’s sixth touchdown in four playoff games. O’Toole was an efficient 16-for-21 for 159 yards passing in the win, throwing a touchdown pass and running for another score.
Willingboro answered with a 12-play, 66-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard run by Best, who finished with more than 3,000 yards of total offense this season. The Chimeras’ two-point conversion attempt was no good, keeping Rumson’s lead at 7-6 with 2:58 left in the first quarter.
The visitors then took the lead with a monster 16-play, 88-yard drive in which they converted three third downs and a fourth down. Best fired a 10-yard touchdown pass to junior wideout Jarelle Taylor and then found senior Damar Jackson for a two-point conversion pass for a 14-7 lead with 5:14 left in the second quarter.
Willingboro had a chance to build on the lead with another possession, but a sack by Rumson junior linebacker Austin Kiernan on third down killed the drive. The Chimeras had been 6-for-7 on third downs and 1-for-1 on fourth down before the Bulldogs finally got them off the field.
The offense responded by going 49 yards in six plays to score on a five-yard run by Orr. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty backed the extra point up, but Rumson senior kicker Ryan Child booted a 35-yard PAT to send it into halftime tied at 14.
Willingboro took the lead back with a five-play, 58-yard drive to start the second half. Best ripped off a 30-yard touchdown run and then found Knighton with a 2-point conversion pass to put Rumson in a 22-14 hole.
The teams traded possessions, and then Rumson’s offense came alive. The Bulldogs started running the no-huddle at warp speed, snapping the ball almost an instant after the officials were spotting it.
They went 69 yards in nine plays, with O’Toole going 4-for-4 passing for 37 yards on the drive and Orr running for 31 yards. Rumson was having success gashing them with runs up the middle because the Chimeras often couldn’t substitute their bigger run stuffers in time since the Bulldogs were getting to the line so quickly and snapping the ball.
“Our coaches saw the weaknesses in two-minute (offense),” said Rigby, who had 5 catches for 65 yards. "They were having trouble getting set, so the run and the pass were just doing extremely well.”
“We knew that it was just going to be tough to change their personnel, and we were getting good matchups that we wanted,” Schulte said.
O’Toole scored on a 1-yard keeper and then found Rigby, who dotted his feet in the corner of the end zone for a clutch two-point conversion catch to tie the game at 22 with 4:32 left in the third quarter.
The resilient Chimeras once again had an answer, driving 59 yards in 11 plays to take a 28-22 lead when Best scored on a 1-yard keeper with 11:56 left in the game. Rumson got the stop on the two-point conversion, which was run from the 18-yard line because Willingboro was called for unsportsmanlike conduct following Best’s touchdown.
Rumson counterpunched with an eight-play, 67-yard drive that culminated in a six-yard touchdown run for Orr. The crucial play came when O’Toole hit senior wideout Matteo Gangemi for a sliding 13-yard catch on fourth-and-5 from Willingboro’s 47-yard line to keep the drive alive. O’Toole only threw two incompletions on 11 attempts in the second half.
Child then added the extra point for a 29-28 advantage with 9:46 left in the fourth quarter.
In a game where neither team had blinked the whole night, the Bulldogs came up with a crucial turnover on the Chimeras’ ensuing possession. Junior defensive back Cole Pangborn punched the ball loose from Willingboro running back Ray’mir Johnson, and the fumble was recovered by Rumson senior defensive back Wesley Kennedy at the Bulldogs’ 18-yard line with 7:48 left in the game.
“We knew if we could steal a possession here or there, we would be in good shape,” Schulte said.
Those long drives by Willingboro in the first half turned out to be a blessing in disguise because they kept Rumson’s offensive line fresh for the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs went to work with Orr on the ground to take the lead. The senior had 101 yards rushing in the second half as Rumson wore the Chimeras down.
It all set the stage for Cook’s storybook finish.
“It feels so good,” Cook said. “I've been waiting all year. I thought about quitting a couple times, but I got playing time at a couple other positions, and I was just having fun out there with my friends. Honestly, when it starts getting cold you think about (quitting), but it's my brothers. I would never quit on them.”
Rumson will now attempt to win its first Group 2 title in the second year since the NJSIAA expanded the playoffs to allow public schools to play for overall Group titles. They have been waiting a year for another chance after losing 18-14 to undefeated Caldwell in last season's championship game.
"It means everything," Orr said. "This team wants a chance to make history. We're such a successful program, that we want to make our mark as a class, Class of 2024, and being able to make history with winning a sectional title on our home field and then now being able to be potentially the second Group 2 state champion ever."
They will try to take down another unbeaten team this year in Westwood.
“We got a taste of it last year,” Cook said. “Now we want the whole thing.”
Rumson-FH 35, Willingboro 28
. R W
First downs 20 21
Rushes-yards 30-160 39-185
Passing 16-21-0 17-28-1
Passing yards 159 181
Penalties 3-38 5-35
Fumbles-lost 0-0 3-1
Willingboro (10-3) 6 8 8 6 – 28
Rumson-FH (8-4) 7 7 8 13 – 35
R: Gallagher 16-yard pass from O’Toole (Child kick).
W: Best 4-yard run (run failed).
W: Taylor 10-yard pass from Best (Jackson pass from Best).
R: Orr 5-yard run (Child kick).
W: Best 30-yard run (Knighton pass from Best).
R: O’Toole 1-yard run (Rigby pass from O’Toole).
W: Best 1-yard run (pass failed).
R: Orr 6-yard run (Child kick).
R: Murray 7-yard run (kick blocked).
Rushing – R: Kolb 2-17, O’Toole 4-1, Orr 20-133, Murray 4-9. W: Cottle 13-65, Johnson 9-43, Best 16-72, Danar 1-5.
Passing – R: O’Toole 16-21-0 159. W: Best 17-28-1 181.
Receiving – R: Gallagher 3-24, Murray 1-4, Rigby 5-65, Trinder 1-12, Orr 2-19, Gangemi 3-32, Kolb 1-3. W: Bryant 3-17, Knighton 4-37, Jackson 4-56, Taylor 5-55, Yankson 1-16.
Interceptions – R: Cook 1-0.