RUMSON – The Matawan football team – the No. 5 seed and defending NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III champion – knew first-hand that it would take a total commitment to contain top-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven’s running game when the two defending NJSIAA sectional champions met in the Central Jersey Group III semifinals Friday at Borden Stadium.

With all that attention focused on stopping junior quarterback Michael O’Connor and the Bulldogs rushing attack, O’Connor made the Huskies pay in the air when it counted.

O’Connor threw for two touchdowns and accounted for 189 total yards (117 passing, 72 rushing) to help lead the Bulldogs past the Huskies, 24-13, for the second time this season and into their third straight sectional final appearance. Rumson – the defending Central Jersey Group II champion now playing in CJ II – will play unbeaten Red Bank Regional in a championship version of the “Battle of Ridge Road” rivalry in the Central Jersey Group III final.

“Our line did a great job controlling them when they had eight or nine guys in the box,” O’Connor said. “After that it was all about execution and we executed pretty well tonight.”

Rumson quarterback Michael O'Connor accounted for 189 total yards to help lead the Bulldogs to a win over Matawan on Friday. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Rumson quarterback Michael O'Connor accounted for 189 total yards to help lead the Bulldogs to a win over Matawan on Friday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

After Matawan cut Rumson’s lead to 17-7 with five minutes left in the third quarter, the Bulldogs were faced with a third-and-seven from the Matawan 40 yard-line as the game moved from the third quarter into the fourth. On the first play of the final quarter, Rumson coach Bryan Batchler put the ball in the hands of his junior signal caller and let him air it out.

“I wanted to be aggressive,” Batchler said. “We had the ball at the 40, I’m willing to punt if we have to. We all liked the play and (O’Connor) made us look good. Good athletes make the coaches look good.”

O’Connor put a major dent in Matawan’s chances by hitting junior running back Bryan Hess out of the backfield for 33 yards all the way down to the Huskies seven yard-line. O’Connor capped the drive by connecting with Hess for a four-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal with 9:56 left, the second of his two touchdown passes in the game.

“We saw they were loading the box,” O’Connor said. “The offensive line gave me time to see the field and the guys did a good job running their routes and giving me a chance to make the throws.”

O’Connor hit junior running back Matt Vecchiarelli for a nine-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-2 to open the scoring in the first quarter after he busted a 41-yard run to advance the ball to the Matawan 30 yard-line.

Hess finished with 122 total yards, 68 of which came on a run down to the Matawan two yard-line that set up the Bulldogs’ second touchdown. Junior fullback Mike Ruane pounded the ball into the end zone on the ensuing play and gave Rumson a 14-0 lead after Thomas Chapin’s extra point with 7:52 left in the second quarter.

Chapin also drilled a 23-yard field goal to put Rumson ahead 17-0 with 7:30 left in the third quarter. O’Connor hit senior wideout John Kingdon up the seam for 56 yards to set Rumson up at the Matawan seven. O’Connor finished 6-for-9 through the air.

Rumson wen 4-for-9 on third down conversions, but was 2-for-2 on fourth down plays – both of which came on the opening drive. The second of those fourth down plays was Vecchiarelli’s touchdown catch to cap the 11-play, 72-yard march down the field.

Vecchiarelli also chipped in 62 rushing yards on 20 carries as the Bulldogs rolled up 221 yards on the ground on 41 attempts.

“In order to defend the run against those guys, you’ve got to pack the box,” Matawan coach John Kaye said. “You’re taking some chances on the perimeter and their quarterback’s a heck of a football player. Not only does he beat you with his feet and his upper body strength but he beats you with his arm too. Those were two good quarterbacks on the field today.”

Matawan sophomore quarterback George Pearson went 10-for-17 for 178 yards through the air in his first action against Rumson this season. Pearson was injured for the first meeting between the Shore Conference Class A Central foes, which Rumson won 12-0.

“They ran that read-option the first time but we knew we’d see a different look today,” senior linebacker Max Pfrang said. “Pearson’s got a cannon for an arm, so we knew he was going to come out throwing. We were in a zone and they were just finding the pockets in there until we started to close on their receivers and knock the ball down.”

Pearson hit wide receiver Alex Pierce for a 61-yard touchdown pass up the left sideline that cut Rumson’s lead to 24-13 with 2:53 left. Pierce also had a 36-yard catch on a jump-ball earlier in the game and finished with three catches for 102 yards.

“We didn’t want to give up big plays in this game and we ended up giving up two big plays and it happens,” Batchler said. “The kid scrambled and made a play with his feet. We tried taking a lineman out and playing with an extra defensive back on the field and my kid was in quarters (coverage) and he just kind of let him go. That happens – you make mistakes and good teams make you pay. We’ll fix it for the final.”

“Our big thing is we’re not going to let you beat us with stupid hitches and corner routes,” Pfrang said. “We’re going to tackle you after you catch the ball and we’re going to make you pay for throwing it.”

Pearson connected on his first four pass attempts and went 6-for-7 to start the game before the Bulldogs began to get to him in the backfield and force incompletions on five of his next six passes. While Rumson’s defense allowed nearly 200 yards in the air and 103 combined rushing yards for Wiley and Makiya Caeser, it also sacked Pearson five times for a net loss of 36 yards and won the turnover margin 1-0. Griffin Shultz picked off a halfback pass by Caeser with 1:06 left in the second quarter and Matawan threatening with a second-and-seven on its own 43.

The Huskies drove deep into Rumson territory on each of their first two drives but could not come away with points in either. Pearson attempted to scramble for a first down on a fourth-and-two from the Bulldogs 30 but came up a yards short to end the first drive of the game.

Matawan elected to try a 28-yard field goal after stalling out on the Rumson 11 in the second quarter, but Adam Elliot pushed the kick wide right. On that drive Matawan benefitted from a third-down pass interference penalty that pushed the ball to inside the five yard-line, but Pearson took a sack after fumbling the snap, which set the ball up at the 11.

“We moved the ball pretty well in the first half, but we couldn’t get points,” Matawan coach John Kaye said. “When it came down to those plays on third down and fourth down, they came up with some plays and we didn’t. They are a strong group of kids and that time in the weight room showed tonight.”

Huskies running back Derrick Wiley carried 13 times for 80 yards to lead the Matawan rushing attack. Wide receiver Isaiah Phillip put Matawan on the board in the third quarter with a 15-yard touchdown run that cut Rumson’s lead to 17-7 with 5:00 left in the third.

A shoulder injury to wide receiver Shawn Ramcheran – who finished with six catches for 75 yards – also impacted the Huskies in the final minutes of the game. After Rumson scored to go up 24-7, Matawan faced a fourth-and-seven from its own 43 inside of seven minutes left and elected to punt the ball with its top possession receiver ailing.

“Shawn Ramcheran was in and out of the game at that point and with him on the sideline for that play, I felt like we had a better shot if we punted it away and got the ball back,” Kaye said. “At that point, we figured they’d play conservative and we could at least force them to punt and get the ball with good field position and that’s what happened and we ended up scoring. We missed a field goal earlier in the game and then we missed an extra point: That’s four points we left on the board that would have made it a one-score game in that situation.”

Rumson’s win over Matawan was the third playoff meeting between the two teams since 2010, when the Bulldogs beat the Huskies in the Central Jersey Group II final to capture their first even sectional championship.

The following year, Matawan beat Rumson 3-0 in the championship game – which turned out to be the last time the two would meet until this season. The NJSIAA created an extra group for the 2012 season, which bumped Matawan up to Group III, while Rumson remained in Group III this season. The split allowed the two to both win sectional championships last year, Matawan in Central Jersey III and Rumson in Central Jersey II.

The Central Jersey Group III championship game will feature a revitalization of the Red Bank-vs.-Rumson rivalry, two schools separated by fewer than three miles on Ridge Road in Little Silver and Rumson. Red Bank is in the midst of its best season in 40 years and could become the first 12-0 team in school history by beating the Bulldogs in two weeks.

Rumson will first play Shore Regional – which also qualified for its sectional final in Central Jersey Group I with a win on Friday – in a Thanksgiving rivalry game before turning its undivided attention to spoiling Red Bank’s bid for a potential perfect season and winning a third straight sectional title and fourth in six years.

“I’m a little excited to be honest,” Pfrang said. “I haven’t played them since my sophomore year and that was a big game for me. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a good game.”

“It’s the Battle of Ridge Road,” O’Connor said. “That’s all there is to say. I’m looking forward to it.”


Box Score

Rumson-Fair Haven 24, Matawan 13

First Downs1415
Passing Yards178117


Matawan (7-4)007613
Rumson-FH (9-1)773724


Scoring Summary

R: Matt Vecchiarelli 9-yard pass from Michael O’Connor (Thomas Chapin kick)

R: Mike Ruane 2-yard run (Chapin kick)

R: Chapin 23-yard field goal

M: Isaiah Phillip 15-yard run (Adam Elliot kick)

R: Bryan Hess 4-yard pass from O’Connor (Chapin kick

M: Alex Pierce 61-yard pass from George Pierson (kick missed)


Individual Statistics

Rushing: (M) Derrick Wiley 13-80, Makiya Caeser 6-23, George Pearson 7-(-34), Isaiah Phillip 2-16; (RFH) Michael O’Connor 14-72, Bryan Hess 6-85, Matt Vecchiarelli 20-62, Mike Ruane 1-2

Passing: (M) George Pearson 10-17-178-0, Makiya Caeser 0-1-0-1; (RFH) Michael O’Connor 6-9-117-0

Receiving: (M) Shawn Ramcheran 6-75, Alex Pierce 3-102, Isaiah Phillip 1-3; (RFH) Bryan Hess 2-37, John Kingdon 2-61, Matt Vecchiarelli 2-16

Interceptions-Yards: (RFH) Griffin Schultz 1-0

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