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By Scott Stump -- Shore Sports Network Contributor

HAZLET – When everyone else on the rollercoaster is screaming, this year’s Raritan football team is smiling.

The top-seeded Rockets were once again right at home in the chaos of another wild ride, this time in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 2 semifinals against fourth-seeded Hillside on Friday night. They watched a 21-point advantage evaporate, took the lead back, then gave up the game-tying touchdown before scoring with 56 seconds left in regulation to get the home stands shaking.

The heart palpitations didn’t end there, as the defense had to come up with one final stop by batting down a pass at Raritan’s 3-yard line on the final play of the game to seal a thrilling 41-34 win that sent the Rockets to their first sectional final since winning the Central Jersey Group II crown in 2015.

“When we did get down and they tied it up, we kept our heads up and we got it back,” said senior slotback Joe Campanella, who scored the game-winning touchdown.

“We’ve had a lot of practice going with the ups and downs this season,” Raritan head coach Anthony Petruzzi said. “We’ve had those type of runs before where the offense has been hot and then we let some points go and let teams back in, and what has happened is the offense has always come back and given us a score and given us some confidence, and then the defense has been making some stops when they need to.”

Photo by Joseph Szutyanyi.
Raritan's Joe Campanella scores the go-ahead touchdown with 56 seconds left. (Photo by Joseph Szutyanyi.)

Raritan (6-4) will now host third-seeded Haddonfield (8-2) in the championship game next Friday at 7 p.m. at Joseph J. DeVirgilio Field in search of its third sectional title in program history and first in six years.

They appeared well on their way to a romp to the championship game after bolting out to a 21-0 lead over the Comets (7-3) on Friday night only 7:58 into the game, but Hillside was not going down that easily.

Raritan scored on a 44-yard run by Campanella off a pitch from senior quarterback Ben Hutchins on the opening drive of the game, and then Campanella intercepted a pass on defense and returned it 40 yards to Hillside’s 20-yard line on the Comets’ first possession. A 22-yard run by Hutchins in which he hurdled a defender then set up the first of junior running back Kieran Falzon’s three touchdowns, a 1-yard run for a 14-0 lead with 7:35 left in the first quarter.

The lead grew to 21-0 when Hutchins took off for a 72-yard touchdown run, but Hillside broke the ice with a big play of its own to start its comeback. Junior running back Kyon Simonson took off for a 46-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 21-7, all still in the first quarter.

Raritan answered with Falzon’s second touchdown of the night, a 9-yard scamper to the corner of the end zone for a 27-7 lead with 10:32 left in the first half before a failed extra point. Another explosive play kept Hillside in striking distance, as junior running back Muwaffaq Parkman shook off a pair of tacklers and raced 39 yards for a score to cut it to 27-14 barely a minute after Raritan’s touchdown.

Photo by Joseph Szutyanyi.
Raritan junior running back Kieran Falzon had three touchdowns in the win over Hillside. (Photo by Joseph Szutyanyi.)

Yet another big running play helped the Comets draw within 27-20 at halftime when junior quarterback Caleb Salters broke off a 51-yard touchdown run.

“That’s a great team, and you’re not going to hold them down,” Petruzzi said. “Our talk on the sideline in that first quarter was these guys aren’t going away. They’re too good of a program, too good of a team. It’s only a matter of time before they punch back, but we got the last one at the end.”

Hillside scored on the opening possession of the third quarter to complete its climb out of a 21-point hole and tie the game at 27 when Simonson ripped off a 40-yard run for his second touchdown of the game with 8:31 left in the third quarter.

Once again, Raritan’s offense had an answer with a drive that included a pair of clutch fourth-down conversions on passes by Hutchins to wideouts Rob Scarola and Joe Murphy. That set up Falzon’s 15-yard touchdown run that swung the momentum back in the home team’s favor to make it 34-27 with 2:28 left in the third quarter.

Photo by Joseph Szutyanyi.
Raritan senior quarterback Ben Hutchins. (Photo by Joseph Szutyanyi.)

The Rockets then came up with a huge stop on fourth down at their own 16-yard line on the Comets’ ensuing drive, but Hillside then forced a punt with 3:45 left in the game. It was enough time for Hillside to tie it on Simonson’s third touchdown of the game, a 7-yarder with 2:55 left in regulation.

That’s when the Rockets showed what type of team they are when the stakes are the highest.

“They’ve shown us a lot of moments coming back and being able to pick themselves off the ground,” Petruzzi said. “They’ve got the warriors’ creed. If they get knocked down nine times, they’re gonna get up nine times.”

They caught a break when Hillside flubbed the ensuing kickoff, resulting in Raritan getting the ball at the Comets’ 41-yard line to start what proved to be the game-winning drive. Once they were in the red zone, they turned to Campanella, who has remained a playmaker despite playing with a cast on his broken left hand.

“It’s funny because he’s mild-mannered, but he’s one of the toughest kids you’ll ever meet, and just playing with a broken hand and being out there with a club and still being able to do all the things that he does offensively and defensively, it’s special what he does for his teammates,” Petruzzi said.

Raritan dialed up a counter play and Campanella took it to the house for a 17-yard score to draw a roar from the home crowd.

“That was a play we practiced all week - counter right,” Campanella said. “I saw the block from my receiver Robby Scarola, I made the one cut inside, and in that moment in my mind, I said, ‘I’m not getting tackled.’”

However, there were still 56 seconds remaining, which was enough time for Hillside’s explosive offense to put a scare into the Rockets.

“I felt like it was not totally over, but our secondary had been practicing for something like this all week,” Campanella said. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight.”

The old cliche that it’s a game of inches came into play at the end when the Rockets broke up a pass just a handful of yards from the end zone.

“We got our six more inches than them,” Falzon said.

A program that is used to being the scrappy underdog has found itself in an unfamiliar position as the No. 1 seed in this postseason, but the Rockets have still played like they have something to prove after entering the playoffs off a 4-4 regular season.

“Everybody is doubting us,” Campanella said. “Everybody is making it out like we shouldn’t be the one seed. We’re showing everybody why we’re the No. 1 seed.”


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