POINT PLEASANT BORO – After three straight wins to start the season, Raritan had the look of a team that would be a threat come state playoff time.

Instead, the Rockets’ season teetered over the abyss when that strong beginning melted into a five-game losing streak, leaving Friday night’s NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II quarterfinal at Al Saner Field as their last chance to make something of a season that once held so much promise. The sixth-seeded Rockets did not squander their opportunity, rising from the grave on Friday the 13th like Jason Voorhees himself as they avenged a regular-season loss to third-seeded Point Boro with a 17-7 victory that marked their first state playoff win since 2009.

It may not be the way they originally expected to get here, but the Rockets (4-5) are now one win away from reaching their first state final since 2006. They will travel to face second-seeded Delaware Valley in the semifinals next Friday.

“It says a lot about their character and their belief in the coaches, the plan and each other,'' said sixth-year head coach Anthony Petruzzi, who picked up his first career playoff win. "I'm proud of their effort. This is a place we expected to be when the season started. We're excited about the opportunity, and we're going to make the most of it.”

Raritan entered the game off a 30-21 loss to non-playoff qualifier Monmouth Regional, but a stellar defensive effort helped them right the ship while also avenging a 33-27 loss to the Class B South co-champions from the regular season.

“You wouldn't think that we'd come back from five losses in a row after we started the season 3-0,’’ said junior defensive end Sean Agar. “You'd think we'd be down, but we're not. We've just fought through everything. We kept going, and now look what we did.”

“We keep fighting,’’ said senior running back Derek Ernst, who ran for 122 yards on 27 carries. “We wanted to come out here and prove to everybody that we're still here. We're not done.”

Raritan never trailed in the game, persevering through a slow start offensively while bottling up Point Boro’s triple-option attack and quarterback Noah Husak in a dramatic reversal from the first meeting between the two teams. The defense set the tone when it stopped fullback Nate Husak on third-and-4 from the 5-yard line in the first quarter, resulting in a missed field goal attempt after the Panthers (8-2) were hit with a personal foul.

“We played with an edge,’’ Agar said. “Last time we didn't play with an edge.”

The Rockets only managed 37 yards of total offense before putting together a key drive shortly before the half. They drove 87 yards in only five plays, fueled by a 31-yard run by Ernst, who had been held to nine yards on 10 carries up to that point. Junior quarterback Marc Carnivale found senior wide receiver Jordan Smith for a 38-yard touchdown strike with only eight seconds left in the half to give Raritan a 7-0 lead at the break.

“The safety came down on (tight end) Mason (Sheehan) and Jordan was just wide open,’’ Carnivale said.

Point Boro came out strong in the second half, taking the opening kickoff and marching 64 yards in 12 plays to tie the game on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Noah Husak with 6:31 left in the period. The Panthers kept the momentum going when they recovered a fumble by Carnivale on Raritan’s ensuing possession, but the Rockets’ defense was up to the challenge.

Smith nailed slotback Devin Connelly for a six-yard loss on an option pitch at Raritan’s 29-yard line, followed by a sack by defensive tackle Paul Bavaro and then an incompletion on third down to kill the threat. The Rockets responded with their second scoring drive of the game, going 74 yards in just five plays, keyed by a 37-yard strike from Carnivale to senior wideout Nick Pasquin and a 21-yard run by Ernst in which he carried nearly Point Boro’s entire defense to the 4-yard line.

Carnivale capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run for a 14-7 lead with 32 seconds left in the quarter. Raritan’s defense went to work from there, led by Agar and junior linebacker Ryan Dickens, who was outstanding with 15 tackles, including three for a loss or no gain. The defense held Husak, who went over 100 yards in their first meeting, to 63 yards on 24 carries while also sacking him three times.

“Facing that (option) offense really makes you play team defense,’’ Dickens said. “We didn't realize how important everyone's role was on defense the first time we played them. Our D-line played lights out, our linebackers really stepped up to the plate, and we were just really excited to face them again. They ran a lot of midline (option), and we knew it could hurt us, but we were able to adjust to it and make some plays.”

“Seeing it one time before definitely helped,’’ Petruzzi said. “The defense knew their responsibilities, Coach Principe (defensive coordinator John Principe) made adjustments and did a great job, and we had an excellent week of practice. We felt pretty confident we were going to be able to stop it.”

Raritan came up with a stop with 8:16 left in the game as Agar forced an intentional grounding call and Dickens had a tackle for no gain to stall Point Boro. Raritan then mounted the decisive march by driving 40 yards to Point Boro’s 7-yard line. Freshman Gavin Toth nailed the biggest kick of his young career with a 23-yard field goal to make it a two-possession game at 17-7 with 3:08 remaining.

Point Boro looked like it might make things interesting in the final minutes when Husak hit wideout Hayden Frey with a 42-yard bomb to Raritan’s 24-yard line on the Panthers’ ensuing possession. However, one play later, Raritan senior defensive back Jahciere Jones intercepted a tipped pass and returned it 51 yards to Point Boro’s 29-yard line to seal the win with 1:31 to go.

Now the Rockets look to extend their second life with a victory on the road next week to keep their state championship hopes alive.

“It feels like we can do anything right now,” Carnivale said.

“We're battle-tested,’’ Dickens said. “It was a tough stretch, but we're ready to get back to where we were.”

Box score

Raritan 17, Point Boro 7

.                                   R                P

First downs                10              14

Rushes-yards        31-166         45-159

Passing                  7-14-1          4-13-1

Passing yards         102               95

Penalties                  1-10             3-40

Fumbles-lost             5-2               0-0

Raritan (4-5)  0  7  7  3 - 17

Pt. Boro (8-2)  0 0  7  0 - 7

Scoring summary: 

R: Smith 38-yard pass from Carnivale (Toth kick).

P: No. Husak 1-yard run (Ansbach kick).

R: Carnivale 1-yard run (Toth kick).

R: Toth 23-yard field goal.

Individual statistics

Rushing - R: Ernst 27-122, Carnivale 4-44. P: No. Husak 24-63, Na. Husak 5-23, Franceschini 8-61, Connelly 8-12.

Passing - R: Carnivale 7-14-1 102. P: No. Husak 4-13-1 95.

Receiving - R: Pasquin 4-55, Smith 3-47. P: Connelly 2-12, Waddleton 1-41, Frey 1-42.

Interceptions - R: Smith 1-51. P: Connelly 1-8.

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