Running to Glory: Rumson tops Somerville for CJ-3 title behind legendary rushing performance
SOMERVILLE – In the past, it has been Rumson-Fair Haven’s defense delivering sensational playoff efforts to lead the Bulldogs to championships. This time, it was a legendary offensive performance that dethroned an undefeated opponent and locked up yet another state sectional championship.
Senior running back Alex Maldjian had an epic game with 49 carries for 271 yards and four touchdowns behind a dominant offensive line as Rumson defeated previously-unbeaten Somerville, 42-35, in a Sunday afternoon classic at Brooks Field to take home the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 3 championship.
“I really can’t believe it right now,” said senior offensive lineman Ryan McCann. “We knew we were going to come in here and we were going to take it home.”
“They were fantastic,” said Rumson head coach Jerry Schulte. “The offensive coaches came up with a great game plan and the kids executed it. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Rumson’s senior-laden offensive line of McCann, Evan Davis, Tim Kelly, Ethan Ardolino and Spencer Short mauled Somerville’s front seven and paved the way for the Bulldogs to churn out 405 yards of offense and gain a whopping 24 first downs. Maldjian had 96 yards on 21 carries at halftime and added 28 carries for 175 yards in the second half. He scored on runs of 10, 4, 13 and 17 yards, the last of which came with 2:41 left in the game to give Rumson a 42-28 lead.
Somerville cut Rumson’s lead to 42-35 when senior quarterback Jalahn Dabney threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Duke McDuffie, but Rumson was able to recover the onside kick with 1:48 left. One first down was all the Bulldogs needed to clinch the title, and Maldjian delivered an 11-yard gain on third-and-1 at midfield with under a minute to play to seal Rumson’s fifth sectional title in six years and sixth championship overall.
“It was an inside zone,” Maldjian recalled. “Everybody probably knew it was going to me but we knew it wasn’t going to be stopped. We knew we were going to get that and win it. We had no doubt in our minds.”
“We knew that was the game, that was the season, and we had to bring it with everything we’ve got,” McCann said. “Most of the offense is seniors; the whole O-line is seniors. We knew this was our last shot.”
Senior tight end Ian O’Connor had a clutch game for Rumson with a 71-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter and a 6-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter. Junior quarterback Collin Coles finished with 113 yards passing and two scores and also ran for a key first down to convert a fourth-and-3 on a Rumson scoring drive in the second quarter.
Somerville’s explosive offense made sure Rumson could never breathe easy as Dabney threw for 242 yards and four touchdowns, ran for a touchdown and rushed for a pair of 2-point conversions. The Bulldogs’ were able to get a huge stop when they needed to, however, when they sniffed out a trick play Somerville tried to execute on fourth-and-4 from its own 31-yard line with 5:41 left in the game. The defensive stand led to Maldjian’s fourth touchdown run and a 42-28 advantage.
“We weren’t perfect, that’s for sure, but we did what we had to do when we had to do it,” Schulte said.
“Our defense, even though they let up some plays they didn’t go away,” Maldjian said. “They had that huge fourth down stop and gave us the ball back, and we knew we had to score.”
Rumson has a history of shutting down high-powered offenses in state championship games, but this time it was the Bulldogs who had the unstoppable offense. Getting into a back-and-forth scoring battle with a Somerville team averaging 45.6 points and 463 yards per game and a quarterback with over 3,000 yards of offense and 50 touchdowns was certainly not the plan, but Rumson’s relentless rushing attack made it work to hold off the Pioneers.
Last season, Somerville threw plenty of different looks at Rumson and scored a 20-15 upset win in the sectional final. This time, Rumson returned the favor by flipping the script on Somerville with a new look of its own. The Bulldogs usually work out of the shotgun with Maldjian and Peter Crowley in the backfield, but on Sunday they operated with Coles almost exclusively under center.
“(Offensive line coach) Joe Murphy came into our meeting Monday and said ‘We’re going under center. If we’re going down we’re going down swinging’,” said Rumson offensive assistant Chris Quinn.
“We cut our splits down and just punched them in the mouth up front,” McCann said. “It was a fist fight in a phone booth. That’s what we do.”
Rumson (9-2) set the tone on its first possession and never looked back, sending a message to Somerville that its running game would have the final say. The Bulldogs stopped the Pioneers three and out to open the game and then went 55 yards on 11 straight running plays to take a 7-0 lead. Maldjian carried eight times and polished off the drive with a bruising 10-yard touchdown run.
Somerville answered immediately when Dabney found a wide-open Joe Ciempola for a 63-yard touchdown pass, but Rumson remained in front when sophomore Drew Frankel blocked the extra point. The Bulldogs were able to respond with a big play of their own shortly after when Coles lofted a pass down the visiting sideline and the 6-foot-4 O’Connor leaped over a defender to snatch it out of the air. He then spun away from the defensive back and sprinted to the end zone for a 71-yard touchdown and a 14-6 lead.
Somerville once again showed why it entered the game 11-0, quickly driving down the field for another score to keep pace with Rumson. Isaac Vernon sacked Dabney for a 5-yard loss on first down, but he came right back with a 28-yard strike to Ciempola to move the chains. A 21-yard run by Duke McDuffie moved the ball to the Rumson 16-yard line, and three plays later Robbie Fiorentino bounced off a tackle and turned a short pass into an 11-yard touchdown reception. Rumson stopped the 2-point conversion attempt when Ryan Dupree intercepted Dabney’s pass to keep the lead at 14-12.
Rumson’s next drive was halted when McDuffie undercut a route and intercepted Coles at the Somerville 42-yard line, but the Bulldogs’ defense rose up to force a three-and-out as senior defensive lineman Henry Sullivan made a tackle for loss on a third-down swing pass.
Rumson then put together a 14-play, 73-yard drive that spanned 7:01 to stretch its lead to 21-10. Coles converted a third-and-6 with a 10-yard pass to Jackson McCarthy and also hit Crowley for 10 yards to the Somerville 34-yard line. On fourth-and-4 from the Somerville 27, offensive coordinator John Corneliusen dialed up a bootleg and Coles moved the chains with a 5-yard run. Three plays later, Maldjian plowed into the end zone from four yards out to make it a two-score game at halftime.
Rumson was set to receive the kickoff to begin the third quarter, and the question was whether Somerville had made any kind of defensive adjustment that could slow down Rumson’s ground attack. The answer? Nope.
Rumson sent another message on its first possession of the second half by marching 80 yards with nine straight running plays to go up 28-12. Maldjian had a 25-yard run into Somerville territory and finished off the drive with a 13-yard touchdown run. Rumson did not reach third down on the entire drive.
“We talked a lot about what we did wrong last year and how we tried to do too much and weren’t focusing on what we do best,” Maldjian said. “This year we wanted to get back to what we do well and just try to win the game that way.”
“We really wanted to control the line of scrimmage; that was a huge thing coming into the game. We knew if we won the line we would win the game. I’m really proud of those five guys working together.”
Somerville kept hanging around thanks to its quick-strike offense. An 18-yard catch by McDuffie preceded his 29-yard touchdown catch with 6:01 left in the third quarter and Dabney then ran in the 2-point conversion to slice Rumson’s lead to 28-20. Rumson punched back, however, with a 9-play, 68-yard scoring drive. Crowley had a 16-yard catch into Somerville territory and a personal foul on the Pioneers moved the ball to the 23-yard line. On third-and-5 from the 6-yard line, Coles executed a play-action fake and hit O’Connor for a 6-yard score. The play O’Connor and fellow wideout Jackson McCarthy refer to as ‘pick and roll’ put Rumson up 35-20 with 1:01 left in the third quarter.
While Rumson’s offense was not being stopped, neither was Somerville’s at this point. The Pioneers again cut their deficit to one score when Dabney capped a 60-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. He then took the 2-point conversion himself across the goal line to make it 35-28 with 9:57 to play.
Things then got very interesting when Rumson was stopped and forced to punt for the first time all game. A personal foul call on the punt return pushed Somerville back to its own 12-yard line, but the Pioneers now had the ball with a chance to tie the score. This was far from a vintage performance by the RFH defense, but when it mattered most they came up huge. After a 13-yard gain on first down, the Bulldogs’ buckled down to force a fourth-and-4 from the 31-yard line. Somerville decided to go for it and tried to run a trick play where McDuffie crouched low behind the line and tried to sneak out from the pack, but Rumson’s defense was not fooled and stopped him after two yards to force the turnover.
From there, Rumson gave it to Maldjian six straight times and he scored on a 17-yard touchdown run to make it 42-28 with 2:41 to play.
Dabney’s touchdown pass with McDuffie made it 42-35 with 1:50 to play but Rumson’s punishing line, tight end and fullback and its tough-as-nails running back fittingly closed out the championship by gaining one final first down.
“Huge credit to the offensive line, they really made the job easy today,” Maldjian said. “It really didn’t feel like I was getting stopped at the line at all. We talked about the 10-yard game all week. Win 10 yards and we’ll win the game, and that’s what we did.”
With 49 carries, Maldjian certainly didn’t look like a player who battled an ankle injury for the past few weeks and bruised his ribs in the semifinals. He was a Bulldog personified.
“I said to him, ‘You’re just not coming out’,” Schulte said. “He’s a kid you can count on. You know he’s going to get the job done. Even if I said he was coming out he wouldn’t have listened anyway.”
Rumson now has five state titles in six seasons and has reached the championship game in all six. The Bulldogs’ six sectional championships have all come since 2010. In four of Rumson’s six state-championship victories they have taken down undefeated teams: Matawan in 2010, Weequahic in 2013, Red Bank in 2015 and now Somerville. Additionally, in 2016 the Bulldogs beat an undefeated Somerville squad in the semifinals before topping South Plainfield in the final.
“To walk out of my high school career being in four state championships and winning three, that’s a special feeling,” Maldjian said. “I know all the hard work was worth it.”
The hardware has been secured, but the season isn’t over yet. Rumson will next play South Jersey champion Woodrow Wilson in an NJSIAA Group 3 Bowl Game at 1:05 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1 at MetLife Stadium.
“We always preach 1-0 in December,” said McCann, referring to the previous NJSIAA playoff schedule that had the championship games the first week of December. “We still have one last game to win.”
Rumson 42, Somerville 35
R – Alex Maldjian 10-yard run (Collin Coles kick)
S – Joe Ciempola 63-yard pass from Jalahn Dabney (kick blocked)
R – Ian O’Connor 71-yard pass from Collin Coles (Collin Coles kick)
S – Robbie Fiorentino 11-yard pass from Jalahn Dabney (pass failed)
R – Alex Maldjian 4-yard run (Collin Coles kick)
R – Alex Maldjian 13-yard run (Collin Coles kick)
S – Duke McDuffie 29-yard pass from Jalahn Dabney (Jalahn Dabney run)
R – Ian O’Connor 6-yard pass from Collin Coles (Collin Coles kick)
S – Jalahn Dabney 1-yard run (Jalahn Dabney run)
R – Alex Maldjian 17-yard run (Collin Coles kick)
S – Duke McDuffie 26-yard pass from Jalahn Dabney (Bobby Wortman kick)
RUSHING – RFH: Alex Maldjian 49-271, Peter Crowley 4-14, Collin Coles 2-7; S: Duke McDuffie 4-52, Jalahn Dabney 15-27.
PASSING – RFH: Collin Coles 5-9-1 113; S: Jalahn Dabney 14-24-0 242.
RECEIVING – RFH: Ian O’Connor 2-77, Peter Crowley 2-26, Jackson McCarty 1-10; S: Duke McDuffie 8-108, Joe Ciempola 3-105, Robbie Fiorentino 2-31, Ethan Hilliman 1-(-2).
INTERCEPTIONS – S: Duke McDuffie 1-10.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.