Phillipsburg’s football team can join seven other past Stateliner squads as sectional/state (your preference allowed) champions because it passed a collection of tests all season.
Most of the results of those tests were on display Saturday evening as the Stateliners smacked Irvington 42-7 in the NJSIAA North 2 Group 4 final at the Winter Wonderland that was Maloney Stadium.
We’ve picked nine tests Phillipsburg, rankled No. 3 regionally by lehighvalleylive, passed to earn a handsome NJSIAA trophy (that we hope survived the enthusiastic celebration it went through afterwards).
Page through the story to see what those tests were and for examples from Saturday of each. They are listed in alphabetical order.
The days of winning football championships with one-dimensional offenses probably have passed.
Phillipsburg showed off the new way Saturday with 366 total yards split exactly between rushing and passing. Of the offensive touchdowns three came running, two receiving. The 183 rushing yards went to five players and the 183 receiving to six.
“It allows you to not to be single-dimensional,” Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy said. “They can’t load the box against you when you have athletes like that.” It also means one player cannot be the focus of most defenses. For example, Phillipsburg senior tight end Sterling Walker-Sutton has often been the team’s top receiver, but he didn’t catch a pass Saturday night -- and the offense was still very productive.
Local fans of hard-nosed, aggressive and effective defense have been starved of what they crave of late.
For example, the winning teams in Saturday’s District 11 4A and 6A finals combined for 122 points.
This is football?
Not at Phillipsburg.
The Stateliners allowed 14 points in three playoff wins. All season, they have allowed 114 points.
And led by senior linebacker and tri-captain Mark Zgoda, the Stateliner defense was its usual stalwart self Saturday, allowing 202 yards, much of that after the issue was long settled.
Irvington’s one touchdown proved the point; a third-down swing pass to the very talented sophomore back Zahir Salaam (a name worth remembering) who needed every bit of his skill to rabbit 47 slippery yards for the score, cutting and slicing as if he ran on air pads.
And even Salaam scored just that one time. Junior back Zakee Swann, who entered the game with 1,130 rushing yards, finished with 54 on the night.
Zgoda was responsible for much of the Blue Knights’ issues, being in the right place and tackling securely.
“(Defensive coordinator) Chris Hull and the coaches always have such good plans and put us in the right position,” Zgoda said. “They always put us in position to succeed. And the defensive line, they got a great pushback tonight. I can’t even say how well they did. It’s hard not to play hard when you see guys playing so hard all around you.”
What’s good enough in August is not good enough for November. Football players must grow and evolve to improve, because the opponent sure isn’t standing still.
It’s one of the reasons the Stateliner defense excels.
“We had some young guys in the early part of the season playing,” Zgoda said. “They have gained confidence and experience and that has really paid dividends.”
This you have or you don’t. The word, besides meaning a bitter-tasting New England soft drink, is really undefinable -- combining sizzle, intensity, talent, drive, a bit of luck, passion, and a certain way of carrying yourself that makes a very special package.
It can be acquired, but rarely.
Perhaps you might say Peyton Manning had moxie and Eli (yes, yes, we know) did not? Derek Jeter and not A-Rod? Pete Rose but not Mike Schmidt?
Anyway, having players with it is no small help, and that brings us to Stateliner junior h-back/linebacker Bobby Coury.
He has moxie, as Irvington found out Saturday.
Coury owned most of the first half as Phillipsburg roared out to a 28-7 lead. He caught 4 passes for 110 yards, ran the ball hard, and was his usual dominant force on defense.
Phillipsburg’s first scoring drive went like this. Swing pass to Coury, makes men miss, runs over some, 26 yards. 11 shredding yards onm 3d-and-8. Hauling in a 16-yard crossing strike in traffic to set up a TD run.
“We weren’t focused on running plays to Bobby,” Stagaard said. “But the plays kept working for Bobby to get open.”
Of course they did -- follow the moxie.
Ray Poremba was not having the best of junior seasons.
He had been the Stateliners’ top returning receiver over the summer, but got banged up and went through a rough patch on the field at times this fall.
Yet there he was Saturday emerging again with a gorgeous 15-yard TD catch on a fade route that made it 21-7 Stateliners in the second quarter.
“Certainly I was hurt and struggled a little,” said Poremba, who had two catches for 36 yards on the night. “But I treated each week as a new week and kept working hard and that was about it.”
The fade is the pattern where the quarterback flings the ball in the general direction of a receiver along the edge of the end zone where the receiver uses out of bounds lines and his body to stymie the defender. You won’t see a better one than Poremba’s grab.
“I had it all the way,” he said with a confident smile. “Jack couldn’t have given me a better ball and all I had to do was come down with it.”
At all times. Phillipsburg brings it.
Take senior tight end/cornerback Sterling Walker-Sutton.
He didn’t make the stat sheet, but he sure made an impact.
At least three times, Walker-Sutton delivered hammering blows to Irvington players that had the crowd “ooohing” as the Blue Knights staggered.
Those hits sent a message: this how we play. Step up or be gone. Any Stateliner can bring it that way; it was Walker-Sutton who may have done it the best Saturday.
Not much else matters in football if, in the end, after all the practices and coaching and reps, players can’t make big plays.
Some teams have just one or two such players. Phillipsburg, as it has shown all season and did again Saturday, has multiple ones.
The best play of the night -- several to pick from; indulge us -- was perhaps Coury’s eight-yard one-handed circus catch for a touchdown that made it 28-7 in the second quarter.
It had even the hard-bitten P’burg press box crowd wowing, and that’s not a group easy to impress.
“I don’t have the best hands,” said Coury with unnecessary modesty; his swollen, bloody hands made the best grab of the night.
“You only need good hands when the ball is thrown to you,” he said.
Coury sure did.
“I don’t wear gloves and I usually ask Jack to throw it to my body and I will haul it in,” he said. “I knew Jack would put it on me and I was hoping I was going to catch it. I just put my hand out for it in the end zone.”
And made a big play -- what playmakers do.
A lot of football is dictated by the coaches from the sideline, it is true.
But even when it it has to be implemented or adopted from the field, by the players.
For example, Poremba’s TD pass.
“That wasn’t even the play call,” Stagaard said.
“We knew we could get the play if Irvington came out in press coverage but they had been playing off all game,” Poremba said. “That time they came out in press and we saw it and ran the play.”
9. Special teams
All too often in scholastic football, or even at times college, the kicking game is regarded as a annoying nuisance that must be grudgingly dealt with it with practice time that could be better used running the 37th rep of “Gung-Ho Blast 32” instead.
At best, most coaches hope the kicking game doesn’t hurt them.
Not at Phillipsburg. The Stateliners use it as a weapon. Duffy has said earlier in the week he wanted that weapon used more Saturday.
And it was when senior Nasir Ball answered Irvington’s only TD of the game with a 98-yard kickoff return that landed on the Blue Knights like a supersonic thunderclap.
“Special teams was our main focus coming into the game,” Ball said. “Coaches told us if we win the kicking game, we’d win the game.”
Ball makes for the perfect returner; sure, he’s fast which helps. But he also runs up the field, doesn’t dance, is physical enough to dust off tacklers and confident enough to “think six” every time.
“I got some nice blocks and was following my blockers and once I got past one defender none of them were catching me,” Ball said.
Brad Wilson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.