On the precipice of a historic 700th win for its program, fans of the Phillipsburg High School football team could be forgiven in thinking the Stateliners were going to triumph easily over a 2-2 Bridgewater side.
Unbeaten Phillipsburg, however, was made to work all 48 minutes to earn win No. 700.
Phillipsburg, ranked fourth by lehighvalleylive, came back from a 13-0 deficit to defeat host Bridgewater 20-13 on Friday night, aided by two goal-line stands in the fourth quarter.
“We have got a tough, resilient group. If we play our football, we’re a very good football team. The problem is we can’t have setbacks. We had an emotional win last week (34-28 against Ridge in double overtime),” Phillipsburg coach Frank Duffy said. “We almost fell into what you call that ‘trap game’ and I’m happy we didn’t, but that was real. We regrouped in the second half and I’m really proud of our guys.”
After a 2-yard sneak from quarterback Ben Ries put the Stateliners ahead 20-13, the Panthers had two opportunities to tie the game.
Michael Gomez kicked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds to set Bridgewater up at its own 40. At the end of a methodical drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-9, a sideline penalty against Phillipsburg put the Panthers 2 yards from the goal line.
The Stateliners defense, which held Bridgewater to 65 yards on 40 carries all game, stuffed four straight runs to regain possession.
“We said the same thing after every play, ‘Who wants it?’ You’ve got to dig. We live by DIG. It started off as three words and now it’s a part of who we are,” Phillipsburg receiver/defensive back Ray Poremba said. “When it comes down to a situation like that, it’s who wants it more.”
Phillipsburg could only manage one first down on its next possession and Bridgewater took over inside Stateliners territory. After Alex Fromberg hit Miftar Hasanaj on a 26-yard gain on 4th-and-22, two neutral zone infractions moved the ball to the Phillipsburg 6 with less than 30 seconds remaining.
After being smothered on the ground just minutes before, the Panthers went through the air in the red zone with the game on the line. A 1-yard completion was followed by a spike. Fromberg then dropped back to pass but was incomplete over the middle on third down before overthrowing a receiver on a fade route in the back of the end zone on fourth.
“I’m really proud of that group, I have a lot of confidence in them. They did the same thing last week. They’re just a very tough, resilient group,” Duffy said.
Phillipsburg’s defensive unit had plenty of adjustments to make early on, as 1-yard rushing touchdowns from Fromberg and Gerard Redden put the Panthers ahead 13-0 in the first half.
The Stateliners’ first major stop came after Gomez had a punt blocked late on in the second quarter and the Panthers had the ball inside Phillipsburg’s 30 up 13-0. Phillipsburg forced a turnover on downs in four plays and its offense built off that momentum.
Ries, who had a pass deflected and intercepted earlier in the half, connected with Bobby and Tommy Coury on throws of 16 and 12 yards. Four plays later, Poremba ran a fade and pried the ball away from a Panthers defensive back to score Phillipsburg’s first points with 36 seconds left before halftime.
“Me and Ben have a connection. It doesn’t matter if I get one ball a game or 10 balls a game, I have to take advantage of every single one,” Poremba said. “We’ve been practicing fade routes since we were kids, so it was routine. When I saw the ball in the air, I knew I had to come down with it. No 50/50 ball, it’s a 100 percent I have to come down with it.”
Despite having success with the passing game to end the first half, the Stateliners threw just once in the second half as they looked to establish the ground game with Matt Quetel leading the way.
“We wanted to get Matt Quetel going, get the run game going. Ultimately, that’s our bread and butter,” Duffy said. “We wanted to have some pass opportunities too, but once we saw Matt going, we knew we had to continue with that.”
Quetel finished the game with 116 yards on 20 carries, including a 16-yard touchdown on a bruising carry down the left sideline that tied the game at 13. Ries’ touchdown run came three minutes later to give Phillipsburg the 20-13 lead.
“We feel good, it’s win 700. It’s a historic game for us and the town. You see the scoreboard; we have a lot of work to do. We have to get better the rest of the season,” Poremba said.
Desmond Boyle may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DesJBoyle. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.