Early in its season opener Friday night, Phillipsburg was adjusting to the differences that playing high school football in 2020 brings.
After going into halftime tied at 14-14 with Hunterdon Central, the Stateliners were in need of an energy boost normally supplied by their loyal fan base.
With the crowd capacity limited to ensure social-distancing, senior safety Michael Wambold came up with momentum-shifting plays on defense and special teams to inspire visiting Phillipsburg in a 39-14 win over the Red Devils in a Big Central Conference game.
“Coming into the game we knew we were a better team -- we knew we were a better program. That’s what we said at halftime,” Wambold said. “I’m glad we could even be here today. You never know when the last day is going to be. We take every practice, every rep, every play like it’s our last.”
The Red Devils two-headed rushing attack of seniors Bruce Washington and EJ Jones kept the Stateliners off-balance on defense in the first half, before Wambold came up with the first of two turnovers to set the tone in the third quarter.
On the second play of the second half, Central quarterback Frank Lentine overthrew a pass across the middle of the field that Wambold intercepted near midfield. He weaved a return to just outside the red zone.
“I don’t know if (Lentine) saw me or not. I made my read, took my steps and he ended up throwing it right up, and I just went up for it and took it,” Wambold said.
After three straight runs by Matt Quetel brought Phillipsburg to the goal line, senior quarterback Matt Garatty snuck in a touchdown run from 2 yards out.
Wambold made his next big play with a little help from senior Jalil Terrell. On fourth-and-long, Terrell rushed in and got a strong hand to Central punter Jeff Bekiarian’s kick.
After the punt sailed way into the air, Wambold came up with a recovery when the ball popped free from under a bevy of bodies. The senior dashed into the end zone to put Phillipsburg up 27-14 midway through the third quarter.
“He had an incredible couple of plays that really sparked us, and the rest was history,” Phillipsburg assistant coach Kevin Smith said. “They’re huge, they’re absolutely huge, especially because we don’t have the crowds here. Without the fans we needed those big-energy plays.”
While Hunterdon Central managed just four first downs in the second half, the Stateliners offense kept its momentum going.
After a Central punt, Garatty escaped the pocket to his left and hit junior receiver Josh Colon in stride over the middle for a 44-yard touchdown toss.
“It was definitely a breakdown. I was rolling out, I saw (Colon) put the hand out. He felt confident, I felt confident, and gave it a shot,” Garatty said. “It feels good. I expected it, it’s expected here at P’burg to come out with a win and dominate like that.”
The senior finished his first varsity start 12 of 14 for 155 yards and three passing scores.
“I’ve seen (Garatty) play since he was a freshman. He goes out there and he slings it. He makes plays and he’s fun to watch. He’s going to have a great year and I’m excited for him,” Smith said.
Senior Matt Quetel led the Stateliners rushing attack, gaining 53 yards and scoring on a short run. Quetel also took a screen pass for a 23-yard touchdown in the first half. Jacob Hille grabbed four catches and a touchdown.
Smith, who stepped in as interim head coach in place of Frank Duffy while Duffy served a self-imposed one-game suspension due to the brawl at the end of Phillipsburg’s game against Easton last Thanksgiving, was happy to see the Stateliners take the field in 2020.
Phillipsburg is set to travel to Montgomery (0-1) 7 p.m. Oct. 9.
“It was tremendous. I was so glad to see these guys come out here and get the chance to play and compete," Smith said. “You just don’t know right now. This could be our only game, or we might have one more week or we might have the full season.”
Desmond Boyle may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.