Everything seemed to be going according to plan for a resilient Phillipsburg High School football team that’d dug itself out of tough situations time and again to maintain an unbeaten record.
A dynamic passing attack and critical injuries proved to be too much, however, against Westfield in the Stateliners’ regular-season finale.
Westfield defeated Phillipsburg 20-14 in overtime on Friday night, giving the Stateliners their first loss of the season -- at home on senior night -- with a game-winning touchdown pass from Henry Shapiro to Griffin Rooney.
The Stateliners (7-1), ranked fourth by lehighvalleylive, struggled in the second half to slow down the connection between Shapiro and Rooney.
“We blitzed (Shapiro) a little bit, I think mostly we did a great job on defense. (Shapiro) did make plays and had his moments,” Phillipsburg coach Frank Duffy said.
After Phillipsburg took a 14-7 lead halfway through the fourth quarter on a 1-yard touchdown from Isaiah Craighead, Shapiro went to work.
The Lehigh University recruit completed three straight passes to move Westfield to midfield. Robert Martin, who provided pressure for Phillipsburg all night, came up with a sack and a holding penalty on the next play forced the Blue Devils into a second-and-25.
Shapiro was unfazed by the down and distance, finding his favorite target, Rooney, on a 24-yard pass before picking up the first down on a quarterback sneak.
“We just have to be able to get off the field in those crucial situations, those third-and-long plays,” Duffy said.
Two plays later, Shapiro lofted a pass to Rooney along the right sideline to tie the game at 14 with about two minutes to play.
The Stateliners won the coin toss in overtime and elected to play in front of their student section while Westfield chose to play defense first.
Three plays into the overtime, Phillipsburg looked to have retaken the lead when Ben Ries found Ray Poremba in the left corner of the end zone. The senior receiver made a great catch in double coverage but was ruled out of bounds, which brought up fourth-and-4.
Ries shuffled a pass to Bobby Coury who plunged into the line and extended the ball but could not reach the first down.
“You’re just trying to run your best plays that you feel comfortable in and that’s what we did,” Duffy said. “I loved our fourth-down call. It looks like we were just inches away from it.”
The Blue Devils needed only three plays to give Phillipsburg its first loss as Rooney, whose height and speed gave the Stateliners secondary problems all game, once again broke free down the sideline, where Shapiro delivered him the game-winner.
“We’re real banged up right now,” Duffy said. “We’re not at full strength and for us to compete like that, against a good team not at full strength, is a testament to our guys.”
One injury on each side of the ball proved crucial for Phillipsburg. Matt Quetel, the Stateliners’ leading rusher and main source of yards on offense limped off the field in the fourth quarter with an apparent ankle injury.
The junior finished with 86 yards before Phillipsburg turned to the duo of Craighead and Chaz Sutton on the ground.
Starting defensive back Jalil Terrell did not play in the second half due to injury and the junior’s presence was sorely missed by a secondary that gave up 276 yards passing, more than 200 of which went to Rooney alone.
“A bye week couldn’t come at a more perfect time than right now, it really couldn’t,” Duffy said. “I think we’ve got a resilient group; I’m not worried about this group at all. They’re P’burg kids and they’re tough. Mentally tough, physically tough … it’s nice that this isn’t the last game at Maloney for our seniors.”
The Stateliners will come back from a bye week to begin the NJSIAA North 2 Group 4 playoffs.
Desmond Boyle may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DesJBoyle. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.