Shabazz HS football team falls to tough Mountain Lakes in Group 1 state semifinal

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MOUNTAIN LAKES, NJ — The Shabazz High School football team fell to Mountain Lakes 49-12 in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Group 1 state playoff semifinal on Friday, Nov. 17.

It’s only been a week since “The Pride of The South Side” claimed the 2023 NJSIAA’s North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 state championship over Butler in convincing fashion, taking the other Bulldogs to task in a 40-13 win. But there’s a new task that has a lot more at stake and there is only one team in North Jersey Group 1 that stood in their way. It was for the bragging rights of all of North Jersey in the NJSIAA’s North Group 1 semifinal against an experienced Mountain Lakes Lakers team that made it to the Group finals last year against Woodbury at Rutgers University. 

The Lakers successfully defended their North 1, Group 1 sectional title by the score of 35-14 against a scrappy third-seeded Hawthorne Bears squad that was seeking their first championship in school history. But they had to prepare for an unfamiliar Bulldogs Nation that hails out of the “Brick City” and brings a chock full of talent that has the capability of flipping the game on its ears when given the chance. Shabazz would have a tough test on their hands and would need everything in their repertoire to get past “The Herd.”

Shabazz, led by QB Nazir Smith, wide receivers Nayad Walker and Kezah Hall, running backs Rahmir Jackson, Daveion Porter and Jeffery White, along with standout two-way lineman Judah Pruitt, were once again on the road, making the 45-minute trip through the I-287 and Route 46 corridors to face the fourth-seeded Lakers at Wilkens Field in Mountain Lakes. Waiting for them at the gates were the Lakers, led by QB Ben Miniter, TE Marco Dzamba and running backs Jordan Hernando, Ian Redzepagic, and Carson Fitch. 

Right from the opening kickoff, the Bulldogs would attempt to do what no other team had done in the first minute of play against the Herd in several years. Smith would find a wide open Walker and attempted to let it rip, airing a bomb that just missed his fingertips for what would have been an 80-yard bomb. Two plays later, Smith would attempt another big pass play to Daveion Porter, who would drop the ball due to defensive pass interference by the Lakers, which resulted in a 15-yard penalty and a first down to keep the drive alive. But the Lakers defense would find a way to stall the Bulldogs opening attack and force them to punt. 

With the ball on their own 18 yards line, the Herds’ vaunted Wing -T offense went to work. The Herd would grind out a 5 minute, 53-second, 15-play drive that would travel 82 yards. Mountain Lakes QB Ben Miniter would scoot to his right to walk in untouched for the Lakers opening 7-0 with 3:17 left in the first quarter. 

Shabazz wasn’t letting that slide as the Bulldogs came back out firing on the ground with Porter, Jackson and Bi’Shay Sanders sharing the duties rushing six times for a combined 41-yard before Smith would catch Kezah Hall sneaking into the end zone on a 14-yard connection and responding 7-6 score with just :31 left in the first quarter. 

The Lakers would take less time with their next score. Miniter would waggle to his right and would hit Shabazz’s defense with a 78-yard bomb that TE Marco Dzamba gladly took possession of to put the Herd up 14-6 with 26 ticks left on the first-quarter clock.

Starting from their own 26-yard line that closed the opening quarter and started the second, the Bulldogs quickly drove to the Lakers 47-yard line with a combination of passes and runs when a costly fumble and an opportunistic Lakers defense, led by DL Cosmo Fusco, would pounce on the ball, giving the Herd another crack at the end zone. Nine plays and 53 yards later, it would be Lakers RB Ian Redzepagic who would cross the goal line with a 5-yard plunge with 8:07 left in the first half. The touchdown would stretch the Herd’s lead to 21-6. 

But the Bulldogs, who were playing catch-up at this point, countered with their own ground attack, going 65 yards in seven plays, where Smith would catch Walker trailing his pass that was intended for teammate Kezah Hall, but was batted around like well-timed, 29-yard tip drill score, pulling the Bullldogs closer, 21-12 ,with 5:33 remaining in the half. 

That was just enough time for Mountain Lakes to respond in kind, marching the ball 73 yards in seven plays, featuring one incomplete pass where Redzepagic would score on a 7-yard dive play to put Lakers back at a two-score lead, 28-12. 

Shabazz would turn the ball over on its next possession, missing the fourth-down conversion when Zaiden McDonald got stonewalled by a stingy Lakers defense. Mountain Lakes’ nose for the end zone was on display as they made quick work of four-play, 33-yard drive. Miniter would cap the drive with another 3-yard scramble to give the Herd a commanding 35-12 lead with 21 seconds left in the first half. 

The Lakers defense would once again squash the Bulldogs’ hopes of another key score, when an intended pass to Porter was intercepted by Mountain Lakes LB Bradley Roger, who preserved the Herd’s lead going into the half.

The Lakers’ game plan was on full display in the third quarter as they methodically kept the ball out of Shabazz’s explosive offense’s hands. The Herd marched 65 yards in 14 plays, eating up nearly seven-and-half minutes of the third quarter, but missed the 33-yard field goal attempt with 4:31 left in the third quarter. 

Shabazz would take the opportunity to rev up its engines with big passing plays, but a sudden rash of fumbles would plague them when Smith was scrambling away from the defensive pressure. The fumble would put Mountain Lakes back in the driver’s seat as it cranked into another gear going into the final quarter of the game.

Taking its time, Mountain Lakes played a little possum when they were hit with a couple of holding penalties and a delay of game, before marching 57 yards in eight plays where Jordan Hernando would cross in to the promised land once more to put his Lakers up 42-12 with 9:45 left in the game. But it would be the Lakers’ final drive that would put this icing on the proverbial cake. Shabazz would not have the opportunity to convert a first down on its next-to-last possession. Smith would throw the ball five times, connecting once for 23 yards to Nasir Gaines. Miniter and company would take the ball over on their own 16-yard line with 8:59 left in the game. 

With another 7:19 drive, the Lakers sealed the deal with a 13-play, 84-yard drive that was capped by Redzepagic’s 11-yard rumble to the house, closing the game 49-12 after Shabazz tried to put another on the board. But it was too far out to connect. 

“I am extremely proud of you all,” said Shabazz head coach Nyshier “Naz” Oliver to his team after the game. “We are still the state sectional champions. After everyone counted us out, we still found a way to win. You showed everyone who you are and what you are about. We still have one more to go and that is for all the bragging rights in the South Ward.” Oliver would go on to say that what his team was able to accomplish was nothing more than amazing. He is certainly looking forward to the next season, but first he is looking to bring home the Soul Bowl trophy when his Bulldogs take on the Weequahic Indians on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 23, at 10. The game will be played at Untermann Field. 

“We had to play to our strengths,” said Mountain Lakes head coach Darrell Fusco. “We knew that we had to control the ball or we would have been looking at a much different game.” He said that Shabazz was an inexperienced team, being that the whole team from the players and coaching staff were all new. But he gave them their credit where it was due. He stated that “for what they have accomplished and achieved in a short time, no one can or should take it away from them. Coach Oliver has a promising future ahead of him and I expect to see him and his teams here in the playoffs again.” 

For the second year in a row, Mountain Lakes will take on a South Jersey Group 1 champion Last year they lost to Woodstown 31-7. This year, they will face a stiff challenge from a Glassboro team that runs a similar style offense. Both teams are rich in championship history, sharing 19 championships between them. The game is scheduled to kickoff at Rutgers’ SHI Stadium Sunday, Nov. 26, at 11 a.m. in Piscataway.