EAST ORANGE, NJ — Both East Orange and Montclair had their Oct. 10 game against one another circled on their calendars. But what was supposed to be a fun week of practices turned into a dark cloud as both schools had to deal with setbacks that brought things in perspective. For Montclair, they had to go without their star running back, Jordan Diggs, who broke his ankle in their win against Bloomfield. As for East Orange, they had to rest Al-Shadee Salaam because of a tweaked muscle injury that he suffered Thursday prior to the game, as well as getting the news that a former player and current student at the school died suddenly. In light of this, Montclair offered to take a moment of silence before the game, but East Orange declined, wanting to give the student athlete’s family, as well as the team, time to grieve.
With all this going on, they still had a game to play. East Orange rubbing back and linebacker Matthew Zaio, who normally wears No. 5 on his jersey, paid tribute to his former teammate, Antoine Sanga-Niangara, age 16, by wearing Sanga-Niangara’s number: 22.
“We felt that was a fitting thing to do,” East Orange head coach Rae Oliver said, adding that he did not want to say any more on the matter out of respect for the privacy of the teenager’s family.
East Orange took the opening kickoff from Montclair and proceeded to impose their will on the Mounties. Both teams traded early punts, but East Orange made it clear that they were looking to keep the Mounties at bay by driving almost the length of the field to set up a late first-quarter 31-yard field goal by placekicker Geraldo Gibson to give the Jags a 3-0 lead. Montclair quarterback Michael Robinson and wide receiver Aqeel Plant tried to answer back, but a costly penalty negated their 45-yard touchdown hookup and Plant had to sit out the rest of the game due to an injury on the play. On the very next play, Robinson suffered the first of nine sacks led by defensive end Moungue Nyame and linebacker Chris Amos. Amos continued to wreak havoc for Robinson, accounting for seven sacks on the day.
The second quarter was all East Orange as they made life miserable for the Mounties on both sides of the ball. The Jaguars were led by junior quarterback Raeden Oliver, who found space in the running and passing game to move the ball around. But the play of the game came on a Montclair punt where punt returner Damon Phillips burst on the scene in spectacular fashion. He corralled the punt around the Jaguars 17-yard line, slid to his left toward the East Orange sideline, hopped over a would-be tackler, then turned on the jets for a 57-yard return before being wrestled down to the Montclair 26-yard line. Raeden Oliver took a sack on the next play, but sold the Mounties a beautiful ball fake for a middle screen play, during which Phillips scooted the remaining 27 yards for a touchdown and PAT, giving the Jags a 10-0 lead. Right before the half, East Orange sent Gibson in for a 43-yard field goal attempt, but it sailed wide left to close out the first half fireworks.
East Orange opened the third quarter with a squibbed kickoff that garnered them a fumble recovery by Zaio. The Jags did not score on this drive, as Montclair forced a three and out. But to Montclair’s chagrin, they muffed a punt that later proved to be a deal breaker for them. East Orange proceeded to play clock management, marching down the field with their running back by committee, led by Zaio, Phillips, Sharif Bryan and Locksley Burke. The committee, along with their field general in QB Raeden Oliver, marched 44 yards in 10 plays, setting up another field goal by punt kicker Gibson, who connected on a 22-yard chip shot to give the Jaguars a 13-0 lead over Montclair.
Montclair showed flairs of their offensive power but East Orange’s defensive muscle showed to be too stifling to bear for the Mounties as they continued to rack up penalties that took them out of scoring position, along with the early burning of all their timeouts in the first and third quarters.
East Orange closed the game out with their first shutout in two years under head coach Rae Oliver. East Orange had shut out Memorial of West New York 20-0 the coach’s first year and then 30-0 over Passaic the following year. This was also the first time an East Orange team has shut out Montclair since 1971 and they are the only squad to shut out Montclair at a home game since 2009.
East Orange will host the Paterson Kennedy Knights on Saturday, Oct. 17, at Paul Robeson Stadium in East Orange with a 1 p.m. kick-off time. Montclair will play West Orange next weekend at Woodman Field with a 1 p.m. start.
Coach Rae Oliver is now 3-2 overall against Montclair’s coach John Fiore, which includes beating him twice last season in both the regular season and playoffs.
“I’m extremely proud of my guys and what they have been able to achieve,” Rae Oliver said. “We are now seeing the fruits of our labor as we come together as a community.”
He went on to explain that he has a unique perspective, having coached at both schools and having his son, Raeden Oliver, play for him at both schools.
“I feel that we have so much more to offer our kids and I am looking to expand upon that,” he said. “We are starting to turn the corner where we are keeping our kids home versus sending them to private schools to play for top teams that may not let them get in the game.”
The coach is passionate about reaching out to the young people in East Orange by creating tools and access to programs that will help them further their education.
Photos Courtesy of Kerry Porter