Shabazz football team defeats Verona in battle of unbeatens

NEWARK, NJ – In a game featuring Shabazz and Verona, two of Essex County’s top football teams, it looked like a good game on paper as they prepared to take the field this past Friday evening, Sept. 28, at Malcolm X. Shabazz Stadium in Newark.

“We’re ready and it’s like the beginning of the season where we are 1-0” said Shabazz head coach Darnell Grant.

“We know we got our work cut out for us and we are looking to put pressure on them early” said Verona head coach Kevin Batty.

Shabazz proved too much as the Bulldogs won, 41-13, to remain unbeaten at 4-0. Verona  suffered its first loss to move to 3-1.

Verona came in on an eight-game high after seeing its 22-game winning streak snapped last season before hitting the reboot button to go on and win out the 2017 season that included a state title. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs didn’t seem to slow down as they continued their gritty play that garnered them a perfect record and a state title over neighborhood rival Weequahic High School last season.

With the opening series,  the Bulldogs showed they are the “Top Dogs” when Defensive back D’Shaun Pennington plucked a pass from Verona freshman QB Cael Zebroski and returned it to the Hillbillies 20-yard line. Two plays later, RB Aziz Wilson scooted off the right side for the 18-score and a 7-0 lead. Wilson, who accounted for 4 touchdowns with 275 yards rushing, was just getting warmed up.

Verona’s next series saw a punt. The team traded intercetpions before Shabazz’s Michael Bright Jr. found a crease to rush for the late first quarter 62-yard touchdown. He slid left of guard and tackle to find running room and discovered clear sailing to paydirt, giving MXS the 14-0 lead over Verona.

Much to the chagrin of the Hillbillies, the Bulldogs decided to keep the pressure on in the second quarter after a punt to end the first quarter. Shabazz RB Aziz Wilson struck again as he broke off a 39-yard run up the middle of the Verona defense, led by Nick and Frank Riggio. QB Anthony Travis Jr. then found WR Kyree Smith for a 40-yard connection, setting up Aziz Wilson for the 2-yard plunge into the house, putting Shabazz just out of reach at 21-0 with just 11:53 left in the half.

The Bulldogs kept ringing the touchdown bell as they found the end zone again, this time from the defensive side of the ball. DB D’Shaun Pennington struck again for his second interception of the game, which resulted in a 39-yard pick-6 and a 28 -0 lead.

Suddenly, the Hillbillies came to life with the  ensuing kickoff. Nick Riggio bobbled the kickoff reception  at his 8-yard line before bursting up the Shabazz sideline for a 92-yard touchdown return to put Verona on the board 28-7.

The Hillbillies suddenly had their rally caps out when they recovered the ensuing kickoff deep in Bulldogs territory midway through the second quarter. But Shabazz’s defense, led by DB Shakur Williams, LB Elliott Idemudia, DE Michael Bright, DB Al-Shaquan Floyd, was able to force a turnover on downs and keep the momentum from shifting back in the Hillbillies’ favor.

Hillbillies FS Jake McConnachie was able to pick off Bulldogs QB Anthony Travis, Jr for the second time in the game. But once again, Shabazz was able to shut down the Hillbillies’ potential threat to end the half.

The third quarter was much like to the first half with Bulldogs RB Aziz Wilson breaking tackles and scoring in three plays in speedy fashion. The Bulldogs set up shop at their own 32-yard line after the kickoff to open the second half. That’s when Wilson went to work. He slashed his way to a 12-yard first down before launching off to a 54-yard gallop to the Verona 1-yard line where he capped the drive with an easy bounce to the outside for the 35-7 score. He then followed that up with a 70-yard explosion for his final touchdown of the night, giving his squad a comfortable 41-7 lead.  Verona would not see the end zone again until a last-ditch pass completion with just 12 ticks left on the clock.

“We really weren’t sure in what to expect from them,” said Grant. “We knew they were an explosive team and we wanted to keep them from breaking loose on us.” He was very impressed with the play of the Riggio brothers but felt his squad was able to neutralize them on their way to convincing victory.

Shabazz (4-0) will be on the road next Saturday to take on Lincoln High School Lions in Jersey City, while Verona (3-1) will be back in Newark to take on undefeated Weequahic Indians at Untermann Field.