EAST ORANGE, NJ — The East Orange Campus High School football team battled Clifton once again in the state playoffs.
Last year, EOCHS defeated Clifton in triple overtime to win the state North Jersey, Region 5 championship game and cap a 13-0 season.
This time, Clifton returned the favor, winning 17-7.
If you were going to put two blockbuster movies of yesteryear into the boxing ring together, this might be “Rocky” vs. “Jaws.” Yes, the East Orange Campus Jaguars, aka “the Sharks,” and the Clifton Mustangs, aka “Rocky,” were at it again. This time they would meet up in the first round of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s North Jersey, Section 1, Group 5 state playoffs this past Friday night, Oct. 28, at Memorial Stadium in Clifton. Clifton Marching Mustangs, cue up the Rocky music; East Orange Campus Marching Jaguars, cue up the Jaws music — because we have a true playoff rivalry on our hands.
East Orange owned this matchup prior to facing Clifton in the 2021 regional championship. East Orange would continue to dominate the series as they once again defeated the Mustangs in triple overtime with a 100-yard fumble return that was deemed controversial, giving East Orange its first regional championship. The regional championship games began in 2018. It was also East Orange’s first perfect season in over 50 years. East Orange also had won its second sectional title and first since 2007.
East Orange and Clifton met in this year’s season opener at Clifton, with Clifton winning 21-0 as a form of retribution for the championship game last year.
This would be a good time to get your popcorn, because the squads would square off to a scoreless first quarter, as East Orange quarterback Kyree Fisher; running back Irijah Wright; linebacker Kasim Cross; tight end Na’il Johnson; and wide receivers BJ Covington, Joshua Richards and Michael Henderson showed they had unfinished business with Clifton quarterback Romelo Tables, running back Suliman Pitts, wide receiver Devon Stroble, and tight end Joe Abill.
The Jaguars flexed their defensive muscle early and often, as they knew what was to come. The Mustangs were able to drive the ball down the field after forcing a three and out. The stingy Jaguar defense had a bend-but-don’t-break mindset as the Mustangs sent Pitts and Stroble on a heavy dose of the ground game driving to the East Orange 2-yard line. The Jags came up with a huge goal-line stand as they would drop both Stroble and Pitts, along with a quarterback sack, with 5:17 left in the first quarter. In response, the Mustangs were able to stop the vaunted Jaguars’ balance attack at the Mustangs’ 34-yard line, getting the ball back at their own 16-yard line to end the first quarter.
The second quarter was more dramatic than the first. Who was going to draw first blood as these two heavyweight squads punched and counterpunched each other? It would seem East Orange got the upper hand as defensive end Davyonne Delaney came up with a big hit and fumble recovery with 7:53 left in the half. But a pair of penalties and incomplete passes to Henderson, Richards and running back Shakur Taylor forced the ball back into the Mustangs’ hands with 6:39 left in the half. The Mustangs would make quick work of 47 yards in four plays, capping off with a 16-yard touchdown swing pass from Tables to Pitts with 2:38 remaining in the first half.
The was plenty of time for the Jaguars to respond in kind. Fisher would take over the game on the ground and in the air. He baffled the Mustang defense for a 25-yard scramble, then proceeded to embarrass them by completing six out of seven passes to Covington, Richards, and Johnson. The eight-play, 80-yard drive showed the grit and determination of the Jaguars, as Fisher capped the drive with a 26-yard gashing pass to Johnson, who would make sure the Jaguars would stay in the game with the score tied 7-7 going into the half.
The third quarter was an ongoing defensive boxing match as both teams traded meaningful punches but nonetheless would punt the ball away or turn it over on downs. That’s until Jaguar defensive end Kymanie Deacon made his presence felt. He registered his first sack of the game, giving East Orange a big stop on a late–third-quarter Mustangs scoring attempt. But the Mustangs would find a way to score regardless of the stingy East Orange defense. Clifton’s placekicker, Ryan Liszner, would open the fourth quarter with a 34-yard field goal, giving Clifton a slim 10-7 edge.
The Jaguars, who already had their rally caps on, would come up empty twice with a forced punt and then a fumble on the Clifton 32-yard line. Clifton would find a way out of a deep hole with a 69-yard gallop from Pitts. The drive fizzled out. But the Mustangs would later score with 3:25 left in the game. Tables connected with Abill on a 3-yard pass. Abill snuck through the backdoor to get the 17-7 advantage.
It has clearly been an emotional season for both squads, more so for East Orange Campus. “We are a work in progress,” stated East Orange head coach John Jacob, “but the theme of the season has been us unable to finish.” He explained that, with all that has occurred, he’s definitely proud of his squad for the lessons that they have learned together as a unit, as well as the adversity that they have overcome. He stated that he intends to take a day or two for a private moment with the team to decide what they do with their time off between games, as there are options to explore. East Orange will host its annual turkey day battle with Barringer.
Clifton head coach Ralph Cinque wanted this game to be the final end-all when he stated that there were missed opportunities, and he would rather be up 28-7. He also acknowledged that Pitts, who started at East Orange Campus and transferred to St. Mary in Rutherford before settling down at Clifton, was part of his game plan.
Cinque and company will face top-ranked Passaic Tech in Wayne in the semifinals on Friday night, Nov 5.
Photo Courtesy of Kerry E. Porter