MONTCLAIR, NJ — The Irvington High School football team wants to finish the job.
The Blue Knights, who lost in last year’s sectional championship, will host Cranford in the quarterfinal round of the North Jersey Section 1, Group 4 state playoffs this Saturday, Nov. 9, at 4 p.m. IHS is the No. 4 seed. Cranford is seeded fifth.
Irvington is coming off a heart-breaking 24-21 loss at Montclair on Saturday, Nov. 2. Montclair scored on a touchdown pass with four seconds left to win it.
The Blue Knights fell to 6-3 this season. Montclair won its third straight game and fourth in the past five games to improve to 5-4.
Cranford has a 5-3 record this season.
The winner of Irvington-Cranford will face the winner of No. 1 seed Northern Highlands and No. 8 seed Colonia in the semifinals.
Last year, the Blue Knights lost at Phillipsburg, 42-7, in the North 2, Group 4 sectional championship game. It marked the program’s second appearance in a sectional championship. IHS’ first sectional final came in 2006 when it lost to New Brunswick at Rutgers.
The Blue Knights won the Super Football Conference-Freedom White Division title for the third straight year under fourth-year head coach Ashley “Smoke” Pierre.
With a day that had so much riding on it, Irvington and Montclair were bound to make their own destinies. Playoffs for both schools were heavily on everyone’s minds.
The game was scoreless through the first quarter. However, Irvington was clearly coming to play as it won the 2018 matchup and was looking towards a repeat performance. A win against Montclair would solidify their spot in the playoffs as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed; a loss would not affect them as much.
Led by running backs Zakee Swann and Al-Jay Henderson, the Blue Knights’ offense were clicking on all cylinders. Swann, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark this season, found daylight through the tough defense of the Mounties, setting up Henderson for the first score of the day to go 7-0 after the successful point-after try with 10:50 left in the half.
Montclair’s Michael Robinson was having a hard time getting past the Blue Knights’ defense, led by defensive back Justice Calloway. But a costly double penalty for defensive holding and personal foul for unnecessary roughness added 25 yards to the end of a Robinson run, which put Montclair within striking distance of the end zone. Robinson took quick advantage of this two plays later, finding one of his favorite targets in tight end Shawn Collins, tossing him a 36-yard dime, followed by place-kicker Gage Hammond’s extra-poink kick, to pull even at 7-7 before the half.
The third quarter was a different tune for both teams. Robinson found himself getting on his horse to stay ahead of the Blue Knights’ defensive front line, led by defensive tackle George Duah. But that didn’t work as he threw his first of two interceptions to Calloway, who returned the ball 55 yards, setting up running back Tayion Battle with a 15-yard touchdown run with 5:21 left in the third quarter, giving Irvington a 14-7 lead after the point-after try.
But Montclair wasn’t going to let that go easily. The Mounties were playing for their postseason and wanted to make sure they were able to stay in it. Robinson found another target in wide receiver Donovin Bell with a 21-yard strike as two Blue Knights defenders were draped over him like a cape, tying the game for the second time with 1:54 left in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was more like a race to the finish line. Who wanted the higher seed? Who is going to play where and whom? “We certainly would like to get back at East Orange,” Montclair head coach John Fiore said, referring to the loss to East Orange earlier in the season. Fiore made a crucial call to help get that wish. With the game threatening to head into overtime, he sent Hammond out for a field goal with 6:20 left in the game. Hammond connected on the chip shot from 21 yards out, giving the Mounties their first lead of the day at 17-14.
But Irvington answered. The Blue Knights had an early kickoff return for a touchdown called back, so they weren’t too pleased when they were called for a blocking-in-the-back penalty when they returned a second one to the house. So instead, they started the drive inside Montclair’s 40-yard line, with Swann pounding the way through the Mounties’ defense. Swann (23 carries. 132 yards) set up another Henderson short-yardage score. This time, it was a two-yard punch to get the 21-17 lead with 3:38 left.
Robinson took another chance in airing it out. But again, Calloway picked his pocket, returning the ball inside the 38-yard line. The Mounties made it a point again to force a punt in which the ball bounced favorably for them.
With just under a minute left to go, both teams took calculated timeouts. Robinson moved the ball inside the Blue Knights’ 15-yard line and connected with Collins once again, snagging the touchdown with four seconds left left in the game.
With the victory, Montclair clinched the No. 6 seed in the North 1, Group 5 sectional playoffs and will visit third-seeded East Orange this Saturday, Nov. 9, in the quarterfinals at Paul Robeson Stadium in East Orange at 1 p.m.
“We made some mistakes towards the end of the game,” Pierre said. “We wanted to make a final push that would help us get at least the second seed.”
He went on to say to his players that they have to learn to finish and that the lesson of the day is that no one will not give them anything for free; they will have to earn it.
Sports editor Joe Ragozzino contributed to this article.