IRVINGTON, NJ — The Irvington High School football team would not be denied.
Down by 13 points heading into the fourth quarter, the fourth-seeded Blue Knights rallied for two touchdowns and defeated fifth-seeded Cranford, 22-21, in a thrilling North Jersey Section 1, Group 4 playoff first-round game on Saturday, Nov. 9, at IHS.
Al-Jay Henderson scored on a long run to cut it to 21-15 with 9:14 left in regulation and Taiyon Battle ran for the decisive touchdown from the wildcat position, followed by the game-winning extra-point kick with 2:13 left.
The Blue Knights blocked Cranford’s field-goal attempt at the end of the game to seal the win.
The Blue Knights, who improved to 7-3 this season under fourth-year head coach Ashley “Smoke” Pierre, will travel to Allendale in Bergen County to face top-seeded Northern Highlands in the semifinals this Friday, Nov. 15, at 6:15 p.m. Northern Highlands defeated No. 8 seed Colonia, 40-7, Nov. 8, to move to 7-2.
The other semifinal pits No. 6 seed Randolph at No. 2 seed Woodbridge. Randolph upset No. 3 seed Montgomery to move to 6-4, while Woodbridge downed No. 7 seed North Hunterdon, 21-14, to remain unbeaten at 9-0.
The Blue Knights are seeking to reach a sectional final for the second straight season. Last season, they advanced to the North 2, Group 4 final, but lost at Phillipsburg, 42-7.
Irvington was none too thrilled when it lost to Montclair in a close game last week and losing its seeding spot in the process. Instead of being in the North Jersey Section 2 Group 4 bracket with a direct line to Phillipsburg, the Blue Knights were seeded as the fourth seed in the North Jersey Section 1, Group 4 bracket instead and drew the fifth-seeded Cougars of Cranford High School.
Irvington’s motto of “Irvington vs. Everybody” really stuck out thanks to its preparations in the offseason and its preseason scrimmage schedule. So to say they were ready for Erik Rosenmeier’s group was simply an understatement. Pierre’s squad was fired up and was looking to go big-game hunting. With all the elements in play, it would be the winner of this game that would play Northern Highlands Highlanders this coming Friday. Meanwhile the Cougars, led by Connor Katz, made the Blue Knights rethink their readiness as they had their hands full with a dual-threat quarterback in Connor Katz. These two squads, separated by only seven exits on the Garden State Parkway, used to face each other in the old Watchung Conference.
Irvington’s Zakee Swann and his twin brother, Zahir Swann, made their presence felt as they laid an early assault on the Cougars’ defense in the first quarter. QB Jake Harter played a little “which twin has the ball” trying to confuse the Cougar defense. But it would be Zakee who would take it 79 yards on the opening play as well, scoring on a nine-yard reception on the Blue Knights’ second possession that capped a seven-play, 53-yard drive with 5:09 left after Zahir scored the two-point conversion for an 8-0 lead.
Cranford swung right back after a great kickoff return by Michael Kalnis, along with a 15-yard penalty, setting up shop well within the Blue Knights territory. Katz and Kalnis made it look easy, capping a five-play, 23-yard drive with a six-yard back-corner connection to pull 8-7 with 2:22 left in the first quarter.
By the second quarter, it was all Cougars as Katz would find Jake Declerico midway through the quarter for a 22-yard touchdown strike. Katz would find Declerico again after Cougars DB Cole Blazek intercepted Harter’s pass, returning it back to the Blue Knights’ 9-yard line. Declerico caught the 9-yard hookup, giving the Cougars a 21-8 advantage at the half. Irvington would stall for the remainder of the first half, giving Cranford ample breathing room to operate.
But that only gave the Blue Knights purpose as they started the second half. The gritty Blue Knights’ defense, led by DL George Duah and DB Tayion Battle, kept the Cougars guessing where the pressure was coming from. Katz had to keep a step ahead of them, but wasn’t able to convert first downs on three different occasions throughout the third quarter. But that’s when the hunt truly began.
The scoreless third quarter had tinges of the playoff game against West Morris High in 2018. Irvington was behind by two touchdowns and came back to win that game last year. So as the fourth quarter began, Henderson broke loose for a 65-yard gain and touchdown to close the gap at 21-15 with 9:14 left in the game. With the rally caps squarely on, Irvington struck once more. This time they marched almost the length of the field in 12 plays, giving Battle the seven-yard score to pull ahead 22-21 with 2:22 left in the game. “We wanted Irvington to pick their poison. But didn’t expect them to be this prepared,” Rosenmeier said. He felt that their nine-year experience in the playoffs would play differently in their favor.
“It is a testament to their program,” he concluded. Coach Pierre felt that they were ready to play. “I honestly thought we were going to win from the beginning. But I have to admit we pulled it out when it counted the most,” he said.
With the whole team celebrating in the locker room, it would be Pierre’s quiet nature that spoke and celebrated the loudest. “We will go anywhere,” said Pierre, about this Friday evening’s matchup against the Highlanders in Allendale.
Joe Ragozzino contributed to this article.