By Joe Hofmann
West Morris' Stefano Montella put his head down, pushed forward, and moved the pile of humanity.
How often have we seen that the last two years?
Turns out, this would be the last time.
This one wouldn't have a happy ending.
Montella needed 2 yards. He only got 1.
The Wolfpack gave up the ball on downs with under two minutes left and would soon relinquish the game as well -- and a chance to play for a state Group III championship at Rutgers in two weeks.
Old Tappan came away with a 21-6 victory and will face Delsea for the title.
It had come down to this: There was 1:27 left in the game and the Wolfpack had a fourth-and-2 at the Old Tappan 17. Montella took the handoff, tucked the football under his arm, and was met by blitzing Old Tappan defender Jack Diggins. Montella was stopped and extended the ball forward in an effort to gain that extra yard.
It was not enough.
One yard short.
Season all but over.
On the next play, Old Tappan's Aidan Heaney embarked on an 84-yard touchdown to ice it. The Wolfpack were uncharacteristically sloppy with their tackling. Heaney, refusing to go down, streaked up the field for the stunning score.
Any chance of West Morris repeating as Region champion went blowing away in the high winds at Franklin High School.
"I forgot what it felt like to lose," West Morris coach Kevin Hennelly said afterwards.
He wasn't the only one. The same can be said of the Wolfpack, who saw their school-record 17-game winning streak come to a crashing halt.
It was not easy to take for West Morris. What followed after the game was the unfamiliar sight of Hennelly and his coaching staff making the rounds on the field, trying to console the heartbroken Wolfpack.
The seniors were especially hit hard by the loss. When it was over, Collin Leonhardt embraced Hennelly. So did teammate Henry Frayne. A short time later, Hennelly gave Vin Desiderio a bearhug. And then Montella.
Letting the season end was not easy for anyone.
"I'm proud of our season, proud of these guys," Hennelly said.
Old Tappan, which dropped a 21-0 loss at West Morris in the sectional semifinals last year, made quite a statement in the first 15 minutes of the game by scoring two touchdowns.
The Bergen County wasn't about to be shut out this time. Old Tappan scored on its first two possessions and took a 14-0 lead.
West Morris scored a touchdown late in the third quarter and seemed to win the second half.
But when you're down at the half, 14-0, more is required.
"They were very physical," Hennelly said. "A lot of times they stacked the box, but we're used to that. We threw the ball one time last week. But they were good up front. We didn't play a good first half, but sometimes that's because the other team played well."
The Wolfpack received the opening kickoff, were whistled for a hold on its third play of the possession and was set back to a fourth-and-3 on the Old Tappan 37.
Hennelly elected to go for it but Sam Rizzuto was stopped for a minus-1. Old Tappan took over and scored six plays later, when quarterback Tommy Caracciolo ran for a 10-yard touchdown.
"There were a couple of times where I could second-guess myself," Hennelly said. "We were something like 15-for-15. It's to their credit that they stuffed the run there."
When West Morris assumed control of the ball, Old Tappan was up to the task once again. Montella broke free for a 24-yard run, but the Golden Knights defense adjusted and forced a punt.
Old Tappan then went 74 yards in nine plays and scored on Heaney's 4-yard touchdown.
West Morris went on one of its patented drives that lasted almost nine minutes but came away empty-handed after getting deep inside Old Tappan territory.
Montella rushed 11 times for 49 yards to get the ball into the red zone but West Morris couldn't finish the drive off with points. On third-and-8, quarterback John Rolli completed a 2-yard pass to Sam Rizzuto and, on fourth-and-6, his ball was tipped near the line of scrimmage and receiver Gavin Drown appeared to have caught the ball along the right sideline but the pass was ruled incomplete.
West Morris tried an onsides kick to start the second half but OT recovered at the Wolfpack 46. Hennelly's team seemed to gain momentum on Old Tappan's fourth-and-3 when Rolli and Drown nailed Heaney for a 4-yard loss.
West Morris then went 67 yards and scored on Montella's 2-yard touchdown run. The Wolfpack missed a chance to convert on a two-point conversion after OT penalties on back-to-back plays. Rolli was ruled short of the goal line, making it 14-6.
Old Tappan was forced to punt and West Morris took over on its own 9 with 9:12 left. They turned to Montella (39 for 189), who responded with six carries for 43 yards during the march, which was keyed by a Rolli-to-a-diving-Desiderio 21-yard completion.
Old Tappan's defense began stiffening and that set up fourth-and-2 at the OT 17.
Time for another inside run for Montella, who needed 2 but could only muster 1. Montella had finally hit the wall.
Old Tappan's Diggins said after the game that the team practiced blitzing all week in an effort to stop Montella in situations such as these.
The practice paid off.
"The second half showed them what West Morris football was all about," assistant coach Henry Frayne added. "We made it come to one single play."