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Football: Mountain Lakes Beats Shabazz To Advance to Group Finals

By Joe Hofmann, 11/20/23, 5:00PM EST


For 48 minutes, Jordan Hernando gave a full-scale, full-fledged, Wing-T clinic. The Mountain Lakes senior played the best game of his life – and what a time to do it!

He took the handoff and found the hole. He cut left. He cut right. He made people miss. He sped to the outside. He powered over people. He carried out his fakes.

More: He cut inside when he was supposed to. Outside when he had to.

It was fun for the entire Mountain Lakes team.

The 5-foot-6 senior was 25 for 203 rushing with a touchdown as the Herd rolled to a 49-12 victory over Shabazz in the state Group I state semifinal game.

The Herd advanced to the state Group I championship game and will face Glassboro at Rutgers Sunday at 11 a.m.

How great a night was it for Hernando? On one carry, his cleat came off – but no matter, he kept chugging away for another 10 yards.

“Probably the most fun game I have ever had in my life,” Hernando said.

It was the Mountain Lakes’ final home game. There couldn’t have been a better way to go out.

“I’ve played there on that field for my entire life,” he said. “Ever since I was 6 or 7, throwing the football around.”

Against Shabazz, he spent the night running around. There wasn’t much need to throw – not with the way Hernando and his teammates were running the ball.

“He had a spectacular game,” quarterback Ben Miniter said. “I thought he’d be down, then he’d bust it for more yards. They’d grab his facemask and shoulder pads. They couldn’t bring him down.”

Hernando had only one problem all night. When his cleat came off, he struggled to get it back on. Miniter had to step in.

Other than that, it was smooth sailing for Hernando and the Herd.

“Jordan Hernando went to a different level,” coach Darrell Fusco said. “Offensively, we were clicking on all cylinders.”  

Indeed, they were clicking, all right. Early on, when the game was still competitive, Hernando made his presence felt. The Herd fed off of that and then ran away and hid – in stunning fashion.

Shabazz came in having played its best ball, winners of five straight, including a blowout of a good Butler team to win its section. The school had Mountain Lakes beaten in terms of size, speed and quickness.

Shabazz might have had the D-1 athletes, but it couldn’t come close to stopping the old-school Wing-T.

“We were the underdogs,” Hernando said, “but we felt like there was no way we were gonna lose. We played a perfect game.”

On one first-quarter run, Hernando took what should have been a gain of 7 yards or so, broke some tackles and turned it into 30 yards.

Soon after, Mountain Lakes scored to make it 21-6.

Later on, when the Herd was simply trying to run down some clock while nursing a 35-12 led, he flew upfield for a 42-yard touchdown on third and long.

“He got to the edge, broke a tackle and took it to the house,” Fusco said. “It was that type of night. He was dynamic. They have next-level kids who run to the ball and he ran through them.”

Hernando wasn’t the only runner to shine. The Herd had a stable full of ‘em, from Ian Redzepagic (12 for 72, 3 TDs), to Miniter (9 for 78, 2 TDs), to Aidan Malnati (13 for 72). The team was an incredible 66 for 447 rushing – and that’s with Malnati subbing for standout fullback Carson Fitch (7 for 22), who was injured early in the game with a knee bruise.

How great was the running attack? Well, Miniter was just 2 for 6 passing for 90 yards – and that being a 77-yard touchdown pass to Marco Dzamba to make it 14-6 early.

Shabazz knew the run was coming but often over-pursued. The precision and timing of the Wing-T worked to perfection, especially because the O-Line of Chris Dowling at center, guards Samson Veech and Michael Mucci, tackles Cosmo Fusco and Will Tate, and Dzamba at tight end were blowing Shabazz off the ball.

In addition, Miniter ran bootlegs and waggles to perfection to the tune of big gains all night long.

“Our backfield,” Fusco said, “was really dialed in. Up front, Shabazz has some dudes. They have monsters up front and they’re physical.

Our kids were dialed in and we stopped them.”

The Herd’s gameplan was to hold onto the ball for as long as possible. Little did they know they’d pile up 49 points – incredibly, the most all season against a team with the most physical gifts of anyone on their schedule by far.

“Our gameplan was holding the ball because they are a touchdown waiting to happen,” Fusco said. “You had to keep them off the field. We had chunks of yards, but they’d take it to the house if we let them. We kept stringing together long TD drives.”

The touchdown pass to Dzamba seemed to get everything working.

“That was huge,” Miniter said. “To throw a haymaker like that ... that gave us momentum to finish the first half with a big lead.”

Stunningly, the Herd held a 35-12 lead at half.

“Marco is a D-1 player, a special kid,” Fusco said. “We didn’t expect him to get a waggle TD pass. It was just 7-6, so we wanted to take a shot and then it was 14-6. That was such a game changer.”

Later on, when Miniter would roll out, Shabazz players would drop into coverage and he’d take off.

“When we got it to 35, you could see the air come out of some of their players.”

Fusco couldn’t say enough about assistant coaches Jeff Reid (line coach) and Nick Lane (backfield coach).  Both are Herdsmen who played for legendary coach Doug Wilkins at Mountain Lakes, who brought the Wing-T to the school and coached for over 40 years.

“As coaches, we have sat in the office together for years,” Fusco said. “You cannot be better up front than we were. Nick Lane prepared the kids, too.”

It was a great night up and down the roster, from the players to the coaches – and to the coaches no longer with us. Wilkins would have been very, very proud.