PISCATAWAY - Rumson-Fair Haven’s shot at winning a record-tying fifth consecutive state title essentially came down to one play.
With the Bulldogs clinging to a 15-14 lead, Somerville was looking at a third-and-10 from the 50-yard line with only 1:44 left in the game.
Pioneer junior quarterback Jalahn Dabney was flushed out of the pocket on the play by Rumson’s Henry Sullivan but the multi-dimensional Dabney avoided the rush and found his tight end, Joe Ciempola, all alone for 45 yards down to the five-yard line.
Two plays later Dabney ran it up the gut of Rumson’s defense reaching the end zone from three-yards out for the go-ahead and winning touchdown. Devin Hack was stopped on the two-point conversion attempt and the score stood at 20-15 with 21 seconds left in the game.
“They were one play better than we were,” said Rumson-Fair Haven head coach Jerry Schulte. “There was just some miscommunication on the play.”
The Bulldogs had one last chance but on fourth-and-9 from their own 22 Rumson quarterback Dan Harby’s pass to junior tight end Ian O’Connor fell incomplete putting an end to Rumson’s incredible run of four straight sectional championships.
Rumson (10-2) was attempting to be the first team to equal Manasquan’s Shore Conference record of five straight state championships achieved between 1998 and 2002.
With the score tied 8-8 at the half, the Pioneers (11-1) went 90 yards in eight plays on their first possession of the second half to take a 14-8 lead on a Dabney to Ryan Hinton 38-yard touchdown pass. Hinton was wide open down the seam on the play beating cornerback Liam Donohue who was a couple of steps behind.
Rumson’s Keegan Woods’ interception in the end zone thwarted Somerville’s two-point conversion attempt keeping the Pioneer lead at six points with 2:36 left in the third quarter.
The two teams exchanged punts twice before the Bulldogs mounted a 64-yard drive for a 15-14 lead that mistakenly appeared to be the game-winning drive.
“We thought that last TD sealed things up,” Rumson star running back Peter Lucas said. “But one little mistake…. we thought we had enough to get the five-peat.”
Facing a fourth-and-9 at the Somerville 47 with 4:18 left in the game, Harby found senior wideout Mike Martino for 13 yards and a first down at the Pioneer 33-yard line.
Harby then hooked up with O’Connor for 12 yards before picking up his own fumbled snap and gaining seven yards setting up a second-and-three from the 14.
Lucas – who was playing on a bad ankle and still rushed for 82 hard-earned yards on 24 attempts – ran it in from there but Rumson’s two-point conversion attempt failed and the score stood at 15-14 with 3:13 left in the game.
The rest is history but not the kind the Bulldogs were hoping for.
“We lost to a great team,” Schulte said. “We had a great season and we have nothing to hang our heads about.”
Somerville took the opening kickoff and drove to the Bulldog 10-yard line but on fouth-and-6 Rumson defensive end Elijah McAllister stopped Somerville junior running back Robbie Fiorentino for a five-yard loss turning the ball over to the Bulldogs.
Rumson took over at the 15 but went nowhere going three-and-out and were forced to punt on fourth down from near their own end zone.
Following the punt the Pioneers went 42 yards in six plays with Dabney taking it in from one-yard out to finish off the drive. Dabney accounted for all but seven yards on the drive going 2-for-2 for 23 yards through the air and rushing another 24 yards.
The elusive Dabney passed for 211 yards and one TD going 14-of-22 through the air and added 84-yards rushing on 13 attempts.
Somerville outgained the Bulldogs in total offensive yardage 315 to 234.
On their ensuing possession, the Bulldogs advanced to the Pioneer 21-yard line but Harby was sacked by Ciempola for an eight-yard loss and Lucas lost another three on a screen pass from Harby forcing a Bulldog punt.
The score remained 8-0 with 4:50 to go in the first half after Rumson returned a Somerville punt to the 45-yard line.
Four straight runs by Lucas netted 20 yards and an illegal substitution penalty on Somerville gave the Bulldogs a first down at the Pioneers 30 with under three minutes to play in the half.
Maldjian then got in the act carrying four consecutive times sandwiching an incompletion to set up a second-and-goal at the two-yard line before bulling his way up the middle for the touchdown. Harby connected with O’Connor for the two-point conversion to knot the score at 8-8 with 55 seconds left in the half.
Somerville drove to the Bulldogs 18-yard with 17 seconds left but an unnecessary roughing penalty pushed them back to the 33 and two incompletions ended the half tied at eight.
The Pioneer defense held Rumson to just 146 net yards rushing on 41 attempts in the game for a 3.6 yard average. Lucas came into the game averaging 9.98 yards per carry and almost 200 yards a game. He came in with 2196-yards rushing on 220 carries.
“This feels terrible, it feels like we disrespected the other teams that came before us,” McAllister said of the heartbreaking loss. “The four championships we won before us don’t really matter now. This one was supposed to be mine along with the other seniors.”
“This is tough,” Lucas said. “We felt like our defense would get the stop.”