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METUCHEN, NJ— For the first time since 2009, the New Brunswick Zebras football team is heading to the state playoffs.
On a breezy and cloudy Saturday afternoon, the New Brunswick Zebras (8-1) needed to bounce back from their first loss of the season and secure a road win against a rigid St. Joseph Falcons (3-5) team to secure a playoff berth.
In a run-dominated game, each team clashed in the trenches, hardly attacking through the air.
This was a game loaded with penalty after penalty, constantly stopping the clock.
On the first drive, a 58-yard touchdown pass from Jah’Bree Seawright-Jeffery to CJ Hernandez was negated due to a questionable holding call.
Turning it over on downs, the Falcons claimed possession and moseyed their way down the field run by run, focused on picking up first downs rather than big plays for a touchdown.
Though this offensive style worked earlier on, it would fail them late in the game.
Eating up a chunk of clock, the Falcons left 1:29 in the first quarter after quarterback, Paul Cocozziello, punched in a 4-yard touchdown, putting the Falcons up 7-0.
It didn’t take long for the Zebras to respond: 54 seconds to be exact.
On the third play of the drive, with all the time in the world to select his receiver, Seawright-Jeffery launched a 49-yard bomb to German Pimental.
Pimental blew past his defender off the line of scrimmage from the snap to create space, and using his height, he easily hauled in the catch and tied the game at 7-7.
“It was a tough game,” Pimental said. “This was a very disciplined football team. They knew what they were going against, and we were just ready. And we worked hard, practiced as one, played as one.”
Seawright-Jeffery threw for 108 yards and seven of his nine passes were completed.
The Falcons were forced to run the ball, as they had no chance through the air with defensive backs Seawright-Jeffery, Samad Davila, Kadas Reams, and Maurice Ffrench not giving their receivers any breathing room.
Cocozziello would throw for 83 yards on the day.
Seawright-Jeffery kneeled down in the endzone for a touchback after he intercepted a pass over the center of the field, as his momentum carried him in. Surprisingly, the side official spotted the ball at the 1-yard-line.
On the third play of the drive, Maurice Ffrench took the hand-off on a sweep, running left to right, found daylight, and blazed past everyone for a touchdown.
But once again, a great Zebra touchdown was negated due to a holding call.
For the first time this season Ffrench was unable to score.
Working fast, Seawright-Jeffery completed passes to Ffrench, Reams, Hernandez, and Isaiah Webb in their two-minute offense, advancing to the Falcon 20-yard line.
But Jeffrey Garcia would miss a field goal attempt, and the game remained tied at the half.
This was a victory for the Falcons, who were facing a red-hot Zebras team that averages 32 points per game.
To start the second half, New Brunswick’s Josimar Contreras cracked kick returner Adrian Javier, forcing a fumble on Garcia’s squib kick, which was recovered by German Pimental.
When asked about the key to winning the game, Contreras said, “Today we knew we had to go through some adversity, they were big up front. It was a game about big plays and making them count.”
Looking for the same touchdown as before, the Falcons’ defense committed pass interference trying to prevent another long-ball touchdown to Pimental.
Working with great field position, Samad Davila emerged from the backfield to run straight up the middle for a 20-yard touchdown, going untouched as he scored and put the Zebras in the lead, 14-7.
Finally connecting for a pass, St. Joseph’s found West who was able to pick up a chunk of yards and move the ball into Zebra territory.
Emmanuel Resto would then break free and score, as the Falcons offensive line worked diligently down the field to tie the game at 14-14.
The Zebras’ offensive line continued to plow their way forward against the Falcons in the second half, as Davila found two more touchdowns, another of 20 yards and one two-yard plunge, as there were open holes throughout the game.
“Driving and pushing off the ball. Got a couple pancakes with my man Jovan over here, Just got to keep pushing and trucking,” said right tackle Arturo Omedo.
Right guard Jovan Mercado said, “Today was a game about adversity. We had our starting tight-end out because he had a concussion, and we put Xavier in. I actually had to go and play D-tackle, needed to step up and play some ball.”
“Smell the pancakes. We’re the O-line. We love pancakes,” he added.
Davila scored three touchdowns, and racked up 225 yards on 28 rushes, demonstrating tremendous leadership for his team as he continued to perform with a heavily-taped right ankle.
“We were taking what the defense was giving us and Samad ended up helping us out a lot on the ground,” Sofilkanich said. “We needed him to step up for us and he did.”
Yakely, who rushed 31 times for 178 yards, contributed a 14-yard touchdown in the third quarter to even the score 21-21.
In the final minutes left to play, the Falcons faced a fourth and long deep in Zebra territory, trailing 27-21.
On a pass over the middle, Reams had great coverage, but was called for pass interference, which gave the Falcons another down.
But on the next play the Falcons failed to convert, giving the Zebras possession with a little over three minutes remaining.
With the clock on their side the Zebras worked from deep in their own end, advancing the ball with the run game as they did throughout the contest.
Despite Davila’s beautiful performance, St. Joseph’s was able to poke the ball loose from him, recovered by PJ Barr.
St. Joseph’s would now only need a touchdown and an extra point to upet the Zebras.
The Falcons went to their huge offensive line to win the game for them, picking up bits of yards little by little. Penalties, however, set them back and left them in need of a big play.
As mentioned before, this would be their downfall, as the Zebras forced the Falcons to attempt a fourth down conversion with 40 seconds left.
Stopping them inches short of a first down, Zebras took over on downs and won 27-21.
“Coach talks about how offense wins games, but defense wins championships,” Davila said.
“At the end of the game we stepped up big defensively. If we want to win a state title, we need to play tough like that at the end.”
Due to a concussion from last week’s game against Colonia, Curtis Revan was not allowed to play against the Falcons. This left empty spots at the nose tackle and tight end positions.
Stepping in would be Xavier Valentin and Jordan Harris who both played a significant amount.
In the first round of postseason play the Zebras face Freehold Township on Friday, November 13 at 7pm. The game will be played at Memorial Stadium on Joyce Kilmer Avenue.
Earlier this year the Zebras defeated Freehold Township 38-28.