NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—If I told you the New Brunswick Zebra football team would be playing in the state semifinals two years ago, after they went 1-9 and couldn't score more than two touchdowns in a game, would you have believed me?
The New Brunswick Zebras were fantastic this season, and although they didn't achieve their goal of a state championship, they brought pride back into the community and have once again become a respected football team.
The Zebras played their first playoff game since 2009 this season, and first Semifinal since 2006.
In prior seasons, the Zebras looked defeated and accepted they were a bad team.
Regular season victories were once hard to come by.
But now, not coming away with a state title is disappointing for the Zebras. Quite a turnaround.
"We're still in the process of turning the team around," said head coach Don Sofilkanich after their loss against Old Bridge in the state tournament on November 20.
The Zebras team has done a 180 since Sofilkanich took the reins, going 3-7 in his first season and now 9-2 in his second, transforming last season's losses into wins and advancing to the state semifinals.
Their only losses this season came from excellent teams in Colonia and Old Bridge, both who advanced to the Semifinals.
The Old Bridge Knights posed a difficult challenge for the Zebras, and for the first time this season the Zebras had to play defense against an unfamiliar "Veer" offense.
If you don't know the Veer, it allows an offense to have three running options: From the snap, the quarterback can handoff to the running back, if not, he can keep it and pitch it out to another running back, if not, he can keep it and run with it himself.
The key to this offense is communication. This is because the quarterback has to make split second decisions with the ball and his running backs need to know when and when not to take the ball from him.
The offense can be slow to advance upfield, but when run correctly, some teams can reliably get 3-4-yard gains every down to keep the chains moving.
Defensive ends and outside linebackers must be patient when reading the quarterback in order to stop the Veer.
Against Old Bridge, the Zebras looked confused and lost on the field, not knowing how to stop the attack. Old Bridge was able to eat up chunks of clock and score at the end of many of their drives.
Their offensive line was big and strong, and along with a savvy quarterback and quick running backs, the Veer was nearly impossible to stop.
After letting up the game's first two touchdowns to the Knights, the score was 13-0.
The Knights completed a 70-yard opening drive and a 98-yard drive after Jake Esposito intercepted a Zebra pass at the 2-yard line.
"The offensive line stepped up, did their job, and made my job easy," said head coach Sodano. "Offensive line played outstanding today, gave holes for me, Jake, allowed Artur to stand in the pocket."
The Knights were in complete control of the game, but all of a sudden the Zebras unleashed a fury of huge plays like a hurricane the Knights couldn't control.
The Zebras responded with a spectacular touchdown late in the first half, after Maurice Ffrench stepped in at quarterback for Jah'Bree Seawright-Jeffery for a key play.
Facing a 4th and long, Ffrench lined up in the shotgun. The snap went past Ffrench, but he recovered it quickly. With pressure coming at him on the run, he somehow lobbed an accurate pass over to German Pimentel, who easily caught it for a touchdown.
Jeffrey Garcia's PAT was blocked, but the Zebras were still within reach trailing by seven points, 13-6.
After Old Bridge had perfectly operated the Veer throughout the half, quarterback Artur Sitowski fumbled a handoff to running back Jake Esposito, which was recovered by the Zebras' Curtis Revan.
With 4:05 left in the first half, Maurice Ffrench bounced to the right on a run, found a hole and outran the entire Knight defense for a 50-yard touchdown.
Garcia's PAT attempt was wide left, leaving the Zebras trailing 13-12 shortly before the half.
On the ensuing kick-off, the hurricane fury continued, as Steven Reece popped Esposito hard forcing a fumble, which was recovered by the Zebras' Jovan Mercado.
With limited time on the clock, New Brunswick failed to score off the forced fumble. The Knights appeared thrilled to hear the whistle for halftime to stop the tide of momentum the Zebras had.
That momentum would not continue into the second half, as the Zebras turned the ball over twice on interceptions, after being forced to look to the air since the ground game wasn't working.
Old Bridge would fumble two more times, but recovered them both. Besides those blemishes, the Knights dominated in the second half, scoring two more times to secure the victory.
In total, the Knights fumbled the ball four times, losing it twice, and had countless penalties against them. It's rare to see a team commit as many fouls as they did and still pull off a convincing win.
Despite the four fumbles, both teams had two total turnovers.
Head coach Don Sofilkanich said, "We kind of weathered the storm, but we lost to a better football team today."
Physical and verbal taunting was exhibited on the field from Old Bridge. Not once did the officials penalize them for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The irony of it is other news outlets who reported the game gave praise to the Knights for consoling Ffrench after the game.
Jake Esposito made crucial plays for his team, including two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Esposito talked about his team's game plan after the game, mentioning how they were not going to put the ball in Ffrench's hands.
This meant short kickoffs and punts, making sure Ffrench couldn't get the ball on special teams.
They even kicked the ball out of bounds twice in a row on a kick-off and later tried an onside-kick in order to avoid the star player.
Though they may have given the Zebras favorable field position, Ffrench's chances of a big return were negated.
Freehold Township made the mistake of kicking to Ffrench in the first round of the playoffs, the difference at the end of the game as the Zebras prevailed 21-14.
The Zebras thrived on making big plays in order to win many of their games. Many times these plays came on special teams, including forced fumbles on kick-offs, big returns for good field position or touchdowns and even converting on fourth downs with fake punts.
The Zebras scored 311 points, an average of 28.3 per game and 35 percent of their scoring came from touchdowns of 30 yards or more.
Unfortunate for the Zebras, a team which relied on big plays to win, a solid team like Old Bridge knew how to prevent them from happening.
The Knights went onto the Central Group V State Championship where they lost to South Brunswick 42-0 on December 5.