By Jason Bernstein/For The Star-Ledger
Hoboken’s Josh Mercado received quite a scare when he was stripped of the ball at the Shabazz 1-yard line in the game’s final minute.
“It was terrifying,” said Mercado, who recovered his own fumble. “It was like a nightmare for a quick second, but as soon as I recovered it, I knew all was good from there. I wanted a second shot and I kept fighting.”
The bruising, junior fullback got that shot on the next play and his 1-yard touchdown run with 13 seconds left gave Hoboken a 13-7 victory over Shabazz in the NJSIAA/Atlantic Health North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 final Saturday at Kean University in Union.
It was the second straight title for Hoboken (9-3), which was missing six starters to injury. Shabazz (8-4) was seeking its first state sectional championship.
“They know that once that play’s over, there’s nothing they can do about that play, but they can do something about the next play,” Hoboken coach Lou Taglieri said. “(Josh) did that by winning the game.”
After the defense made its second straight defensive stand from inside its own 25-yard line, Hoboken quarterback Donte Bass found De’Shawn Reed for a 68-yard catch-and-run to the Shabazz 19 with 1:20 left.
“I just had so many thoughts going through my head, but the main thing was that I had to catch this ball, get this catch for this team,” said Reed. “Once I got the ball, I just turned around and ran.”
After a Bass run, Taglieri turned to Mercado, Hoboken’s last healthy running back, for the final two of his 29 carries.
“I was taking a pounding. I just had to keep moving forward and do what I do best and just run the ball,” said Mercado, who dedicated the game to his aunt, who is fighting cancer. “They kept telling me to keep running, get chunks of yards and just keep moving forward.”
Facing a hard-hitting Shabazz defense led by Jesse Jones, Udoka Opara, Ike McLean, Joshua Fredrick and Jabrill Johnson, Mercado ground out 79 rushing yards. Michael Williamson added 59 yards on 10 carries before being limited by an ankle injury in the second quarter.
Shabazz took a 7-0 lead on Michael Reed’s 29-yard interception return in the first quarter. Hoboken tied it in the second when the ball was snapped over the Shabazz punter’s head and scooped up by Jarius Mills for an 8-yard touchdown return.
Twice in the fourth quarter, Shabazz was in position to regain the lead, but was shut down by the fierce Hoboken defense that included Reed (two sacks), Mercado, Danny Clifford and Monague Younger. Staring down first-and-goal from the 6, Hoboken’s Robert Montanez tackled Dashon Myers for a loss before Reed delivered consecutive tackles for loss and a hit on quarterback Zaire Fogle on a fourth-down incompletion.
Fredrick’s fumble recovery gave Shabazz the ball at the 18 with 3:21 left. Mercado stuffed Myers for a loss of 4 yards followed by three straight incompletions to turn the ball back to Hoboken for the winning drive.
“In a state championship game, to have two scoring opportunities down inside the 20 and come away with nothing, that always hurts,” said Shabazz coach Darnell Grant. “And then that long pass at the end, that killed us. You can’t make those crucial mistakes. It was us. We had our chances. We had the game won, we had it in hand. We just didn’t finish.”
Much on Congrats to the Bulldogs in reaching the state final. Based oin their Saturday performance great things will be coming out of the squad in the coming season.