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Playoff victory little consolation for Ridgewood

Sunday, November 11, 2001

By Jim McConville Staff Writer

NORTH BERGEN - Adversity has been no stranger to the Ridgewood High football team this year. First it was September 11, and the forfeit to Teaneck. Faced with a 1-3 record, the Maroons had to play the last four weeks in a playoff mode, since one loss would put them out.

They reached the playoffs, only to find out Saturday morning that tragedy had again struck the community. Steve Pawlowski, the twin brother of last year's star running back Mike Pawlowski and a member of last year's track team along with a number of this year's football players, was struck and killed by a car on Friday night while walking with his brother at Quinnipiac University.

The Maroons certainly didn't play their best under the circumstances, but they were able to hold off a second-seeded North Bergen team to advance in the North 1, Group 4 playoffs with a 21-18 victory. Ridgewood, the seventh seed, will face sixth-seeded Passaic Tech (9-1) next Saturday in Wayne. The Bulldogs defeated third-seeded Hackensack by a 31-0 score.

Ridgewood got the monkey off its back as far as first round playoff games go, as they broke a streak of three straight opening round losses, all of them at home. This time, they traveled to North Bergen and beat the Bruins for the third time in four playoff contests (Ridgewood lost in 1984 and won in 1985 and 1991).

Maroon head coach Chuck Johnson, still stunned by the news of Pawlowski's death, breathed a huge sigh of relief after the win, calling it, "a great high school football game, two teams fighting each other right down to the end."

The difference ended up being a facet of the game that Johnson had preached to his team about all week and in his pre-game speech - special teams.

"We talked about giving our three kids on special teams a chance to make big plays," Johnson reiterated. "Get Bill Christopher the chance to make his kicks on extra points and field goals, and get Bernard Mann and Jack Riley the chance on kickoff and punt returns."

Christopher nailed all three of his extra point kicks to provide the difference in the game, and, after the first bad snap of the season caused a blocked punt and gave North Bergen a gift score at the end of the first half, Mann returned the second half kickoff 87 yards for a score to quickly shift the momentum.

"We needed to make something happen," said Mann. "Everyone was pretty mad at halftime, and we came out and got it done. It wasn't a set return, just find daylight, and everyone got good blocks, because only the kicker touched me."

Mann's return TD was the first on any kick since Marc Jenkins took a punt back for a score against Barringer in 1992. No one has returned a kickoff for a Maroon touchdown since before 1990.

Mann's jaunt made it 14-6, and offset the first real special teams error of the year by Ridgewood. Christopher, who had already knocked punts of 39 and 41 yards and had a 45-yarder against the wind nullified by a running into the kicker penalty four plays earlier, had the snap bounce back to him.

He picked it up and tried to get the kick off, only to have Alex Chaparro block it. The ball was recovered at the Ridgewood 1-yard line, and on the next play, David Castro went in for the score. Mark Rodgers' try to tie the game was foiled by a bad snap, allowing Riley to block the PAT kick.

The Bruin score negated a solid goal-line stand by the Maroons, who held for three plays at the 1-yard line after the Bruins (6-3) drove 65 yards in 15 plays and ate up 8:25 on the clock. It also offset the game's first score, a 15-yard pass from Alex Duran to Tyler Rhoten the gave Ridgewood the lead it would never relinquish.

That score came on the heels of a Riley interception, his sixth of the year, and a 40-yard catch-and-run by Mann on the play preceding the touchdown.

North Bergen was able to answer back with another long drive, this one 80 yards and 13 plays over 6:38. Castro again scored the touchdown, this time on a fourth down sweep of the right side. The Bruins went for two, and Evan Brady knocked down Rodgers' slant pass to Emil Fuda.

The Maroons had been stymied on offense save for their first TD march, but they took a page out of North Bergen's book on their next possession. They ate up 6:07 on the clock in going 69 yards over 14 plays to get an all-important third touchdown. The score came on a Duran pass to Rhoten in the back right of the end zone, and Christopher's PAT made it a two score game with 10:59 left.

For the third time, NB sustained a drive, this one 12 plays and 90 yards. The big play was a third down catch by Jonathan Vargas good for 32 yards. Eric Macias punched it in from the two, and Ridgewood again stopped the two-point conversion pass after a clipping penalty negated a successful Castro conversion on a run.

Disaster almost struck Ridgewood again, as they were forced to punt with 2:30 left. The snap didn't get more than five yards before it hit the ground and literally bounced back to Christopher, who maintained his cool and bombed a 48-yard kick into the end zone.

The Bruins did manage a first down, but on a fourth and eight, Avon Morgan tipped a pass that headed to Fuda. As he was about to catch it, Matt Pastore knocked it away from him and Chris Conetta intercepted it with 1:22 left.

Johnnie Jones converted a third down with a 16-yard run that ended any Bruin hopes of a miracle finish and sent Ridgewood into the semi-finals. North Bergen owned the statistical edge, outgaining Ridgewood by a 291-198 margin, and Castro earned game honors with 26 carries for 121 yards as the Bruins dented the Maroon defense for 213 rushing yards.

Jones was able to get outside in the second half, and he had seven carries for 47 yards after carrying once for no gain in the first half. Duran was 6 of 11 passing for 102 yards and threw two touchdown passes in a game for the fourth straight week.

Ridgewood's defense, which played without nose guard Drew Ponticelli (home with a 103 degree fever), was paced by Brady's 10 tackles and nine each by Kevin Strahle and Morgan and eight by Arturo Duran and Eugene Parloff. Bob Lane and Macias each had nine tackles for the Bruins.

"This is no disrespect to North Bergen, but we didn't play our best game today," Johnson said. "The news about Steve definitely was part of it, because I thought after the week of practice that this team was absolutely ready to go.

"I can't stop thinking about it myself, so I know it weighed on them. Guys like Mike Culver willed this team to play today, and that we were able to come away with a win even though we weren't at our best is a good tribute to this ballclub."




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