A full moon came to Jefferson Township High School in more ways than one on the Friday of Halloween weekend.
As the full phase hovered over the football field, another harvest moon appeared on the newly renovated scoreboard in the perfect column. Behind an uncannily dominant defensive effort, the Falcons did not allow the Passaic Valley Hornets to enter the end zone, needing only a fourth-quarter touchdown to earn a 7-0 victory.
Friday marked the Falcons’ second and final scheduled home game of the abbreviated 2020 season. The defense didn’t allow a single point in those games, having also topped West Milford 21-0 in their opener on October 2.
“The emotion is as high and rare and special as this game was tonight,” head coach Jerry Venturino said of the victory. “Before the game, I told the kids that defense wins championships, offense wins games. The defense did both tonight. I’m incredibly proud, not only of their execution and physicality, but battling the adversity throughout the game.
“We always talk about it. I say ‘best play’ the team says ‘next play’ right back after me,” Venturino continued. “With all the turnovers…Our defense dug their heels into the turf and said ‘it’s not happening’, a lot of high school teams would’ve put their heads down, especially after seven turnovers, at putting the defense in such a bad position. But talk about senior leadership. We’ve got 17 seniors, seven or eight of them played defense. Potentially in their last home game, they weren’t having it.”
Jefferson (3-1) used trickery to score the only points of the game, as sophomore receiver Jason Eisele launched a backward pass taken from Theo Fisher, one that landed into the arms of receivers Caleb Rippey. The receivers dodged pursuing Hornets to send Oak Ridge into hysterics and give the Falcons a lead they’d never relinquish.
As Rippey saw the ball coming towards him, one thought reigned in his head.
“Don’t drop it. That’s all that was going through my head,” Rippey said with a smile. “I had a shaky beginning to the game. First post I ran, I dropped it. The weather’s really affecting everybody’s hands out here. I just made sure I focused, watch it all the way in, got us into the end zone, got us six.”
Scoring on both sides was stifled by sterling defensive efforts. Each of Jefferson’s five possessions in the first half ended in a turnover, setting the Hornets (3-2) up in opposing territory each time. Two more interceptions awaited in the second half, both of which But the Falcons recovered in resilient fashion, stopping PV each time they invaded their territory. The Hornets went for it on fourth down seven times throughout the course of the evening, including four times in the second half. Jefferson allowed only one such conversion, including one situated 10 yards from the end zone with just over four minutes to go in the game. Andrew Weber earned his third interceptions of the season in the second quarter, while Michael Studnick closed things out with a steal of his own when the Hornets had one more opportunity to tie or win after forcing a Jefferson punt.
That drive started at the Falcons’ 42, but Studnick was there to end the game on an appropriate defensive note.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Studnick said. “This was a big-time game, so I knew I needed to make a play there. I had made big plays before, so I knew it was my time to shine. I’d just do anything to help my team win, to make that play to seal the win.”
Making Jefferson’s defensive prowess all the more impressive was the fact they entered Friday’s game on relatively short rest. The Falcons had last played on Saturday afternoon in Vernon, a tilt that provided only one day of on-field preparation due to complications with a canceled game against Lakleland. JTHS student-athletes had no doubt that they would be ready to respond.
“I think we have a lot of chemistry on this squad,” senior linebacker Larry DiBiase said.“We’ve all been playing for years together. We know what’s on the line with this season. Ever since freshman year, we’ve been excited about our senior season. It stinks to see that it’s shortened now, but we’ve got to work with what we’ve got and we’re doing that pretty well.”
“From day one, we prepared to win,” fellow defender Kofi Mensah added. “Even though the season is very unusual, our coaches made sure that we had enough preparation. Initially, we didn’t even know if we were going to have a season. But we made sure to be prepared to have a season in its entirety. We have contingency plans and no excuses. This is football. It’s going to be like life.”
Jefferson will play their last scheduled game of the season next Friday night on the road at Mount Olive. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags