It was only fitting that Matt Rea would swat away the final desperation pass by Orange quarterback Contrez Hunter on Thursday night at Giants Stadium. After all, the senior running back/defensive back had already blocked an extra point that allowed Summit to carry a 14-13 lead into intermission and batted down a go-ahead field goal in the third period.
With star running back Dwaine Dabney ailing and unavailable for almost the entire second half of the North 2, Group II championship, the Hilltoppers turned to Rea, and did he ever deliver, rushing for 150 yards and scoring the game-clinching touchdown as Summit concluded a 12-0 season with a 28-19 victory over the stubborn Orange Tornadoes.
"Dwaine did a great job for us all season," Rea said of the senior sensation, who was hurt on the third play of the game but played most of the first half. "He had 24 touchdowns for us. He's one of my best friends on the team so I didn't like to see him go down. But I knew I had to pick up the slack."
The victory put an exclamation mark on the Hilltoppers' remarkable rise from an 0-10 season just three years ago. John Liberato took over the following season and the improvement began gradually, with 3-7 and 5-6 marks the past two seasons.
"We're blessed with great kids and a great community," said Liberato. "There's no better community than Summit. These kids knew that if they just stuck together that we were going to come out on top. That's what we did and I'm just real proud of them.
"Winning it this way is better than winning it any other way. It's awesome."
But this one wasn't easy, and a team that had virtually named the score in winning its first 11 games found itself in a rare and uncomfortable position on Thursday night when it fell into a 13-0 hole. It began with a fumble on the Hilltoppers' first play from scrimmage, which resulted in Anthony Lagrier's one-yard run and a 7-0 Tornado lead. After another fumble-this one by Dabney following an 18-yard pass completion-Orange tacked on another score on a fourth down option pitch to Spencer Drice, who went in from a yard out.
"Those (turnovers) were killers," Rea said. "I was worried, I'm not going to lie to you. But Coach is somebody who never gets rattled. He has faith in our offense, faith in our defense and, most importantly, faith in our seniors. I'm so happy to play for him, but I'm pretty upset that was my last time to play for him."
Rea displayed his first heroics of the evening on the extra point attempt following Orange's second score, when he broke through from the left side and blocked the kick, a play that, despite the nine-point victory margin, would prove huge.
That play clearly energized the shell-shocked Hilltoppers, who used a no-huddle offense and marched quickly down the field, going 85 yards on 13 plays with quarterback Joe Jaskolski taking it across from a yard out. Jaskolski was the catalyst for the entire drive, carrying seven times for 32 yards and threading a pass to Danny Feeney for 16 yards.
"There's another guy who did an outstanding job for us was Jaskolski," said Liberato of his quarterback, who rushed for 104 yards and threw for more than 100. "The first half, he put the team on his back."
The big play of the drive came on third and nine from the 10 when Jaskolski dropped a jump pass into Brian Feeney, who made a terrific diving catch for a first down at the one.
The defense helped the Hilltoppers escape their third fumble of the half after Marcel Godino tried to jump on a punt but had it slip out from under him. Orange took over at the Hilltopper 22, and on third and six, Jake Hall made a first-down-saving tackle on a pass in the flat. On fourth down, Ryan O'Malley caught Hunter behind the line of scrimmage and disaster was averted.
Godino then made up for his gaffe when he caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Jaskolski that, with Alex Melendez's extra point, put Summit up 14-13 with 17 seconds left in the half. It was a lead they'd never surrender.
The Tornadoes used three fourth-down conversions in their bid to take the lead in a long drive that ate up more than seven minutes of the third period. But after Hunter's fourth-and-nine completion to Malcolm Bagley netted the Tornadoes a first down at the Summit 10, the Hilltopper defense stiffened. An incomplete pass that was determined to be a lateral went out of bounds for a seven-yard loss, and Orange decided to go for a field goal from the 35-yard line with 1:50 left in the third period.
Once again, it was Rea busting through, deflecting the kick and preserving the Summit lead. As with the first block Rea made, this one ignited the Summit offense, and five plays later, Rea embarked on a remarkable, tackle-busting 45-yard touchdown run. He shed the first Tornado defender at the line of scrimmage, and the last one at the 10 before diving across for a 21-13 lead with 38 seconds left in the third quarter.
"All year people have been questioning me because of my size, and I really like to prove my critics wrong," Rea said. "That (run) was just a great feeling. I don't even really know what was going on during that run. I was just happy to get it in the end zone."
But Orange would not go quietly, and Drice's 30-yard punt return set up the Tornadoes on the Summit 47 with 9:12 remaining. It took them eight plays to cover the distance, with Hunter scoring from three yards to narrow the margin to 21-19. Brian Feeney, though, brought a big rush on the two-point conversion attempt and got his arms around Hunter just as he released the pass. The ball came up short and Summit clung to a two-point lead with 5:02 remaining.
Summit put it away with a couple of first downs, including a 38-yard completion from Jaskolski to O'Malley that set up Rea for the game-clinching 12-yard touchdown run with 2:00 left.
"Matt Rea is a phenomenal football player," Liberato said. "He's a playmaker. Anybody ... and listen to this ... anybody who doesn't recruit him is crazy. Don't look at his size. Look at his passion and his heart. He's outstanding and he's done that for us all year."
Dabney finished with 64 yards on nine carries as Summit totaled 318 yards on the ground and more than 400 for the game.
"Dwaine ran as hard as he could for as long as he could," Liberato said.