PARSIPPANY – In the blink of an eye Friday night, Chatham football players hustled off the field and celebrated with several hundred adoring fans.
It was almost as if Chatham had won a NJSIAA championship. The Cougars haven’t, but now they have a chance.
Chatham’s Justin Hayes scored a 39-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to break a tie. The Cougars defense finished a 24-17 victory over defending champion Parsippany Hills in a winner-take-all battle for a NJSIAA North 2 Group III playoff berth.
“This feels unbelievable,” Chatham Jason Isza said. “I’m numb right now. This is as exciting as it gets.”
As the final seconds ticked away and the game was in hand, Chatham players flooded the field. They high-fived, hugged and shouted. Chatham coaches joined in the celebration. Some shook hands. Some hugged.
All of them relished their future destination: the postseason, which begins in two weeks.
Nick Zack intercepted a Parsippany Hills pass at midfield with one minute left in the game, and the Cougars ran out the clock, sending them to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
“It’s the best feeling ever,” said Hayes, who had 139 yards on 11 carries. “We worked so hard to get here. The seniors worked so hard. This is like a dream. I can’t believe it.”
Hayes’ decisive touchdown run came on the third play of the fourth quarter, just two plays after he had a 20-yard run. Hayes waited patiently for his blockers and received a good downfield block from teammate Robbie Moskowitz.
“Our (offensive line) worked so hard for me and (backfield mate) Matt Nestler tonight,” Hayes said, referring to Zack, Graham Lemon, Colin Ness, Jahanzab Kahn and Mike Kellstrom. “We believe we are a championship team. We have some great athletes. Since the eighth grade, we have been a close family.”
Chatham and Parsippany Hills were deadlocked at 17 at halftime.
Chatham scored the game’s first 10 points before Parsippany Hills came back to tie it. The Cougars responded with another touchdown before the Vikings tied it again.
Chatham took a 17-10 lead with five minutes left in the first half when Nestler muscled his way into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown. Quarterback Alex Sands completed three passes during the drive, including passes of 21 and 15 yards to Brian Brady, and a 16-yard completion to Moskowitz.
The Vikings responded with a score of their own that was set up by Alex Lerman’s 65-yard kickoff return to the Chatham 25. Two plays later, quarterback Nick Verducci ran in from 21 yards out and Cormac Bradley’s point-after tied it again.
Chatham drove 80 yards downfield to open the game and scored when Sands connected with tight end Ryan Barnett for a 13-yard touchdown pass. The key play during the drive was a 55-yard run by Hayes to put the ball at the Vikings 14. Two plays later, Chatham scored.
After Parsippany Hills went three-and-out, Chatham went back to work and Tommy Adams kicked a 22-yard field. The Cougars started out on their own 41 and drove down the to the Vikings 5 before the drive stalled. The two biggest plays during the march were a personal foul against Parsippany Hills and an 11-yard pass from Sands to Moskowitz, which put the ball at the Vikings 8.
But the Vikings bounced back when Verducci sidestepped a Chatham defender and went 55 yards up the right sideline for a touchdown.
After a Chatham three-and-out, Parsippany Hills went back to work and Bradley booted a 30-yard field goal with plenty of room to spare. The biggest play of the drive took place before it even started, when Lerman reeled off a 35-yard punt return, his second significant return of the first half. Another big play during the drive was the first one, when Wilson Done had a 13-yard run.
“We thought we could do all right this year,” Isza said. “We have 20 seniors and some great leaders. They do everything they are asked to do.”
Chatham 10 7 0 7 — 24
Parsippany Hills 7 10 0 0 — 17
C–Ryan Barnett 13 pass from Alex Sands (Tommy Adams kick).
C–Adams 22 field goal.
PH–Nick Verducci 55 run (Cormac Bradley kick).
PH–Bradley 30 field goal.
CH–Matt Nestler 11 run (Adams kick).
PH–Verducci 21 run (Bradley kick).
C–Justin Hayes 39 run (Adams kick).
Team records — Parsippany Hills 4-4, Chatham 6-2.