Finding new ways to win
R-S Central has won five games this season, four of which came in the last four weeks. But Friday's night over East Rutherford was different. Not because it was a heated rivalry or because it put the Hilltoppers in the playoffs, but because they came from behind to capture the win.
In the three previous games of their current four-game winning streak, the Hilltoppers led at halftime. But against the Cavaliers, Central trailed 17-14 at the break.
"Any time you can battle back from being down at halftime makes you a better team," R-S Central head coach Mike Cheek said.
The score could have been much worse if the Hilltoppers didn't strike twice with huge plays in the final three minute of the first half, one of which was an 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Matt Atchley to cut the East lead to 17-14 as time expired.
"The touchdown before halftime was huge," Cheek said. "It sent us into the locker room confident about making adjustments for the second half."
The other highlight reel play, a 68-yard strike from Jay'len Hollis to Malik Whetstone, put the Hilltoppers on the board and kept them in the game with just under three minutes left in the first half.
"At that point the score was 14-0 and that put us back into the game and gave us a spark," Cheek said. "We knew they were bringing everyone to the line of scrimmage and playing man-to-man in the secondary. We ran the buck sweep to one side and watched the corner and eventually caught a few plays later."
Those big plays, usually a nice compliment to a strong R-S Central offense, was about all the Hilltoppers could muster against a Cavalier defense that allowed just 173 yards of total offense, 68 of which came on Whetstone's touchdown.
"We didn't have a good drive until the second half when we took the lead," Cheek said in reference to Desmond Whitesides' 4-yard touchdown run with 2:40 left in the third quarter. "I thought East played the best they've played all year long on the defensive end."
East Rutherford kept the R-S Central ground game in check allowing the Hilltoppers just 75 rushing yards on 35 carries.
"They just put everybody on the line of scrimmage and blitzed from all over the place," Cheek said. "They were just killing us on the offensive line."
However, the Hilltoppers overcame a lack-luster offensive performance and captured the county championship and virtually clinched a playoff berth.
"Beating East was special but making the playoffs made if even more special," Cheek said. "Winning the county championship is always something special. Our kids have been talking about the for the past two or three years."
The elated group of Hilltoppers were gathered in the locker room after the game before going their separate ways to celebrate the win.
"I brought everyone in the locker room to make sure we all celebrated together. It's been a tough road for us the last few years and I wanted to make sure we had a good time," Cheek said. "They all just ran around hugging each other talked about how hard they worked to get there."