Northern Highlands Advances to State Championship on Blocked PAT
FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, NJ – It was a game that lived up to the hype. Despite the impact of the cold weather that has settled into the Eastern United States over the past few days, the 2022 NJSIAA North Jersey Group 4 Regional Championship matched the top billing it was given. Hampered by the cold, both offenses struggled more than expected, but in the end both teams found a way to answer the other.
In the end though, it would be Northern Highlands breaking through to the Group 4 State Championship game in two weeks at Rutgers University. The Highlanders, which lost to Irvington in the same regional final at SHI Stadium last December, managed to block an extra point attempt that followed a TD run by Kente Edwards to prevent a second overtime, and defeat North Hunterdon, 21-20.
It was a heartbreaking end to what had been a tremendous season for the Lions. North Hunterdon won the very tough and competitive Liberty Silver Division of the Big Central Conference, and its first sectional championship since 2017. Prior to Saturday evening, the only taste of defeat the Lions had experienced in 2022 was back in mid-September to top ranked Phillipsburg (48-21).
Although the season ended in disappointment, North Hunterdon showed the determination and grit that characterized its season and championship run. In spite of its offensive troubles, and falling behind three times to Northern Highlands, the Lions battled back to tie the game each time. The Lions tied it at 14-14 early in the fourth quarter, and answering the Highlanders score in the extra session with Edwards’ third TD of the game.
While Northern Highlands defense intercepted 3 passes, and limited North Hunterdon senior QB Luke Martini to just 159 yards passing, it couldn’t stop Edwards. The Lions’ senior running back rushed 28 times for 183 yards, or an average of 6.5 yards per carry along with all three of North Hunterdon’s scores. Edwards finished 2022 with 186 carries for 1,442 yards and 15 TDs.
North Hunterdon outgained Northern Highlands by a margin of 364 to 260 including a near two to one advantage in rushing yardage (205 to 107). Unfortunately, the Lions were unable to capitalize due to its 4 turnovers. In addition, North Hunterdon missed a 30 yard field goal in the closing seconds of regulation, and had an extra point blocked in overtime.
One of the Highlanders key players, Zach Chostaka, figured prominently in the contest with two interceptions. Charlie Sparago added an interception of his own while John Lavinio picked up a fumble recovery for the winners. North Hunterdon collected two turnovers including a Derek Vaddis interception and a forced fumble and recovery by Alex Uryniak. Vaddis also figured prominently on offense with a game high 9 receptions for 105 yards.
Nate Johnson managed the game effectively for Northern Highlands by completing 10 of 16 pass attempts for 127 yards and 2 TDs while throwing only one interception. Johnson also rushed 13 times for 30 yards and another score while Sparago led the Highlanders with 68 yards on 17 carries. Luke Saturn led Northern Highlands with 6 catches for 67 yards while teammates Danny Smiechowski and Fred Kanning each caught a TD pass.
With the victory, Northern Highlands won its first regional championship in its third try after losing to Wayne Valley (21-17) in 2019, and to Irvington (19-14) a year ago. The Highlanders improved to 9-3 overall, and move on to the Group 4 State Championship against Millville, the winner of the South Jersey Group 4 Regional Championship over Mainland (18-14).
The Highlanders also improved to 7-0 against Big Central Conference schools since 2019. Two of those victories came against Colonia and Woodbridge when both schools were still part of the Greater Middlesex Conference. Northern Highlands is 5-0 in the playoffs against BCC schools since 2019. North Hunterdon concluded its season at 11-2 and equaled its win total in 2017.
NORTH HUNTERDON NOTEBOOK: In three seasons at running back for the Lions, Kente Edwards rushed 296 times for 2,169 yards, or an average of 7.3 yards per carry, and 23 TDs. Edwards also caught 16 passes for 168 yards and a TD. Luke Martini finished 2022 with 123 completions in 212 pass attempts for 2,306 yards and 22 TDs while throwing 10 INTs.
In his three varsity seasons at QB, Martini completed 226 passes in 398 pass attempts for 3,703 yards and 39 TDs while throwing 18 INTs. Martini also rushed 29 times for 208 yards and 5 TDs. Derek Vaddis concluded his 2022 season with 55 receptions for 1,054 and 11 TDs. For his career, Vaddis caught 64 passes for 1,137 yards and 11 TDs.