Sitkowski Powers Warriors Past Panthers

Sitkowski Powers Warriors Past Panthers

Watchung Hills QB Rushes for 3 TDs and Throws Another in 33-26 State Playoff Win

WARREN, NJ – The last time Bridgewater-Raritan and Watchung Hills met, the two schools only combined for 21 total points in a 14-7 win by the Warriors.  Much of the reason for that was the wind and rain from Tropical Storm Ophelia.  On Friday night, conditions were much different.  The skies were clear and dry.  Temperatures were above normal.  Most importantly, there was very little in the way of wind.  The result was a much more prolific offensive performance by both teams.

Watchung Hills Senior QB, Aleks Sitkowski, who didn’t play in the first meeting back on September 23rd, turned in his best performance in several weeks.  Taking advantage of the warm, dry, and light wind conditions, Sitkowski rushed for three touchdowns while throwing for another to lead the 2nd seeded Warriors to a 33-26 victory.  Sitkowski completed 21 of 31 passes for 218 yards while rushing 18 times for another 81 yards.

Sitkowski also scored twice on two-point conversion runs to account for 28 of the Warriors’ 33 points.  Junior wideout, Brayden Kelly, was Sitkowski’s primary target with 12 receptions for 142 yards, or about 11.8 yards per catch.  Kelly’s biggest catch was a 35-yard reception for a third-quarter touchdown that gave the Warriors the lead for good.  Junior placekicker, Byron McCann connected on two extra points while making a 25-yard field goal to open Watchung Hills scoring.

McCann saved his best play for last when he intercepted a Bridgewater-Raritan pass off of a deflection with under five minutes to play to help seal the victory.  Bridgewater-Raritan, which entered the contest on a two-game winning streak, and had only lost 6 of its 7 games by a total of only 37 points, provided formidable opposition.  Led by senior QB Jack Bray, who directed an up-tempo no-huddle offense, the Panthers jumped out to a 13-3 second-quarter lead.

Bray went toe-to-toe with Sitkowski in their duel.  Bray completed 12 of 20 passes for 217 yards and 2 TDs.  Senior RB, Frankie Verano led the Panther ground attack with 16 carries for 106 yards, or about 7.3 yards per rush while scoring 2 TDs.  Senior wideout, Anthony Confalone was Bray’s top target with 4 catches for 108 yards, or 27 yards per reception.  One of those four catches by Confalone was a 51-yard haul from Bray for a third-quarter touchdown that put Bridgewater-Raritan in front, 26-25.

Another Panther wideout, Joe Spirra caught a 40-yard TD pass in the second quarter to establish Bridgewater-Raritan’s ten-point lead.  Sitkowski would counter with a solid drive that consisted of passes to Kelly and Joe Clintock (5 catches for 50 yards), and culminated with a rugged three-yard Sitkowski run over the right side of the Warrior line for a TD that closed the gap to 13-10 at the 5:39 mark of the second.

On Bridgewater-Raritan’s ensuing drive, Bray dropped back, rolled slightly to his left, and uncorked a pass to Confalone, who scampered to about the Watchung Hills 12-yard line.  Several plays later, Verano, who opened the scoring with 9-yard TD run at the 7:20 mark of the first period, took a handoff from Bray, ran to his right, broke a tackle, and then headed upfield toward the end zone.  Verano was met at the goal line by Bryce Arch, who managed to knock the ball loose.

The ball eluded the grasp of players on both teams as it bounced out of the end zone.  However, the officials ruled that Verano had already broken the plane of the goal line and scored.  The Panthers missed the extra point, but still led 19-10 with still several minutes to play in the first half.  Once again, Sitkowski and Watchung Hills quickly bounced back and responded with a score.  

The Warriors special teams, led by Scott Drews, gave the team great field position.  Drews got hold of a pooch kick on the kickoff and rambled down inside the Bridgewater-Raritan 25-yard line.  Sitkowski then found Clintock on a screen pass, which moved the ball to the Panthers 15-yard line with 2:15 to go in the second.  Moments later, Sitkowski connected with Clintock again on a short pass that gave Watchung Hills a first and goal inside the Bridgwater-Raritan ten-yard line with about 1:45 to play in the half.

Sitkowski then took the snap and rushed over the left side of the Warriors line, bounced off a would-be Bridgewater-Raritan tackler, and fell into the end zone for his second TD run of the game.  McCann then made the extra point to close the gap to 19-17 with 1:04 remaining in the second quarter.  The score remained that way as both teams went to the locker room, but the momentum would shift in Watchung Hills’ favor at the very start of the third quarter.

McCann angled a short end-over-end kick toward the Bridgewater-Raritan sideline on the second-half kickoff.  The Panther players failed to grab hold of the football and the Warriors recovered.  The play proved to be a huge turning point.  Up to this point in the contest, Watchung Hills had been fighting uphill to catch up to Bridgewater-Raritan.  Now, the Warriors had the ball with a chance to take the upper hand in the back-and-forth battle.

After completing a crucial fourth down pass play to Kelly, who managed to break tackles to get the first down, Sitkowski lunged over the pile into the end zone. On the point after, Sitkowski followed that up with a two-point conversion run for a 25-19 Watchung Hills lead with 9:06 to go in the third.  Then, Bridgewater-Raritan quickly responded with a score of its own to retake the lead.

Once again, it was Bray connecting with Confalone downfield for the 51-yard score.  The Panthers then added the extra point for a one-point, 26-25 edge with about 7:30 minutes to play in the third.  Watchung Hills would then counter with the go-ahead drive over the next three minutes that culminated with Sitkowski’s 35-yard hook-up with Kelly.  Sitkowski then added another two-point conversion run for the 33-26 lead with 4:25 to play in the third.

Neither team would score again in the contest.  Watchung Hills’ defense, which yielded three touchdowns in the first half, and struggled to keep up with Bridgewater-Raritan’s fast pace, managed to grind the Panthers down to a crawl over the final 16:25 of the contest.  McCann capped off the solid second-half defensive effort by the Warriors with his interception.  With the win, Watchung Hills improved to 8-2 overall, moved up to 8th in the latest BCG poll, and advanced to the North Jersey Section 1 Group 5 semifinals.

The Warriors will host 3rd-seeded Montclair at Tozier Stadium in the next round.  The Mounties advanced to the semis by virtue of a 19-7 victory over 6th-seeded Columbia in the opening round.  Montclair had defeated the Cougars the previous week, 42-7 in the regular season finale for both teams.  The Mounties will enter the contest with a 7-3 mark with all three losses coming to opponents that also qualified for the playoffs:  Union City (21-13), Irvington (27-0), and Ridgewood (30-24).

The game will take place on Friday night, November 3rd at 7:00 PM.  The winner of Friday night’s contest will take on the winner of the other semifinal between 5th-seeded Union and top-seeded and undefeated Passaic Tech.  The 10-0 Bulldogs are the defending North Jersey Section 1 Group 5 champs and also won the North Jersey Group 5 Regional title before losing to Toms River North in the 2022 Group 5 State Championship.