Mountaineers Rally to Defeat Lakeland in OT for First Sectional Championship of Playoff Era
BERNARDSVILLE, NJ – Add another achievement to Bernards’ historic 2023 football season. The second-seeded Mountaineers needed to rally from behind in regulation, and withstand a game-tying field goal in the closing seconds, but defeated 5th-seeded Lakeland in overtime, 23-17. Senior QB Connor Laverty wrapped up the title with a 7-yard QB keeper in the extra session. Laverty also led the team down the field in an 88-yard scoring drive in under 6 minutes that gave the Mountaineers a 17-14 lead with exactly a minute to play in regulation.
For almost three and a half quarters, Lakeland didn’t allow Bernards’ potent offense to reach the end zone. The only scoring the Mountaineers were able to muster during that span was a Jake Caldwell punt return for a score late in the second quarter, and a Jonas Gonzalez 28-yard field goal early in the final period of regulation. Then, after a huge defensive stop that was punctuated by a tremendous defensive play by Max Austin to knock away a pass attempt, Lakeland was compelled to punt, and Bernards got the ball on its own 12 with 6:53 remaining in the 4th quarter.
Laverty managed a drive that was more reminiscent of Joe Montana or John Elway. The Bernards signal caller blended a perfect combination of runs with short to medium-range passes during a 13-play drive that gradually got the Mountaineers downfield. Laverty utilized the running of RBs Patrick Carlisle and Logan Stevens as well as his own while also connecting through the air with several different receivers including Austin and Caldwell. Lakeland’s defense didn’t give in easily.
The Lancers forced Bernards to a 4th down and goal from the Lakeland 11 before the Mountaineers were able to break through as Laverty zipped a sharp spiral between two defenders to Caldwell just beyond the goal line. Lakeland responded with a clutch drive of its own as the Lancers QB Collin Sabric engineered a masterful drive that produced four plays in the final 14 seconds including the game-tying 44 yard field goal by Eydan Linares as time expired in regulation.
Lakeland then got the ball first to start the overtime. Bernards’ defense forced the Lancers to try for a 40-yard field goal after knocking down a Sabric pass at the goal line. This time, the field goal attempt was just short. The Mountaineers took over and Laverty produced two keepers that resulted in a first down, and then a 7-yard score to end the game. Laverty was nearly perfect in his passing with 15 completions in 18 attempts for 149 yards and a TD versus no interceptions. He also rushed 9 times for 45 yards, and another score.
With 10 carries for 64 yards, Stevens led the Bernards ground game, which managed 126 yards in 28 carries. Caldwell led Bernards’ receiving with 6 receptions for 58 yards and a TD. Laverty completed a pass to five different receivers in the contest. One of the key catches besides Caldwell’s TD reception was junior Aidan Gribben’s grab of a pass over the middle from Laverty to set up the Mountaineers with a first and goal with under two minutes to play.
Sabric did everything he could to have Lakeland come out on top. The combination of his legs and arm provided problems for Bernards’ defense all night. After completing 19 of 30 for 310 yards and 4 TDs in the victory over Caldwell last week, Sabric connected on 20 of his 32 passing attempts for another 217 yards. In addition, Sabric rushed 18 times for 43 yards and a score. The 17 points the Lancers put on the board were the most that the Mountaineers had yielded all season.
On top of that, Bernards scored the fewest points it had all season as well and needed five periods to finish with a total of 23. The Mountaineers overcame a lot to pull out the victory. Bernards missed a first-quarter field goal and then muffed a punt with about 9 minutes remaining in the fourth. The Big Central Conference’s Patriot Gold Champs had to also rise above a Lakeland squad that controlled things for much of the contest.
The Mountaineers were able to move the ball downfield for the most part, but Lakeland’s defense was able to force turnovers on downs by stopping them on 4th down. Kyle Keyes played a huge part in the Lancers’ efforts on both sides of the ball. He caught 8 passes for 100 yards on offense and collected 12 total tackles including 10 solos and two for loss on defense. Caldwell, Austin, Hanratty, and David Brothers anchored Bernards’ defense.
Caldwell led the team with 10 total tackles including 3 solos while Austin and Hanratty chipped in with 9 total tackles. Austin compiled 6 solos while knocking away a couple of passes. One pass he knocked down right in front of the Bernards sideline late in the first half, and then the other was on 3rd down in the fourth quarter that allowed the Mountaineers to get the ball back. Brothers picked up 8 total tackles including one of the team’s two sacks. Thomas Diemar collected the other.
Lakeland outgained Bernards on offense with 299 total yards versus 275 for the Mountaineers. However, Bernards’ offense was more balanced than it had been all year. The Mountaineers had 149 yards passing and 126 yards rushing. Meanwhile, the Lancers were limited to just 82 on the ground while throwing for 217. Both teams played to a scoreless first quarter. After winning the coin toss, Bernards took the opening kickoff and moved the ball into scoring position, but failed to cash in as it missed a field goal.
The Lancers then took over and marched down inside the Bernards 10-yard line as time ran out in the opening period. Several plays into the second, Lakeland drew first blood as Sabric scored on a one-yard plunge into the end zone. Linares then followed up with the extra point for a 7-0 lead. The Mountaineers were unable to score until late in the second, but its offense did manage to play a role by driving deep into Lakeland territory before being stopped on downs.
Bernards’ defense took over as it forced Lakeland to punt to Caldwell. Needing to make a big play and provide a spark, Caldwell fielded the punt around the Bernards 41 and scampered back upfield while eluding tacklers as he made it to the end zone near the Mountaineer sideline. Simon Bramwit tacked on the extra point to knot the score at 7-7 with just over two minutes to play in the first half. The score remained that way going into the intermission.
Lakeland then took the second half kickoff, and put together a solid drive that resulted in a 4-yard TD run by Jeremy O’Hernandez with 4:35 left in the 3rd. Gonzalez then made his field goal to open the scoring in the fourth to close the gap to 14-10. Both teams combined to score 26 of the game’s 40 points in the second half and overtime. Bernards scored 16 of its 23 points in the final 11 minutes of regulation and overtime.
With the victory, Bernards won its first sectional championship in the playoff era. The Mountaineers won a sectional title in 1970 prior to the playoff era. The win improved Bernards’ unblemished record to 12-0 overall. Lakeland ended its season at 8-4. Bernards will now travel up to Westwood High School this coming Friday night to take on the North Jersey Section 1 Group 2 champs, Westwood, which defeated Rutherford (20-7) for the crown. Westwood (11-0) won the section a year ago as well.
The game will kick off at 7:00 PM. The winner will advance to the Group 2 State Championship on Thanksgiving Weekend against the winner of the other Group 2 State Semifinal, or Regional Final between Central Jersey champ, Willingboro and South Jersey champion, Rumson-Fair Haven. Caldwell defeated Rumson-Fair Haven in last year’s Group 2 State Championship.