EWING: Hopewell Valley tops Lawrence for state title

On what will go down as the greatest night in Mercer County football history, two teams concluded the greatest football seasons in their respective schools’ history.

By Rich Fisher, Packet Media Group
EWING – On what will go down as the greatest night in Mercer County football history, two teams concluded the greatest football seasons in their respective schools’ history.
Only one could be the winner, however, and it was the amazing Bulldogs.
After falling in a 14-point hole, third-seeded Hopewell Valley Central High scored 31 unanswered points to take a 31-14 victory over top-seeded Lawrence in the Central Jersey Group III championship game at The College of New Jersey Saturday night.
The game was played in front of a packed house, as both bleachers were jammed and fans lined the fences on both sides of the field and in the endzone.
“Incredible,” said Bulldogs two-way lineman Mike Markulec. “I can’t describe it. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful. We played our heart out, we put in the work.”
Hopewell (10-1) won the game by establishing its running game while stopping Lawrence’s vaunted rushing attack.
Andrew Yuska, who at 5-foot-1, 175 pounds is pound-for-pound the toughest running back around, led the way with 223 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Behind an aggressive defensive line and linebacking corps, the Bulldogs held Cameren Kitchen to 56 rushing yards and Semei Mitchell to just 42.
Mitchell, however, suffered a hip injury in the first half that slowed him tremendously after intermission. The 12th Man TD Club’s Co-Player of the year had just three carries after halftime.
“They were aggressive up front,” Lawrence coach Rob Radice said. “Their front eight did a great job on us. Even the runs we made on them, there were some cutbacks and things like that but they were very solid up front.”
With the run game being stifled, Hopewell teed off on quarterback Nick Falkenberg and came up with seven sacks – three each by Lane Meyer and Miles Davis.
Quarterback Austin Fellows didn’t have a spectacular statistical night, but came up with two huge touchdown passes at critical moments.
Add it all up and HoVal had its first state title in its first-ever playoff appearance in only its 10th season of playing football.
“I still can’t believe it,” Yuska said. “We worked so hard in the off-season – 5:30 a.m. workouts, lifting every day. It’s just a dream come true for us. I can’t really describe it right now.”
The game did not start well for Hopewell, as a high snap on a punt attempt was fallen on in the endzone by Kitchen. Connor Hoffman added the PAT and the Cards (10-1) led 7-0.
A tough 15-yard run by Kitchen set up Lawrence’s second TD, a one-yard dive over the top by Falkenberg that gave the Cards a 14-0 lead.
A 28-yard kickoff return by Mark Wenner gave Hopewell a spark as it took over at its own 45. Three plays later Yuska scored on a 9-yard run on which he looked to be stopped at the 4-yard line. The kick failed and it was 14-6.
Late in the half, with 24 seconds on the clock, HoVal had a third-and-goal at the 1-yard-line and Yuska was thrown for a two-yard loss. With the clock running, the Bulldogs lined up and got the snap off, and Fellows alertly found Kyle Horihan in the endzone to make it 14-12. Mitchell stopped Fellows a foot short of the goal line on the two-point conversion.
Lawrence still had the lead , but Hopewell had the momentum.
On its second possession of the third quarter, the Bulldogs went 59 yards on six plays, capped by Yuska’s 1-yard run (which he set up with a 20-yard run). The PAT was blocked and it was 18-14.
HoVal’s next possession resulted in a first-and-goal and the 9. But a sack and a dropped snap by Fellows made it third down at the 23. The quarterback again worked his magic to his favorite receiver, finding Mike Gies in the corner of the endzone, with Gies making a leaping catch. HoVal finally converted a PAT and held a 25-14 advantage.
The capper came with three minutes left when Yuska broke away for a 40-yard TD run to put the game out of reach.
Soon after, the celebration started on the HVCHS side of the field.
But both teams could celebrate the fact they were involved in a very special night in the long history of Mercer County football.