LAWRENCE: Cardinals come up short in state final

On what will go down as the greatest night in Mercer County football, 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, two teams concluded the greatest football seasons in their respective schools’ history.
   Unfortunately for Lawrence High, the Cardinals fell one game short of the ultimate season.
   After taking a 14-point lead, the top-seeded Cardinals allowed third-seeded Hopewell Valley to score 31 unanswered points and take a 31-14 victory 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 end zone. Hopewell (10-1) won the game by establishing its running game while stopping Lawrence’s vaunted rushing attack.
   Andrew Yuska led the way with 223 rushing yards and three 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.
   ”Yeah, a little bit,” Mitchell said when asked if the hip was bothering him. “I was trying to fight through it for my team. I just took a little hit that messed me up a little bit.”
   Mitchell stayed quiet about it, however.
   ”It looked like when he ran (Austin Fellows) down there at the end of the half he might have done something,” Cards coach Rob Radice said. “He didn’t say he was hurt but he certainly favored it a little bit, so . . . It just didn’t look like he was running like himself.”
   Still, Radice wouldn’t use the injury as an excuse for his team’s only loss of the season.
   ”They were aggressive up front,” said the veteran coach, who won his first two playoff games this season. “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. They were great up front on both sides of the ball, on offense and on defense.”
   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.
   Fellows didn’t have a spectacular statistical night, but came up with two huge touchdown passes at critical moments for Hopewell.
   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 started like a dream for Lawrence (10-1), as a high snap on a punt attempt was fallen on in the end zone by Kitchen. Connor Hoffman added the PAT and the Cards 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 found Kyle Horihan in the left side of the end zone 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.
   ”I still felt if we could get a stop and establish some kind of running game we could kind of get the momentum shift back,” Radice said.
   But with Mitchell hobbled and the Bulldogs swarming, the offense could never get going.
   And while it’s not the greatest of consolations, the Cardinals can still say they were part of the greatest night in Mercer County football.
   And were unquestionably the greatest football team in school history.