The one-seed North Hunterdon Lions took on the fifth-seed Morris Knolls Golden Eagles at Singley Field for the Sectional Final matchup, and it did not disappoint. Morris Knolls was infamous heading into this game for their ground attack, their quarterback throwing under 100 passes this season. Morris Knolls started out with the ball, and by the end of the first quarter, it looked like a shutout in favor of Morris Knolls. The Golden Eagles ended the first quarter up 14-0 over North Hunterdon, trying to make the game look over before it had even begun. North Hunterdon was on the ropes on their third drive of the game when they called a much needed timeout, changing the tide of the game from that point on. Luke Martini connected with Derek Vaddis for a touchdown, now making the score 6-14. Before the half ended, Luke Martini connected with Derek Vaddis once again, going into the half down 12-14 and getting the ball back to start the second half.
Once the second half started, you could feel the momentum truly shift through the air. Parents were cheering louder, you could feel thuds from the student section, it felt like how football should be. In the third quarter, Luke Martini showed off his speed, diving in for a touchdown to take their first lead of the game, now up 18-14. From midway through the third quarter until the last five minutes of the fourth, it felt like a constant dogfight between the two teams. In the first half, North Hunterdon had three penalties, two of which coming in their first set of downs. In the second half, Morris Knolls opened up with three penalties on their first drive, showing the tide shifting early. With under three minutes left in the game, North Hunterdon Running Back Kente Edwards scored a rushing touchdown, leading to their first extra-point off the foot of Ben Cleary, pushing the lead to 25-14. In Morris Knolls’ final drive, their quarterback Cole Malatesta tried airing out for only the sixth time in the game, throwing an interception to Derek Vaddis to end the game.
North Hunterdon showed incredible grit throughout the game, coming back down two scores. Luke Martini has been progressing all season long, and it has been a noticeable jump by him in these playoffs.
The beginning of the season was a little bit shaky on your part, but this end of the season, especially the playoffs, you have been nothing short of spectacular, how have you felt throughout this playoff run so far?
“I mean, the playoff run has been great. I’ve been playing well but I can’t give enough credit to my O-line and my receivers. The O-Line hasn’t let me get sacked this entire year, I have no sacks, they’re blocking very well. Our receivers are getting open, they’re catching balls, they’re getting yards after catch, it’s just a hell of a combo.”
While most know Luke Martini to be “QB1” of the North Hunterdon Lions, many may not notice him out there punting the ball away on fourth downs, a transition he’s made this year.
You aired out the ball well, you ran in that touchdown in the third quarter, but your punts were great especially, and I heard from your father this is your only your first year punting, so how has that transition been for you?
“It is my first year punting, I started off the season, I was rough. My punts were terrible, I was shanking a punt left and right, but I’ve been working on it, every practice I get there 10-15 minutes early just to punt. I’ve been working on my punting and it has come a long way.”
Coach Kevin Kley has put together his best season in his five years as head coach at North Hunterdon, finishing the regular season at 8-1. This is also North Hunterdon’s deepest playoff run since their State Championship win in 2017. Starting off down 14-0 in the first quarter at home is a tough spot for any team in the country, but Kevin Kley and the Lions did not back down from the challenge.
What was your mindset coming out of the first quarter down 14-0 that lead to that 25-0 run?
“We probably played among our worst quarters of football that first quarter all around. Offense, defense, special teams and we fixed it. The guys adjusted, the players adjusted and did an awesome job and they really took it home.”
Backup quarterback Tyler Anderson has been playing snaps on defense as well as wide receiver, showing he is a jack of all trades that can get it done for North Hunterdon, and was a pivotal part of their playoff win yesterday.
Tyler, you had one of your best games of the season tonight, what was the plan headed into this game for you?
“We had to do something different with the triple option. We worked all week to do what we could and beat it, they’ve had our number the last few years and we made the adjustments we had to.”
Another player who switched a gear today was star running back Kente Edwards. Kente finished the game with 90 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown as well as 36 yards receiving. Kente has been battling an ankle injury the last few weeks, but seemed to be back to his old self for this game.
You switched into another gear in the fourth quarter, what was your mindset at the start of the fourth?
“On the fumble, both of my calves cramped, and I just fell and lost it, so I knew I had to come back from that. I just knew I had to work hard, put my head down, and get it back and make up for my mistake.”
How do you feel with the ankle injury?
“I’m feeling better now. It sucked being injured, hurting your ankle as a running back. I’m back from it now and I’m 100%, feeling great, it’s good to be back.”
One player that has had a breakout season would have to be Derek Vaddis. Derek had 134 receiving yards, two touchdown receptions as well as an interception to end the game.
This playoff run has been exceptional from you, what was your mindset heading into the playoffs?
“I wanted to go all the way, and we’re still going to go all the way, I don’t want to be stopped. This season isn’t going to be over until I have a say with it. I don’t want to go home, these kids don’t want to go home, we bust our ass everyday, we mess around a lot but we still put in our work that we need to put in. We trust each other, that’s what we do.”
Number one seed North Hunterdon takes on number two seed Randolph next week at Singley Field, and it is expected to be a dog fight. North Hunterdon’s stellar season continued with a win over Morris Knolls, even through the social media bashing from several Morris Knolls accounts, but through it all North Hunterdon has stayed classy. North Hunterdon is looking to win a close matchup against Randolph next week for a bid to states, and to wrap it up offensive lineman Tyler Guidetti had this to say:
“I’m excited for this upcoming matchup, they’re the number two seed, we’re the number one seed, it’s going to be an exciting game, I’m just ready to go down there and have a battle.”