Hamilton stranded on doorstep against Verona
For two quarters Friday night, Sussex Hamilton followed its familiar formula for success, riding the powerful running of junior Drew Patterson to a 28-21 lead at the half.
Three turnovers later – the final one coming when Patterson couldn’t control a pitch on 4th and 2 from Verona’s seven-yard line with 32 seconds left to play –and the Chargers’ hopes of returning to the quarterfinals of the WIAA Division 1 football playoffs were dashed with a 35-28 loss to the Wildcats.
“When you’re going back and forth with that kind of offense and our offense, it makes it exciting for fans," said Hamilton coach John Damato. “Everything’s escalated in the playoffs. When you have two good football teams, you talk about field position, you talk about big plays, you talk about critical penalties at critical times. That’s just how it goes. Everything is magnified.”
The play was the culmination of a back-and-forth thriller featuring two outstanding talents in Patterson and Verona senior running back Dom Wise, who seemed to turn the game into a contest of who could top who.
Patterson finished with 150 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries and added two receptions for 36 yards and a 99-yard kickoff return for another score in the second quarter.
Wise, meanwhile, gave the Chargers fits all night, running for 278 yards on 33 carries, including touchdowns of 27, 1, 57 and 17 yards.
“He’s the best back we faced all year, easily,” Damato said of Wise. “His balance and his vision and his determination there at the end were second to none. He was definitely an outstanding back.”
Patterson started it off, finishing a 74-yard scoring drive to open the game with a 3-yard plunge. But Verona answered with a four-play, 65-yard drive, all of them runs by Wise, ending with his 27-yard touchdown run.
A couple of series later, Patterson converted a first down on a 24-yard shovel pass on a gutsy fake punt from Hamilton’s 21. Chargers senior quarterback Mark Gryszkiewicz made the call pay off by finishing the drive with a 19-yard TD run early in the second quarter.
Wise tied it at 14 with a 1-yard score with 3:46 left in the half, but Patterson again put the Chargers ahead with his kickoff return – a play that led Verona to make all its subsequent kickoffs pooch kicks to keep the ball away from him.
“We talked all week about kicking away from 34,” Verona coach Dave Richardson said. “… Our kickoff team has been great until that point, but Drew’s a special athlete. We gave them a chance there and we probably shouldn’t have.”
Again Verona responded, getting a 77-yard pitch-and-catch from junior quarterback John Tackett to senior running back Sam Sharer, who returned to the Wildcats’ lineup after missing time due to appendicitis.
A masterful 10-play drive that began with 2:23 left in the quarter and ended with Patterson going 4 yards for a 28-21 lead gave Hamilton the lead at the break.
But in the third quarter, Wise needed all of four plays to knot it up again, with his 57-yard explosion on a toss around left end tying the game at 28.
“That was huge,” Richardson said. “We told (the team at halftime), we’re going to score here and tie the game, and we felt like our defense could get a stop, score one more and win the game. We talked about that scenario.”
From that point on, Verona’s defense began to swarm Patterson – he managed just 49 yards on 14 second-half carries – and the Chargers started to hurt themselves with turnovers. A botched snap ended Hamilton’s ensuing possession at Verona’s 22, and Verona senior Jordan King picked off Gryszkiewicz on the next one.
“I thought we really had momentum coming in” to the second half, Damato said. “But they came out in the third quarter and did an outstanding job and kept us on our heels on defense.”
Hamilton managed to keep Wise and Verona out of the end zone, but after a three-and-out, Wise again went to work, picking his way through the Chargers’ defense on 3rd and 1 from Hamilton’s 17 and bursting into the end zone to give Verona its first lead of the game with 5:36 left to play.
Hamilton then steadily drove the field, eating clock and setting up a first down at Verona’s 15 with less than 2 minutes to play. Three Patterson runs set up 4th and 2. Hamilton called a toss to Patterson around the left side, but the junior couldn’t handle the pitch and Verona fell on the ball to end it.
“I just kind of bobbled it around a little and couldn’t pull it in,” Patterson said. “They’re a good team, their defense did a good job.”
Added Damato: “That’s our play, we practice it, we knew what we were doing. It’s just one of those things. Drew’s our guy, and you can never look at one play in games like this. You can never do that and we’re not going to do that to Drew.”
Despite the disappointment, Damato added that he liked his team’s performance.
“It wasn’t from a lack of effort by our kids,” he said. “Our kids fought tooth and nail for four quarters and I can’t say enough about them. … It’s just unfortunate. I would have liked to have got a shot at these guys in overtime. I think maybe we would have had a little momentum, and it would have been another battle. It just wasn’t our night tonight.”
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