When push came to shove, Bridgewater-Raritan High School football coach Scott Bray showed faith in his quarterback.
Facing a fourth-and-2 with his team protecting a one-point lead late in the game, Bray called for a play-action pass and senior Donny Stires executed it masterfully, hitting junior Chris Carter for a 12-yard gain that allowed the Panthers to hold on for a 21-20 comeback win Friday at Basilone Field.
Stires earned the trust. He completed 22 of 35 passes for 166 yards to help Bridgewater-Raritan improve to 2-1 and continue the momentum after last week’s thrilling one-point upset of Hunterdon Central.
For Hillsborough, which fell to 1-2, senior standout John Banaciski rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. But the Panthers contained him just enough down the stretch in a commendable defensive effort that marked a stark departure from last year’s 49-42 shootout between these rivals.
Hillsborough launched some fireworks early. Sparked by a 33-yard return of the opening kickoff by Cedre Small, the Raiders needed just four plays to get on the scoreboard. Banaciski did the honors, using a wicked cut to spring a 33-yard jaunt down the left sideline. Brian Nagy’s extra point made it 7-0 less than two minutes into the contest.
That’s how it stayed for most of the half as both squads dug in defensively. Hillsborough broke the stalemate with a nine-play, 79-yard march late in the second period. A 22-yard pass from Ed Trimpert to Small on third-and-12 got things going, and an 18-yard carry by Banaciski moved the Raiders into the red zone before Trimpert found tight end Nico Mukendi on a perfectly executed fade pattern in the right corner of the end zone. The extra point was blocked, leaving Hillsborough ahead 13-0 going into halftime.
The offenses found a rhythm after the break. Bridgewater-Raritan took the kickoff and marched 80 yards in 11 plays to get on the board. Stires threw seven times on the drive, hitting four different receivers. His final pass connected with Tommy Goodberlet for 25 yards down to the 1-yard line, setting up a 1-yard scoring plunge by Mike Pennella.
That cut the deficit to six, but Hillsborough bumped it back to 13 with a furious response that was all Banaciski. The workhorse ripped off runs of 27 and 18 yards and caught a 19-yard pass, then finished it off with a 5-yard scoring run to make it 20-7 with five minutes left in the third.
Then it was Stires’ turn, and he responded big-time, completing seven of nine attempts in methodical fashion — none longer than 12 yards. The short-passing barrage ended with a change-up as Stires took a quarterback keeper 5 yards up the middle for a touchdown with 51 ticks left in the third quarter. Anthony Balliro’s extra point cut Hillsborough’s lead to 20-14 heading into the fourth.
Hillsborough seemed to get the upper hand on the next series by converting a fourth-and-4 with a fake punt, but the Panthers stiffened and forced a punt. Field position took front and center from there on out, and a 10-yard sack of Trimpert by Bridgewater sophomore Jonathan Capra turned the tide. Hillsborough’s ensuing punt was retuned 17 yards by junior Josh Robbins, setting up Bridgewater at the Raiders’ 39 with 6:10 left.
Four plays later Stires converted a fourth-and-1 with a 10-yard draw behind a surging offensive line. A roughing the passer penalty moved Bridgewater closer to the doorstep, and Pennella burst through with his second 1-yard touchdown plunge of the night.
That tied the score, and the critical extra point by Balliro sailed through the uprights to make it 21-20 with 3:03 remaining. It was Bridgewater’s first lead of the night — and the only one the Panthers needed.