The Hunterdon Central High School football team has had its problems in first-round matchups of the NJSIAA playoffs in recent years.
In 2009, Hunterdon Central was an unbeaten top seed in the Central Group IV tournament before being knocked off by Brick Memorial on a last-second trick play in the opening round.
Last season, again, as an unbeaten top seed, the Red Devils were sent packing by eventual sectional champion Piscataway after a first-round matchup.
Needless to say, the Red Devil faithful had to be wary of another early-round exit on Friday night when they faced off against Brick Memorial in a Central Group V first-round matchup.
After a first half that saw both teams move the ball up and down the field at will against one another, the fourth-seeded Red Devils dominated the fifth-seeded Mustangs in the second half as Hunterdon Central topped Brick Memorial, 40-21, at Stewart Field in Flemington.
Hunterdon Central advances to play top-seeded Manalapan in a semifinal matchup next Friday.
The keynote of the game surfaced after Brick Memorial (5-5) took a 14-13 lead with 19 seconds remaining in the first half.
Following Brick Memorial quarterback Ryan Cieplenski hooking up with wideout Joseph Hans for a 20-yard touchdown pass, Hunterdon Central’s Ryan Dunleavy returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown with five seconds to go in the half, giving Hunterdon Central (5-4-1) a 21-14 lead after a two-point conversion heading into intermission.
They would never relinquish the lead from that point.
Including the Dunleavy touchdown, the Red Devils scored 27 unanswered points after the Cieplenski to Hans score.
Hunterdon Central quarterback Michael Knight, who threw for 93 yards on 6-of-7 passing in the first half and finished with three touchdown passes for the game, connected with Tyler Parker for a 65-yard pitch-and-catch to make it 28-14 with just under five minutes to go in the third quarter.
A Jason Cabinda 4-yard touchdown run and another Knight to Parker touchdown connection made the score 40-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Brick Memorial got themselves off to a fast start in the first quarter, taking an early 7-0 lead when Cieplenski, who combined for 168 of the Mustangs’ 213 total yards of offense in the first half, ran one in from 22 yards out.
Cieplenski finished with over 220 passing yards, including a touchdown pass to go along with his 22-yard scamper.