Chris Gulla has been kicking footballs for Toms River North since his freshman season.
Friday night, the senior kicker/punter may have kicked the biggest field goal of his career and sent the Mariners in a new direction for the season at the same time.
After missing from 42 yards early in the second quarter, Gulla booted a 45-yard, go-ahead field goal with 2:35 to play, as North scored a 17-14 victory over previously undefeated Southern Regional in a Shore Conference Class A South showdown.
“I’d definitely say being the kicker is a big part of the team,” said a smiling Gulla. “But the truth is, I get a lot of help from my teammates.”
With the Rams (2-1, 1-1) leading 7-0 heading into the second half, thanks to a 1-yard TD run by Rob Yaiser, who also kicked the point-after with 44 seconds left in the first quarter, Gulla, junior Jacob Forlenza and junior running back Joey Fields generated the sparks the Mariners needed to climb back into the contest.
North (2-1, 1-1) took its opening possession of the second half and moved the ball to the Southern 42 before being forced to punt. Gulla’s punt landed around the 5-yard line and took a hop toward the end zone, but Forlenza corraled it at the 1.
The Rams were forced to punt after three downs from their 9-yard line. Fields snatched the punt from Mike Gesicki at the 37, zipped through the first line of Southern’s special teams players, then dashed down the right sideline into the end zone. Gulla’s PAT made it 7-7 with 6:25 left in the third.
On second-and-14 during Southern’s next possession, Dan Higgins attempted to hit Gesicki down the right sideline with pass but was picked off by Forlenza, who snagged it and fell out of bounds at the Rams 45.
Seven plays later, after North worked the ball down the 8, sophomore quarterback Carmen Sclafani fired a pass into the end zone and hit junior wide receiver Kyle Carrington with 2:06 left in the third. Gulla made in 14-7 with his second PAT.
The Rams rebounded immediately, taking the ball at their own 20 and going 80 yards on a 13-play, 5:29 drive culminated by Abe Gonzalez’s 4-yard TD run with 8:37 to go. Yaiser’s PAT again knotted the game.
However, the Mariners made the most of their next possession, working the clock down to under three minutes as they methodically moved the ball 52 yards in 11 plays. But facing a fourth-and-11 with the ball on Southern’s 28, Gulla was called on to get back the lead.
“It was basically the same kick I had missed earlier, and I just had to trust what I could do,” said Gulla, whose kick just got over the crossbar and inside the left post. “I got another shot at it and I wasn’t missing the second time. But when I saw the refs (raise their arms, signally the kick was good), it was utter unbelief.”
The Rams had a shot to move down the field and score on its final possession, with 2:35 on the clock and all three of their timesouts left, but just after getting a first down on fourth-and-6 a low snap bounced off Higgins’ hands and was kicked by Gonzalez as he ran by.
The ball ended up at the feet of senior lineman Garrett Kroeger, who pounced on the loose ball to seal the victory with 1:04 left.
“I didn’t even see how the ball got there,” he said. “I just hit a kid as hard as I could and then saw the ball laying there, so I jumped on it. This was a huge win. We practiced hard all week and got it done.”