Jack Horan took the game’s final snap, took a knee, and casually flipped the ball to the official Friday night.
It would be the last casual thing Horan or his Mendham football teammates would do for the rest of the night.
The Minutemen — 3-7 a year ago — had just captured a 16-0 victory over sister school West Morris and advanced to the Section 2, Group IV championship game against Phillipsburg in two weeks at a site and time to be determined.
When the game finally ended, Mendham players and coaches let it all hang out. They hugged, high-fived, and pointed index fingers skyward. All with good reason: In the summer, getting this far seemed impossible. It became a reality against West Morris.
“This is an incredible feeling,” said Horan, who threw a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Jack Powers. “Our goal at the beginning of the season was to make it to the state finals and here we are.”
The Minutemen defense stepped up when it had to and its offense was opportunistic as well.
Mendham had a 10-0 halftime lead and added to it when Horan threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Powers early in the fourth quarter. A West Morris defender tried to tap the ball away and missed. The ball ended up in the waiting arms of Powers, who knew exactly what to do after he caught it.
“I saw the corner slip out,” Powers said. “I turned and there was no one there, so I kept going. I think I ran all the way to the sand pit.”
The Minutemen defense stepped up during an unlikely scenario early in the third quarter and that might have won them the game. West Morris running back Connor Thompson busted through the line and was ahead of the pack for what look like a 60-yard touchdown run.
But Mendham’s Ian Graham — who was spotted a good five yards — caught Thompson from behind at the 15. So what looked like a surefire touchdown became a long run — but not long enough for the Wolfpack.
“That was the play of the game right there,” Mendham coach Bill Carpluk said.
A short time later, Mendham’s Tim Byrne sacked quarterback Jake Sokolowski for a 7-yard loss, and West Morris came away empty.
Mendham was significantly outplayed in the early going but managed to keep the Wolfpack off the scoreboard. When the Minutemen threatened though, they made the most of it.
The game began turning Mendham’s way late in the first quarter when Ross Coapman intercepted a Sokolowski pass at the Mendham 48. The Minutemen then drove 52 yards and scored when Horan lofted a 7-yard touchdown pass to Powers.
“That was a good play call,” Powers said. “Somebody grabbed me (a pass interference was called on West Morris but was declined) but I was able to make the play.”
The Minutemen scored despite being penalized three times during the drive.
Mendham was whistled for holding on second-and-7, giving the Minutemen a second-and-18. But Horan hit David Berkinsky for a 10-yard pass. But on the next play, it appeared that Horan had run for a first down, but the Minutemen were flagged for another hold.
But on third-and-8, Horan rushed for 11 yards to put the ball at the West Morris 37.
A short time later, Mendham was whistled for an illegal substitution, setting up a fourth-and-7. But Horan came up big one more time and connected with Ian Graham for a 16-yard completion to the Wolfpack 18.
Then, on third-and-7, Horan hit Berkinsky for a 7-yard completion, setting up a first-and-goal at the 8.
Two plays later, Mendham scored the game’s first touchdown.
On West Morris first play from scrimmage after that, Mendham forced a Javier Murray fumble and recovered it at the Wolfpack 23. Horan hit Coapman with an 11-yard pass and Horan later slipped while avoiding a pass rush, and the Minutemen had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Coapman to make it 10-0.
The Minutemen threatened for more late in the half when Graham had an interception at the west Morris 41. Mendham made its way to the West Morris 22 after Horan hit Graham with a 14-yard pass, but Coapman’s 39-yard field goal attempt was blocked by West Morris’ Ryan Pruss.
West Morris, specifically Thompson, dominated the early stages of the game. The Wolfpack took the opening kickoff and held the ball for 8:20 but came away empty-handed when Coapman stopped Murray for a 4-yard loss on fourth and -2 at the Mendham 32. Thompson had rushed 10 times for 44 yards during the march.
On West Morris next possession (after a Coapman 55-yard punt), Thompson had runs of 12, 17, and 5 yards before Coapman’s interception.
M — Jack Powers 7 pass from Jack Horan (Ross Coapman kick).
M — Coapman 27 field goal
M — Powers 56 pass from Horan (kick failed).