Matt Joyce turned and threw his arms straight up into the air.
Angelo Gallego ran up to Ryan Shaw and lifted Shaw high off the MetLife Stadium turf. Coaches hugged. Players high-fived. Fans stood up and screamed. Before long, the stadium’s field was a sea of black, white, and blue.
The Vikings concluded the 2014 season in a way that they never have before: with a state championship.
Parsippany Hills held on for a pulsating 20-13 victory over Cranford in NJSIAA North 2 Group III for the first sectional football title in school history.
There have been big playoff victories, but a Parsippany Hills football season has never ended with a playoff victory. Four other times the Vikings had been to a state championship game but the team had lost all of them, and the losses came in all different shapes and sizes.
They were completely annihilated twice: 46-0 to Wayne Hills at Giants Stadium in 2005 and 27-0 to Cranford at Kean in 2011. Last year, their hearts were ripped out in a 16-13 loss to Summit at Kean in the pouring rain.
This time around, head coach Dave Albano’s team went toe-to-toe with a highly regarded team and left East Rutherford with a win over previously undefeated Cranford, which came in averaging 40 points per game and never scored less than 30 games in any single game.
But a 48-minute team effort completely frustrated the Cougars. Parsippany Hills used an all-in, two-pronged approach to dismantle Cranford.
Back in the summer, the Vikings switched from the passing-oriented offense Albano loves to a power-running game. That single decision, more than any other, ultimately may have won them the state championship.
“That’s the way it is in New Jersey public school football,” Albano said. “You have to adapt to your personnel, and that’s what we had to do.”
Albano banked on the development of the offensive line of center Chris Pietrowicz (6-foot-2, 235 pounds), guards Mike Garcia (5-9, 205) and Zach Fife (6-0, 250), and tackles Kyle McGinley (6-2, 280) and Chris Wojtukiewicz (6-2, 275). The plan was to feed the ball to running back Angelo Gallego (38 for 189, 1 TD vs. Cranford) and nurture the development of freshman quarterback Nick Verducci.
Parsippany Hills’ new style of football helped propel the Vikings to the state final — and it was that style that grounded Cranford’s offense.
“They’re too good on offense,” Albano said of the Cougars. “We tried to limit their touches. I thought we dominated the line of scrimmage. We talked at halftime and then were really able to do what we wanted to do, which was run the football.”
The line and running game were particularly effective in the fourth quarter by playing keep-away from Cranford by churning out first downs and using much of the fourth-quarter clock. The Parsippany Hills defense, meanwhile, was punishing and allowed the Cougars just two long plays.
With under a minute left in the game, Cranford reached the Vikings 3 and the game-tying touchdown seemed inevitable. But the Cougars were whistled for an illegal motion penalty that pushed the team back to the 8. Parsippany Hills’ defense held the Union County school the rest of the way.
“I’ve been chasing this for 20 years,” Albano said. “This is my 20th year as a head coach. We came so close last year. Now I can see what this means.”
The Cranford win was the biggest of many good wins for the Vikings this year. Among the others:
• Parsippany Hills 30, West Morris 20: J.D. Keyes returned a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown and later added a 36-yard touchdown and Alex Lerman returned a kickoff 85 yards for a score for the Vikings in their season-opening game.
• Parsippany Hills 41, Chatham 19: The Vikings’ defense, rock solid all year, was particularly outstanding. Tackles Luke Haltigan and Ryan Hill and noseguard Eddie Strocchia led the way up front, with linebackers Jared Salgado, Dylan McDonald, Marco Falivene and Vincent Castellana, and defensive backs Nick Hill, Alex Lerman, Ryan Shaw, and Matt Joyce. Keyes (sickness) was a terrific linebacker all year but sat this game out.
• Parsippany Hills 21, Roxbury 16: Gallego rushed 38 times for 258 yards and a touchdown and Nick Verducci threw two 9-yard touchdown passes to Keyes.
• Parsippany Hills 35, Orange 34: The Vikings trailed by two touchdowns in the first quarter but crept back in thanks to Matt Joyce (three TD catches of 44, 25 and 57 yards) and Verducci (12 for 19 for 231 yards). One of those Joyce touchdowns was from fellow receiver Ryan Shaw on a flea flicker. Orange missed an extra point in the final minute.
• Parsippany Hills 14, Summit 0: Shaw had three interceptions to lead a superlative defensive effort against Summit’s high-powered offense, which had beaten Parsippany Hills in the last two playoffs, including the final at Kean last year. Gallego was 27 for 160 rushing with two touchdowns. Albano raved about the defensive game plan of assistant Ross Tarlow after the game.