As the stuffing and mashed potatoes were being passed around the dinner table, members of Peter DiMeglio’s family needed to exercise extreme caution Thursday afternoon to ensure that the plates landed in the hands of the intended receiver.
After all, DiMeglio, a senior cornerback, illustrated during the Metuchen High School football team’s 49-19 drubbing of a vastly improved Highland Park squad on Thanksgiving Day that he is quite adept at intercepting passes.
His three third-quarter picks – including one he returned for a score – and subsequent rushing touchdown overshadowed a 116-yard rushing performance from Trevor Firgau that enabled the senior back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
DiMeglio said the Bulldogs – who failed to make the NJSIAA playoffs despite owning a 6-2 record at the time of the state cutoff with two losses by a total of eight points to a pair of postseason qualifiers – took solace in ending the season on a high note.
“Our last practice with pads we have this thing called ‘last hit,’ ” DiMeglio said. “I told the seniors, ‘You know, thinking back, you don’t want to think what could have been. You just want to know that in your last game you left everything on the field,’ and I think all of us did that today.”
Metuchen (7-3), which received a game-high eight tackles from Jarett Sims and six more from Joe Hronich, put on a show worthy of the high school’s inaugural 11-member Hall of Fame induction class, which was honored during a halftime ceremony.
Inductees in attendance included three individuals with football connections: Sporting News High School All-American Joseph “Coach Joe” Prehodka (Class of ’59), three-sport letterwinner and former borough mayor Donald Wernik (Class of ’43) and former assistant gridiron coach John Novak (a 41-year-educator who served as the high school’s principal).
Group photo of Metuchen's inaugural Hall of Fame inductees who could attend today's ceremony. Congratulations! pic.twitter.com/DzbSRzf9MP— Greg Tufaro (@GregTufaro) November 26, 2015
The series between Metuchen and Highland Park, which began in 1937, is Middlesex County’s second oldest.
After winning a third consecutive meeting between the schools – for which the Bulldogs should give thanks to the Owls for their generosity (six turnovers and 90 yards in penalties) – Metuchen trails the series 60-20-1.
Highland Park threw six picks – Firgau had two interceptions and Cole Caposino had another – and had a punt blocked deep in its own territory that led to Jake Lebovits’ 27-yard touchdown pass to Shamar Serieux on fourth down that gave the Bulldogs a 28-7 halftime lead.
“When it was still a game in the third quarter and I had that first interception called back (because of a defensive penalty on the second play from scrimmage in the second half), I was pretty upset about that,” DiMeglio said. “Coach (Bob Ulmer) came to me and said, ‘Hey, make another play.’ I said, ‘Alright. I will.’ Luckily they threw the ball my way again a couple more times and I made a couple of plays.”
DiMeglio scored his two touchdowns during a pivotal two-minute and 26-second stretch near the end of the third quarter to give Metuchen an insurmountable 42-7 lead with 13:00 remaining in the game.
His 35-yard interception return and 32-yard rushing touchdown – which followed his third pick of the third quarter – provided that sizable margin.
Aware that Firgau entered the contest needing 99 yards to break 1,000 for the season, DiMeglio offered the play call on his scoring run to his backfield mate, who displayed his own trademark unselfishness.
“I was like, ‘Trev, this is you. You’ve got to take this,’ ” DiMeglio said. “He was like, ‘No. This is your play. We have this (installed) for you.’ It was a very classy move by him.”
At the end of last season Firgau, who split time behind center with Lebovits a year ago, transitioned from quarterback to running back to fill a void. On his 20th and final carry Thursday, Firgau reached the milestone and finished with 1,018 yards for the year.
“Trevor knows it’s a team sport,” Ulmer said. “He said, ‘It’s about us getting the win.’ He said, ‘If I get 1,000, I get it.’ Our linemen did a great job and they fought for him.”
Firgau opened the scoring on a 12-yard run. Three plays later he returned an interception 26 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Firgau intercepted another pass on the ensuing series, but Noah Pointer scooped a fumble three plays later and returned it 30 yards to the Metuchen 20, setting up Ogemdi Nwadike for a 13-yard touchdown run that closed the deficit to 14-7 late in the first quarter.
Serieux returned the ensuing kickoff 78 yards for a score, quickly shifting momentum back to the Bulldogs who blocked a punt on Highland Park’s next possession and recovered the loose ball at the Owls’ 31. Four plays later, Lebovits connected with Serieux on a 27-yard scoring strike for the 28-7 halftime lead.
Following blocked punt deep in Highland Park territory, Metuchen takes 28-7 lead with 9:30 left Q2 on this TD catch pic.twitter.com/pGf2cxULk9— Greg Tufaro (@GregTufaro) November 26, 2015
After Highland Park quarterback Ryan O’Shea connected with Yuriy Protts on a 27-yard touchdown pass to make the score 42-13 with 6:01 remaining, Justin Briggs closed the scoring for Metuchen with a 7-yard run.
Highland Park (4-6) won one fewer game this season than it had in the three previous years combined (5-25). Two-point losses to Sussex Tech and South River in consecutive weeks before the NJSIAA cutoff cost the underclass-laden Owls a chance to qualify for the playoffs.
With DiMeglio standing harmlessly on the sidelines, O’Shea threw a 59-yard pass on the game’s last play to produce the final margin.