The Perth Amboy High School football team fell short in its bid to upset South Plainfield for a second consecutive season as the Panthers dropped an 8-6 heartbreaker to the Tigers on Thursday night.
With the victory, South Plainfield (6-1) kept alive its hopes for a Greater Middlesex Conference White Division title and secured a Central Group III playoff berth.
The Tigers, however, can only claim the division championship with the combination of a victory over Colonia next weekend and New Brunswick dropping its regular-season finales to Colonia and St. Joseph.
“We can’t worry about how the division plays out or about our spot in the playoffs,” South Plainfield head coach Gary Cassio said. “We’ve got to get ready for Colonia and we’ve got to get better.”
South Plainfield entered this weekend’s action with 77 power points, the sixth highest total in its section.
Perth Amboy took a 6-0 lead on freshman quarterback Tahjmere O’Neal’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Shaquan Fullwood in the first quarter.
The lead for the Panthers, who missed the extra point, was short-lived as Jason Lee returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards for his team-leading 10th touchdown of the season.
South Plainfield missed the PAT, but Perth Amboy was flagged for having too many players on the field. After the penalty, The Tigers took an 8-6 lead on a two-point conversion.
Earlier in the game, South Plainfield blocked a field goal attempt as the Tigers’ special teams performed well.
O’Neal completed 15 of 23 passes for a career-high 137 yards and an interception. Fullwood and Quincy Hannah each caught four passes for a combined 73 yards. Hakeem Guthrie was Perth Amboy’s leading rusher with 16 yards on four carries.
With under four minutes remaining in the contest, a muffed punt gave Perth Amboy excellent field position at the South Plainfield 20 yard line. Consecutive penalties conspired with a suffocating defense, however, to push the Panthers out of scoring range.
Perth Amboy’s last chance to win the game fell short with an unsuccessful Hail Mary pass.
“Our kids never gave up,” Perth Amboy head coach Brad Bishop said. “We battled all the way to the end. They played with Panther pride all night long.”
South Plainfield, which dropped a 12-10 decision to the Panthers last year, was facing an opponent which had played well in losses to undefeated New Brunswick and Colonia and which snapped a five-game losing streak with a 6-3 victory over winless J.F. Kennedy last weekend.
“We’ve been playing well,” said Bishop, whose team dropped to 1-6. “We’ve just got to play mistake-free football.”
Deonte Freeman anchored Perth Amboy’s defense with five tackles, while teammate Jeremiah Stevens forced a fumble, which Josh Nazario recovered.
“These kids played their heart out on defense,” Bishop said, noting that Erik Negron, Manny Saucedo, Jose Caceras and others shined on defense. “The list goes on and on.”
Cassio said his team was flat and played its worst game of the year. A short week of preparation plus injuries to South Plainfield’s starting wide receiver and left tackle played a factor, but the head coach was not about to make any excuses.
“We didn’t come to play tonight,” Cassio said. “(The Panthers) are big, they are fast and very tough kids. They beat us last year in an ugly game and it was an ugly game this year and we prevailed. My hat’s off to Perth Amboy. They came to play.”
After Lee returned the kickoff for a touchdown, South Plainfield did not have a red-zone scoring opportunity.
“Our defense won the game for us,” Cassio said.