Playoff football often gives teams a shot at redemption. The chance to defeat an opponent that had beaten you earlier in the season provides players with a huge incentive going into a big game. That’s why the Hopatcong High School Chiefs are savoring a second chance when they face the North Warren Patriots again.
Seventh-seeded Hopatcong (4-4) travels to second-seeded North Warren (7-2) in the quarterfinal round of North 1, Group II state football playoffs in a 7 p.m. contest on Friday night.
Like many local teams, the Chiefs are just getting back into playing form. Hurricane Sandy knocked down numerous trees and power lines in town and the subsequent winter storm that followed exacerbated the problem and eliminated any chance for the team to play or practice. Hopatcong had not played in a football game since losing to Butler on Oct. 26 and had not practiced in days.
“They had two full weeks of not playing football,’’ Hopatcong coach Gary Andolena said. “Like anyone else, a lot of the kids left town and stayed with different families. We didn’t get power back until Friday. On Saturday we had three-quarters of the team, so that was a little better. We don’t have a lot of time but we will make sure the kids are well prepared.’’
However, it is a positive that the Chiefs played the Patriots early in the season and the stinging loss they suffered is clear in their minds. North Warren defeated Hopatcong 42-7 on Sept. 21, but ever since they played that game the Chiefs players felt that was a contest they wished they had back.
“It wasn’t really a down side,’’ senior running back Wyatt Gehring said. “I think it was a learning experience. We did what we had to do. It was only big plays we lost to them by. … We knew what mistakes we made. We knew what we had to work on from there.”
The trio of North Warren threats (John Davalos, Nolan Robertson, Trent Simmons) took advantage of their opportunities and turned them into long-distance scores. The Patriots scored 29 second-quarter points to turn the game into a rout. The Chiefs don’t expect that to happen again.
“It wasn’t even like we couldn’t handle them,’’ senior lineman Chris Houterman said. “They never really drove down the field. A little mistake became a big play and that happened five times.’’
Although the Chiefs have had their ups and downs this season, they treated that defeat like they treated all of their setbacks–as a learning experience.
“North Warren wasn’t as bad of a game as it seemed,’’ senior linebacker A.J. Bongiovanni said. “By coming back it showed how much character we have on this team. It showed that just because we're punched once we're not going to stay down. We’re coming right back up.’’
The defense hopes to do a much better job of bottling up the Patriots backs. Hopatcong doesn’t intimidate anyone with its size, but the players hit fast, hit hard, and hit often.
“We like to emphasize that we might not be the biggest team but we are definitely faster and we will hit you all game,’’ Bongiovanni said. “We will go after you, no matter what size you are. It shows in a lot of our games that we are still tough even though we are a bit undersized.”
Hopatcong also has offensive weapons of its own. Ryan Clarke is having a fine junior season. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound quarterback has good field vision and is a tough guy to bring down.
“Ryan can see over the line by just standing up,’’ Bongiovanni said. “He can see wide receivers down the field much quicker. Ryan’s got some toughness to him. He’s really improved. He shows that he has more confidence in the pocket and he’s improved in little things that a quarterback has to improve on.’’
The Chiefs hope to get the ball into the hands of Johann Lara as much as possible. A potent running back, Lara has breakaway speed and big play capability.
“He’s just a great running back,’’ senior teammate Chris Seely said. “He’s scary fast, one second he’s there–then he’s gone. He’s been a little bumped up this season so he hasn’t done much defense, he’s mainly an offensive player. He sprained his knee a little bit and his ankle but he’s bounced back. Not a lot of kids in the league are as fast as he is.”
The Chiefs lost to Ramsay in the opening round of the playoffs last year. This season’s edition believes the team is capable of traveling much further.
“I don’t know if the kids realize how good we can be,’’ Houterman said. “We had a good season last year but we were yards away from being conference champions. We could have had a banner and everything. I don’t think people realize that opportunity is still there.’’