by Andrew Garda
Before the season started, Montclair Kimberley Academy football head coach Anthony Rea was just hoping they could get a few games played. With the uncertainty of COVID-19 there was no telling how long or short the season would be.
Even more than the 4-1 record or the 28-14 win over Pingry on Saturday, Rea is proud of his team and their efforts to stay healthy and get this far.
“I think it’s real big on them,” he said after the win over Pingry. “You know, I think we’ve been focused and we’ve said, ‘Hey, listen, you guys have to make sure that you are smart with what you do and where you are.’”
Wearing a mask at all times, staying socially distant and avoiding parties and crowds were all necessary.
“If you want to play football, these are the things you have to do,” Rea said. “And I think they’ve done a fantastic job.”
Doing that job meant MKA had the opportunity for days like Saturday.
The game started off with a little razzle-dazzle as Rea had his team kick off, but then do an onside kick that the Cougars recovered. They then marched down the field, knocking Pingry’s defense back onto its heels with a mix of hard runs by Nic Lembo and some nice passes by Jake Pryor.
The drive culminated in a crisp pass from Pryor to Clay Morris, who scampered the rest of the way for a 30-yard touchdown.
Pryor and Morris were a consistent problem for the Blue Bears on Saturday, one that they rarely had an answer for. The pair would hook up for two more touchdowns — both of more than 55 yards and one a gorgeous shot down the seam where Morris broke away from coverage and made a nice over-the-shoulder catch on his way to a 56-yard score.
Pryor’s mobility out of the pocket was dazzling on Saturday, as the junior was sent on numerous roll-outs and found ways to extend plays with his legs when Pingry defenders got close to him. The result was a rattled Blue Bears defense and a coaching staff that seemed to spend more time screaming at the officials that Pryor had crossed the line of scrimmage before passing than they did finding a way to contain the quarterback.
“I mean, Jake is as good as I’ve coached as a quarterback,” Rea said after the game. “He just makes so many plays. Even when there’s nothing there, it’s still available.”
One of the most impressive things about Pryor is that even when he is scrambling, he keeps his eyes looking downfield for an open receiver. That makes him very tough to defend, because each defender has to choose whether to close on him for a tackle and risk his dropping a short pass over their head, or to stay back and watch him run — or find time to pick apart the secondary with a long pass.
Rea said that’s an uncommon trait in high school quarterbacks.
“Usually in high school, these guys like to run, you know?” he said. “Because they’re not real trained as QBs. He’ll go right up to the line or jump right as he’s about to go over and then he’s throwing the ball downfield. It’s just impossible to stop. He had a fabulous game. Him and Clay are just, it’s unbelievable what they do.”
Certainly, there was no stopping the pair Saturday as Pryor went 20-of-28 for 254 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and one rushing touchdown, while Morris had eight catches for 165 yards and three touchdowns.
Those totals were all season highs for the two players.
They were helped out by the solid play of the offensive line, led by seniors Michele Cestone and Caleb Hofman, who will play Division 3 football at Johns Hopkins in 2021.
They had to keep producing, though, as Pingry surged back into the game late in the second quarter with an 8-yard touchdown run by Thomas Robertozzi.
Even though the score energized the Bears, it would stay at 14-7 for the rest of the half and much of the third quarter as the two teams went back and forth.
Then MKA put it away with the second of Pryor’s touchdowns to Morris to get the lead to 21-7. They would add to it with a third touchdown to make it 28-7, and Pingry would score one more time near the end of the game, but the Cougars were in control the rest of the way.
Part of the reason for that was the defense, another spot where Morris shone. The senior pulled in nine tackles and was all over the field making plays. Add in some great work by players like Mahmoud Hassaneen (nine tackles) and Cestone, who led the team with 12 tackles, and the Cougars were able to stifle the Bears after giving up the first touchdown.
While the regular season is over, Rea has thrown the Cougars into the mix of teams looking for a few more games with NJSIAA opponents.
“Essentially because we’re not in a conference, we’re just in a little bit of a holding pattern,” Rea said. “We put in for games through the NJSIAA, and I think we’re just waiting to see how all the conferences shake out.”
Rea knows the NJSIAA can’t just match any two teams up — it would be ridiculous to put MKA against, say, Don Bosco — but hopes they can still find teams to play.
“We’re going to try to keep this thing going, you know?” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to find a good small-school matchup.”
MKA got at least one matchup, as they have been scheduled for a home game this Saturday against Hawthorne (3-1), kickoff at 1 p.m.