EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Down four in the waning seconds of Saturday’s North 1 Group 3 final, Brian Dowling was desperately running for his team’s life several moments after catching a last-ditch kick return. The dying breath of Wayne Hills’ season was about to become synonymous with last year, when Ramapo walked off with an upset victory and a sectional championship.
One of the most storied running backs in the Patriots’ history felt the defense closing in, but also saw his teammate in the corner of his eye when absorbing what could’ve been a game-ending, season-squashing tackle.
Troy Zaffino collected the lateral pass from Dowling and danced through the holes.
“Brian gets the kick, I see him getting swarmed by Old Tappan players and I knew I could have kept the ball alive if I stayed behind him,” Zaffino said. “I called for it and I was like ‘Brian, here!’ and I looked up and I saw the whole left side open.”
There was nothing but the open field in sight and the vociferous cheers from thousands of stunned fans bouncing off him.
Dowling looked up in disbelief.
Wayne Hills 24, Old Tappan 21.
The New Meadowlands Miracle meant the Patriots captured their sixth state crown in seven years, meant they came out on the winning end of one of the greatest New Jersey high school games ever played.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a game where your emotions are up and down so much like that,” Wayne Hills coach Chris Olsen said. “Brian Dowling and Troy Zaffino…and I’ll say it again, if there’s a better all-around football player around than Brian Dowling you’ve all got to show him to me.”
This perplexing sequence of events followed an episode of agony on the Wayne Hills sideline. Old Tappan crawled all the way back from deficits of 14-0 and 17-7 in the fourth quarter and competed its comeback as star quarterback Devin Fuller found Drew Martinez for a 12-yard scoring strike with 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
“I’ll tell you what, we’ve lost some close championships over the years,” Olsen said. “I thought we played well, I thought they played well, we played (Fuller) about as well as you can play him… but it was a great game and we’ve lost our share of these close games. It’s time we won one.”
Arguably the most fascinating team in the area and a Cinderella if there ever was one, the Golden Knights were seconds away from dancing at midfield in joy. But then after kicking off – for the first time of the night refraining from a short kick – their title dreams shattered into fragments of despair.
It was a fitting conclusion to a campaign that provided fans with plenty of excitement. After all, this was the last contest of 2010 in the state, so why shouldn’t we be left without a memorable parting gift?
Dowling was wrapped up and needed help for the first time in his sterling career, and Zaffino was there to take over.
“It was nothing we worked on. When I looked up at the scoreboard I thought ‘well, here we go again Brian, you blew it again,’” Dowling said. “On that play I got caught and I looked at the refs and I thought they were about to blow the whistle and I heard Troy screaming, and anytime you can put the ball in number-20’s hands, he’s can make things happen. I pitched him the ball and he took care of the rest.”
It just goes to show the Patriots and their impressive 11-1 record were more than just a Division I running back and other players in maroon and white uniforms.
“Like everybody says, it takes 11 guys on every play on all thirds of the ball,” Dowling said. “Everybody contributed and that’s how we got it done.”
It’s the anatomy of a miracle.