Jake Caldwell got Bernards back into the game. Then he almost gave it away. Then he was the hero… again.
So was Connor Laverty.
Caldwell, the senior wide receiver – a favorite target of fellow senior Connor Laverty, the quarterback – had a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown with just over two minutes to go before halftime to tie the score at seven, but muffed a punt with just over nine minutes left in the game that gave Lakeland the ball back up 14-10, costing Bernards great field position and a chance to take the lead.
But Bernards held, and on their next possession, Caldwell gave the Mountaineers their first lead in the game at 17-14 with exactly one-minute to go on an 11-yard touchdown catch on fourth and goal. It was a touchdown that would prove important, since Lakeland came right back down an sent the game to overtime on a 43-yard field goal as time expired.
In overtime, however, Bernards would not be denied, and that’s when it was Laverty’s turn.
Lakeland went first in overtime, could only gain four yards, and missed a 38-yard field goal on its possession. That left the Mountaineers to play it conservative and keep the ball on the ground.
Laverty – who’d thrown 18 times on the night – handed off to freshman Patrick Carlisle a couple of times, gained a first down at the 14, got his team down to the seven, and on third-and-four punched it in the end zone to set off a raucous celebration at Olcott Field, winning the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 2 title with a 23-7 victory.
It was Bernards’ first title in three tries, with previous sectional finals berths in 1997 and 2016.
Now, the 12-0 Mountaineers – the last remaining Big Central team alive in the playoffs after St. Thomas Aquinas and Phillipsburg both lost Friday night – will travel to Westwood next Friday evening to play the Cardinals in the Group 2 semifinals. Top-seed Westwood (11-0) beat second-seed Rutherford Friday night in the North 1, Group 2 final, 20-7, for their seventh sectional championship.
The winner will go on to the Group 2 championship game the week after Thanksgiving against either South 2 champion Rumson-Fair Haven or Central 2 champion Willingboro.
Click below for postgame reaction presented by Sportsplex at Metuchen: