By LARRY HENRY JR.
BURLINGTON TOWNSHIP — Burlington Township poses plenty of weapons on both sides of the ball that can beat any team, any week. In Friday’s Central Jersey Group 3 opener, it was Ju-Juan Lee who had the final say after watching several of his teammates carry the load in the early stages of an eventual overtime victory.
Lee finished with 132 rushing yards and the game-winning touchdown as the Falcons won their seventh game in a row, outlasting Delran, 34-28, in overtime on Friday night. It was a gritty win for Tom Madeira’s bunch, who were pushed to the brink by Garrett Lucas’ Bears but eventually raced away with Lee’s 10-yard touchdown proving the difference.
“We did not play the best game, but we did find a way to win and now we move on,” Lee said. “I am happy to help the team in this way and I am glad that we were able to pull away and keep our season alive. A lot of us have been playing for many years now and we have over 20 seniors who don’t want this season to end anytime soon. It’s one-and-done season now, and we just have to be refuel and prepare for Round 2.”
Delran forced overtime with 1:28 left to play as quarterback Derek Namnun found a wide open Connor Daly up the middle for a 45-yard score. It was the latest impressive offensive drive for the Bears, who finished with 367 total yards.
Burlington Township started slowly with quarterback Gage Miller being intercepted twice in the opening quarter, first by Namnun and the second by Jake Baumann, whose diving pick kept the Bears level at 0-0 through the opening 12 minutes. Miller didn’t hang his head though, dumping a pass off to wide receiver Jordan Dotson early in the second quarter and watching as the skillful senior raced 40 yards for the opening touchdown.
“A lot of us have played with Gage and knew him for a long time, so we knew he was going to bounce back,” Burlington Township receiver Anthony Johnson said. “He just knows how to make plays and you saw that tonight, whether it was throwing the ball, extending plays, or running into the end zone himself. He is a competitor.”
Delran answered back in a big way as Rutgers commit Kenny Fletcher shocked the Falcons with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Sacarino on a 4th-and-13 play midway through the second quarter. The score capped off a 10-play, 63-yard drive, giving the Bears a slight lead before Johnson called his own number 16 seconds later.
Johnson wasted little time, taking the ensuing kickoff back 85 yards for a Falcons touchdown and continuing a busy second quarter for both teams.
Delran once again mixed up its offensive calls and hit pay dirt with 1:26 left in the first half. Zach Palmer-Smith’s 3-yard run once again propelled the Bears in front, but Madeira’s offense quickly answered to take a 21-14 lead into the halftime break.
Miller scrambled to his right before flicking a pass to Jake Bricker from six yards out, moving the Falcons back in front and putting the Bears on the back foot.
“I am so proud of the guys,” Lucas said. “They came out and adjusted and made this game one of the best I have been a part of as a coach. Definitely going to miss this group of guys and I can’t be more happy with how hard they fought for one another tonight.”
Delran received the kickoff to start the second-half and called on Palmer-Smith to lead the way, watching the senior tailback add his second touchdown of the game, this from six yards out to tie things up, 21-21.
After the defenses for both teams combined for a trio of three-and-outs, Burlington Township looked to have swung momentum in its favor one final time. Miller’s 1-yard quarterback sneak pushed the Falcons ahead, 28-21, and gave the senior gunslinger his third touchdown. Still, Delran came crawling back and took advantage of a broken coverage in the Falcons’ secondary to watch Daly race into the end zone to force overtime.
That’s when the Falcons went to business without any hiccups.
“We knew the situations were very important and everyone just focused on the job at hand,” Lee said. “I wanted to play my part and my offensive line got a great jump on both of my runs in overtime to get us in the lead for good.”
“Overall, I thought we made a lot of mistakes tonight, but we did enough to win the game, so it’s a testament to the players for not giving up,” Madeira said. “I think Ju-Juan ran the ball very well tonight, as did NaQuan Jones, who mixed it up as well. That’s a good Delran team over there and they pushed us to the brink tonight. Now we have to prepare for Rumson by staying sharp this week and having a good week of practice.”
Lee accounted for all 25 yards in overtime, giving the Falcons a 34-28 advantage then watching as his teammates closed the door on the Bears’ attack. Fletcher was unable to make a catch on fourth down, ending the game and keeping Burlington Township’s latest winning season alive for another week.
Miller’s 153 combined yards and three scores helped the Falcons advance to the second round while Johnson’s two interceptions paired with 132 all-purpose yards were also key to the emotional victory. Palmer-Smith led the way for Delran with 166 rushing yards on 33 carries while Fletcher added 86 receiving yards to go along with his trick-play touchdown pass.
“We know tonight wasn’t good enough, but the guys deserve a lot of credit and now we need to play a lot better football if we want to bring home a trophy,” Johnson said. “Big-time players make big-time plays and we had a few of those tonight. Next week it could be a new group that steps up, so we all have to be ready to lead this team.”
Delran’s season comes to an end with a 6-3 record, giving Lucas his fourth winning season since taking over in 2018.
Burlington Township moves to 8-1 and will next travel to top-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven (8-1) next weekend. It will be the latest challenge for this growing group of players, but they know the mistakes have to end if they want to keep their championship hopes alive.
“We want to send this class out with a trophy and tonight was the first step toward that,” Lee said. “It’s a long road, but we have the talent to get there.”
Larry Henry Jr. covers high school sports in Burlington County for Glory Days Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @lhenry019.