MILLVILLE — At first glance of the final score, one would think not much defense was played Friday night in the prep football season opener for both host Ridgeline and visiting Pine View.
While both teams did roll up a lot of offensive yards and score frequently, a couple of defensive plays looked large for the Riverhawks. Ridgeline terminated a five-game skid that ended the 2018 campaign with a thrilling 58-56 victory in the first-ever meeting between these schools.
“We just have to respond to whatever happens positively,” said Jovesa Damuni, who scored five touchdowns on the night. “This was a great way for us to start the season.”
The lead changed hands eight times during the game, including three in the final quarter. For first-year Riverhawks head coach Travis Van Leeuwen, it was sweet in many ways. A year ago he was at the Logan helm and lost a wild first-round playoff game to the Panthers, 68-50. He felt like this game was similar in some ways.
“You have two great football teams right there with great offensive potential,” Van Leeuwen said. “Both teams wanted this one to start the season. I loved the way our boys played and competed and fought to the end. It was incredible.”
The winning score came with 4:02 minutes to play. Running back Noah White got the call on a fourth-and-2 play. The Riverhawk sophomore not only picked up the first down, but found some open field and rumbled 29 yards for a touchdown.
“The line made a really good gap for me, so I took the seem and bounced it outside,” said White, who had 86 yards rushing and 62 yards receiving on the night. “There was also great blocking by Carter Murdock.”
With plenty of time on the clock, Pine View started to drive and reached the Ridgeline 15-yard line. Enter Miles Eck. The junior came up with his second interception of the game.
“We have been working on jumping those routes, but the whole game they were not throwing it,” Eck said. “They finally threw it, and I stayed true to what I’m supposed to do and got it done. I was so happy.”
There was still more than two minutes to play, and Pine View had its timeouts. The Panthers ended up with the ball and got to the Riverhawks 19. With 16 ticks left on the clock, Pine View lined up for a game-winning field goal and missed it from 38 yards out. Ridgeline could finally celebrate.
“We gave up way too many points, but we got turnovers when we needed them,” Eck said. “Our offense was able to score and come up clutch.”
The Riverhawks began the second half with a score after Eck’s first interception. Damuni scored from five yards out.
Ridgeline finished with 604 yards of total offense. Sophomore quarterback Kaden Cox converted 25 of 35 passes for 349 yards. The Riverhawks had 246 yards on the ground.
Pine View gained 555 yards of total offense, with 449 of those through the air. Macloud Crowton completed 31 of 44 pass attempts for 459 yards, seven TDs and had two picked off.
After going 4-6 a year ago and missing the playoffs, the Riverhawks are hungry. They certainly got off to good start Friday.
Ridgeline won the coin toss, took the ball and drove 71 yards in 15 plays. The Riverhawks converted two third-down plays and a fourth-down play before reaching paydirt. Damuni began his big scoring night with a 1-yard run off the right side.
“I’m a big believer in if you can get the ball first and go down and score, put up seven quick, you usually give yourself a chance to control the game and pull away or give yourself a chance,” Van Leeuwen said. “I thought we did that. That drive did set the tone.”
Damuni, who went on to rush for 128 yards on 28 carries and caught three passes for 44 yards, agreed with is coach on the start to the game.
“We just got into it from the first snap,” said Damuni, who admitted he had a few butterflies before his first varsity start. “We just kept rolling from there. ... That’s why received the ball from the coin toss. We wanted the ball because we are confident we can score.”
And score. And score. And score. And score. Did Damuni even dream of scoring five TDs in his first game of 2019?
“It’s really in practice, because we score then,” Damuni said. “We come to the games and already know what to do.”
Ridgeline took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter, but then it got wild. Pine View, which went 8-4 last year and reached the semifinals, scored three TD’s in a span of 2:23. A pair of Riverhawk interceptions led to two scores, including one that was brought back 32 yards. Still, the hosts did not panic when they found themselves down 28-17.
“I love those boys for the way they fought to the very end,” Van Leeuwen said. “I tell them all the time bad things are going to happen. It’s how you respond. You’ve got to keep battling and stay composed.”
Ridgeline did score just before halftime to regain some momentum. Damuni went in from a foot out on a fourth-down play in the final seconds of the second quarter.
Like the second quarter, the third was wild. Both teams reached the end zone a trio of times, with most of them being big plays. Strat Simmons hauled in a 70-yard pass from Cox for the Riverhawks to help them keep up with the Panthers.
“Van Leeuwen just kept calling good plays, and Jovesa kept running hard and opening holes for me,” White said. “... A lot of people think we are underdogs, and we took that role and used it to come out with a victory.”
Pine View took a 49-45 lead going to the fourth quarter, but TD runs by Damuni and White proved to be the difference.
“The defense came up big when we needed them too,” Van Leeuwen said. “... When we needed the defense at the end, they came up clutch. ... Those running backs are studs, but it is all 11 guys across the line.”