It’s an easy thing to say you’re moving on past a tough football loss, but it’s another thing to actually succeed in doing it.
That’s especially so when the loss is 54-0 to an intense neighborhood rival, as Warren Hills’ opening setback to Phillipsburg was.
It was the kind of defeat that could have ruined a whole season, or at least a few weeks — but the Blue Streaks didn’t let it happen.
Senior captain Jake Smith and his teammates wouldn’t let it.
“What we did was like what we did after the Summit game last season (when the Streaks fell to 0-3 after a thumping by Summit),” Smith said. “We had to focus on what was next. We knew (the Phillipsburg loss) happened, and we had to take that game off our shoulders and move on to Governor Livingston. We did, and we won.”
A 24-6 defeat of the Highlanders proved an excellent reversal of form for Warren Hills, which now has some momentum heading into Friday’s Mid-State 38 crossover game against another local rival, North Hunterdon, in the renewal of the “Route 31 rivalry” at North’s Singley Field.
Blue Streaks coach George DiGrande knew he could count on Smith, one of the very few returning starters on his green-as-a-forest-in-June team, to deliver the kind of mental turnaround the squad needed.
“Jake is a passionate leader and vocal supporter (of his teammates),” DiGrande said. “An an old-school, throwback player, tough and physical.”
That last trait came in very handy against Governor Livingston.
“The difference between the Phillipsburg and Governor Livingston games was our physicality,” Smith said. “It was a lot better than it was against Phillipsburg. Not just on defense, but up front on offense, too. We felt much better, much more physical, for the entire game.”
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Smith was a large part of the extra-physical play in the win.
“Jake sets the edge well on defense and can get upfield to rush the quarterback,” DiGrande said. “He is a stalwart at defensive end. Against Governor Livingston he had a crunching sack and fumble that (we) recovered.”
Warren Hills’ Jake Smith sacks Governor Livingston quarterback Victor Chait, forcing a fumble, in Saturday’s 24-6 Blue Streak win.
Smith plays defensive end and tight end, after a short stay at offensive tackle earlier this season. He’s the sole returning Blue Streaks starter on offense and just one of two on defense.
While DiGrande liked Smith at tackle, he likes what Smith does at tight end even more.
“His skills allow us to use him in different ways at tight end, inside, in motion, and out wide,” DiGrande said. “Jake has good hands and blocking ability.”
The Blue Streaks had 254 total yards on offense against the Highlanders, 213 on the ground (177 by sophomore running back Jon Lainez), a considerable improvement from the sub-50 yardage against Phillipsburg. But Smith thinks there is even more in the tank.
“We did a good job on offense Saturday,” Smith said. “But I think we can play even better. I think I can play even better.”
Where the Blue Streaks may have improved the most is on defense, where they held Governor Livingston to one touchdown and had five takeaways.
“We were able to get a lot of pressure against the quarterback,” said Smith, who had 10 tackles against the Highlanders. “We were definitely stronger than their offensive line. We stopped their running game. (Defensive coordinator) Tony Frey put in a really good play against their single wing.”
Single wing? That old classic of an offense is rarely seen these days, but it can drive defenses crazy with misdirection and confusion. To be able to contain a single wing speaks wonders about the mental discipline and physical adaptability of the Warren Hills defense.
Now, Smith and the Blue Streaks must try and contain a North Hunterdon team that, like them, suffered a tough opening loss and bounced back strongly with a 20-0 defeat of Immaculata. The Lions piled up 309 yards rushing in the win.
“Defensively, we need to contain the run game within the tackles and stop the short pass game,” DiGrande said. “Reducing self-inflicted errors and turnovers will give us an opportunity to win in a hostile, loud environment.”
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That’s fine with Smith, who well remembers a thrilling last-minute 36-33 win over the Lions in 2018 in front of a rocking house at Warren Hills.
“That was a good time, and it will be another full atmosphere at North Hunterdon,” Smith said. “We just have to keep working hard and getting better.”