Fisher Stadium has seen a lot of history in just one week. Five days after hosting the 154th annual Laf-Lehigh game, the venue welcomed the Easton Area and Phillipsburg teams for the 112th Thanksgiving Day meeting of the storied high school football rivalry on Thursday, Nov. 22.
The stadium was filled with a mix of brown and red as supporters from both sides of the Delaware River convened for the annual state-line battle between the two schools. The teams battled through freezing conditions in a packed, snow-covered Fisher Stadium before the Easton Red Rovers came away with a 31-26 victory, their fourth consecutive win over the Phillipsburg Stateliners—a contrast with the Lafayette Leopards who have suffered four consecutive losses in their rivalry with Lehigh.
Easton holds the all-time series lead over Phillipsburg, 65-42-5.
Much like in the Laf-Lehigh game, the scoring began on the first play of the opening drive. Easton’s sophomore running back Nahjee Adams caught a short screen pass and was immediately surrounded by defenders before breaking free for a shocking, 68-yard touchdown less than 30 seconds into the game. Adams appeared to be caught in the backfield but a quick spin move allowed him to change direction and turn a loss into a massive momentum swing for Easton, much to the delight of the crowd of red-clad supporters.
“It was a huge boost to our kids being able to score on the first play,” said Red Rovers head coach Jeff Braido. “We have not played well from behind this year so we needed to get off to a fast start … and Nahjee was pretty fast.”
Easton’s strong offensive line, led by senior Andrew Balukas who was voted the game’s defensive MVP, consistently pressured Phillipsburg senior quarterback Jack Stagaard, resulting in 10 quarterback hurries compared to zero for the Stateliners. The Stateliner receivers also had a number of uncharacteristic drops which stalled their offensive drives and allowed the Rovers to carry a 17-6 lead into the half after Stagaard fought his way into the end zone for a touchdown late in the second quarter.
The third quarter saw Easton extend its lead behind strong play from senior quarterback Nate Nimeh, who forced his way to a touchdown with a 1-yard run before completing an 18-yard pass to senior wide receiver Michael Dunlap with less than three minutes left in the frame. The Rovers carried a 31-6 lead into the fourth quarter before the Stateliners nearly staged a dramatic comeback against their archrival.
With just eight minutes remaining in the contest, Phillipsburg’s furious rally began with a 22-yard run by Stagaard to narrow the deficit to 31-12 after a missed PAT attempt by the Stateliners. The senior QB found the end zone once again for his third touchdown of the day on a six-yard burst with 1:16 remaining in the game to pull within 31-20 after a successful two-point conversion.
With no other option, Phillipsburg attempted an onside kick, recovered the ball and drove 75 yards in just 38 seconds before scoring again with less than a minute to play. The veteran players made a difference once more, as junior running back Sterling Walker hauled in the 15-yard pass from Stagaard to bring the score to 31-26.
“I think [the late push] says a great deal about our football team,” Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy said. “[The team] truly believed they could win that game until the very end. We have great senior leadership and it showed at the end of the game.”
The Stateliners managed to recover yet another onside kick with 12 seconds remaining, and needed to cover 49 yards in order to pull off the impressive comeback. The rally fell just short, as Stagaard was sacked to end the game.
Although the late surge by Phillipsburg made the score close, the scoring outburst was partly due to Easton using their advantage to give playing time to the seniors during their final game.
“Many of [the seniors] have busted their butts on the practice field every day and haven’t gotten the chance to play much this season,” said Braido. “They will remember this game positively for the rest of their lives.”
Easton finishes the season with a 9-4 record and bragging rights for their seniors, who never lost a rivalry game. The matchup provided an opportunity for the team to finish the season in a positive way.
“Winning on Thanksgiving always makes the losses during the season a lot more bearable,” said Braido. “It is a great morale booster for the kids and gives us momentum going into the offseason.”
Phillipsburg, who won their eighth sectional title with a win over visiting Irvington on Saturday, Nov. 17, holds a 10-2 record heading into their bowl game against Wayne Hills in MetLife Stadium the weekend of Nov. 30. The team’s mindset appears to have already shifted to this weekend’s game.
“[Wayne Hills] is a completely different team we are facing,” Duffy said. “The motivation is to do something our school has never done before and send our seniors out on top.”
Regardless of the outcome of their bowl game, Duffy hopes the younger players take away the “grittiness” they saw from the upperclassmen this season.
“Never once did anyone point their finger, blame each other,” he added. “And we came so close to maybe having the greatest comeback in the games’ history.”