Story by Greg Mattura – Record Sports Department
RUTHERFORD – First, Rutherford’s senior class saw what it was like to play in a championship football game.
Then, those Bulldogs enjoyed the pleasure of winning the program’s first NJSIAA sectional title.
Now, a roster with more than a dozen key seniors is experiencing the challenge of trying to repeat as a champion.
“I feel like there’s more pressure, since we have everyone looking at us and trying to beat us and not let us win the state championship again,” senior Abellany Mendez said prior to Monday’s practice.
Top-seeded Rutherford (8-1) continues its quest to repeat as North 2, Group 2 champion when it hosts No. 5 Mountain Lakes (7-2) in Friday’s 6 p.m. semifinal at Tryon Field. The survivor faces either No. 3 Lyndhurst or No. 2 Verona for the title.
Rutherford’s record since 2015, when it was sectional runner-up, is 37-4. This might be the most successful four-year stretch in program history and has created more buzz and brought greater prestige to the Bulldogs.
“We definitely restored a lot of pride back into Rutherford High School,” said coach Andy Howell, in his ninth season. “It’s very special, and the entire community has been extremely supportive, and it’s starting to feel like a football town again, which is something that kind of went away from Rutherford for a few years.”
Rutherford has learned what it feels like to go from the hunter to the hunted. Last year’s Bulldogs faced far less pressure en route to an 11-0 season.
“Nobody believed that we could go that far and win it on that big stage,” said Lawson Fisher, a senior two-way lineman. “So to come back this year, we’re a different team. Last year, we were the underdog. Now we’re on top and we have a big target on our back. And now we have to defend it every week.”
“Last year, when we won, everybody thought we were the underdogs, so we really had nothing to lose,” said Regan Landrigan, a senior running back and linebacker. “We would go into every game gunning for everything, running trick plays. But this year, since we’re the top dog, we kind of have everything to lose, and everybody wants to beat us.”
The current seniors credit that 2015 team, which lost in the sectional final to Madison, 27-6, for showing the way to MetLife Stadium and creating an atmosphere of success.
“Those seniors just kind of took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew,” Fisher said. “And I just tried to put that into my own game, so they really helped me out in developing me into what I’m doing now.”
What Rutherford is doing now is focusing on its semifinal. And the opportunity to do what no Bulldogs have ever done: win back-to-back titles.
“Since my freshman year, this program has succeeded,” said Mendez, a running back and defensive back. “We won a lot of games. I’ll obviously be finishing with at least a state championship, and not a lot of people can say that. But it would obviously be even better if we could win again and have two rings.”
“The 2017 Rutherford football team will be remembered forever,” Landrigan said. “I want to be remembered even more and be the Rutherford football team that wins two in a row.”