When your last .500 season goes back to 2002 and your last winning record was in 2000, winning close games is no guarantee. Bergenfield is a classic example, a team that was winless last season and is still a very young team this season.
For many of the Bears, just playing is a new experience, so when they were sitting on a lead late in the fourth quarter against Indian Hills, the game was anything but over. When they fumbled at the Braves' 8-yard line with 1:46 left, you could sense the "here we go again" coming.
Five straight completions had Indian Hills at the Bergenfield 31, but the Braves are another team that has fallen on hard times, and when a fourth down fumble behind the line of scrimmage snuffed out their last gasp, Bergenfield had a 12-6 win and a 2-2 record.
The modest .500 mark is something of an accomplishment in itself. The Bears have not won more than two games in a season since a 3-7 mark in 2003 and now they have a pair of victories before the halfway point of this campaign.
"We're very young and there were a lot of nerves in a game like this," first-year head coach Shane Biggins said. "I'm just proud that we snuck away with a win here."
It was a triumph over themselves as much as the Braves. The Bears (2-2) committed four turnovers and nearly had a fifth on the game's first play, where Kyle Grimm was able to wrestle the ball away from a defender on a 29-yard reception down the left sideline. That led to a Chris Lora 1-yard scoring run, but the extra point try failed.
Indian Hills came into the game having scored only three points in its first three games. They finally got a touchdown, but it was the defense that put the points on the board. Jason Ogull stepped in front of a flat pass and returned it 34 yards to paydirt with three seconds left in the first quarter. His extra point try clanged off the right crossbar, leaving the game tied.
Bergenfield was inside the red zone late in the half, but a fumble on first down cost them six yards and three incompletions ended the opportunity. They were better on the first series of the second half, and it turned into the winning points.
Quarterback Angel Dominguez converted a fourth and one on a sneak, then came right back on first down with a deep ball down the left sideline to Grimm, who was behind the defense by 10 yards and completed a 40-yard touchdown play.
The Braves (0-4) continued to struggle on offense, as Mike Labauskas had a tipped ball intercepted by RichieTorres that gave Bergenfield possession at the IH 22-yard line with 3:42 to go. When they picked up a first down at the 11, they forced Hills to use their last two time outs on the ensuing two snaps.
Then, near disaster struck. Dominguez was having trouble taking the snaps from the backup center, who was in thanks to an injury to the starter in the third quarter. He bobbled the snap on third down and tried to get a handoff to his running back but it was on the hip. The ball was recovered by Ogull at the 8-yard line with 1:46 remaining.
"We have a lot of kids who are on the varsity field who haven't played football before or not in several years, so we've had to go back to the basics," Biggins related. "Our starting offense has one senior. Everything we're doing we're doing for the first time. It's a learning process throughout."
Labauskas (11 of 23 passing, 158 yards, 2 interceptions) then teamed with Ogull (9 receptions, 144 yards) on five straight passes, as the Bears allowed him to catch the ball in the flat. He picked up 61 yards on the quintet, the last one a 24-yarder that had Hills at the Bear 31.
An ineligible receiver penalty cost the Braves a completion to the Bergenfield 17, and three incompletions set up a fourth down. Labauskas lost his grip on the ball as he tried to scramble, and even though teammate Mike Rezzonico recovered and tried to advance it, he could not elude Keith Brooks, who brought him down behind the line of scrimmage to seal the win.
It was another frustrating outing for Indian Hills, which has now gone four games without the offense crossing the goal line. While injuries have been a factor (running back Bruce Pirie is out for the season with a concussion and seven other players missed last week before returning this week), head coach Mark Aramburu refused to use it as an excuse.
"We just did not execute," he said. "We had plenty available. I could notch off a bunch of plays where we made bad decisions or mistakes. That's it in a nutshell. We have to get better. It's frustrating, no doubt. We have to get better at our execution, seeing things that are available to us."
One of those instances came in the first quarter on their first possession. A pair of wide receiver screens to Ogull for 21 yards apiece helped move the Braves to the Bear 4-yard line. A yard loss on first down and three more lost yards on second down forced Labauskas to the air, and he threw right into coverage. Tyler Mitchell intercepted at the 2-yard line.
The win was the first in league play for Bergenfield since October 13, 2007 when they beat Demarest, 30-25. It also was an upgrade after losses to Northern Highlands and Demarest, two game that the Bears felt they could win.
"We thought we'd be more competitive in our first two NBIL games," Biggins noted, "and reality set in for us. We had a lot more work to do. They kids stayed up. They didn't let it affect them. A lot of teams that have struggled like this one has the last couple of years, when you get down you stay down. We've been fighting back, we've stayed resilient."