A shocking victory for Lincoln Lions upend Union Hill in overtime, crush Hillers’ playoff hopes

It may go down as the biggest upset in Hudson County football in many years. There isn’t a person alive who gave Lincoln a chance at defeating Union Hill last weekend. After all, the Lions had a 1-5 record and looking to play out the string once again. The Hillers were once undefeated at 4-0 and had the makings of becoming a state playoff team.

There was even talk of a possible NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group 3 showdown between the two Union City schools, a chance for one last historic moment between Emerson and Union Hill before they become one entity in two years.

It was all set to be a playoff match-up of historic proportions, Emerson against Union Hill, two schools without a true home field locking horns in the state playoffs two weeks before their traditional Thanksgiving Day tussle.

So everything was on the line for Union Hill when they faced Lincoln last week. It was simply another stepping stone along the way toward a post-season party.

There was only one problem. Someone forgot to tell the opponent that they were simply supposed to roll over and die.

Ever since he took over the program at his alma mater last year, Lincoln head coach Robert Hampton has been trying to bring the Lions back to respectability. It hasn’t been easy, considering the Lions had won only three games since he took over – all against fellow Jersey City public schools, beating Dickinson twice (last year and this) and Snyder once (last year).

In fact, Lincoln had not won an HCIAA game outside of the Jersey City public school system since 1999. The Lions defeated Newark Central in an NJSIAA consolation game for non-playoff contenders in 2004, but to get another win against an HCIAA opponent, you have to search the record books and memory banks far and wide.

So here was a game against Union Hill was that simply not winnable. The Hillers started off the year with a 4-0 explosion. They had one of the best defensive performers in all of New Jersey in linebacker Manny Abreu. “My job is to make Lincoln a team that makes you play for four full quarters,” said Hampton, who played football at Lincoln in the early 1980s and returned home to coach the Lions a year ago. “I wanted to make sure that the days of us getting killed by the second quarter were long over.”

So there was a concerted effort to try to make the Lions more competitive. In all honesty, it didn’t work. The Lions continued their losing ways and this year’s 1-5 start was just a continuation of the woes that have plagued the program since its last NJSIAA playoff berth in 1987.

But Hampton wanted to make sure that the Lions finished out the 2006 season with some integrity and pride.

“That was our first goal,” Hampton said. “We wanted to win of course, but we also wanted to give the kids something that they can be proud of. Just have a little sense of pride in themselves.”

Last Saturday, the Lions took on the unenviable task of facing the 4-2 Hillers, who were looking to nail down a berth in the post-season. Lincoln received a break when standout linebacker Abreu, who had just given a verbal commitment to attend Rutgers next fall last week, was forced to miss the game due to an injury.

“I wouldn’t say it was the only thing that helped us, but it certainly changed things not having that kid there,” Hampton said.

From the outset, the Lions were determined. Charles Cato scored a touchdown on a 70-yard run and Jorge Velasquez added a 20-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14-14, sending it to overtime.

In the extra session, quarterback Aaron Darby, the team’s emotional leader, took matters into his own hands. Darby, who is also the captain of the Lincoln volleyball team and is the best defensive player on the basketball team, scored on a quarterback draw from 10 yards out, then added two more points on a PAT run, giving Lincoln a 22-14 lead.

Union Hill had to score both a touchdown and then the two-point PAT to send the game to another overtime period. The Hillers did score the touchdown, but on the conversion, massive defensive end Michael Bell, all 6-1 and 300 pounds of him, stopped the running back right before the goal line, preserving the 22-20 win.

“This is probably the biggest win that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Hampton said.

That was obviously an understatement. This team accomplished something that no other Lincoln football team had done in over seven years.

In the process, the Lincoln win all but destroyed Union Hill’s state playoff aspirations. The Hillers went from being contenders to being finished in the span of one overtime period.

“To beat a team like that,” Hampton said, “I can’t say enough about these kids. We have been searching the subterranean of Lincoln High School to find players. Just to see some progression means a lot. I hope people realize that we’re not a dog team anymore.”

D.J. Pierre and Anthony Blair had big games for the Lions, collecting 10 tackles each.

So it’s not exactly the Super Bowl. It’s not a championship win or a berth to the state playoffs. It’s a victory that makes a struggling team 2-5. But it’s a win that gives Lincoln some hope and a sense of accomplishment.

They have two regular season games left – against Ferris this week and then Dickinson. If they can repeat the feat against Ferris, Lincoln would have helped to eliminate two teams from the Group III playoff bracket in consecutive weeks.

“We’re going to try to win those two games,” Hampton said.

Spoken like a truly confident coach. – Jim Hague


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