The Montclair Kimberley football team might have been a young group, but it did not leave anything on the field.

The Cougars either took home a victory or were in most of their nine games in 2022, when they finished with a 5-4 record and were one win away from reaching the championship game in the Metropolitan Independent Football League (MIFL).

"I thought we demonstrated great effort in all our contests," MKA head coach Anthony Rea said. "In 2021, we let some games get away against the better opponents on our schedule."

Rea points to the relatively lopsided losses, 26-7 to Morristown Beard on Sept. 2 in the season opener and 36-7 at Pingry on Oct. 14, to make his point. In both of those contests the Cougars were only down 14-7 at halftime. 

"There was really no time where we let up and gave less than 100 percent effort against any opponent," the coach said. "It was certainly a positive, even in those defeats."

Rea said that sweeping Newark Academy on the road (28-14, Sept. 9) and at home (36-0, Oct. 22) were a couple of the best-played games. 

In addition, there were two other road victories, at Fieldston (20-13, Sept. 17) and at Horace Mann (21-13, Oct. 8). 

"I thought our two best wins were the ones over Horace Mann and Fieldston on the road," the coach said. "We finished with three road wins, and these two were particularly special. Our Horace Mann victory was at their Homecoming, and it felt good to go into a packed road environment and come out with the victory over Horace Mann.”

The Montclair Kimberley football team finished with a 5-4 record and were one win away from reaching the Metropolitan Interscholastic Football League finals. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
The Montclair Kimberley football team finished with a 5-4 record and were one win away from reaching the Metropolitan Interscholastic Football League finals. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
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MKA’s game against Fieldston stands out because the team pulled off a late comeback.

“Trailing 13-6 with four minutes to go in the game, [quarterback] Miles Black threw a 67-yard touchdown on third-and-23 to Jordan Fishback to cut the deficit to 13-12,” Rea recounted. 

“After a punt by Fieldston, Fishback took the ensuing snap and ran 59 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 1:44 left. Nic Lembo added the two-point conversion. Our defense got one final stop, and we were able to run out the clock on a 20-13 victory.”

The Cougars’ 5-4 record earned them the third seed in the MIFL tournament, where they faced second seed Horace Mann in the semifinals. 

The playoff game (Nov. 5) was close throughout, and MKA had a few opportunities to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but a late field goal sealed the fate of the Cougars’ season as they fell, 17-8.

“I'm not sure if anyone is ever happy that the season ends in a loss,” the coach said. “We were obviously disappointed since we had defeated Horace Mann on the road in the regular season, but it's tough to beat any team twice.  The teams were very well matched, and they just played a little bit better than we did on that particular Saturday.”  

Even though the season did not end as the Cougars wanted, Rea believes that the lessons they learned will bring MKA success next year. He feels the Cougars’ roster will be more prepared going into the 2023 season. 

“Next year, we already have 24 returning [players], and 14 of them will be juniors and seniors,” he said. “We had 28 players total on the roster this season.”

The Montclair Kimberley football team comes out onto the field before the season home opener on Sept. 2. While the Cougars lost to Morristown-Beard in the home opener, Montclair Kimberley finished with a 5-4 record and were one win away from reaching the Metropolitan Interscholastic Football League finals. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
The Montclair Kimberley football team comes out onto the field before the season home opener on Sept. 2. While the Cougars lost to Morristown-Beard in the home opener, Montclair Kimberley finished with a 5-4 record and were one win away from reaching the Metropolitan Interscholastic Football League finals. (EDWARD KENSIK/STAFF)
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Still, there are immediate challenges for MKA football. Specifically, star offensive players Fishback and Lembo are graduating this spring.

“Lembo and Fishback are going to be very tough to replace,” the coach said. “We may not have as many guys as experienced as Lembo was going into this season, but I am very excited about the different looks and personnel groupings we will be able to show next season.”   

In response to these changes, MKA might feature a more robust passing game next year. 

“Quarterbacks Miles Black and Carl Flocco gained experience from starting a combined seven games,” Rea said. “You should see more of a passing game on offense, but sometimes those plans can change based on injury and availability.” 

Montclair Kimberley’s top performers in 2022 were recognized by the coaches of the MIFL. Five MKA players were named to the All MIFL first team. 

On offense, Lembo, Fishback and offensive lineman Oscar Douglas were named to the  first team. On defense, linebacker Jaylen Ankrah-Jones and lineman Nate Conforti earned the honor.

Rea wants the graduating seniors to remain connected to MKA. Their commitment to football powered the program through the difficulties of the pandemic, he said, and their leadership served as an excellent example for the underclassmen. 

“We always want our alumni to be in touch with the program, and we always get a lot of players back to watch games,” the coach said. “We want all our players to feel like they are still part of the program, even when they've graduated.”

He is interested in the lives of his former players and roots for their success in all aspects of life, he said.  

For the underclassmen, Rea’s message is to stay motivated for next year. The group will be older on average and will be ready to contend for the league championship. They will be able to draw upon experiences like their comeback at Fieldston and their playoff loss at Horace Mann. 

“We did a lot of hard work in the weight room and on the field this June, July and August,” Rea said. “To win the league next year, we just need to continue to get better and bigger, faster and stronger.”