Media Day shows how eager everyone is for the North-South Football Classic

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UNON, NJ — Perhaps the main reason why the North has won three straight games in the Phil Simms North-South High School All-Star Football Classic series and now has another opportunity to take its first lead is the stingy play of its defense in recent games.

The North has held the South to an average of just 15 points in those wins after the South scored 38 the last time it won the game in 2018.

Of the nine gridiron standouts from Union County schools that are on this year’s North roster, four of them are linebackers. North linebacker coach Wilber Valdez of Union City High School was excited to meet them at Media Day at Kean University on Sunday, March 17, where the game will be played in three months.

There’s Myles Hamilton of Linden High School, Noah Ricca of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, Kordal Hinton of Union High School and Tyler Kessel of Summit High School. There are also a lot of tackles here.

These players will form the barrier that the South will try to break through. After seeing these players excel during their senior seasons, that won’t be an easy task at all.

“I love to get to hit people; I love the contact,” Kessel said.
A Summit captain and his team’s leading tackler, Kessel will represent the Hilltoppers at the 46th annual Phil Simms North-South High School All-Star Football Classic which will kick off on Sunday, June 9, at 5 p.m., at Kean University’s Alumni Stadium in Union.

Kessel (6-1, 210) will get to wear his No. 12 and is also receiving one more chance to walk off the field with a victory before he continues playing in college in the Ivy League at Dartmouth College.

Summit did finish as the No. 1 team in Union County for 2023, but fell two victories short of its goal of capturing the North 2, Group 3 sectional state championship for the first time in five years. The Hilltoppers, seeded No. 1, were defeated by eventual champion West Essex High School, 27-17, at Tatlock Field to finish 7-3. West Essex was the only public school team Summit fell to last fall.

“We fell short of our ultimate goal,” Kessel said. “We did finish No. 1 in the county, which was awesome. I think we helped reset the culture at Summit after a couple of down years.”

Kessel paced Summit in total tackles with 133, solo tackles with 41 and tackles for losses with 15. He also produced one forced fumble.

“The main thing for us last year was trust,” Kessel said. “We were a tight group of guys and we all knew what our jobs were.”

With the North on a three-game winning streak that began in 2019 and continued with triumphs the past two seasons after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the game from being played in 2020 and 2021, the series is now tied at 20-20-2. There was also no game in 2002 because of inclement weather right before kickoff at Rutgers University. The game began with a South victory 45 years ago in 1979.

Simms managed to get two of his New York Giants teammates to serve as the honorary captains. Wide receiver Stephen Baker will be representing the North and defensive lineman Leonard Marshall the South. Marshall spoke at Media Day and proclaimed that the South would whoop the North. Baker could not attend but delivered a message on the big screen, saying that he couldn’t wait to be with the North players and also catch another pass from Simms.

Kessel is also a Giants fan.

“This is definitely a huge honor to be among these players and get a chance to compete with them,” Kessel said.

Kessel didn’t play tackle football until high school. “My freshman year, I was super raw,” Kessel said.

Summit head coach Kevin Kostibos continues to be heavily involved with the administrative part of the event. Kostibos also helped mold Kessel into the player he is.

“I owe all of my success to coach Kostibos,” said Kessel, who played on the varsity for three seasons and was a two-year starter at linebacker.

Kessel said his top three colleges were Dartmouth, fellow Ivy League school the University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University.

“I just loved the camaraderie at Dartmouth,” Kessel said. “Plus, their staff has been together for something like five or six years now, which you don’t see a lot. I can really see myself developing as a player and a person there.”

Kessel said that his course of study at Dartmouth will most likely be economics.

As for three months from now, Kessel’s immediate goal is to help the North do two things it has never done before, which is win a fourth straight game in the series and finally take the lead.
Bragging rights are, once again, on the line.

“What I want to do in this game is show that I belong here,” Kessel said. “I’m confident in my abilities so, hopefully, I can go out there and have some fun.”

Photos by JR Parachini