Of the 10 Union County schools that made the state playoffs, four of them are two home wins away – without needing help from anyone – from playing for a championship.
Those teams include first-time Mid-State 38 Conference division champions Linden, Cranford and Roselle and also Summit, which captured Mid-State division titles the first five seasons of the league from 2009-2013.
Linden won the Watchung Division at 7-0, Cranford the Raritan Division at 6-0 and Roselle the Mountain Division at 5-0.
Winning at home, however, is not guaranteed in these playoffs. Linden is 4-0 at home, Cranford 5-0 and Roselle 2-2.
Linden, Cranford and Roselle are also top seeds. The teams seeded first are not guaranteed of winning anything either.
Since the NJSIAA expanded the sectional playoffs to eight teams beginning in 1998, probably the percentage of top-seeded teams that have gone on to win sectional titles is less than 50 percent.
Top-seeded Linden (7-1) will host eighth-seeded North Hunterdon (5-4) Friday night at 7 in a North 2, Group 5 final. The Tigers came back in the second half to down the Lions 35-21 back on Oct. 17 at Linden’s Cooper Field. That win clinched the Watchung Division title for Linden, which was its first division championship in some time.
North Hunterdon just downed visiting Voorhees 29-21 this past Friday night to snap a three-game losing streak. Linden suffered its first loss on the same day, falling at Elizabeth 28-19.
Linden, lifted by seniors Juwan Dolbrice at quarterback, Kyle Phipps at running back and Khalil Burns at defensive end, reached sectional semifinals the past two years, including North 2, Group 4 in 2012 and North 2, Group 5 in 2013.
Linden is seeking to reach only the third championship game in program history and first since winning its only title in the playoff era in 1985, which was North 2, Group 3.
On Friday night, Linden will also be seeking to win its first home playoff game since blanking Scotch Plains 17-0 in a 1985 North 2, Group 3 semifinal.
Linden’s last five playoff victories, which came in 2000 vs. Union, 2004 against Irvington, 2006 vs. Piscataway, 2012 against Barringer and 2013 vs. Bayonne, all came on the road.
Elizabeth, which won North 2, Group 5 its first year in 2012, is 7-2. The Minutemen, sparked by senior running back Marquise Leak, is the third seed and will host sixth-seeded Barringer (6-2) Friday night at 7 at Williams Field.
Fourth-seeded Westfield (5-3) will host fifth-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan (6-3) Saturday at 1 p.m. at Gary Kehler Stadium. The Blue Devils just had a four-game winning streak snapped this past Saturday when they were edged at home by Hunterdon Central 7-6.
Westfield has capable quarterbacks in junior Zack Kelly and senior Andrew Malacrea.
Scotch Plains, led by senior running back Kobie White, is the eighth seed in North 2, Group 4 for the second straight season. The Raiders (3-6) will play at top-seeded Colonia (9-0) Friday night at 7. Last year, Scotch Plains lost at eventual champion Phillipsburg 40-20.
Cranford is 9-0 for the first time in the playoff era and – like Linden – will again host a team it defeated this year. Just this past Friday the Cougars topped North Plainfield 52-20 at home.
Top-seeded Cranford, led by standout all-purpose player Luke Christiano and juniors Jack Schetelich at quarterback and Will Fries on the line, will host the 2-6 Canucks, the eighth seed, again this Friday night at 7 at Memorial Field in a North 2, Group 3 quarterfinal. The Cougars are in the playoffs for a program-best four straight seasons.
Cranford captured its first title in the playoff era in 2011 when it won North 2, Group 3. The Cougars reached the semifinals the past two seasons.
North Plainfield is in the playoffs for the ninth time. The Canucks have yet to win a playoff game, with a record of 0-8.
Cranford is 33-8 since the start of the 2011 season, which includes four of the program’s five playoff victories. This is the eighth time that Cranford is in the playoffs, with the team’s playoff record at 5-6.
Summit, sparked by senior running back Chris Zanelli and senior defensive back Andrew Helmer, is the two-time defending North 2, Group 3 champion and owners of an amazing 64-3 record since the start of the 2009 season. Cranford ended Summit’s 27-game winning streak and 48-game regular season winning streak on Oct. 2 in Cranford, with the Cougars dominant in a 33-14 victory.
Summit (8-1) – now winners of five straight since the Cranford setback – is the second seed and will host seventh-seeded Morris Hills Saturday at 1 p.m. in a quarterfinal.
Summit will be playing Morris Hills for the first time since 2008, which was the last season they clashed as members of the Hills Division of the Iron Hills Conference. The Hilltoppers last defeated the Knights on Sept. 13, 2003, which was a 21-3 Summit victory at Summit’s Tatlock Field.
New Providence (6-2) and Brearley (5-3-1) are both in the North 2, Group 1 playoffs. New Providence just defeated Brearley 31-8 at home Friday night.
Brearley is at Belvidere (7-2) Friday night at 7, with Belvidere winning the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Valley Division title. The teams clashed on Opening Night back on Sept. 12 at Brearley’s Ward Field in Kenilworth, with the host Bears coming back to post an impressive 27-22 victory.
Brearley is led by junior quarterback Sebastian Montesdeoca and senior running back David Eskin. New Providence has a two-way standout in Matthew McCann, who scored on offense and defense in his team’s win over Brearley.
Roselle (6-2) is the top seed in Central Jersey, Group 2. The Rams have won three straight, including this past Saturday’s thrilling, come-from-behind 35-28 home win over Bernards for the Mountain Division title.
Roselle has a talented lefty-throwing quarterback in sophomore Gerald Hairston III and capable receivers in junior Rashad Pendleton and senior Raymond Clark. Junior Shaquan Nelson is a threat to run with the ball or catch it out of the backfield and against Bernards returned an interception 95 yards for a touchdown to prevent Bernards from going up by three touchdowns at halftime, while pulling the Rams to within one before intermission.
Second-year head coach James Williams fully realizes that his team will be in for another battle this Saturday at home at Arminio Field at 1 p.m. The opponent will be eighth-seeded Lakewood (4-4), with the Shore Conference team on a three-game losing streak.
“It’s a very tough section, there’s no doubt,” Williams said. “We know we’re going to have to be ready to go up against a quality team.”
Roselle’s best player – senior running back-linebacker Darryn Canady – is more than ready for the challenge.
“This was one of our goals from the first day of summer practice, to make the playoffs,” Canady said. “It’s going to be tough, but we’re looking forward to it.”
Johnson (4-4), which like Roselle is on a three-game winning streak, bounced back from a 0-3 start that included losses by a total of 14 points to make the grade in CJ, G2. The Crusaders are the seventh seed and will play at defending champion and second-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven (6-2) Friday night at 7.
Johnson is sparked by two-way senior standout Mark Barranger at wide receiver and cornerback, by junior quarterback Anthony Rizzuto and by senior running back Mark Pedicine.
“We got off to a rocky start, but our players never quit,” first-year Johnson head coach Anthony Del Conte said. “We’re excited to have come back the way we did and be part of the playoffs.”
THE LAST TIME LINDEN, CRANFORD AND ROSELLE
REACHED STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES:
Linden: 1985 – the North 2, Group 3 final, which it won
Cranford: 2011 – the North 2, Group 3 final, which it won
Roselle: 1990 – the North 2, Group 2 final, which it lost
Linden’s lone championship in the playoff era was winning North 2, Group 3 in 1985.
Cranford’s lone championship in the playoff era was winning North 2, Group 3 in 2011.
Roselle’s lone championship in the playoff era was winning North 2, Group 2 in 1989.
WESTFIELD IS TRYING TO REACH ITS FIRST
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME IN 16 YEARS AND 4TH OVERALL
Westfield has played in only three championship games, winning North 2, Group 4 at home over Plainfield in 1976, downing Barringer in the memorable N2, G4 final at Giants Stadium in 1977 and falling to Morristown in the 1998 North 2, Group 3 final at Giants Stadium.
Here’s a look at the three championship games Westfield reached:
1976 North 2, Group 4 final
Westfield 14, Plainfield 0 – at Westfield
1977 North 2, Group 4 final
Westfield 33, Barringer 12 – at Giants Stadium
1998 North 2, Group 3 final
Morristown 37, Westfield 14 – at Giants Stadium
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
Friday, Nov. 14 (6 games)
North 2, Group 5
8-North Hunterdon at 1-Linden, 7
6-Barringer at 3-Elizabeth, 7
North 2, Group 4
8-Scotch Plains at 1-Colonia, 7
North 2, Group 3
8-North Plainfield at 1-Cranford, 7
North 2, Group 1
7-Brearley at 2-Belvidere, 7
Central Jersey, Group 2
7-Johnson at 2-Rumson-Fair Haven, 7
Saturday, Nov. 15 (4 games)
North 2, Group 5
5-Bridgewater-Raritan at 4-Westfield, 7
North 2, Group 3
7-Morris Hills at 2-Summit, 1
North 2, Group 1
6-Shabazz at 3-New Providence, 1
Central Jersey, Group 2
8-Lakewood at 1-Roselle, 1
Thursday, Nov. 13 (5 games)
Columbia at Union, 7 p.m.
Plainfield at Belleville, 7 p.m.
Gov. Livingston at Palisades Park, 7 p.m.
North Arlington at Roselle Park, 7 p.m.
Newark Collegiate at Dayton, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 15 (2 games)
Rahway at Ewing, 11 a.m.
Pemberton at Hillside, 1 p.m.
LAST WEEK’S RESULTS:
Friday, Nov. 7 (8 games)
Hillsborough 36, Plainfield 14
Johnson 43, Somerville 0
Roselle Park 38, Manville 22
Phillipsburg 61, Scotch Plains 0
Elizabeth 28, Linden 19
Dayton 20, Pingry 17
Cranford 52, North Plainfield 20
New Providence 31, Brearley 8
Saturday, Nov. 8 (4 games)
Roselle 35, Bernards 28
Gov. Livingston 21, Rahway 7
Hunterdon Central 7, Westfield 6
Summit 35, Hillside 20
THIS WEEK’S PICKS:
Linden over North Hunterdon
Elizabeth over Barringer
Colonia over Scotch Plains
Cranford over North Plainfield
Belvidere over Brearley
Johnson over Rumson-Fair Haven
Westfield over Bridgewater-Raritan
Summit over Morris Hills
Shabazz over New Providence
Roselle over Lakewood
Union over Columbia
Belleville over Plainfield
Gov. Livingston over Palisades Park
Roselle Park over North Arlington
Dayton over Newark Collegiate
Rahway over Ewing
Hillside over Pemberton
Best bet: Cranford
Upset special: Johnson
Last week: 9-3
This year: 82-29 (.739)
Best bets: 9-0
Upset specials: 5-4
UNION COUNTY TOP 10:
7-New Providence (6-2)
10-Scotch Plains (3-6)
Others: GL (3-5), Roselle Park (3-5),
Dayton (3-6), Union (2-6), Hillside (2-7)
Rahway (1-7), Plainfield (0-8).