There were plenty of team achievements – for the first time in a long time – concerning Union County football in 2014.
Here are a few:
*Linden won its first home playoff game in 29 years, then won another home playoff game, then reached its first state championship game in 29 years and then won its first state championship game in 29 years (since 1985), capturing North 2, Group 5 for the first time. The Tigers, who finished 10-2, were also a top playoff seed for the first time since 1986 and also won the most games for the first time since that 1986 season when they finished 9-1. Linden won its second state championship in the playoff era in its third state championship game.
*Roselle won its first playoff game and reached a sectional semifinal both for the first time since 1998. The Rams were also a top playoff seed for the first time and also hosted two playoff games for the first time.
Also . . .
*Cranford won a playoff game for the fourth straight year for the first time in program history, won 11 games for the first time and finished a perfect 9-0 in the regular season for the first time. The Cougars are 35-9 (.796) the past four seasons, reaching two state championship games and winning one.
*Summit won nine games for the sixth straight season for the first time in program history. The Hilltoppers are 65-4 (.942) the past six seasons, reaching at least a sectional semifinal in five of those years.
Team of the Year: Linden Tigers
Linden was one of several schools in Union County – the others remain Hillside (1985), Roselle (1989), Scotch Plains (1990) and Cranford (2011) – that had won only one state championship in the playoff era until this season. When the Tigers captured North 2, Group 3 in 1985 they were one of four Union County schools to win state championships that season as Union County swept North 2, with Union winning Group 4, Linden Group 3, Hillside Group 2 and Brearley Group 1 over Roselle Park.
This year, Linden was Union County’s only state champion, with the Tigers capturing North 2, Group 5 the second season they were situated in the section.
With Linden defeating neighborhood rival Elizabeth 27-20 in the N2, G5 final played at MetLife Stadium – it was the first time the Tigers were playing a state championship game in East Rutherford – Linden avenged a 28-19 non-division loss at Elizabeth a month earlier.
The only team that Linden played this year that it did not beat was Thanksgiving Day rival Union, with the Tigers falling 26-19 on the road. Linden’s two losses were both by one touchdown.
The Tigers won a division title for the first time since the early 1990s, with Linden capturing the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Watchung Division crown for the first time and with a perfect record of 7-0.
Coach of the Year: Deon Candia, Linden
Four years ago Linden did not make the playoffs with a 6-2 record at the cutoff date, becoming the first team to fail to garner enough power points to qualify in North 2, Group 4 with such a mark.
Two years ago Linden qualified in North 2, Group 4 with a 2-6 record at the cutoff date during the first year that the NJSIAA allowed teams under .500 to qualify. The Tigers then won a quarterfinal at Barringer 19-18 before falling at Warren Hills 21-7 in a semifinal after the game was tied 0-0 at halftime.
Linden finished 7-4 last year after reaching the North 2, Group 5 semifinals for the first time, falling at eventual champion Ridge 28-14 in the semifinals after winning at Bayonne 23-0 in the quarterfinals.
Those two seasons, which included four playoff games on the road, set the tone for playoff success this year, which came at home over North Hunterdon and Westfield.
“Everything’s a process,” said Candia, who guided Linden to a 5-5 record his first season at the helm in 2008 after the Tigers went 1-9 in 2007, which was one year after Bucky McDonald’s (1985-2006) 22-season tenure.
Candia, a 1991 Linden graduate who went on to play collegiately at Division 2 American International in Springfield, Mass., has a record of 42-32 (.568) in his first seven seasons at the helm of the Tigers. The last three years he has led them to the playoffs, with a playoff record of 5-2.
“Playing at home this year in the playoffs was a big boost after what we had done the past two years,” Candia said. “Our kids fed off our home fans and that helped us get to the next step.
“Winning the championship – all I can say is that our kids never gave up.”
Offensive Player of the Year: Luke Christiano, Cranford, senior
Whether it was taking the handoff and running up the middle and sprinting past everyone or catching a pass in the flank and then making a move to race down the sidelines, Christiano was as dynamic a player in both situations that Union County has had in some time.
“I don’t know what more I can say about how impressive Luke was for us today,” which is what Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier was constantly quoted as saying.
Defensive Player of the Year: Darryn Canady, Roselle, senior
In Roselle’s sectional semifinal home game against Delaware Valley, it was Canady who was in on the first five tackles of the game. The linebacker was all over the field, constantly making tackles and preventing ball-carriers from finding their way down field.
“He’s a special player,” Roselle head coach James Williams said. “He became more of a leader for us this year as well.”
Special Teams Player of the Year: Juwan Dolbrice, Linden, senior
With the season and a first state championship since Ronald Reagan was President of the United States on the line, Dolbrice picked up the football and ran 75 yards to the winning touchdown against Elizabeth in the North 2, Group 5 final. Moments later he sealed the championship game victory by intercepting a pass in the end zone some 25 seconds from the end.
It was classic Dolbrice coming through in the clutch for Linden. Dolbrice also was a starting member of Linden’s Group 4 state championship basketball team last winter.
“He’s the best two-sport athlete in the state,” Linden boys’ basketball coach Phil Colicchio said.
Dolbrice became Linden’s all-time leading rusher, gaining over 3,000 yards in his three years as a varsity starter. He switched to quarterback this year after being Linden’s leading rusher the past two seasons.
“We had one goal and that was to make history and win a state championship here,” Dolbrice said.
Running back of the Year: Kyle Phipps, Linden, senior
Phipps, who played his freshman season at Don Bosco Prep, helped Linden win a state championship by being the shifty, highly-elusive, low-to the-ground, power running back that he was. He was the kind of back that when you thought you had him, you looked back and saw him running past you.
After scoring touchdowns in all three Linden playoff victories, there was no doubt in Phipps’ mind who the best team was when the Tigers walked off MetLife Stadium.
“We played Linden football and that’s why we came out on top,” said Phipps, who rushed for over 1,000 yards this season.
Quarterbacks of the future: Jack Schetelich, Cranford, junior
and Gerald Hairston III, Roselle, sophomore
Schetelich was the only quarterback in Union County to guide his school to 11 victories and in his team’s state championship game – a 20-13 loss to Parsippany Hills in the North 2, Group 3 final played at MetLife Stadium – he scored on a 91-yard run down the right sideline to tie the game in the third quarter.
Hairston III, a lefty-throwing signal-caller, proved he can run and throw the ball accurately to march the Rams down the field. He was sensational in back-to-back home wins over Bernards to win the Mountain Division and against Lakewood, which was Roselle’s first playoff victory in 16 years.
Also making their mark: Maurice Francis, Union, senior
and Matt Pedicine, Johnson, senior
Francis was one of the leading running backs in Union County, rushing for 1,716 yards and 14 touchdowns. He rushed for 306 yards and four TDs in Union’s 26-19 home win over Linden.
In his last two games, including a 41-21 consolation home win over Columbia, Francis rushed for 586 yards and scored nine touchdowns.
Pedicine set a goal of rushing for 1,000 yards and achieved it as Johnson closed a 5-5 campaign with a 35-16 home win over Rahway on Thanksgiving.
Pedicine, who will continue playing lacrosse at Hobart, helped Johnson overcome an 0-3 start to qualify for the Central Jersey, Group 2 playoffs.
Least points against:
Best point differential:
5-Roselle Park 73
Scored more points than given up:
Roselle Park 262-189
New Providence 256-217
Gov. Livingston 231-211
Elizabeth, Roselle Park 2
Seven others with one.
Best home record:
Best road record:
3-Summit, Roselle 4-1
5-Gov. Livingston 5-2
Mid-State 38 Conference
division winners (all first time):
Linden, Watchung, 7-0
Cranford, Raritan, 6-0
Roselle, Mountain, 5-0
Won last three:
Roselle Park (5-5)
Gov. Livingston (5-5)
New Providence (6-4)
with playoff records:
Scotch Plains (0-1)
New Providence (0-1)
JR’s FINAL PICKS FOR 2014:
Best bets: 12-1
Upset specials: 8-5
Overall record: 102-38 (.729)
UNION COUNTY TOP 10
9-Gov. Livingston (5-5)
10-New Providence (6-4)
Roselle Park (5-5)
Scotch Plains (3-7)