Five Union County football teams seek to reach state championship games; Sectional semifinals set for Nov. 18, 19

Elizabeth, Summit, Union, Westfield, Roselle in mix

uc-foot-football-pic-for-storiesEleven Union County teams made the playoffs.
Six are gone.
Five remain.
Union County went 5-6 last weekend – 2-4 on Friday night and 3-2 on Saturday afternoon – with the five still alive involved in four sectional semifinal games this weekend.
Friday night at 7 it will be fifth-seeded Elizabeth at top-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan in North 2, Group 5, while third-seeded Summit travels south to take on second-seeded Middletown North in North 2, Group 4.
Elizabeth (5-5) won big at fourth-seeded East Orange Campus 42-13 last Friday night, while Summit (8-2) earned its first-ever Group 4 playoff victory last Saturday by dominating sixth-seeded Colonia 42-7 at home.
On Saturday it will be second-seeded Roselle (9-0) hosting third-seeded Manasquan at noon in Central Jersey, Group 2, while sixth-seeded Union (5-4) is at second-seeded Westfield (9-0) at 1 p.m. in the other North 2, Group 5 semifinal.
Westfield presently owns the state’s longest winning streak at 22 games.
After not playing each other in the regular season during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Union and Westfield are now prepping to face each other for the third time in 12 months, including consecutive N2, G5 semifinal clashes at Westfield’s Gary Kehler Stadium.
Roselle toppled seventh-seeded Harrison 69-26 last Saturday, scoring at least 60 points for the fourth time. The Rams, seeking to reach their first state championship game and only fourth overall since 1990, are averaging 53 points.
Shore Conference power Manasquan (8-1) has won seven in a row since its only defeat, a 21-14 home setback to North 2, Group 4 semifinalist Middletown South back on Sept. 24.
Union snapped a three-game losing streak by finding a way to win in double overtime at 8-1 Ridge 41-34 last Friday night, snapping a seven-game Red Devils winning streak. Union, which won a road playoff game for the second straight season, previously lost at Ridge from start to finish 34-21 back on Oct. 21.
Ridge finished 8-2, with all eight victories by double digits. Ridge lost at BR 30-29 in overtime in last year’s N2, G5 semifinals. Ridge – the 2013 N2, G5 champion – finished 6-5 last year, with all six of its wins also coming by double digits.
BR (10-0) won at Elizabeth 27-21 Nov. 3. Elizabeth is a win away from reaching the N2, G5 final for fourth time in six years.
Middletown North (7-2) has won three straight, with five of their seven wins coming by double digits. Middletown North was beaten at home by Manasquan 31-21 on Oct. 21.
Here’s a look at the four games involving Union County’s five teams still alive:
North 2, Group 5
5-Elizabeth (5-5) at 1-Bridgewater-Raritan (10-0)
– Elizabeth’s last loss was at home to BR by the score of 27-21 Nov. 3. BR’s last loss was in last year’s N2, G5 final at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, a 10-7 setback to first-time champion Westfield.
When the teams clashed two weeks ago, BR took a 17-0 halftime lead. Elizabeth closed the deficit to 17-14, with the second score coming on special teams.
After BR went ahead 27-14, Elizabeth senior Jahmin Muse returned a kickoff 96 yards for the game’s final score.
BR senior quarterback Nick Attanasio ran for a score and passed for another. The Panthers have a solid kicker-punter in senior Justin Davidovicz.
Muse scored three touchdowns, including one on a punt return, against East Orange Campus.
BR also scored 42 points in its first playoff game, an expected 42-0 home win over eighth-seeded Columbia, which finished 1-9.
North 2, Group 4
3-Summit (8-2) at 2-Middletown North (7-2) – Summit is coming off a dominating win over the same school it lost to in the first round last year, sixth-seeded Colonia, while Middletown North rolled to a third straight win, knocking out seventh-seeded Woodbridge 33-14. Sophomores Skyler Schluter and Jackson Tyler and senior captain Matt Murdock keyed Summit offensively vs. Colonia. This will be the first time Summit faces Middletown North. The other semifinal pits fifth-seeded Sayreville (8-2) at top-seeded Middletown South (7-2), also Friday night at 7. Middletown North hosts Middletown South on Thanksgiving, Nov. 24.
North 2, Group 5
6-Union (5-4) at 2-Westfield (9-0)
– Union’s last two games against Westfield – both at Westfield’s Gary Kehler Stadium – have been miserable, to say the least, for the Farmers. In this same spot last year, sixth-seeded Union lost at second-seeded Westfield 44-14. Union trailed 34-0 with 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter – that’s how awful things went for the Farmers that day.
Back on Oct. 8 the teams met in the regular season for the first time since 2013 and both were undefeated – Union 3-0 and coming off a bye week and Westfield 4-0. Again, Westfield dominated at home, winning 28-13.
After Union tied the game at 7-7 in the second quarter, Westfield was in control the rest of the way, taking the lead again and then scoring right before halftime for a 21-7 lead at intermission. Westfield then took the second half kickoff and marched right down the field to increase its advantage to 28-7. Union scored very late to make the final score a bit close than the game really was.
In this year’s regular season game Union did not make the big number of mistakes it did in the playoff game last year. However, when it came time to make a big stop, the Farmers fell short. Offensively, Union could not put together any kind of consistency that would allow it to be in the game for four quarters.
Union also never led in its 34-21 loss at Ridge back on Oct. 21. Last Friday night the Farmers managed to end Ridge’s season by producing a 41-34 double overtime victory at Ridge, led by senior running back Al-Tariq Jones carrying the ball 24 times for 266 yards and four touchdowns.
It was a touchdown pass thrown by Justin Beckett to Nasir Wooten that gave Union its final lead in the top of the second overtime period. In the bottom of the second, Hansley Cenescar intercepted a pass to end the game.
“It was exhausting,” Union fourth-year head coach Lou Grasso Jr. said late Friday night. “We had a good week of practice and retooled. We played them tough before.
“We just went out and played stress free and loose and made a couple of changes and had some new wrinkles. Al-Tariq was all over the place.”
Union entered the game on a three-game losing streak, falling to Ridge, Bridgewater-Raritan 24-14 at home and then at Hunterdon Central 35-7.
“Al-Tariq was our only bright spot vs. Hunterdon Central,” Grasso said.
Union had a chance to beat Ridge in single overtime, but senior placekicker Mike Matullo, who made his first four extra point kicks, missed his fifth attempt, with the game remaining tied at 34-34 and headed to a second overtime session. Union got the ball first in the second OT frame after Ridge had the ball first in single OT.
“Mike hooked it and we went to another overtime,” Grasso said.
Union came back in the second half to stun third-seeded Piscataway 28-20 on the road in the first round last year. It was Union’s first playoff win at Piscataway after losing there in 2004 in the first round and 2008 in the second. Union also lost to Piscataway in the 2003 final at Giants Stadium.
Defensively, the Farmers were led last week by Rutgers-commit Mike Tverdov, the senior lineman overcoming a bit of an ankle setback to produce 2-3 sacks.
Will Union need to play its “A” game to finally get past Westfield?
“Westfield is so tough,” Grasso said. “We felt that we were pretty much right there with them when we played this year. It seems like any kind of mistake, they capitalize on, which is what good teams do.”
Quarterback Philip Martini to wide receiver Jack Shirk has worked quite well for the Blue Devils so far this year, including its playoff win over Bayonne. Martini, who completed 8-of-10 passes for 103 yards, connected with Shirk for one touchdown.
Jake Vall-Llobera, who scored two touchdowns, has picked up the slack at running back after senior Ishmael Glasco went down with an injury.
Before that, Westfield lost senior running back Matt Varano to a season-ending injury.
Westfield, sparked defensively by senior lineman Owen Kessler, has given up the least amount of points of any Union County team with only 85 against.
Westfield was No. 1 in scoring defense among Union County schools last year, yielding only 103 points in 12 games. The Blue Devils were second in 2014, with 170 against. Only Cranford, with 156 against, was better two years ago, the Cougars playing 12 games compared to the Blue Devils playing 11.
Westfield’s last loss was in the 2014 N2, G5 semifinals, a 14-6 setback at eventual first-time champion Linden.
Central Jersey, Group 2
3-Manasquan (8-1) at 2-Roselle (9-0)
– Manasquan edged sixth-seeded Johnson 33-29 at home last Saturday while Roselle was taking care of seventh-seeded Harrison 69-26, scoring 10 touchdowns – six by East Orange Campus transfer Isiah Byrd. En route to the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Valley Division crown, Roselle defeated Johnson 56-41 at home back on Sept. 24.
Manasquan’s only loss – the Warriors have won six straight – was to Group 4 Middletown South 21-14 at home Sept. 24.
Roselle is averaging eight touchdowns a game. The least it produced was four in a 26-0 win at Hillside.
Roselle was in this same position two years ago – a home win away from reaching the program’s first state championship game since 1990.
Senior quarterback Gerald Hairston III, who started behind center that day, remembers Roselle’s 28-12 loss to Delaware Valley, which was sparked by the running of senior back Dominick Benedetto, who the Rams could not stop in the second half.
Roselle led the game by five points at intermission, which was the same margin it won at DV – 34-29 – earlier that season.
“We were so close,” Hairston said. “It was a horrible feeling losing that game.”
As a senior now, Hairston is fortunate to get another chance.
“We need to focus, have discipline and listen to our coaches,” Hairston said.
The other semifinal pits fifth-seeded Bernards (7-3) at top-seeded Lincoln (6-4) Friday night at 7.
Lincoln defeated Roselle 30-13 at Caven Point in the first round last year. Roselle bested Bernards 61-54 in Basking Ridge in its season-opener back on Sept. 9.
Roselle has scored at least 60 points four times and at least 56 on five occasions.
NOTES: This will be the second time coaches Lou Grasso Jr. of Union and Jim DeSarno of Westfield face off against each other in a playoff game.
The only other Union vs. Westfield playoff matchup came 35 years ago during the 1981 North 2, Group 4 semifinals. Union won 14-0 in a game played at Giants Stadium.
It was the only time legendary coaches Lou Rettino of Union and Gary Kehler of Westfield faced each other in a playoff setting.
For Rettino, who lived in Westfield, it was a special win not only because Union advanced in the playoffs. It was also his first win over Kehler in six tries.
Rettino was previously 0-5 vs. Kehler, with his Union teams losing in the regular season to Westfield his first five seasons at the helm of the Farmers – 1977-1981.
Rettino’s first and only regular season win over Kehler came the next year – 1982 – which was Kehler’s 22nd and final season as Westfield’s head coach.
Union defeated Westfield 16 straight seasons from 1982-1997 before the Blue Devils downed the Farmers 29-10 at Westfield in 1998.
Rettino guided Union to 10 state championships – all in North 2, Group 4 in the playoff era, which is still the record – while Kehler guided Westfield to nine state titles – seven before the playoffs and two in the playoff era.
Rettino’s 19-season (1977-1995) record at Union was 171-23-4 (.877), including a stellar 22-5 playoff record in 15 playoff seasons.
Kehler’s 22-season (1961-1982) record at Westfield was 172-26-7 (.869), including a 4-2 playoff record in four playoff seasons.
Rettino guided Union to five undefeated seasons and seven of his teams – one shared with Madison in 1979 – were awarded the Star-Ledger Top 20 Trophy for being named No. 1 in the state at the end of the season.
Kehler led Westfield to nine undefeated seasons, with four of his teams winning the Star-Ledger Top 20 Trophy.



Friday, Nov. 18 (2 games)
North 2, Group 5

5-Elizabeth (5-5) at 1-Bridgewater-Raritan (10-0), 7 p.m.

North 2, Group 4
3-Summit (8-2) at 2-Middletown North (7-2), 7 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 19 (2 games)
Central Jersey, Group 2

3-Manasquan (8-1) at 2-Roselle (9-0), noon

North 2, Group 5
6-Union (5-4) at 2-Westfield (9-0), 1 p.m.