The 2016 Union County football season will be remembered as the year Westfield – sparked again by the county’s and one of the state’s finest defensive units – went 12-0 once more and repeated as North 2, Group 5 champions, while a high-scoring Roselle squad won 10 games (nine on the field) for the first time and for the second time in three years came oh so close to reaching the program’s first state championship game since 1990.
Westfield did it with defense again, paying tribute to the cliché that, “defense wins championships.”
Roselle did it with offense, scoring 495 points in the 10 games it played for an average of seven touchdowns per contest. The Rams needed a fifth touchdown in the Central Jersey, Group 2 semifinals, falling just short at home to eventual champion Manasquan 31-27.
Union reached the North 2, Group 5 semifinals for the second straight season and for the third time in four years, only to lose at Westfield again, this time by a 21-7 score.
Elizabeth and Summit also reached sectional semifinal contests, both – like Union – falling on the road. Elizabeth gave everything it had in a 23-9 setback at undefeated and top-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan in North 2, Group 5, while in North 2, Group 4, another high-scoring team – Summit – was halted at Middletown North 20-0.
Cranford reached the state playoffs for the sixth straight season and for the first time in Central Jersey, Group 3, falling at eventual champion Rumson-Fair Haven. It was the first time in six years that the Cougars did not win at least one playoff game.
Governor Livingston managed to qualify for the playoffs again in North 2, Group 3 and ended its season – behind a standout four-touchdown performance from senior Turner Haddad – with a third straight win over Thanksgiving rival New Providence.
Team of the Year: Westfield Blue Devils
When Westfield hosts Linden in its 2017 opener, the Blue Devils will do so with a state-best 25-game winning streak. As a matter of fact, Linden is the last team to beat Westfield. The Tigers held on to beat the Blue Devils 14-6 in the 2014 North 2, Group 5 semifinal game played at Linden’s Cooper Field.
Since then Westfield won at Plainfield on Thanksgiving 2014 and then went 12-0 in 2015 and 12-0 again in 2016.
Westfield capped a repeat North 2, Group 5 championship season by – again – holding on to beat an 11-0 Bridgewater-Raritan team in the title game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
Westfield won this time by the score of 15-13, with its defense scoring its second and final touchdown, which was a 39-yard interception return down the left sideline by junior defensive back Adam McDaniel late in the second quarter.
Westfield now has the distinction of being the first team to repeat as North 2, Group 4 champions (1976, 1977) and North 2, Group 5 champions (2015, 2016) in the playoff era.
This year’s squad also became the first in program history to beat arch rival Union twice in a season. With both games at home at Gary Kehler Stadium, Westfield won the regular season contest – which was a battle of undefeated teams – 28-13 and a N2, G5 semifinal 21-7.
Westfield gave up the least amount of points of any Union County team, only 119, and scored the second most, 378. The Blue Devils also had the second-best point-differential at 259 and along with Roselle Park and Hillside tied for the Union County lead in shutouts with two.
Westfield led Union County in scoring defense for the second straight season, won 10 of 12 games by double digits and only allowed more than 14 points once – which was in a 35-21 Watchung Division victory over Ridge in its home-opener.
Coach of the Year: James Williams, Roselle
James Williams, in his fourth year at the helm, guided the Roselle Rams to a first 10-win season and for the second time in three years they just missed reaching the Central Jersey, Group 2 state championship game. Led by standout senior running back Isiah Byrd, the Rams won eight games by double digits and scored at least 60 points on four occasions, including in the CJ, G2 quarterfinals vs. Harrison.
“We’ve been getting better and better each year,” Williams said.
Roselle averaged a Union County-best 49.5 points, outscoring 10 foes by the whopping margin of 495-199.
The Rams had one of the most high-powered offenses among Union County teams in some time, also led by standout senior quarterback Gerald Hairston III, a lefty-throwing signal-caller who helped lead Roselle to the playoffs in CJ, G2 three straight years. Hairston threw for 2236 yards, 24 touchdowns and only three interceptions this season.
Hairston finished as Roselle’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, 48, and passing yards, just over 4,000.
“Coming out of camp I knew we were going to be good because our kids worked so hard in the off-season,” Williams said. “This was my first class. These guys were freshmen when I took the job.
“They went through the ringer and did what I expected of them.”
Offensive Player of the Year: Isiah Byrd, Roselle
Isiah Byrd, an East Orange Campus transfer in his second season at Roselle, carried the ball 200 times for 2069 yards and 31 touchdowns. He scored six touchdowns in Roselle’s 69-26 CJ, G2 quarterfinal round home win over Harrison.
Byrd, a 5-10, 205-pound senior, was also productive catching the ball out of the backfield, with 12 receptions for 258 yards and three TDs.
“He dedicated himself in the weight room and ran track,” Williams said. “He’s just a powerful kid. He squats 400.
“When he hits the hole he doesn’t dance. He runs north-south, he doesn’t go east or west.”
Byrd has received looks from Division 2 West Virginia-Weslyan, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown and Sacred Heart.
“Hands down he was one of the top three running backs in the state of New Jersey,” Williams said. “I put his numbers up with anybody.”
Byrd, also a National Honor Society student with a 3.7 grade-point average, led Union County in rushing yardage, TDs and points scored with 204.
Honorable mention: Al-Tariq Jones, Union; Philip Martini, Westfield; Brian Oblachinski, Cranford; Gerald Hairston III, Roselle.
Defensive Player of the Year: Owen Kessler, Westfield
Owen Kessler, a 6-4, 230-pound senior, was a leader of what Westfield defensive coordinator Ken Miller proclaimed, “the best defensive line in the state.” The other members of that famed line, also seniors, included Jeffrey Gagum, Nicholas Maher and Jake Vall-Llobera.
Kessler led the Blue Devils in tackles with 79 and 17 of them went for negative yardage, including a team-leading 13 quarterback sacks.
When it seemed like a big play was needed, No. 64 was there in some way, shape or form to have an impact on Westfield making a big stop.
Kessler made his presence felt in a big way against Bridgewater-Raritan in the North 2, Group 5 state championship game as his continued pursuit to the ball had BR senior quarterback Nick Attanasio running for his life on many plays.
Honorable mention: Mike Tverdov, Union; Chris Bournes, Union; Jeffrey Gagum, Westfield; Shaquil Jones, Roselle.
Special team standout: In addition to leading Summit in return yards with 372, Matt Murdock, a 5-5, 150-pound senior, also led the Hilltoppers in rushing yards (862) and receptions (29) and receiving yards (409).
Despite his diminutive stature, the speedy and elusive Murdock proved to be one of the most difficult ball carriers to bring down.
Outstanding performances/moments from some of the games I covered this year:
Sept. 9 at Union – Union 40, Watchung Hills 13: Union senior quarterback Justin Beckett – immediately displaying his versatility – carried the ball 10 times for 169 yards, three touchdowns and also passed for another score.
Sept. 10 at Rahway – Rahway 26, Hillside 19: It didn’t take Rahway long to get on the scoreboard in its opener. On the third play from scrimmage, Rahway sophomore outside linebacker Zion Pendleton stepped in front of a Hillside receiver waiting for a screen pass on the left.
Pendleton timed his move toward the ball perfectly and at the 12-yard line used both hands to intercept Kevin Miller’s second pass of the season and return it untouched for his team’s first six points of its 2016 campaign.
First-year Hillside head coach Barris Grant praised the play of Comet sophomores Boris Nicolas-Paul and Emmanuel Sass and Nate McAlister and Siraj Abdul-Malik as backup receivers, with the guys ahead of them injured.
Sept. 16 at Johnson – Johnson 43, Bernards 14: Johnson junior running back Joe Turek rushed for 122 yards on 21 carries and scored a game-high four touchdowns in a dominating win over a Bernards team that averaged 54 points though its first two games.
Sept. 23 at Roselle Park – Belvidere 24, Roselle Park 20: Roselle Park senior linebacker David Forstenhausler put Roselle Park in a position to win the game when, on another blitz, he quickly got to Belvidere quarterback Jake Thornton and knocked the ball away from him, with Roselle Park’s Abel Crespo recovering the fumble with 2:07 remaining.
Sept. 30 at Cranford – Cranford 56, North Plainfield 35: Aaron Cancio, a Cranford senior who played on the junior varsity a year ago, made the very most of his first varsity start for the host Cougars.
Cancio didn’t set out to make the kind of immediate impact he produced. He just wanted to do his job. He just wanted to make sure his assignment was covered.
Cancio did so in a big way.
The right cornerback intercepted North Plainfield quarterback Nick Cherasaro’s third pass of the game, returning it 30 yards to the NP 18.
One play later – courtesy of an 18-yard, low-to-the-ground touchdown run by senior Brian McGovern – the Cougars quickly had a two-touchdown lead.
Cancio, wearing No. 40, followed up his theft with five pass breakups over the course of the game, three in the first half and two in the second.
Cancio performed his job well and against a quality passing attack that saw Cherasaro throw three TD passes and complete throws to four different receivers.
“Aaron worked his way in and had an opportunity against Rahway last week,” Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier said. “He showed promise and got another opportunity – as a starter for the first time – tonight.
“Aaron patiently waited his turn and when he got his opportunity against North Plainfield he showed what he can do.
“Last week he was thrown into the fire against Rahway and was beaten a couple of times. Cornerbacks, sort of like relief pitchers in baseball, need to have a short memory. He forgot about that game, focused on this one and played really well for us.”
Oct. 7 at Governor Livingston – Summit 28, GL 21: GL senior running back Will Nicholson rushed for 169 yards on 22 attempts, scoring in each half.
The game’s biggest play came in the fourth quarter with Summit trailing GL 21-20 and just 1:38 to go. The Hilltoppers faced a fourth-and-16 at the GL 46. Anything short of a first down would have given the host Highlanders an upset victory.
However, Summit sophomore quarterback Jackson Tyler was able to complete a pass down the middle that tall (6-3) junior wide receiver DJ Jackson – making his first varsity start – caught against smaller double coverage to keep the drive alive. Summit senior running back Sam Zanelli scored from the 5 on the next play for the game-winning touchdown.
Oct. 8 at Westfield – Westfield 28, Union 13: Westfield senior quarterback Philip Martini – in a battle of undefeated teams – completed 17-of-26 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns in a game the host Blue Devils never trailed.
Oct. 14 at Summit – Cranford 37, Summit 7: One of Union County’s most dominating performances against a really solid opponent came on this Friday night at Tatlock Field. Cranford senior quarterback-cornerback Brian Oblachinski was a player completely focused and on a mission.
Oblachinski, against a 5-0 Summit team that was averaging 34 points, rushed for 215 yards on 23 carries and one touchdown and completed seven of 10 passes for 115 yards and two TDs and no interceptions.
On defense, Oblachinski intercepted two passes, returning the second one for a touchdown. He also batted away a fourth-down pass right near the goal line during the only time Summit reached Cranford territory in the first half.
Nov. 4 at Linden – Linden 38, Franklin 21: Sophomore tailback Brandon George carried 17 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns and bruising junior fullback Jayden Johnson gained 115 on 19 and scored once to lead the host Tigers to their third of four straight victories.
Nov. 11 at Hoboken – Hoboken 32, Brearley 14 – N2, G1: Brearley senior defensive linemen Robert Moscicki came up with a strip and a fumble recovery on the same play which led to Brearley scoring the game’s first touchdown. Moscicki also made several key tackles in the first half, including one assisted by junior lineman Kairi Days that halted a Hoboken drive at the Brearley 19.
Nov. 12 at Roselle – Roselle 69, Harrison 26 – CJ, G2: Roselle senior Drew Stephens returned a punt 70 yards for a score some 10 minutes after he previously returned a punt for six points, but it was called back because of a Roselle penalty. It took the refs that long to figure it out during a second quarter that took exactly 60 minutes – 12:45 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. – to complete.
Nov. 18 at Bridgewater-Raritan – BR 23, Elizabeth 9 – N2, G5: Elizabeth senior running back Max Michel broke free down the left sideline for a 66-yard touchdown run that gave the visiting Minutemen a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. If it were not for a turnover late in the second quarter, an inspired Elizabeth team would have led 7-3 at intermission over the undefeated Panthers.
Nov. 19 at Westfield – Westfield 21, Union 7 – N2, G5: Westfield senior quarterback Philip Martini completed three touchdown passes to senior end Jack Shirk in the first half to lead the Blue Devils to a second straight North 2, Group 5 championship game.
Nov. 24 at Union – Union 34, Linden 12: Union senior running back Al-Tariq Jones carried 22 times for a game-high 184 yards and three touchdowns. Rutgers defensive line commit Mike Tverdov caught a touchdown pass and also rushed twice for five yards in his final game as a standout three-year starter for the Farmers.
Dec. 3 at MetLife Stadium – Westfield 15, BR 13 – N2, G5: Westfield junior defensive back Adam McDaniel, who missed all of last year with a broken collarbone injury, produced a game-high two interceptions, with his second one proving to be the decisive points in Westfield’s 15-13 win. McDaniel’s interception down the left sideline that he returned 39 yards for a touchdown gave Westfield a 15-7 lead late in the second quarter.
Least points against:
Best point differential:
Scored more points than given up:
2-Roselle Park, Hillside, Westfield
1-Union, Brearley, Roselle,
Cranford, Johnson, New Providence
Best home records:
Brearley, Rahway, Johnson: 3-1
Best road records:
5-Gov. Livingston 3-2
Mid-State 38 Conference
Watchung: Westfield (6-0), second straight season
Raritan: Summit (4-0), third time (2013, 2012)
Valley: Roselle (5-0), first time
Brearley, Linden, Johnson: 5-5
Playoff qualifiers, record:
Westfield (3-0) – N2, G5 champs
Roselle Park (0-1)
Gov. Livingston (0-1)
JR’s FINAL PICKS FOR 2016:
Best bets: 12-1
Upset specials: 6-7
Overall record: 94-37 (.718)
UNION COUNTY TOP 10
10-Gov. Livingston (4-6)
Roselle Park (3-7)
Scotch Plains (1-9)
New Providence (1-9)