Union football hosting Westfield for first time in 5 years; Last defeated Blue Devils in 2013

Farmers, after their bye week, seek to bounce back after Elizabeth setback against team that has won state-leading 29 straight

Union has had it with losing to Westfield.

The Farmers have lost to the Blue Devils the last three times they faced each other, with two of the contests sending Westfield to the last two North 2, Group 5 championship games – with the Blue Devils winning both of them.

There was a time 20 years ago – the 1997 campaign – when Westfield lost to Union for the 16th straight season, a streak that began with Union beating Westfield in 1982 after the Farmers shut out the Blue Devils in the 1981 North 2, Group 4 semifinals.

Back then it seemed like Westfield could never beat Union, with Union head coach Lou Rettino – a Westfield resident – supplanting Westfield head coach Gary Kehler as the next Union County legendary coach.

Rettino was 0-5 vs. Westfield in his first five seasons as Union’s head coach (1977-1981) before the playoff win in 1981. Rettino got Kehler once in 1982, which was Kehler’s last season as Westfield’s head coach.

Now the shoe – although not quite as lengthy in time – is on the other foot.

Union last defeated Westfield in 2013, which based on recent results against each other – particularly Westfield’s dominance in its last three wins over Union – seems like a lifetime ago.

The teams last clashed at Union’s Cooke Memorial Field in 2012.

They will face each other there again Friday night.

Union had last weekend off.

Westfield only gave up one touchdown again last week – what’s new?

Can Union, led by first-year sophomore quarterback Andrew Sanborn and veteran senior wide receiver Andy Martin, crack Westfield’s defense for more than one score?

Westfield has won a state-leading 29 straight games and also has a 23-game regular season winning streak going. The Blue Devils have won their last 12 road games and their last 14 on the road in the regular season.

Westfield has not lost since November of 2014 – 14-6 at Linden in the North 2, Group 5 semifinals.

Union has not defeated Westfield since October of 2013 – 25-14 at Westfield.

Union assistant coach Carmen Marano, Union Class of 1993, played on a famous Union team that ended Randolph’s historic 59 (58-0-1) game unbeaten streak. Marano was a two-way starting lineman as a junior on Union’s 1991 squad that came back in the second half to defeat Randolph 24-14 in that year’s North 2, Group 4 state championship game – played on a Saturday afternoon (Dec. 7, 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor) at Cooke Memorial Field.

Union went 11-0 that year for the first time since 1987 and then went 11-0 again in 1992 and beat Randolph at home once more in the N2, G4 title contest.

“They’re good, just a real solid team,” Marano said of Westfield, which leads the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Watchung Division at 3-0 after capturing the division title the past two seasons.

Westfield won its first state championship two years ago since 1977. Forty years ago the Blue Devils repeated as North 2, Group 4 state champions. This year the Blue Devils are attempting to 3-peat as North 2, Group 5 state champs.

Union last won a state championship in 1993 when the Farmers that season won the title game at Randolph to 3-peat in North 2, Group 4.

While Friday night’s game is not a state championship contest, it has huge division and – more importantly – North 2, Group 5 implications.

Union opened with wins at Watchung Hills 34-17 and home against Plainfield 28-13. The Farmers were then thumped at Elizabeth 42-26.

Union is averaging 29 points with a quarterback who has played just three varsity games, but the Farmers will now be facing the best defense it has gone up against so far, led by senior returning lineman Jake Vall-Llobera.

What is making this Westfield defense, which has allowed just three touchdowns, so special thus far in 2017?

“Our new guys have stepped up,” said head coach Jim DeSarno, at the helm of the Blue Devils since 2006 and with a record at Westfield of 85-36 (.703).

The new guys on the line include senior Rory McGovern, junior Noah Levy and senior Joseph SanGiacomo.

“They’ve had huge shoes to fill,” DeSarno said. “Our linebackers have also gotten better.”

Those linebackers DeSarno is referring to include senior Shea Elliott, senior Drew Ortiz, senior Jacob Dayon and sophomore Will Kessler at outside.

Returning seniors Adam McDaniel and Steve Barden lead the secondary.

Westfield has given up just 28 points in four games, the lowest total of any Union County team.

“We had 6-7 kids back (on defense) with significant minutes from last year,” DeSarno said. “The new guys are stepping up, both on and off the field, so we’re very happy about that.”

At Ridge, sophomore running back Tim Alliegro had a breakthrough game, rushing for 195 yards and one score in a solid 23-7 Watchung Division road triumph.

Last week at home against Watchung Hills, sophomore quarterback Hank Shapiro threw four touchdowns passes, three to McDaniel and one to Barden. Perfect on all five extra-point kicks was senior Aidan Boland.

“Our offense is getting there,” DeSarno said. “We have a sophomore at quarterback and a sophomore at tailback.

“Hank really threw the ball well against Watchung Hills and needed to because we really didn’t run the ball well. He really didn’t have one bad throw.”

Sanborn has completed 36-of-59 passes (61 percent) for 583 yards and seven touchdowns three games into his varsity career.

DeSarno immediately agrees Sanborn looks the part.

“He has a tremendous arm and can also run with the ball from what we’ve seen on film.” DeSarno said. “He’s a dual threat.

“It seems like he’s just stepped right in and is playing like someone more experienced than a sophomore.”

Union has five returning starters back on offense, including Martin, and four on defense, including senior inside linebacker Arthur Pinckney.

“Union is physical, has good size up front and has good-size receivers,” DeSarno said. “The skill players are tall and lanky and tough to bring down.”

When Westfield and Union last clashed at Union, the host Farmers came away with a 35-23 win in 2012. Westfield last won at Union in 2010, posting a 17-7 triumph.

“It’s always a cool place to play,” said DeSarno, who as Westfield’s head coach has a 3-1 record against Union at Union. “There’s a lot of tradition there.

“For us this will be our third road game this year, so we’re used to getting on a bus. We try to downplay it as much as we can.”

As for Westfield’s third straight 4-0 start, this is how DeSarno describes it: “you see how good Linden is and how Linden and Ridge are scoring a ton of points, so I’m pleasantly surprised at where we are now.

“We’re still figuring it out on offense, but I like how we’ve performed so far.”

Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. is preparing to play Westfield for the fourth time in a little less than two years.

“There’s nothing we haven’t seen or scouted from them by now,” said Grasso, 25-22 (.532) since taking over at Union in 2013. “They’re just a tough, sound team that is playing well again.”

Westfield is the first of Union’s next five battles as the Farmers attempt to qualify in North 2, Group 5 for the third year in a row and for the fifth time in the past six seasons.

“It’s always tough having your bye coming off a loss,” Grasso said. “We would have been ready to play Westfield last week.”

Union has given up at least two touchdowns in each of its first three games, with Elizabeth producing six against the Farmers.

“Against Elizabeth we didn’t tackle well and turned the ball over at critical times,” Grasso said. “I was happy with the way we fought back late and had a chance to pull to within one score.

“You can’t play like that against a team like Elizabeth and expect to come out on top.”

While Union is working on producing a better result defensively, the Farmers will also need to find the right formula to reach the end zone. In Union’s last three losses to Westfield including playoff games the past two seasons, the Farmers were held to five touchdowns total, with three of them produced after the outcome was pretty much decided.

This will be the first time Westfield will be going after Sanborn.

“Andrew has played well so far and has also had some sophomore moments,” Grasso said. “We knew we had a talented player when he became our quarterback.

“Hopefully, he’s ignorant to all the surroundings and just goes out and plays it like another game.

“We all want to win the game and beat Westfield. Since I’ve been here Westfield is a team that just goes about its business. That’s why they’re special.

“It’s really been impressive to see what they’ve been able to do.”