The two best football teams from the Valley Division of the Mid-State 38 Conference – first-time champion Johnson (5-0) and second-place Hillside (4-1) – will now clash Saturday (Nov. 18) night at 7 at Nolan Field in Clark in their Central Jersey, Group 2 playoff semifinal.
The reason why is because Johnson’s production of the play “A Streetcar Named Desire” will take place at the school Thursday (Nov. 16) and Friday (Nov. 17) nights.
“We had to sign paperwork (with the NJSIAA) in August stating that if we were home for the semifinal round of the playoffs that we would play Saturday night instead of Friday night to not conflict with the play,” Johnson head coach Anthony DelConte said. “This way people have the opportunity to see the play and the game.”
Third-seeded Johnson won its third straight and improved to 8-1 overall after handling sixth-seeded Holmdel 34-6 this past Friday night at home. Johnson is in the CJ, G2 semifinals for the second time in the past three years, while Holmdel reached the playoffs for only the seventh time in school history and its playoff win total remained at two.
Johnson is now seeking to go 9-1 for the first time since finishing 9-1 in 2006 and is also out to reach its first state championship game since falling to Manasquan 19-14 in the 2008 CJ, G2 final at Rutgers.
Johnson has won state championships in the playoff era in 1995 and 2002 – both in North 2, Group 2.
Hillside, 7-3 and winners of two straight, is in the playoffs for the ninth time and for the first time in CJ, G2. Hillside’s first eight playoff appearances were all in North 2, Group 2. The Comets are seeking an eighth win for the first time since 2008.
The seventh seed, Hillside ousted second-seeded South River 28-7 at South River Saturday, handing the Middlesex County school its first loss in 10 games. It was only the sixth playoff victory for Hillside and just its second on the road.
Hillside’s only other playoff road victory was its 13-12 win at top-seeded Madison in the 1985 North 2, Group 2 state championship game. Hillside is 1-1 in state championship games, with its loss coming in the 1983 North 2, Group 2 final.
After 1985, this is Hillside’s third trip to a sectional semifinal. Hillside lost in the 2000 and 2008 North 2, Group 2 semifinals.
Hillside has produced a winning season and reached the state playoffs both for the first time since the Comets finished 8-3 nine years ago.
On Oct. 6 at Johnson’s Nolan Field, it was a five-yard touchdown run by senior running back Brandon Rapp in the fourth quarter that sealed a 22-13 Johnson victory. That was Hillside’s only Valley Division defeat.
“We know we’re in for another battle with Hillside, the first game certainly was,” said Johnson fourth-year head coach Anthony DelConte.
DelConte, a 2006 Johnson graduate who moved up to head coach after being an assistant on head coach Mike Mancino’s staff, has led the Crusaders to the CJ, G2 playoffs all four years at the helm so far, including the semifinals twice.
Hillside is guided by second-year head coach Barris Grant, a former Irvington and Mississippi State standout with previous Essex County experience among his many coaching stops.
“Hillside is well-coached and Barris has that team going,” DelConte said. “We don’t expect anything different. It will be another very tough, very physical game.”
Both teams feature several of the top players in Union County and North Jersey, with Johnson senior running back-middle linebacker Joe Turek (No. 28) and Hillside junior running back-linebacker Brian Ugwu (No. 1).
“Initially, we had a hard time adjusting to their team speed,” DelConte said.
Hillside pulled to within two at 15-13 when senior quarterback Taja
e Irby scored on a one-yard run in the third quarter.
“We eventually settled in and our guys did a nice job,” said DelConte, with Johnson not allowing a point in the fourth quarter.
Senior Mike Casalino and Turek rushed for Johnson’s first two scores, both coming in the first half. Casalino also kicked a 34-yard field goal in the second quarter to help give Johnson a 15-7 lead at intermission.
Hillside’s first touchdown came on the ground from sophomore Nahree Biggins.
“They’re shifty,” DelConte said. “This game will come down to who is the most disciplined on defense.”
Johnson won its first five games – all of its division contests – before falling for the only time to Somerville 33-7 at home. Somerville, 9-1, the repeat Mountain Division champion and in the CJ, G3 semifinals, scored on the game’s second play from scrimmage and took advantage of several Johnson miscues.
“We did not play well against Somerville, which is a very good team,” DelConte said. “We turned the ball over four times.
“We used that game as motivation. We took it personally to get back at playing at the best level we possibly could.”
The Hillside-Johnson game is the only playoff contest in the state scheduled to be played Saturday night (Nov. 18).
REVISED UNION COUNTY SEMIFINAL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE:
FRIDAY, NOV. 17 (2 games)
North 2, Group 3
5-Rahway (6-3) at 1-West Essex (9-1), 7 p.m.
North 2, Group 1
6-Roselle Park (6-3) at 2-Shabazz (9-0), 7 p.m.
SATURDAY, NOV. 18 (2 games)
North 2, Group 5
5-Elizabeth (5-5) at 1-Westfield (9-0), 1 p.m.
Central Jersey, Group 2
7-Hillside (7-3) at 3-Johnson (8-1), 7 p.m.