CLARK – A week ago Hillside had just one road win on its playoff resume.
Now the Comets have three.
As a result, Hillside will be playing in a state championship game for the first time in 32 years.
Nahree Biggins made the game-saving tackle.
Then Boris Nicolas-Paul – with just over a minute remaining – came up with the go-ahead touchdown-preventing interception.
Seventh-seeded Hillside, which came back from two first-half deficits, ousted third-seeded Johnson 19-16 in Saturday night’s Central Jersey, Group 2 semifinal at Nolan Field.
Hillside (8-3) will next take on top-seeded Point Pleasant Boro (11-0) in the Central Jersey, Group 2 state championship game in two weeks.
The contest will likely be Saturday, Dec. 2 at Rutgers.
Hillside previously lost at Johnson 22-13 on this same field in Mid-State 38 Conference-Valley Division play back on Oct. 6. Johnson won the Valley Division title over Hillside by just that one game.
Hillside will be playing in just its third state championship game and first since winning its only one in 1985 – the Comets captured North 2, Group 2 that season after falling in the final two years earlier in 1983.
No Union County team has won a state championship in the Central Jersey section since the NJSIAA began re-classification in 2003.
STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES
HILLSIDE HAS ON ITS PLAYOFF RESUME (3):
2017 – CENTRAL JERSEY, GROUP 2
7-Hillside (8-3) vs. 1-Point Pleasant Boro (11-0) – at Rutgers
1985 – NORTH 2, GROUP 2
Hillside 13, Madison 12 – at top-seeded Madison
Hillside was the No. 2 seed
1983 – NORTH 2, GROUP 2
Butler 16, Hillside 8 – at top-seeded Hillside
Butler was the No. 2 seed
Hillside won just its third road playoff game Saturday night. Hillside’s first road playoff win was its 13-12 triumph at top-seeded Madison in the 1985 North 2, Group 2 state championship game. Hillside’s second was last Saturday at second-seeded and 9-0 South River 28-7.
Hillside has given up just three touchdowns in its two road playoff victories. The Comets have won two road playoff games in the same year for the first time and are 8-3 for the first time since finishing with that record in 2008.
This is Hillside’s first winning season and first playoff campaign since 2008 when the Comets fell to eventual champion Caldwell 28-21 in the N2, G2 semifinal played at Union.
When Johnson running back Mike Casalino took a pitch left and then raced through a hole on the left side it looked like he might reach the end zone. Biggins, however, was able to catch up with Casalino and stop him at the Hillside 20 with 1:34 remaining and the Comets clinging to their 19-16 lead. Casalino’s crowd-roaring run covered 52 yards.
Hillside second-year head coach Barris Grant called a timeout, his team’s second, to slow things down.
On first-and-10, Johnson got the ball to running back Vito Galluzzo on the right side and he was headed toward the end zone. However, Johnson was called for a holding penalty, pushing the Crusaders back to the Hillside 36 where it was now first-and-26.
“At that point I thought Johnson had to eventually try to throw the ball,” Grant said.
Johnson did. However, the result did not prove favorable.
Mike Bruno dopped back and threw a ball over the middle that was caught at the Hillside 10 by Nicolas-Paul, who returned the pick 32 yards to the Hillside 42.
With just 1:10 remaining, Johnson eventually called all three of its timeouts. However, the Crusaders were unable to get the ball back, with junior running back Brian Ugwu closing the game with runs of eight, three and six yards.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” fourth-year Johnson head coach Anthony DelConte said of the decision to pass there. “It was there, we just didn’t execute. We had a guy open.”
Hillside was sparked offensively by sophomore running back James Louis, who rushed for 111 yards on eight carries, including touchdowns of 12 and 70 yards.
“I just wanted to run and do what I was taught to do,” Louis said.
His 70-yard touchdown run, breaking through a hole at the line and then sprinting past the Johnson defense, came on the second play of the second half and gave Hillside back the lead for good at 12-9.
“James Louis is an electric player,” Grant said. “Johnson was playing a four-man front and we took advantage.”
“Our coaches brilliantly drew up that play,” Louis said. “It was a counter play where you try to fake the defense.”
Ugwu was among the Hillside defensive standouts. Early in the game with Johnson driving deep in Hillside territory Ugwu came up with big, back-to-back tackles of Bruno for losses. Casalino’s ensuing 32-yard field goal attempt went wide left with 9:53 remaining before halftime and Johnson ahead 2-0.
“After the last time we played them we didn’t want them to score,” Ugwu said. “We focused on defense more. James sparked our offense and I concentrated on our defense.”
Johnson took the opening kickoff and marched all the way down to the Hillside one-yard line. On third-and-goal, the Crusaders lost possession, with Nicolas-Paul there to recover the fumble.
“That was a good-bad turnover situation,” Grant said. “Yes, we got the ball back and they didn’t score, but we had the ball on our two and couldn’t really move it.”
As a result, Hillside yielded a safety for the first time in Grant’s two seasons at the helm.
Hillside scored the first of its three touchdowns on its second possession to take a 6-2 lead. Touchdown No. 1 by Louis capped a 12-play, 80-yard match that used up just over five minutes.
Johnson answered with its first touchdown later in the second quarter when Galluzzo found room on the right side and scored from seven yards out, closing an eight-play, 64-yard drive that did not include senior running back Joe Turek who, DelConte said, was bothered by a shoulder setback.
Turek carried 11 times for 51 yards in the first quarter and finished with 112 yards on 23 attempts.
Casalino carried just twice, but both were huge plays. The first attempt was his six-yard touchdown run that pulled, including his extra point, Johnson to within three at 19-16. His second was his 52-yard gain that almost reached the end zone and would have put Johnson back ahead for the third time had he.
Johnson carried the ball 29 times for 109 yards in the first half and Hillside 11 times for 51 yards.
Hillside’s final touchdown came on fourth-and-six from the Johnson 21 early in the fourth quarter. Irby rolled right and found Shadon Willis open in the end zone, with Willis beating single coverage for a 24-yard touchdown reception. Hugo Carrico’s extra point made it a 19-9 game.
“Defense wins championships and our defense led us to this win,” Ugwu said.
Ugwu finished with 58 yards rushing on eight carries.
“Since December of last year we said we were going to be playing for a state title,” Ugwu said. “This year has been a different atmosphere for us. We know now that we have to limit our mistakes.”
Ironically, Hillside committed 16 penalties that Johnson accepted. Nine came in the first half, including five for off sides.
“Johnson is a good team and Anthony (head coach DelConte) does a good job,” Grant said. “They got on a roll with that first drive.”
“Hillside is a good team and we didn’t expect anything less from them,” DelConte said. “We left 14 points on the board in the first half and the second part of that was a bad call on my part. That was all me.”
Johnson (8-2) will get a chance to close a very successful 2017 season with a win when the Crusaders play at Rahway (6-4) on Thanksgiving.
Johnson was attempting to reach its first state championship game since 2008 when it fell to Manasquan 19-14 in the CJ, G2 final at Rutgers. The Crusaders are 2-1 in state championship games, with wins in North 2, Group 2 finals in 1995 and 2002.
WHEN UNION COUNTY FOOTBALL
REACHED ITS ZENITH
1985 – the year Union County swept North 2
Group 4 – Union 13, Montclair 8 – at Bloomfield
Montclair was the No. 1 seed and Union No. 2 seed.
Union went 11-0 in back-to-back seasons for the first time,
led by senior cousins Tony Stewart and Gary Mobley.
Union head coach: Lou Rettino.
Group 3 – Linden 19, West Morris 7 – at West Morris
West Morris was the No. 1 seed and Linden the No. 2 seed.
Linden wins its first state championship in the playoff era under
elevated first-year head coach Bucky McDonald. Linden would
not win its second until 2014.
Linden head coach: Bucky McDonald.
Group 2 – Hillside 13, Madison 12 – at Madison
Madison was the No. 1 seed and Hillside the No. 2 seed.
Hillside head coach Jerry Alexander leads the Comets to their
only state championship in the playoff era.
Hillside head coach: Jerry Alexander.
Linden (N2, G3) and Hillside (N2, G2) both lost
state championship games in 1983, which were
the first appearances in a final for both.
Group 1 – Brearley 35, Roselle Park 6 – at Brearley
Brearley was the No. 2 seed and Roselle Park the No. 4 seed.
Brearley head coach: Bob Taylor.
Roselle Park head coach: John Wagner.
Five Union County teams played for state championships
on that Saturday in December of 1985.
CENTRAL JERSEY, GROUP 2 SEMIFINAL AT NOLAN FIELD
7-Hillside (8-3) 00 06 06 07 – 19
3-Johnson (8-2) 02 07 00 07 – 16
Johnson – Safety, ball snapped out of the end zone (J 2-0)
Hillside – James Louis 12 run, kick failed (H 6-2)
12 plays, 80 yards, 5:05 used
Johnson – Vito Galluzzo 7 run, Mike Casalino kick (J 9-6)
8 plays, 64 yards, 3:22 used
Hillside – James Louis 70 run, run failed (H 12-9)
2 plays, 60 yards, :47 used
Hillside – Shadon Willis 21 pass from Tajae Irby, Hugo Carrico kick
8 plays, 67 yards, 4:04 used
Johnson – Mike Casalino 6 run, Mike Casalino kick (H 19-16)
8 plays, 64 yards, 3:30 used