Westfield, Hillside football surprising or not-so-surprising? Blue Devils, Comets seek to capture state championships Nov. 30 and Dec. 2

Games are at MetLife Stadium and Rutgers; Westfield out to 3-peat, while Hillside attempts to garner first crown since 1985

I’m not quite sure what might be more surprising?

The fact that we’re still asking Westfield head coach Jim DeSarno to explain how good another one of his Westfield teams is and how the Blue Devils continue to be as stingy as any team in the state in terms of keeping the opposition from reaching the end zone?

Or that as November turns to December the Hillside Comets are preparing to play in the program’s first state championship game since the year (1985) “Back to the Future” was a summer hit?

Let’s move ahead to the future – and the present – to the year 2017.

Westfield has won a state-leading 36 straight games and has the opportunity to 3-peat as the North 2, Group 5 state champion.

Just two years ago Westfield won its first state championship in 38 years. Now 12 months later the Blue Devils have the opportunity to win a third straight for the first time in program history.

Hillside is coming off consecutive road playoff victories for the first time and is now in the position to become Union County’s first state champion from the section known as Central Jersey.

Just last year was Hillside’s eighth straight finish under .500.

Wow!

Union County football this state championship weekend includes top-seeded (for the first time) Westfield (11-0) vs. third-seeded Bridgewater-Raritan (9-2) in Thursday night’s North 2, Group 5 final at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford and then seventh-seeded Hillside (8-3) vs. top-seeded Point Pleasant Boro (11-0) in Saturday morning’s Central Jersey, Group 2 final at Rutgers.

First Westfield and then second Hillside will both be out to beat the Panthers this weekend.

The Bridgewater-Raritan Panthers have lost to only the teams playing in Saturday’s North 2, Group 4 final at MetLife – Phillipsburg (10-1) vs. North Hunterdon (10-1). Phillipsburg, with its only loss to No. 1 rival Easton, Pa. 21-14 at Lafayatte College on Thanksgiving, defeated North Hunterdon 20-7 at home on Oct. 27 en route to the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Delaware Division championship.

The Point Pleasant Boro Panthers, with 10 double-digit wins, went 8-2 last year when present head coach Matt Cilento took over.

Hillside second-year head coach Barris Grant before the season-opener: “There won’t be as many surprises as there were last year.”

There were more wins for the Comets, such as eight total for the first time since 2008. Hillside is in the playoffs and produced a winning season for the first time since finishing 8-3 and reaching the North 2, Group 2 semifinals in 2008. Hillside finished 4-6 in 2016.

Of its nine playoff seasons, this is Hillside’s first one situated in Central Jersey, Group 2. The Comets now have an even playoff record of 7-7.

Grant after Hillside’s 19-16 semifinal playoff win at Johnson: “We know what we’re capable of and we know what kind of players we have. We now have one more step to go.”

Hillside standout running back-linebacker Brian Ugwu (No. 1) after the Johnson playoff victory: ““Defense wins championships and our defense led us to this win.”

Westfield head coach Jim DeSarno, at the helm of the Blue Devils since 2006, after his Blue Devils opened with a 12-7 home win over Linden: “The last two years we had a dominant defensive line. Jake (Vall-Llobera) is our only lineman back. He, (senior Jacob) Dayon, (senior Drew) Ortiz and (senior Shea) Elliott, our guys back, they all played well. Then so did a new guy like (sophomore linebacker) Will Kessler, who stepped up.

“This is a difficult game to play. We try to do it the right way and by doing that it means leaning on the success of our defense. It’s an attitude.”

Westfield is attempting to become the first team from Union County to win three straight state championships since head coach Lou Rettino’s 1991, 1992 and 1993 Union Farmer teams defeated Randolph in those three North 2, Group 4 finals.

Here’s what was said after Westfield defeated Elizabeth a second time this year – both by the score of 13-6 – to reach a third straight N2, G5 state championship game:

“We have a very close-knit unit,” said Vall-Llobera, a senior, who was the only returning defensive lineman. “This team has such a bond.”

Westfield does not have a shutout this year, but the Blue Devils have given up the least amount of points of any Union County team, just 83 in 11 games. Westfield has yielded a single touchdown in 10 games and just two in its other.

“We make the effort to come out on top in these close games,” Westfield defensive coordinator Ken Miller said. “We knew we had the linebackers and the secondary players back, but guys like Rory McGovern, Noah Levy and Joe San Giacomo have really stepped it up on the line for us.”

 

THE MATCHUPS:

Thursday night at 8 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford:

3-Bridgewater-Raritan (9-2) vs. 1-Westfield (11-0).

Their most recent history:

They met the last two years in the North 2, Group 5 final, both teams 11-0 and both times BR the top seed and Westfield the second.

Westfield held on to win 10-7 on a Thursday night at MetLife in 2015.

Westfield, without scoring a point in the second half and with its last touchdown coming on an interception return, held on again to defeat BR 15-13 on a Saturday afternoon at MetLife in 2016.

Three years ago in the first round at Gary Kehler Stadium, fourth-seeded Westfield defeated fifth-seeded BR 24-14.

The last time Westfield lost: Friday night, Nov. 21, 2014 – at Linden 14-6

in the North 2, Group 5 semifinals.

The last time Westfield lost to BR: Saturday, Sept. 17, 2010 – 19-13 at Gary Kehler Stadium.

Westfield has defeated BR the last six years: 2011-2013 in the regular season and 2014-2016 in the N2, G5 playoffs.

The Panthers are led offensively by junior quarterback Greg Varano (6-0, 190), who has thrown for nearly 1,200 yards.

The top running back is junior Anthony Goffe (5-11, 200), who has rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and has scored 12 touchdowns. Brandon Myers (6-2, 225) is the leading receiver, the senior with 32 catches for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Defensively, Bridgewater-Raritan’s top three tacklers include 6-2, 225-pound senior Chike Nwankwo (122), 6-1, 235-pount senior Justin Bryant (119) and 5-10, 195-pound senior Lawrence Nice (55).

Westfield has sophomore Hank Shapiro (6-1, 181) at quarterback, who has thrown for 1,200 yards, 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

The top running backs include sophomore Tim Alliegro (5-9, 180), with 810 yards and eight touchdowns, and senior Juandre House (5-8, 150), with 540 yards and two scores. Jake Vall-Llobera (6-4, 220) has bulled his way into the end zone for four important TDs and has 90 yards on 27 carries.

Leading tacklers for the Blue Devils include senior lineman Joe SanGiacomo with 80 and senior linebacker Drew Ortiz with 61. Vall-Llobera, from his lineman position, has 10 sacks among his 36 stops.

 

3-BRIDGEWATER-RARITAN PANTHERS (9-2):

(A)  B-Raritan 28, Hunterdon Central 14

(H)  B-Raritan 31, Hillsborough 30

(H) Phillipsburg 30, B-Raritan 7

(A) B-Raritan 50, Montgomery 0

(A) North Hunterdon 21, B-Raritan 14

(H) B-Raritan 28, Linden 12

(A) B-Raritan 35, Franklin 7

(H) B-Raritan 28, Union 13

(H) B-Raritan 35, Elizabeth 0

(H) B-Raritan 41, Watchung Hills 0

(A) B-Raritan 27, Piscataway 6

Nov. 30 Westfield, 8 p.m.

At MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford

Head coach: Scott Bray,

11th season: 65-52 (.556)

Section: North 2, Group 5

Conference: Mid-State 38

Division: Delaware, 4-1, second

Record: 9-2

Home: 5-1

Away: 4-1

Points for: 324

Points against: 133

Shutouts: 3

Overtime: 0-0

 

1-WESTFIELD BLUE DEVILS (11-0):

(H) Westfield 12, Linden 7

(A) Westfield 23, Ridge 7

(A) Westfield 23, Franklin 7

(H) Westfield 35, Watchung Hills 7

(A) Westfield 7, Union 6

(H) Westfield 13, Elizabeth 6 at Rutgers

(A) Westfield 23, Immaculata 6

(H) Westfield 35, Scotch Plains 14

(H) Westfield 17, Ridge 10

(H) Westfield 13, Elizabeth 6

(H) Westfield 37, Plainfield 7

Nov. 30 Bridgewater-Raritan, 8 p.m.

At MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford

Head coach: Jim DeSarno,

12th season: 92-36 (.719)

Section: North 2, Group 5

Conference: Mid-State 38

Division: Watchung, 6-0, champs

Record: 11-0

Home: 7-0

Away: 4-0

Points for: 238

Points against: 83

Shutouts: 0

Overtime: 0-0

 

Saturday morning at 10 at Rutgers:

7-Hillside (8-3) vs. 1-Point Pleasant Boro (11-0)

Their history – none.

This is the first time Hillside is facing the Shore Conference school.

Speed, speed and more speed is the Hillside theme.

No. 1 Brian Ugwu, No. 2 Boris Nicolas-Paul, No. 5 Nahree Biggins, No. 7 (QB) Tajae Irby and No. 27 James Louis are among Hillside’s speed demons who can change the course of a ball game in a very quick manner.

Louis, a sophomore, scored on runs of 12 and 70 yards for Hillside’s first two scores in its semifinal playoff win at Johnson.

Biggins made the game-saving tackle and Nicolas-Paul the game-ending interception.

On the game’s biggest fourth down play, Irby rolled right and found Shadon Willis open for Hillside’s third touchdown.

Ugwu, who did not play football until last year, has rushed for over 1,000 yards. Irby has passed for nearly 1,700.

PPB senior quarterback James Fara has rushed for nearly 1,600 yards. Senior Brandon Cipriano has done a nice job filling in at running back and has rushed for 600 yards and 13 TDs.

Both head coaches are in their second years as head coaches, Matt Cilento for PPB and Barris Grant for Hillside. PPB was 8-2 last year and Hillside 4-6.

PPB has won playoff championships – all in South Jersey, Group 2 – in 1977, 1978 and 2005, its lone 12-0 season.

Hillside won its only playoff title in 1985 in North 2, Group 2.

 

7-HILLSIDE COMETS (8-3):

(H) Rahway 35, Hillside 21

(A) Hillside 42, New Providence 7

(H) Hillside 42, Bernards 0

(A) Hillside 14, Roselle 12 at RRP

(A) Johnson 22, Hillside 13

(H) Hillside 51, Dayton 8

(H) Hillside 49, Delaware Valley 8

(A) Cranford 34, Hillside 21

(H) Hillside 21, Brearley 15

(A) Hillside 28, South River 7

(A) Hillside 19, Johnson 16

Dec. 2 Point Pleasant Boro, 10 a.m.

at Rutgers

Head coach: Barris Grant,

second season: 12-9 (.571)

Conference: Mid-State 38

Division: Valley, 4-1, second

Record: 8-3

Home: 4-1

Away: 4-2

Points for: 321

Points against: 164

Shutouts: 1

Overtime: 0-0

 

1-POINT PLEASANT BORO PANTHERS (11-0):

(A)  PPB 42, Pinelands 17

(A)  PPB 27, Lacey 0

(H)  PPB 34, Donovan Catholic 20

(H)  PPB 13, Monmouth 3

(H)  PPB 41, Manchester Twp. 12

(A)  PPB 35, Lakewood 28

(A)  PPB 48, Jackson Liberty 7

(A)  PPB 41, Ocean Twp. 18

(H)  PPB 28, Barnegat 12

(H)  PPB 41, Raritan 12

(H)  PPB 27, Manasquan 6

Dec. 2 Hillside, 10 a.m.

at Rutgers

Head coach: Matt Cilento,

second season: 19-2 (.905)

Conference: Shore

Division: B-South, 7-0, champs

Record: 11-0

Home: 6-0

Away: 5-0

Points for: 378

Points against: 135

Shutouts: 1

Overtime: 0-0

 

 

WESTFIELD STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES,

THE BLUE DEVILS ARE 4-1:

 

2017 – NORTH 2, GROUP 5

3-Bridgewater-Raritan (9-2) vs. 1-Westfield (11-0) – at MetLife Stadium

Westfield enters with state-leading 36-game winning streak.

The school record is 48 from 1969-1973.

Westfield head coach: Jim DeSarno

 

2016 – NORTH 2, GROUP 5

Westfield 15, Bridgewater-Raritan 13 – at MetLife Stadium

Bridgewater-Raritan was the No. 1 seed and Westfield the second.

Both entered with 11-0 records. Westfield finished 12-0.

Westfield head coach: Jim DeSarno

 

2015 – NORTH 2, GROUP 5

Westfield 10, Bridgewater-Raritan 7 – at MetLife Stadium

Bridgewater-Raritan was the No. 1 seed and Westfield the second.

Both entered with 11-0 records. Westfield finished 12-0.

Westfield head coach: Jim DeSarno

 

1998 – NORTH 2, GROUP 3

Morristown 37, Westfield 14 – at Giants Stadium

Morristown was the top seed and Westfield the third.

Westfield head coach: Ed Tranchina (Ken Miller was on the staff).

Westfield finished 9-3.

 

1977 – NORTH 2, GROUP 4

Westfield 33, Barringer 12 – at Giants Stadium

Westfield was the No. 2 seed and Barringer the fourth.

Westfield finished 11-0 for the first time.

Westfield head coach: Gary Kehler

 

1976 – NORTH 2, GROUP 4

Westfield 14, Plainfield 0 – at Westfield

Westfield was the top seed and Plainfield the third.

Westfield finished 10-0-1.

Westfield head coach: Gary Kehler

 

HILLSIDE STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES,

THE COMETS ARE 1-1:

 

2017 – CENTRAL JERSEY, GROUP 2

7-Hillside (8-3) vs. 1-Point Pleasant Boro (11-0) – at Rutgers

Hillside head coach: Barris Grant

 

1985 – NORTH 2, GROUP 2

Hillside 13, Madison 12 – at top-seeded Madison

Hillside was the No. 2 seed

Hillside head coach: Jerry Alexander

 

1983 – NORTH 2, GROUP 2

Butler 16, Hillside 8 – at top-seeded Hillside

Butler was the No. 2 seed

Hillside head coach: Jerry Alexander

 

 

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 Regional 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

very cold, snowy and muddy first December Saturday in 1985.

PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Hillside second-year head coach Barris Grant at right with standout junior RB-LB Brian Ugwu.
PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Westfield head coach Jim DeSarno has been at the helm of the Blue Devils since 2006.

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