PISCATAWAY – There was never any doubt.
It didn’t matter that Hillside was the seventh seed and had three losses.
It didn’t matter that Point Pleasant Boro was the top seed and 11-0.
It didn’t matter that Hillside had not been in this position since 1985 or had not won a state championship since then.
It didn’t matter that no team from Union County had ever won a state championship in Central Jersey.
It just didn’t matter. Period.
Hillside came to Middlesex County on this bright, sunny and not-so-cold Saturday morning and the Comets were the conquerors this time!
Hillside held on to beat undefeated Point Pleasant Boro 20-13 in Saturday’s Central Jersey Group 2 state championship game at Rutgers.
For the first time in 32 years and for only the second time in program history Hillside is a state champion. Hillside is also the first school from Union County to win a state title in the section Central Jersey since the NJSIAA went to re-classification in 2003. New Providence in 2004, Brearley in 2005 and Johnson in 2008 came up just short, falling in finals.
Hillside beat the top three seeds: 1-PPB, 2-South River and 3-Johnson and beat them when they had a combined record of 28-1 (PPB 11-0, South River 9-0 and Johnson (8-1) when the Comets played them.
Hillside held South River to a season-low seven points and PPB to a tied for season-low 13.
Two players that stood out for Hillside, which finished 9-3, Saturday against PPB included sophomore running back Nahree Biggins and senior middle linebacker Kwabena Ennin-Frimpong.
Biggins scored Hillside’s first two touchdowns – the first on a two-yard run on fourth down and the second on a 36-yard zig-zag touchdown reception on fourth down – and in between came up with a huge interception that set up the second score.
“We were very confident,” said Biggins, who had the game-saving tackle two weeks ago in Hillside’s 19-16 semifinal win on a much colder and rainy Saturday night at third-seeded Johnson. “Week by week we got better and better.”
Ennin-Frimpong was a monster on the field for Hillside, producing tackle after tackle. He produced second half sacks of PPB quarterback James Faria that went for 15- and 16-yard losses.
“I’m just out there doing my thing,” Ennin-Frimpong said. “This started in Room 121 with us doing pushups on the floor. We couldn’t do it without our coaches and everybody on our staff.”
Hillside’s strategy, as echoed by Enning-Frimpong and second-year head coach Barris Grant, was to contain PPB’s toss – specifically to senior running back Brandon Cipriano.
Cipriano carried 11 times for 81 yards, gaining most of his yardage in the second half after his team was down by three scores.
PPB, which won 10 of its first 11 games by double digits, finished 11-1.
“We had to stop No. 3 (Cipriano),” Grant said. “Where Johnson’s running game was more like Navy-Army, theirs (PPB) was more like Air Force, where they could also put the ball in the air and be dangerous.
“Based on the league we play in we felt we could be more physical. We get challenged a lot by the likes of teams like Cranford and Rahway and Johnson. I think we were more physical and it showed.”
Hillside junior Brian Ugwu did not have a field day running the ball, the 1,000-yard rusher was held to zero yards on five carries, but he did make a huge difference on defense, often getting past his man to make a key tackle.
“This feels great,” said Ugwu, who didn’t start playing football until last year. “To secure what we wanted to get is just unbelievable.”
Hillside almost scored on its first possession and then made sure it reached the end zone on its second after a big play that ended the first quarter.
On second-and-11 from its own 25, senior quarterback Tajae Irby threw a ball that junior receiver Charles Amissah caught two-handed over his shoulder. Amissah then broke a tackle and ran down the left sideline until he was stopped at the PPB 4.
Four plays and one timeout later, Hillside took the lead for good when Biggins came across from the left side, took the handoff, and barreled his way up the middle and into the end zone from the 2.
“They came out aggressive in the beginning and then after we scored we were much more aggressive,” Ugwu said. “They played man (pass defense) and we were faster and exposed that.”
A solid, 44-yard punt by Hugo Carrico put the ball on the PPB 10 with 2:43 left in the first half. On third-and-five, Fara threw a ball on the right sideline that Biggins jumped up for and came down with for an interception.
Four plays later on fourth-and-one from the PPB 36 with just 18 seconds to go before halftime, Irby threw a slant pass that Biggins caught across the middle and then reversed field to his right for an untouched, 36-yard touchdown reception. An ensuing two-point run by sophomore running back James Louis up the middle gave Hillside a 14-0 advantage.
“I just saw daylight (on the touchdown pass),” Biggins said. “When I caught the ball nobody was there.”
“Nahree Biggins, that’s a player you will need to get to know the next couple of years,” Grant said. “I’ve coached guys that like football and guys that live football. Nahree lives football.
“He showed that he was much faster today. The moment didn’t become too big for him.”
Hillside junior strong safety Boris Nicolas-Paul also had a big interception in the fourth quarter. His interception late in the fourth quarter against Johnson clinched Hillside’s semifinal win.
Before this year, Hillside’s only road playoff win was its 13-12 victory at top-seeded Madison in the 1985 North 2, Group 2 state championship game. For the first time the Comets won two road playoff games in a season (Saturday’s win is considered neutral site) and now Hillside has a playoff record over .500 at 8-7.
The first eight times Hillside made the state playoffs were all in North 2, Group 2.
Grant is a 1997 Irvington graduate who as a junior in 1995 played on a Blue Knights team that was 7-1 at the cutoff but didn’t have enough power points to make the playoffs in North 2, Group 4 and had to settle for an 8-1 finish. The NJSIAA expanded the playoff sections to eight teams three years later in 1998.
Grant was then on his older brother’s – Darnell Grant – staff at Shabazz in 2013 and 2014 when Shabazz lost in the 2013 North 2, Group 1 final and finally won it in 2014. Shabazz won N2, G1 again Saturday morning at Kean as the Bulldogs blanked Weequahic 35-0.
This time, in only his second year as a high school head coach, Barris is a state champion a second time.
“When I woke up this morning it was a different feeling, being a head coach,” Barris Grant said. “Your career is defined by big moments.
“These kids, they are a pleasure to watch.”
Darnell Grant, Irvington Class of 1991, has now led Shabazz to its first and only two (N2, G1 in 2014 and 2017) state championships and Barris Grant, Irvington Class of 1997, has led Hillside to its second overall and first since 1985.
Darnell Grant was Irvington’s head coach and Barris one of his assistants when Irvington lost the only state championship game it advanced to in heartbreaking fashion in 2006 (the N2, G3 final to New Brunswick 18-14).
“We had the fire, the Comet pride,” said Ennin-Frimpong, who was born in 2000, 15 years after Hillside’s last and only previous state championship. “We always had it going back to hell week in August.
“This feels great. Like coach said, we’re legends now.”
NOTES: Fara carried 25 times for 75 yards and one touchdown.
The Panthers, a Shore Conference division champion, was seeking its fourth state championship in the playoff era and first since it won South Jersey, Group 2 for the third time in 2005.
Louis finished with 28 yards on 10 carries.
PPB senior running back Tanner Gordon carried the ball nine times for 37 yards.
Hillside senior nose guard Elijah Cotton had a fumble recovery for the Comets in the first half when PPB lost possession at the line of scrimmage on a big fourth down play.
PPB had three turnovers to Hillside’s one, which came on an onsides kick that the Panthers converted late in the fourth quarter.
CENTRAL JERSEY, GROUP 2 STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
7-Hillside (9-3) 00 14 06 00 – 20
1-PP Boro (11-1) 00 00 00 13 – 13
Hillside – Nahree Biggins 2 run, kick failed (H 6-0)
6 plays, 74 yards, 3:06 used
Hillside – Nahree Biggins 36 pass from Tajae Irby, James Louis run (H 14-0)
4 plays, 45 yards, 1:28 used
Hillside capitalizes on a turnover – an interception by Nahree Biggins.
Hillside – Shadon Willis 4 run, kick failed (H 20-0)
6 plays, 54 yards, 3:06 used
PPBoro – Kyle Komanitsky 26 pass from James Fara, kick failed (H 20-6)
8 plays, 74 yards, 3:22 used
PPBoro – James Fara 7 run, Nathan Chiarello kick (H 20-13)
10 plays, 92 yards, 2:55 used