UNION – Jerish Halsey came up quite large in Rahway’s biggest games last season.
The elusive wide receiver produced two touchdowns in Rahway’s season-opening win at Hillside. He then hauled in a touchdown pass in Rahway’s victory the following month at undefeated Somerville.
In North 2, Group 3 play at Summit Halsey was there to reach the end zone one more time following another one of his splendid pass receptions.
Halsey (5-11, 165) may not have the prototypical size of a taller, lankier wideout who would normally be thrown the ball down the sidelines east and west, but the two-year varsity starter has the ability to make the ball stick into his uniform and also the speed to get the job done rather effectively.
“He has excellent hands and great instincts,” said Rahway head coach Brian Russo.
Halsey will play one more game before continuing to compete at the next level for Division 3 Wesley (Del.) College, the defending New Jersey Athletic Conference champion.
Halsey is one of nine players from Union County high schools on the North roster for Monday’s 40th annual Phil Simms New Jersey North-South All-Star Football Classic.
The 39th game in the series will take place at Kean University’s Alumni Stadium, with a 7 p.m. kickoff.
The South leads the series 19-17-2, with the 2002 contest at Rutgers cancelled because of inclement weather. The North has never led.
Practice commences Friday with two sessions, continues with three on Saturday and concludes with two more on Sunday.
Halsey hauled in a 28-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jakir Robinson and returned a punt 80 yards for another score in Rahway’s 35-21 September win over Hillside.
Hillside went on to win Central Jersey, Group 2 for the first time, which was the program’s second state championship in the playoff era and first since 1985.
In Rahway’s convincing 27-6 October triumph at Somerville, Halsey reached the end zone on a pass from Robinson that covered 45 yards.
Somerville went on to capture Central Jersey, Group 3 for the program’s eighth state championship in the playoff era and first since the Pioneers last captured Central Jersey, Group 2 in 1994. Somerville’s only setback in an 11-1 state championship year was at the hands of Halsey and the Indians.
Late in Rahway’s 45-37 triumph over Summit in the first round of the N2, G3 playoffs, Halsey and Robinson hooked up for a 24-yard TD pass.
Summit defeated Rahway 34-14 two weeks prior in a Mid-State 37 Conference crossover clash at Rahway River Park.
“He had a key fourth down touchdown in our playoff win against Summit,” Russo said. “Jerish was also an exceptional player for us at safety and on special teams. He was an iron horse type of player.”
Halsey caught 32 passes for 518 yards, with seven of his receptions seeing him reach the end zone. On Monday night he will be among the receiving targets North quarterbacks Nick Verducci of Parsippany Hills and Liam Anderson of Mount Olive will seek out.
Standout linebacker Arthur Pinckney (5-10, 220) of Union had to overcome injuries that limited his playing time as a sophomore (broken wrist) and senior (high ankle sprain). However, when Pinckney was able to perform it was at a higher level head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. could count on.
“He was kind of like a captain on the field,” Grasso said. “He ran the huddle. He had over 100 tackles his junior year and I would say over 60 in the five games he played last year.’
Pinckney is one of four North linebackers, with two of the other three also from Union County – Craig McRae (5-10, 220) of Roselle and Antwan Spencer (6-1, 185) of Plainfield. The other is Izayah Reyes of Union City (5-11, 180).
Pinckney will continue at 1-AA Marist College.
“He was a great fit,” Grasso said. “Marist was looking for a guy to match up with its program at linebacker. He’s a solid run stopper, he’s stout and he has the personality they were looking for.”
Grasso, on the North-South executive board, has been involved with the all-star game since he became the head coach at Roselle in 2010. He has been at the helm of the Union Farmers since 2013.
“In the past I’ve coached the wide receivers and quarterbacks,” Grasso said. “It’s a fun week. It’s also a week where you can learn from other coaches, other guys you wouldn’t normally see during the season.”
Since Simms became an integral part of pumping up the event in 2014, you now see former pro players on the sidelines such as Simms himself, Neil O’Donnell, Scott Brunner, Jim Burt and others.
“To have the pros is really cool,” Grasso said. “These are players I watched on TV.
“Last year I got to spend a great deal of time with Neil O’Donnell, who’s a really cool guy. Simms is real down to earth.
“They love the sport and want to be around other guys that do. I think it’s more exciting for us as adults to be around them. The kids don’t quite know who they are, but when we tell them, they get excited too.”
Dan Olenick was a standout lineman on both sides of the ball for Johnson of Clark, a three-year starter at defensive tackle and a two-year starter on offense. He will provide run and pass protection as an offensive lineman Monday night.
“He was our go-to guy,” Johnson head coach Anthony DelConte said. “When we needed a yard we ran behind him. At defensive tackle he was tough inside and it always took two guys to cover him.
“He’s a big, physical, strong kid.”
Olenick’s older brother Ed played in the 2013 Snapple Bowl.
North placekicker Valentino Ambrosio was a four-year varsity performer at his position – the first two years at Roselle Park and the last two at Cranford.
His first game with Cranford – the season-opener his junior season of 2016 at Memorial field – he kicked a 21-yard field goal and made both extra points in a 41-17 loss at home to Somerville.
The next game he kicked all five extra points in a 35-0 home win over Voorhees. Then in Cranford’s first road game – on the grass at Rahway’s Veterans Field – he kicked a 45-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of an eventual 40-34 single overtime defeat. He also kicked a 26-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier was fortunate to have two excellent placekickers before Ambrosio. Troy Kettler kicked on the 2011 North 2, Group 3 state championship team and Joe Norton on the 2015 one.
Then Ambrosio came along.
“The first time I saw him kick I knew,” Rosenmeier said. “The sound was different, like a great drive hitting a golf ball.”
Ambrosio made 6 of 8 field goal attempts his junior year and 5 of 9 his senior season, including a 45-yarder in a 34-21 home win over eventual Central Jersey, Group 2 state champion Hillside.
“I had an awesome time at Cranford, I can’t even explain it,” Ambrosio said. “Cranford in general, school also, has been great.”
“In the two years he was with me I can make the argument that he was responsible for 2-3 wins a year,” Rosenmeier said. “He never missed an extra point and the biggest thing was that he had over 80 kicks go through the end zone. If he didn’t have a kickoff that went through it was unusual.
“To make a team have to go 80 yards to score makes the probability of that team scoring a lot lesser. That’s what he did for us.
“A perfect example of that was last year’s Rahway game. Rahway was 2-0, we were 0-2 and trailing 14-0 at the half. Plus, we had to kick to them to start the second half.
“Valentino kicked the ball through the end zone and then we got a turnover and scored. He kicked it through the end zone again, we held them and then we scored again.”
Cranford scored three touchdowns in the third quarter of its 2017 home-opener that night against Rahway to take a 21-14 lead. Ambrosio closed the scoring in the fourth quarter by kicking a 39-yard field to help give Cranford an impressive 24-14 comeback victory.
“We don’t win that game without him,” Rosenmeier said. “I think he had only eight kickoffs in two years that didn’t go through the end zone.”
Spencer was a three-year starter for the Cardinals and will attend Valley Forge prep school.
“It’s really amazing how far he has come,” Plainfield head coach Corey Tucker said. “His sophomore year he was very raw.”
Often times Antwan was the lone bright spot on a Plainfield team that has struggled to win games in recent years.
“He’s very instinctive and had smart reads from his linebacker position,” Tucker said. “He was also a very physical player.”
Tucker also mentioned that Spencer was highly recruited by such schools as Western Michigan, UConn, Temple and Pitt.
“He will need to bulk a little more to play linebacker at the next level, but he has the instincts and the ability is there,” Tucker said. “He has to be able to do it in the classroom as well.”
Tucker is a 2005 Plainfield graduate and former Cardinal player who was promoted from assistant coach in 2016. He is getting ready for his third season as Plainfield’s head coach.
“We are proud of Antwan representing Plainfield in the North-South Game,” Tucker said. “For me, being a defensive-minded coach and former linebacker, it’s been a joy to watch Antwan play and progress.”
Other Union County players on the North roster include defensive lineman Naseem Daniels (6-2, 265) of Elizabeth, offensive lineman Jack McCauley (6-3, 270) of Westfield and wide receiver Jordan Gray (6-3, 190) of Roselle.
McRae will continue playing on the Division 2 level at New Mexico University, a member of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
McRae excelled on both sides of the ball for Roselle, his senior year rushing for over 1,000 yards and producing over 100 tackles.
McRae was a two-year captain and also a member of Abraham Clark’s National Honor Society.
McCauley, whose father John was a member of the rugby team at St. Joseph’s University, will continue playing on the 1-AA (Football Championship Subdivision) level at Holy Cross.
McCauley was a key lineman for Westfield head coach Jim DeSarno. He was also captain of the football and lacrosse teams at Westfield, with the football team winning multiple state championships and the lacrosse team capturing consecutive Union County crowns.
NOTES: Grasso, a 1993 Colonia graduate who went on to compete collegiately at Rutgers, played on the South team in the 1993 North-South Game contested at the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford. The South won 9-8.
Grasso’s father – Lou Grasso, Sr. – will be one of four head coaches that will be inducted into the New Jersey Football Coaches Association (NJFCA) Hall of Fame at halftime.
Grasso, Sr. is the coach from the section North 2 who will be honored.
Grasso, Sr., a 1968 Roselle (Abraham Clark) graduate and former Rams player, was the head coach at Roselle for 25 seasons from 1979-2003. He was an assistant coach at Roselle for the 1976, 1977 and 1978 seasons before succeeding Kenny Holmes as head coach in 1979.
Grasso, Sr. guided the Rams to more than 100 wins, including 11 over neighborhood rival Roselle Park on Thanksgiving, and to their only three appearances in state championship games.
Roselle lost at top-seeded Brearley 17-15 in the 1981 North 2, Group 1 final and then the Rams captured their only state title in the playoff era in 1989 when they won at second-seeded Madison 20-0 in that year’s North 2, Group 2 final. In the 1990 N2, G2 championship game Roselle – seeking to repeat – lost at top-seeded Hanover Park 51-14.
Here’s a look at the coaches that will be inducted Monday at halftime:
New Jersey Football Coaches Association
2018 Hall of Fame inductees:
North 1 – John Iurato, Passaic County Technical Institute
North 2 – Lou Grasso, Sr., Roselle
Central – Charlie Pirrello, Northern Burlington
South – Pete Lancetta, Hammonton
North 1 – Bob Bishop, Wayne Valley
North 2 – John Groome, Lenape Valley
Central – Tony Maglione, Watchung Hills
South – George Masters, Jr., Burlington City
UNION COUNTY PLAYERS ON NORTH ROSTER:
3-Craig McRae, Roselle, LB, (5-10, 220)
4-Naseem Daniels, Elizabeth, DL, (6-2, 265)
12-Jerish Halsey, Rahway, WR, (5-11, 165)
14-Antwan Spencer, Plainfield, LB, (6-1, 185)
16-Valentino Ambrosio, Cranford, K, (5-8, 160)
44-Arthur Pinckney, Union, LB, (5-10, 220)
58-Daniel Olenick, Johnson, OL, (6-0, 260)
73-Jack McCauley, Westfield, OL, (6-3, 270)
82-Jordan Gray, Roselle, WR, (6-3, 190)