The MyCentralJersey.com Snapple Bowl is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month.
The game – with all proceeds going to the Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside and the Lakeview School for children with disabilities in Edison – is scheduled to take place Thursday night, July 19 at Woodbridge High School.
Practice for the Union County team – at Union High School – and the Middlesex County squad – at Woodbridge High School – commences Monday, July 9.
Here is a look back at the first broadcast of the initial game – held Thursday night, July 21, 1994 at Union High School.
For the first Snapple Bowl held in July of 1994 at Union High School’s Cooke Memorial Field the Suburban Cablevision TV-3 booth consisted of veteran play-by-play man Paul Spychala, present Union head football coach Lou Rettino and then News Tribune daily newspaper scribe Joe Skrec, who has since guided the Roselle Catholic girls’ basketball team to more than 300 victories.
Steve Shohfi was the sideline reporter. He was the offensive line coach at Johnson in 1995 on head coach Bob Taylor’s staff when the Crusaders outscored 11 opponents 424-24 en route to a 11-0 record that saw them capture their first of two state championships in the playoff era – North 2, Group 2 for the first time.
Shohfi’s first interview (pre-game) was Carl Peterson, one of the Union County assistant coaches. Peterson’s son Chris (No. 13) was the starting quarterback for the Union County squad. Peterson was Taylor’s offensive coordinator at Johnson at the time and his son Chris a 1994 Johnson grad who helped lead the Clark school to a 6-3 record in 1993 during Taylor’s first season as head coach there.
So here we were on Thursday night, July 21, 1994. The setting was the home of the Farmers, who on that night were the 3-time defending North 2, Group 4 state champions. Amazingly, Union has not won a state championship since.
The New York Rangers had – the month before – won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940. The New York Yankees under third-year manager Buck Showalter were in first place in the American League East and had the best record in the AL.
Unfortunately for baseball fans like myself we were also three weeks shy of an unprecedented work-stoppage in baseball that would cancel the 1994 season and prevent the World Series from taking place for the first time since 1904 – one year after the very first one.
For the first time all-star football teams assembled from Union County and Middlesex County would clash on the gridiron with county bragging rights on the line.
More importantly, all proceeds were going to very noteworthy causes, including the Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside and the Lakeview School for children with disabilities in Edison.
The only Union County vs. Middlesex County regular season football at that time was Roselle Park, Brearley, Dayton and or New Providence facing fellow Group 1 school Middlesex, which at the time was not a member of the Greater Middlesex Conference yet.
Also, the section North 2 back then was very simple – four counties, Warren, Morris, Essex and Union. There was no Union County vs. Middlesex County playoff history yet.
Fast forward to the approaching 2018 season and Union County squads – with the exception of Cranford and Gov. Livingston – will face at least one Middlesex County team this year. Some – Roselle four and Westfield three – will be competing against more than one.
Fast forward part 2 to the not-so-far-away 2021 campaign when the Greater Middlesex and Mid-State conferences will merge to form a 61-team league.
Union County vs. Middlesex County state championship games that have taken place since the NJSIAA went to re-classification in 2003 included Piscataway defeating Elizabeth in the 2011 North 2, Group 4 final at Rutgers and then Elizabeth downing Piscataway in the 2012 North 2, Group 5 title game at Kean.
So the game that was modeled after the July Friday night Monmouth-Ocean All-Star Game was about to take off, with a new rivalry – between neighboring counties pre-Shore area – ready to clash.
Skrec, who worked for a media outlet based in Woodbridge that covered all of Middlesex County and as he remembered Linden, Clark and Rahway in Union County, could provide commentary based on teams he saw in both counties.
Spychala was the perfect play-by-play man, who also did the North 2, Group 4 final in 1991 that saw Union come back from a two-touchdown deficit at halftime to beat visiting Randolph 24-14 and end the Rams’ then-state record 58-0-1 unbeaten streak.
Rettino was the legendary Union coach who guided the Farmers to a still-record 10 North 2, Group 4 titles (in only 16 – from 1978-1993 – of his 19 seasons – 1977-1995 – at the helm). He would pass away from stomach cancer at the young age of 54 on March 22, 1996.
“The action on the field sort of fades,” Skrec recalled in a recent phone interview. “I remember that Middlesex had a big fourth quarter.”
Middlesex County led by a touchdown at 14-7 going into the fourth quarter. Middlesex followed with three more touchdowns to come away with a convincing 35-14 inaugural game triumph – led by Monroe running back Khamisi Jackson who rushed for 50 yards and one touchdown, earning MVP honors.
“Ultimately, there was a lot of anticipation and excitement for this first game,” Skrec said. “There was a bit of the unknown. The North-South game was the established all-star game.”
Skrec said he got to know Game Founder and Director Marcus Borden – who at that time also coached for the Middlesex County All-Stars – through GMC football meetings.
“This was Marcus Borden’s dream, his baby,” Skrec said. “He had the enthusiasm for this event back then and his enthusiasm still burns.”
It was reported that nearly 4,000 fans attended the first Snapple Bowl.
“The bleachers on the Union County sideline were three quarters full and on the Middlesex sideline full,” Skrec recalled. “The bleachers on both sidelines at Union are pretty big, too.
“What really made the event great was that everyone involved was helping two great causes.”
Skrec was both excited and a bit nervous to be in a broadcast booth with the very knowledgeable Spychala and multiple-state championship mentor Rettino.
“Lou Rettino was a bit of a mythical figure,” Skrec said.
Rettino was also on the North sidelines for that year’s North-South game, which was played at Trenton State College.
“I had a second cousin that played for Lou in 1977 or 1978,” Skrec said. “Union was so efficient. His record was so unbelievable.
“Just to be asked to be a part of the booth was an honor.”
A video of the entire game presently exists on YouTube.
“It was bit intimidating,” Skrec said. “Lou was very nice, very receptive and he was sharp.
“Paul was nothing but a pro. I was sort of hanging on their every word.
“I was nervous in the beginning. Lou handled the Xs and Os. It was just a thrill to be involved.
“There were really neat uniforms and there was a great sponsor in Snapple.”
Union County state champions from the prior 1993 season included Union 3-peating in North 2, Group 4 and Roselle Park repeating in North 2, Group 1. Roselle Park head coach John Wagner was the Union County defensive coordinator and a big part of the beginning of the game from the Union County side. Wagner was also a coach for the North for the second straight season in the 1994 North-South All-Star Game.
Middlesex County state champions from 1993 included Dunellen in Central Jersey, Group 1 and Woodbridge in Central Jersey, Group 4. This month’s 25th annual Snapple Bowl will be held at Woodbridge for the second time – on Thursday night, July 19.
“While the Snapple Bowl was similar to the Monmouth-Ocean game I believe it also helped paved the way for what is now the Robeson Classic,” Skrec said.
A big reason why the Snapple Bowl is held on a Thursday night is so that those involved, fans included, still have the weekend to make continued summer plans.
With the Monmouth-Ocean game being on a Friday night, those that attend that clash are already down the shore for the beginning of that weekend.
“Many coaches gave up a week of their time for the game and a lot went into the selection of the teams,” Skrec continued. “All-Star games are not easy. There are a lot of people behind the scenes who do a lot of work.
“My TV-3 experience that night was great. Everyone was professional and really nice.”