LINDEN – In the beginning of last year and at the end of the season the Tigers had favored teams on the rope at their places.
Linden returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against two-time defending North 2, Group 5 champion Westfield before falling to the Blue Devils 12-7 at Gary Kehler Stadium in the season-opener for both.
Westfield’s state-leading winning streak improved to 26 straight. Linden is the last team to beat Westfield, which has now won 37 in a row. The Tigers will get another shot at the Blue Devils at home on Sept. 7, which is Linden’s second game and Westfield’s first.
Then in November in the first round of the North 2, Group 4 playoffs, Linden led host Irvington before the Blue Knights rallied for a 16-13 triumph.
In between the Tigers won five of seven games to qualify for the playoffs after narrowly missing the year before in North 2, Group 5.
With five starters back on both sides of the ball this season – including key skill position players at running back and quarterback – fourth-year head coach Al Chiola hopes that the experience those players gained a year ago will make them that much stronger this season.
“This time of the year everybody is feeling very good,” Chiola said. “We have to get a lot out of our kids up front.
“Our offensive line has to click. It’s a smart, talented group.”
Returning starters on the OL include senior left tackle Samuel Aristizabal-Sanchez, senior center Isiah Alejo and senior right tackle Kelvin Chinekezi.
Their job is to provide the running room necessary for standout senior back B.J. George to do his thing. A three-year starter in the backfield, George rushed for 650 yards as a sophomore two years ago and last year as a junior more than doubled that total at 1,395.
Here’s how Chiola describes the running style of one of the best backs in New Jersey: “he’s explosive, a strong back and not afraid to lower his shoulder.
“He’s very difficult to catch, has great vision and also has great instincts for a back.”
In addition, George is returns at linebacker.
“He’s our overall leader, a vocal leader in the locker room and a leader on the field,” Chiola said. “We expect a lot out of him. A lot will be put on his shoulders.
“We will put the team on his back and he is more than up for the challenge. He’s been great all summer and everything we hoped for.
“He’s a Division 1 player for sure and will be competing at that next level.”
Returning quarterback Zion Marshall started Linden’s Thanksgiving Day game at Union in 2016 as a freshman. After five starts last year he got hurt in Linden’s 28-12 setback at Bridgewater-Raritan.
As a junior now Chiola would like to see Marshall take the next step in his maturity under center.
“Zion’s a special player,” Chiola said. “He’s still learning to make good decisions, but his talent on the field is incredible. He just has to learn to put it all together.
“He will make some mistakes, but we feel comfortable with him leading us.”
Chiola said that returning starters Jahlil Thompson, senior nose guard, and Nashawn Holmes, junior linebacker, anchor Linden’s 3-5 defensive scheme.
“Jahlil is very quick off the ball and a real tough kid,” Chiola said. “Nashawn is a very good linebacker, plays downhill and is a physical kid. We expect a lot out of him.”
Instead of playing at Union on Thanksgiving, Linden will play the Farmers at Cooke Memorial Field on Aug. 31 in the season-opener for both.
While Union will be game-planning for George, Linden will be preparing for the passing attack of junior quarterback Andrew Sanborn to senior wide receiver Isaiah Stewart.
Last year as senior quarterback Cooper Heisey’s No. 1 target at Scotch Plains, Stewart caught 75 passes for 975 yards, a 13-yard average.
Stewart transferred to the high school his father – Tony – graduated from in 1986 and is practicing and eligible to go play right away in Union’s first game. Tony Stewart is considered to the be the best football player to ever come out of UHS.
“We had to be aware of Stewart last year when we played Scotch Plains,” Chiola said. “He was a real concern then as his is for us now.
“Sanborn is a great QB. I remember seeing him as a freshman playing our JV and you could tell right there that he has it. Again, he has some targets to get the ball to.”
LINDEN’S SPREAD OFFENSE:
LT Samuel Aristizabal-Sanchez, senior, (6-2, 255)
LG Michael Martinez, junior, (6-0, 240)
C Isiah Alejo, senior, (6-2, 265)
RG Shawn Patterson, sophomore, (6-2, 305)
RT Kelvin Chinekezi, senior, (6-2, 265)
TE Schadric Petit-Homme, senior, (6-4, 185)
TE Dami Awoyinsa, junior, (6-0, 205)
QB Zion Marshall, junior, (5-11, 180)
RB B.J. George, senior, (5-11, 190)
RB Nashawn Holmes, junior, (5-10, 205)
RB Christian San-Clemente, junior, (5-10, 190)
WR Alex Dorce, senior, (6-1, 170)
WR Jonathan Ortiz, junior, (5-7, 150)
PK Rafael Martinez, sophomore, (5-11, 150)
Returning starters (5): A-Sanchez, Alejo,
Chinekezi, Marshall, George.
LINDEN’S 3-5 DEFENSE:
E Dami Awoyinsa, junior, (6-0, 205)
NG Jahlil Thompson, senior, (5-10, 250)
E Schadric Petit-Homme, senior, (6-4, 185)
LB Alex Dorce, senior, (6-1, 170)
LB Amid O’Donoghue, senior, (6-4, 190)
LB Michael Afolabi, senior, (5-10, 195)
LB Nashawn Holmes, junior, (5-10, 205)
LB Darren Williams, junior, (5-10, 205)
LB B.J. George, senior, (5-11, 190)
CB Shameer Scott, junior, (5-10, 170)
CB Caleb Davis, junior, (5-7, 160)
S Christian San-Clemente, junior, (5-10, 190)
P Schadric Petit-Homme, senior, (6-4, 185)
Returning starters (5): Thompson, Homme,
Holmes, George, San-Clemente.
LINDEN TIGERS 2018
Aug. 31 at Union, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7 Westfield, 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Elizabeth, 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 Plainfield, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Franklin, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 at Watchung Hills, 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 South Plainfield, 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 Hillsborough, 7 p.m.
Oct. 26 at Ridge, 7 p.m.
Head coach: Al Chiola,
2017 LINDEN TIGERS (5-5)
(A) Westfield 12, Linden 7
(H) Linden 34, Scotch Plains 20
(A) Linden 55, Ridge 48
(H) Linden 42, Elizabeth 21
(A) Bridgewater-Raritan 28, Linden 12
(H) Watchung Hills 12, Linden 7
(A) Linden 34, Plainfield 0
(A) Linden 39, Franklin 7
(A) Irvington 16, Linden 13
(H) Union 22, Linden 19
Head coach: Al Chiola,
Section: North 2, Group 4
Conference: Mid State-38
Division: Watchung, 3-3
Points for: 262
Points against: 186
Head Coach: Al Chiola, since 2015.
A 1992 Colonia graduate.
Fourth season: 15-15 (.500)
Conference: Mid-State 36
Section: North, Group 4
Linden’s last sectional title: 2014
2017: (5-5 and 3-3, tied for second in Watchung Division)
Cooper Field: Field Turf.
Chiola was an assistant coach at Asbury Park for
five seasons from 2002-2006 before joining Linden’s
staff in 2007. He was the offensive coordinator under
head coach Deon Candia for six seasons, 2009-2014.
Linden is 2-0 in sectional consolations games under
Chiola, with wins at Bayonne and home vs. J.P. Stevens.
Chiola guided the Tigers to last year’s N2, G4 playoffs.