Eight Union County football teams open this weekend, including Brearley hosting Highland Park, Dayton hosting Belvidere, Summit at Montgomery, Hillside at Middlesex, Somerville vs. Rahway at Rahway River Park, Cranford at North Plainfield, Westfield at Linden and Scotch Plains at North Hunterdon.
All of those games are scheduled for Friday night.
The lone Saturday game involving a Union County team is Roselle hosting South River at 1 p.m. at Rahway River Park. Roselle opened with a 22-20 loss at Bishop Ahr last Friday night.
The other seven Union County teams that opened last weekend will also continue Friday night, including Elizabeth at Union, Linden hosting Westfield, Gov. Livingston at Voorhees – both of those games pit 1-0 teams vs. another – Delaware Valley at Johnson, Plainfield at Watchung Hills and New Providence at South Hunterdon.
Westfield has won 37 straight – including North 2, Group 5 the past three seasons at 12-0 – and is 42-3 since a 1-1 start in 2014. Two of the three losses came by one point – one of them in overtime – and two of the three came to the team Westfield will open against Friday night – the Linden Tigers.
Westfield’s last loss was at Linden Friday night, Nov. 21, 2014 by the score of 14-6 in the North 2, Group 5 semifinals. Linden went on to win North 2, Group 5 for the first time that year, which was the program’s second state championship in the playoff era and first in 29 years. Linden’s only other playoff state crown came in 1985 when the Tigers captured North 2, Group 3.
Westfield won North 2, Group 5 for the first time the following year in 2015, which was the program’s first state title in the playoff era in 38 years. Westfield’s first two of its now five state championships in the playoff era came back-to-back in 1976 and 1977 under legendary head coach Gary Kehler in North 2, Group 4. The 1977 team went 11-0 and finished No. 1 in New Jersey.
We may look back on this Westfield team and describe its leader as legendary head coach Jim DeSarno. Nobody saw this coming – a present 37-game winning streak that includes three straight undefeated state championship teams.
This streak by Westfield – in my opinion – can’t be overrated one bit. To game plan for and win 37 straight games – I don’t care who the competition is – is an incredible feat. Nine of those victories came in the playoffs and three against the same strong program – Bridgewater-Raritan – in state championship games.
Westfield – just one week after crushing a very good Immaculata team at home – was upset by a lower-seeded Bayonne team in the first round of the 2011 North 2, Group 4 playoffs. The next week Bayonne was like a JV team compared to Elizabeth, losing handily at Elizabeth in the semifinals.
So winning games is not automatic. Westfield has done it with defense first, defense second and defense third. The Blue Devils also managed to score enough points led by some very good offensive players.
Westfield has also done it without Division 1-A players. There are former Blue Devils playing in college now like Owen Kessler at Georgetown and Jake Vall-Llobera at Johns Hopkins to name a few.
The staff, including defensive coordinator Ken Miller – a former Westfield player himself – has been around a long time now.
DeSarno has been the head coach since 2006. His record after his first 12 seasons at the helm of the Blue Devils is 93-36 (.721), including 11 winning seasons and 10 playoff campaigns.
The only non-playoff years were 2006 at 6-4 (won consolation game) and 2012 at 2-8 (lost consolation game). The only sub-.500 team was the 2012 squad.
DeSarno’s playoff record is 12-7, with Westfield winning playoff games in 2007, 2009, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
DeSarno’s record vs. Plainfield on Thanksgiving is 11-1, with the only blemish being a 22-21 defeat late at home in the 2011 contest.
Westfield, with many new faces – especially on defense – plays three Middlesex County schools this season – all at home. Back at quarterback to lead the Blue Devils vs. Old Bridge, St. Joseph’s, Metuchen and Piscataway is junior Hank Shapiro.
Piscataway is the only really big team Westfield has not faced during its run – it just didn’t work out in the N2, G5 playoffs any of the last three seasons. Westfield will host the Chiefs Oct.27 at Gary Kehler Stadium.
Piscataway’s last state two state championships were in Central Jersey, Group 5 in 2016 and North 2, Group 4 in 2011.
Westfield is one of four Union County teams in the new section North, Group 5 this year along with Union, Elizabeth and Plainfield.
After opening with Friday night road games at Linden and at Watchung Hills the Blue Devils are schedule to open at home Sept. 22 vs. Old Bridge.
Westfield’s longest winning streak is 48 games under Kehler from 1969-1973. That was the longest in the state until Randolph put together a 58-0-1 stretch from 1986-1991. The longest winning streak in New Jersey now still belongs to Paulsboro at 63 from 1992-1998.
Cranford, one of three Union County teams in North, Group 4 along with Linden and Scotch Plains, opens at North Plainfield Friday night.
With several key players back the Cougars are seeking to do better than first-round playoff exits that resulted in 6-4 finishes the past two years.
“I think there is a lot of potential here,” senior running back-strong safety James Shriner said. “Defensively we have to keep working hard.”
“We have to do our jobs on both sides of the ball,” senior end Rob Schork said. “Our leadership is a lot better. This year our heads are screwed on right.”
Returning junior quarterback Connor Katz has overcome an arm injury he suffered last year that limited his playing time.
“We have a lot of returning starters on both sides,” Katz said. “We have the balance to run and throw.”
Cranford has a six-game winning streak over North Plainfield – from 2011-2017, the teams did not play because of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – including 28-6 at North Plainfield at the end of last September.
Cranford last loss to North Plainfield in 2010, a 28-14 setback at home after opening with double-digit road victories over Johnson and Voorhees. That was the last season Cranford did not make the playoffs and was the first of eight straight seasons the Cougars have now finished over .500.
Cranford does not play a Middlesex County opponent this season. The Cougars did pick up Immaculata and will play the Spartans – now guided by former Summit and Delaware Valley head coach Mike Columbo – in Somerville on Oct. 19.
“Mike is a great guy and I’m glad he’s back in high school football,” Rosenmeier said. “He’s a very competitive guy and goes out of his way to help you. He will do a good job there.
“We have a challenging schedule and I’m glad that we do, that’s the way it should be. I’m glad we play traditional teams. We always want to play Summit, Somerville and Rahway, teams that have great programs and offer physical challenges.”
Cranford has made the playoffs in Group 2 and Group 3 since 2002 and is now in Group 4. The Cougars first made the playoffs in North 2, Group 4 way back in 1975.
“I was thinking we would be in Group 3, but it’s always a numbers thing,” Rosenmeier said. “Schedules and the playoffs should be based on school population. It places us where we belong. I’m happy to be there (Group 4).”
Rosenmeier, like practically all of the coaches I’ve spoken to so far, is not thrilled at all with the new playoff system. Rosenmeier led Cranford to a 12-0 finish in 2015 when his Cougars won the North 2, Group 3 state championship for the second time.
“Starting practice on Aug. 6 and going all the way through Thanksgiving, first of all we’re taking away the kids’ summers,” Rosenmeier said. “If I could start Week 2 I would.
“With the numbers we have we share athletes and encourage kids to play other sports. All of the coaches here at Cranford encourage that.
“We have to make practice reasonable in time and length and do what’s best for our kids. I think football has it all wrong. We’re dipping back into summer. I think it’s one of the worst things we’ve ever done.
“Aug. 6, I’m not starting then. We started Aug. 13 and could have started Aug. 20. Hockey starts in November.
“I think even more than concussions, the length of the football season now and how far we go is a bigger reason why less kids are going out for football.
“If teams still want to play on Thanksgiving they should be given something like a waiver, which would be good for them. Others shouldn’t have to wait for those who play on Thanksgiving.
“Go play three sports and go have a life.”
Rosenmeier also sees these obstacles. Here he explains: “I think football has other problems. Maybe it’s not as popular because it’s the sport that more than any other you have to put other people first.
“I don’t know if parents and kids really want to do it. It’s just the nature of the game. Offensive linemen never touch the ball, defensive linemen never do and so on.
“It’s grueling, demanding and the training is such that you need a lot of it if you’re going to be successful.”
Brearley head coach Scott Miller, now at the helm of the Bears since 2002 – Union County’s longest tenured head coach – is also not in favor of what the state has done with the earlier and expanded playoffs. Miller was the first Union County coach to lead a team to a 12-0 record when Brearley last captured North 2, Group 1 in 2006.
“I don’t like it,” Miller said. “We’re starting earlier and playing essentially the same amount of games.
“We used to start on Labor Day and now we’re starting in the beginning of August. From a Group 1 standpoint I can’t imagine playing another game after playing for a state championship.
“Back in 2006 when we hung on to beat Verona we were so physically drained. Even that week of practice we had to cut back a bit to stay fresh.
“Will we play two consolation games if we don’t make the playoffs? No. We signed on to play one and even playing one is difficult to get your kids interested when there is nothing on the line and most of them are looking to start playing basketball or wrestle.
“We’re seeing a dip in numbers because we’re asking kids to start much earlier.
“Plus with these North and South sections the travel has spiraled a little bit out of control.”
There have been so many more blowouts in high school football in New Jersey at least the last 10 years – thus the 35-point mercy rule that begins in the second half, which the NJSIAA came up with several years ago.
However, what do you do when Irvington takes a 72-0 lead in the second quarter on Belleville last year?
Programs, on a yearly basis now and even right here in Union County – Roselle Park this year – are dropping varsity football because of what they feel are a lack of numbers – a safety issue.
Miller has coached against Roselle Park the last 15 years and played against them in high school as a player of the Brearley Regional Bears in the mid-1980s.
“It’s very disappointing that Roselle Park does not have a team this year,” Miller said. “With the tradition that they have and everything they’ve done over the years going back to when I was in high school, I don’t know the full story.”
Brearley is opening at home against Highland Park Friday night, which is its replacement game for Roselle Park.
“We’ve had teams in our conference like South Hunterdon and Dayton that have not had good numbers,” Miller said. “We’re starting a ton of sophomores this year.
“There have been so many forfeits over the years. Coaches of the larger schools don’t get it.”
UNION COUNTY COACHES THAT HAVE GONE 12-0:
Scott Miller, Brearley, 2006 – Bears won North 2, Group 1
John Liberato, Summit, 2009 – Hilltoppers won North 2, Group 2
John Liberato, Summit, 2012 – Hilltoppers won North 2, Group 3
Kevin Kostibos, Summit, 2013 – Hilltoppers won North 2, Group 3
Jim DeSarno, Westfield, 2015 – Blue Devils won North 2, Group 5
Erik Rosenmeier, Cranford, 2015 – Cougars won North 2, Group 3
Jim DeSarno, Westfield, 2016 – Blue Devils won North 2, Group 5
Jim DeSarno, Westfield, 2017 – Blue Devils won North 2, Group 5
Miller was the first Union County coach to go 12-0, while Liberato
was the first to go 12-0 twice.
DeSarno became the first to go 12-0 in consecutive seasons
and has now done so three straight years.
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
THIS WEEK’S SCHEDULE:
Friday, Sept. 7 (13 games)
Elizabeth at Union, 7 p.m.
Westfield at Linden, 7 p.m.
Plainfield at Watchung Hills, 7 p.m.
Cranford at North Plainfield, 7 p.m.
Scotch Plains at North Hunterdon, 7 p.m.
Summit at Montgomery, 7 p.m.
Somerville vs. Rahway, 7 p.m.
at Rahway River Park
Gov. Livingston at Voorhees, 7 p.m.
Delaware Valley at Johnson, 7 p.m.
Hillside at Middlesex, 7 p.m.
Highland Park at Brearley, 7 p.m.
Belvidere at Dayton, 7 p.m.
New Providence at South Hunterdon, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 8 (1 game)
South River vs. Roselle, 1 p.m.,
at Rahway River Park.
LAST WEEK’S RESULTS:
Thursday, Aug. 30 (3 games)
Gov. Livingston 21, Johnson 14
New Providence 27, Middlesex 19
Voorhees 26, Plainfield 12
Friday, Aug. 31 (3 games)
Union 14, Linden 7 (OT)
Elizabeth 35, Bridgewater-Raritan 28
Bishop Ahr 22, Roselle 20
Off: Brearley, Dayton, Summit,
Hillside, Rahway, Cranford,
Westfield, Scotch Plains.
THIS WEEK’S PICKS (14):
Union over Elizabeth
Linden over Westfield
Watchung Hills over Plainfield
Cranford over North Plainfield
North Hunterdon over S. Plains
Summit over Montgomery
Somerville over Rahway
Voorhees over Gov. Livingston
Johnson over Delaware Valley
Hillside over Middlesex
Brearley over Highland Park
Belvidere over Dayton
New Providence over South Hunterdon
Roselle over South River
Best bet: Hillside
Upset special: Linden
Last week: 5-1
This year: 5-1 (.833)
Best bets: 1-0
Upset specials: 1-0
JR’S UNION COUNTY
9-New Providence (1-0)
10-Gov. Livingston (1-0)
Scotch Plains (0-0)