HILLSIDE – The Comets are not only coming off their first state championship in 32 years, but they return nine of 11 starters on offense and eight of 11 on defense.
Last year was the program’s first winning season and playoff campaign in 10 years.
The way the team is built now, it doesn’t seem like it will take that long for Hillside to finish above .500 again and also challenge for the program’s third state championship in the playoff era.
“I’m excited,” third-year head coach Barris Grant said. “We have a good group.
“We’re not a transfer school. We’re doing it the Hillside way, with Hillside kids.”
Grant, who was named Union County Coach of the Year for 2017 after leading Hillside to a 9-3 record and the Central Jersey, Group 2 title, lays out his philosophy for 2018 this way:
“Our goals are simple,” Grant said. “Goal No. 1 is to win our first game.”
Hillside opens at Middlesex (0-1) Friday night. Middlesex, which last year captured the Central Jersey, Group 1 state championship, opened last Thursday night with a 27-19 home loss to New Providence.
Middlesex head coach P.J. Jankowicz was named Middlesex County’s 2017 Coach of the Year.
“Our seniors have never won the first game of a season,” Grant said.
The last time Hillside opened 1-0 was in 2014 with a 12-7 home win over Dayton. Hillside also beat Dayton in its first game in 2015, but that decision was overturned after it was ruled Hillside used an ineligible player. Hillside ended up with a forfeit loss for its first game of 2015. The Comets opened the past two seasons with setbacks to Rahway.
“Goal No. 2 is to win our conference (the Valley Division of the Mid-State 36), goal No. 3 is to qualify for the playoffs, goal No. 4 is to win another sectional (state) championship and goal No. 5 is to win a Bowl Game (state) championship,” Grant said.
The only two non-returning starters on offense are junior left tackle Amad Jean-Charles and junior quarterback Gavin Melendez, who takes over the duties from since-graduated Snapple Bowl QB Taj Irby.
“It’s a good thing to see those two players competing with the others,” Grant said. “Gavin was right there with Taj last year, competing for the quarterback position, until he suffered a high ankle sprain.
“Gavin studied under Taj. His arm is a little bigger and he’s heavier than Taj. He’s now learning how to control the huddle.
“We won’t be the same team as last year because Gavin is a different kind of quarterback. He can drop back and we have plenty of receivers for him to throw the ball too.”
Hillside has talented skill position players back on offense all over the place. At running back there is 1,000-plus yard rusher Brian Ugwu – one of the state’s most sought-after recruits – and junior James Louis.
More than capable wide receivers include seniors Boris Nicolas-Paul, Charles Amissah and Shadon Willis and junior Nahree Biggins.
“We can do a bunch of stuff,” Grant said.
Ugwu, according to Grant, will take official visits before giving a Division 1-A school a verbal commitment. Grant said schools that continue to be at the top of Ugwu’s list are Rutgers (he has a sister who attends there), Pitt, Temple and newcomer Nebraska.
“Brian had a good pre-season,” Grant said. “Physically and mentally his approach has changed. He’s taken football much more seriously now after being a soccer player.
“He’s received a lot of new exposure and in his last year of high school football he wants to leave a legacy for himself.”
Also returning at safety on defense is Nicolas-Paul, who this summer gave Army a verbal commitment.
“Boris took an unofficial visit (to Army) in June,” Grant said. “He shows a lot of what a future Cadet will be. He’s a leader and has been a two-year captain for me.
“He’s a coach’s kid. He speaks our language. He might want to be a coach himself one day.”
In addition to Nicolas-Paul, Hillside’s other five captains are Biggins, Ugwu, senior Mateus Ramos, senior Najee Peele and Melendez.
Hillside won its last four games in 2017, rebounding from a 34-21 defeat at North 2, Group 3 power Cranford. After a 21-15 win at home against North 2, Group 1 school Brearley, Hillside went back on the road as the seventh seed in Central Jersey, Group 2 and proceeded to win three more games away from him to take home a state championship.
Hillside first won at 9-0 and second-seeded South River 28-7, handing the Middlesex County school its only loss in a 9-1 finish. The Comets then won at third-seeded Johnson 19-16 at Nolan Field in Clark to advance to the final at Rutgers. There in Piscataway Hillside held on for a 20-13 win over top-seeded Point Pleasant Boro.
On October 6 at Johnson the Comets lost 22-13, with Johnson going on to win the Valley Division at 5-0 and Hillside finishing second at 4-1.
Hillside’s only other loss was its first game of the year at home to Rahway 35-21. Rahway went 7-4 last year and reached the North 2, Group 3 semifinals. The Indians were the only team to beat Central Jersey, Group 3 state champion Somerville, which finished 11-1.
“We may have won a state championship last year, but it wasn’t easy, all the games were difficult,” Grant said. “We went from the hunter to being the hunted.
“We’re going to try to keep everything really simple. The seniors I have now had bright eyes during our first meeting on March 7, 2016. They’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do.”
Field turf for the first time is presently being put down on Hillside’s field. Hillside’s first six games will be played on the road – the first five of them at night. Grant said he hopes the field will be complete so that his Comets can host North Plainfield Oct. 20 and then Cranford Oct. 27.
After having won a state championship last year, here are Grant’s thoughts on the new playoff system: “I think the Bowl Game matchups at Met Life will be fun to watch, but it will be awfully tough on the kids to have to play a game after winning a state championship.”
When Grant was a junior at Irvington in 1995 the 7-1 Blue Knights failed to garner enough power points to be one of the four teams that qualified that season in North 2, Group 4. Irvington won its final game and finished 8-1.
That problem – the dilemma of several 7-1 teams at the cutoff date over the years not qualifying – was taken care of beginning in 1998 when the sectional playoffs were expanded from four to eight schools.
“I’m an old-school New Jersey guy and remember not making it (the playoffs) when I played,” Grant said. “That’s what I came from.
“I liked the expansion to eight teams (making it).”
HILLSIDE GRANTBALL OFFENSE:
LT Amad Jean-Charles, junior, (6-1, 217)
LG Jason Wheeler, senior (6-3, 319)
C Jayden Shaw, junior, (5-10, 206)
RG Kwame Frimpong, senior, (6-0, 260)
RT Aboubakar Diaby, senior, (6-2, 220)
TE Mateus Ramos, senior, (5-11, 215)
QB Gavin Melendez, junior, (6-4, 200)
RB James Louis, junior, (5-7, 165)
RB Brian Ugwu, senior, (6-3, 228)
RB Jahon Moore, junior, (5-9, 205)
WR Charles Amissah, senior, (6-3, 190)
WR Boris Nicolas-Paul, senior, (5-10, 175)
WR Nahree Biggins, junior, (6-0, 180)
WR Shadon Willis, senior, (6-0, 160)
PK Hugo Carrico, senior, (5-8, 158)
Returning starters (11): Wheeler, Shaw,
Frimpong, Diaby, Louis, Ugwu, Amissah,
Nicolas-Paul, Biggins, Willis, Carrico.
HILLSIDE 3-3 STACK DEFENSE:
E Mateus Ramos, senior, (5-11, 215)
NT Derick Estinvil, senior, (5-10, 205)
E Aboubakar Diaby, senior, (6-2, 220)
LB Brian Ugwu, senior, (6-3, 228)
LB Najee Peele, senior (5-8, 164)
LB Akuge Osomaro, junior, (6-0, 215)
CB Preston Mekoba, senior, (6-3, 175)
CB Emmanuel Sass, senior, (5-11, 160)
S Shadon Willis, senior, (6-0, 160)
S Boris Nicolas-Paul, senior, (5-10, 175)
FS Nahree Biggins, junior, (6-0, 180)
P Hugo Carrico, senior, (5-8, 158)
Returning starters (8): Ramos, Diaby,
Ugwu, Peele, Sass, Willis, Nicolas-Paul, Biggins.
HILLSIDE COMETS 2018
Sept. 7 at Middlesex, 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Roselle, 7 p.m. (RRP)
Sept. 21 at Delaware Valley, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Bernards, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 at Johnson, 7 p.m.
Oct. 13 at South River, 1 p.m.
Oct. 20 North Plainfield, 1 p.m.
Oct. 27 Cranford, 1 p.m.
Head coach: Barris Grant,
2017 HILLSIDE COMETS (9-3)
(H) Rahway 35, Hillside 21
(A) Hillside 42, New Providence 7
(H) Hillside 42, Bernards 0
(A) Hillside 14, Roselle 12 at RRP
(A) Johnson 22, Hillside 13
(H) Hillside 51, Dayton 8
(H) Hillside 49, Delaware Valley 8
(A) Cranford 34, Hillside 21
(H) Hillside 21, Brearley 15
(A) Hillside 28, South River 7
(A) Hillside 19, Johnson 16
(N) Hillside 20, Point Pleasant Boro 13
Head coach: Barris Grant,
Conference: Mid-State 38
Division: Valley, 4-1
Points for: 341
Points against: 177
Head Coach: Barris Grant, since 2016.
A 1997 Irvington graduate.
Third season: 13-9 (.591)
Conference: Mid-State 36
Section: South, Group 2
Hillside’s last sectional title: 2017
2017: (9-3 and 4-1, second in Valley Division)
Wood Field Stadium (Conant Street), which is
also now known as John Zappulla Field: Getting
field turf for the first time this year.
Grant, a high school head coach for the first time
here at Hillside, coached with his older brother Darnell
at Irvington in 2002 and 2006 and from 2012-2015
at Shabazz, where Barris was the team’s offensive
coordinator. Grant also has collegiate and Arena Football
League coaching experience in addition to completing an
internship with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Last year Grant guided Hillside to only its second
state championship in the playoff era and first since
Hillside captured North 2, Group 2 in 1985. Hillside also
became the first Union County school to win a state
championship in a Central Jersey section – the Comets
capturing Central Jersey, Group 2 last season. Hillside
produced its first winning season and first playoff campaign
last year since the 2008 team lost to eventual champion
Caldwell in the North 2, Group 2 semifinals and finished 8-3.