After speaking on the phone with Westfield football head coach Jim DeSarno this afternoon – Friday, Sept. 7 – here are his thoughts on his 2018 Blue Devils as they are moments away from opening their season at Linden tonight at 7.
Westfield enters with a 37-game winning streak that includes three straight North 2, Group 5 state championships – all at 12-0. Westfield’s last loss, last playoff loss and last road regular season loss – all in 2014 – came on the field and against the opponent they will be facing tonight.
“There is a lot of uncertainty right now with a new team. We showed some good signs against West Orange, but struggled against Long Branch and Pascack Valley (game-scrimmage). We have a lot of new kids playing. We’ll find out a lot about ourselves tonight.”
Westfield had to sort of re-invent the wheel somewhat defensively a year ago with some new faces. The Blue Devils went on to allow only a touchdown in 10 games and just 14 and 10 points in two others.
“For our defense to get to that level a lot of new kids will have to step up. The returning players will have to show a lot of leadership. If they do that I think we’ll be okay.”
Among the leaders is senior tackle Noah Levy, a two-year starter.
“Noah’s a great kid and I’m really excited for him. He’s ready to take it to another level. He’s worked hard and he was voted captain by his teammates, which means something to me. That says something about the kid and the player that he is.”
Returning at quarterback is junior Hank Shapiro.
“This is a big year for Hank. He’s worked very hard and had a good off-season. Last year it was about avoiding the turnover and not making mistakes. This year he has to make some plays. I’m definitely excited for him. He’s the kind of player that is first in the locker room and last off the field.”
To say that the 2018 Westfield Blue Devils have a 0-game winning streak would be accurate, according to DeSarno.
“This really is a new team – a different team and different feel. We want to create our own legacy, own own identity, just like every team before this one.”
DeSarno has been the head coach at Westfield 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.
DeSarno is the only Union County coach to guide three teams to 12-0 records and is also the only one to do it in successive seasons. No matter how hard he tries he realizes it’s tough to escape the talk of 37 in a row.
“I know we can’t ignore it, it’s there. All we can do as a coaching staff is to focus on the next play. The biggest thing right now is today. Don’t forget the footballs. Do the little things.”
In last year’s season-opener for both at Westfield’s Gary Kehler Stadium, Linden returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and then Westfield’s first possession was anything but fluid and point-producing. The Blue Devils did rebound to win the game 12-7. Amazingly, they were able to go on and post another 12-0 season that culminated – once again – with a NS,G5 state championship win over Bridgewater-Raritan.
“Last year’s group was a gritty group, which is definitely something we want all our kids to be. There were a lot of lessons to be learned from last year’s team. However, we don’t want them to be like last year or ’15 or ’16. We want this team to be like the 2018 team and have its own identity and do its own thing.”
Westfield’s last loss was on Friday night, Nov. 21, 2014 at Linden – a 14-6 setback in the North 2, Group 5 semifinals. Linden went on to win North 2, Group 5 that year and Westfield the last three.
That Linden team was led by senior quarterback Juwan Dolbrice and senior running back Kyle Phipps. Westfield had junior Jack Curry as its lead running back, while Jackson Simcox scored the lone Blue Devils touchdown. Westfield shut out Linden in the second half and came close to coming back from 14-0 down to tie the game.
“That was a tremendous Linden team. This team is not much different, with a great running back (senior B.J. George) and a really talented quarterback (junior Zion Marshall). There are some of the same feels involved.”
“B.J. George is scary. I think we’re talking about one of the better running backs definitely in North Jersey and probably the entire state. He appears to be stronger and has really good speed. If we don’t tackle him we’re going to be in for a long night.”
Westfield’s last road regular season loss was at Linden 15-14 in overtime on Oct. 2, 2014. Linden went for two points and got it for the victory.
DeSarno was an assistant coach at Linden on Bucky McDonald’s staff for four seasons from 1997-2000. The 1999 and 2000 teams made the playoffs in North 2, Group 4, falling to Montclair both years. The 1999 team lost at Montclair 57-26 in the first round and the 2000 team lost to Montclair 20-14 in overtime at home in the semifinals. Elizabeth won the section both of those seasons. Linden beat Elizabeth in 2000, handing the Minutemen their only loss that year.