Last year Hillside went on the road after qualifying in Central Jersey, Group 2 for the first time and was victorious all three playoff games.
Head coach Barris Grant dubbed his Comets “Road Warriors” after Hillside won at undefeated South River, at Johnson (a team it lost to in the regular season) and then defeated Point Pleasant Boro at Rutgers (neutral site) for the program’s second state championship in the playoff era and first since 1985.
Hillside has had to do its winning on the road again this year because its home field is presently getting field turf for the first time. The Comets are hopeful they will be able to host North Plainfield Oct. 20 and then Cranford Oct. 27 after opening with six straight road dates.
Hillside has the longest winning streak of any Union County school, which is seven. The last six have come on the road.
“Playing all these games on the road, nobody understands your adversity,” Grant said. “For our kids, they don’t see it as adversity at all. To them it’s just business as usual.”
Hillside’s fourth straight game away from home this year and seventh overall is this weekend’s Mid-State 36 Conference undefeated matchup, pitting the Valley Division’s top two teams.
Hillside, 3-0 overall and 2-0 in the Valley Division, plays at Bernards, 3-0 overall and 1-0 in the Valley, Friday night at 7 in Bernardsville.
Both are also situated in South, Group 2, so a playoff meeting is a possibility as well.
HILLSIDE COMETS (3-0, 2-0)
Sept. 7: Hillside 55, Middlesex 6 – at Middlesex
Sept. 14: Hillside 35, Roselle 7 – at Rahway River Park (Valley)
Sept. 21: Hillside 49, Delaware Valley 0 – at Delaware Valley (Valley)
Hillside won in Middlesex County, beating Middlesex; won in Union County, defeating Roselle; won in Hunterdon County, shutting out Delaware Valley and will now play Bernards in Somerset County, Bernardsville to be exact.
BERNARDS MOUNTAINEERS (3-0, 1-0)
Sept. 7: Bernards 40, Metuchen 0 – at Bernards
Sept. 14: Bernards 38, Delaware Valley 36 (OT) – at Bernards (Valley)
Sept. 22: Bernards 63, Madison 14 – at Madison
Both teams have one shutout. Hillside has outscored the opposition 139-13 and Bernards 141-50.
Hillside won last year’s game 42-0 at Hillside, while Bernards won the 2016 contest 24-6 at Bernards.
Hillside captured Central Jersey, Group 2 last year with a 9-3 record, while Bernards finished 8-4 two years ago, including reaching the CJ, G2 final.
“The most important thing for us is being healthy,” said Grant, who took over in 2016 and has guided Hillside to wins in 16 of 25 games so far. “This is a season of goals and checking all the boxes.
“We won our first game (against Middlesex, Hillside last began 1-0 in 2014), we beat Roselle in back-to-back years for the first time (the last time Hillside beat Roselle in consecutive years was 2003 and 2004) and our seniors won at Delaware Valley for the first time.”
Taking over at quarterback is junior Gavin Melendez (6-4, 200). He threw four touchdown passes in Hillside’s most recent win at Delaware Valley.
“He’s doing really well,” Grant said. “He’s managing the game and taking what the defense gives him. He’s getting better week by week.”
Melendez is one of six Hillside captains. The other junior captain is one of his targets, junior wide receiver Nahree Biggins. One of the four senior captains is returning defensive end Mateus Ramos, who also starts on offense at tight end.
Senior captains who are three-year starters include heavily recruited running back-linebacker Brian Ugwu, Army-bound receiver-defensive back Boris Nicolas-Paul and linebacker Najee Peele.
“When I interviewed for the job I knew there was talent in town,” Grant said. “We went 4-6 the first year and had a really tight consolation game (Hillside lost at Verona 26-20 to end its 2016 campaign).
“The kids took, maybe, four days off and got right back at it. They are now seeing the rewards for continuing to work really hard.”
Junior running back James Louis and senior wide receiver Shadon Willis lead Hillside with four touchdowns each. Peele leads in tackles with 38, while Ugwu has 32, including a sack. Ugwu also has two fumble recoveries.
Bernards has already matched last year’s win total – the Mountaineers went 3-7 a year ago – and is on a five-game winning streak, including wins in its final two 2017 contests.
“They have some really good players,” Grant said. “Cookie Desiderio (sophomore RB-OLB) and Ethan Caldwell (senior RB) are two players to watch and Jackson Tantleff (junior WR-FS), his brother was a dominant player on their team that played in the state championship game two years ago.”
Sophomore quarterback Teddy Gouldin threw for 374 yards and a program record six touchdowns on 11-of-16 passing vs. Madison. Junior fullback Lucas Ritchie hauled in eight receptions for 314 yards and five TDs.
“They are well-coached and we know it will be a tough game at their place,” Grant said.
Bernards has been guided by head coach Jon Simoneau since 2008. The Mountaineers are still seeking their first state championship in the playoff era.
More to come.