Union County FB still undefeated: New Providence, Summit, Hillside, Brearley; Union seeks first win over Westfield since 2013

Ten games on tap for Oct. 5 and two more on Oct. 6; GL has the weekend off

PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Union’s offense, at right, is about to score on Westfield in last year’s game.
PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Union’s offense scored one touchdown against Westfield last year, which came on the final play of the first half. It was a 4-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Andrew Sanborn to senior wide receiver Andy Martin. Union missed the extra point, there was no scoring in the second half, and Westfield held on for a 7-6 Watchung Division triumph at Union’s Cooke Memorial Field.
PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Hillside is one of three Union County teams that is 4-0. Captains last week at Bernards included, from left, senior Brian Ugwu (No. 1), senior Najee Peele (No. 28), senior Mateus Ramos (No. 10) and junior Gavin Melendez (No. 12).
PHOTO BY JR PARACHINI – Union is 4-1, on a three-game winning streak, and seeking to beat Westfield for the first time since 2013.

So through the last weekend in August and then the month of September, we have four teams in Union County that have still not experienced the agony of defeat.
New Providence is 5-0 – not bad considering the Pioneers are coming off consecutive 1-9 finishes the past two seasons for the first time in program history. They were last 5-0 in 2015.
Summit is 4-0 for the first time since 2016. Brearley is 4-0 for the first time since 2015.
Hillside is 4-0 for the first time since 2000, then head coach Jim Hopke’s best squad. Hillside won its first four, lost at Immaculata 16-6, and then won four more in a row before falling at home to Pequannock 29-26 in the North 2, Group 2 semifinals. Hillside defeated Brearley 37-7 at home to finish 9-2.
Hillside’s last 5-0 start was in 1994 for then head coach John Kaye. The Comets went 7-2 that year, but failed to qualify in North 2, Group 2. Hillside won its first five, fell at Immaculata 7-6, and then won two of its final three, the only other setback a 27-0 loss at North Plainfield. Those were the days when Immaculata dominated the Mountain Division of the Mountain Valley Conference.
Hillside is on a Union County-leading eight-game winning streak. The last time the Comets won nine straight was when they won their last four games of a 7-2 season in 1993 and the first five games of a second straight 7-2 season in 1994. Hillside did not qualify as one of four teams for the playoffs either year in North 2, Group 2, both times falling short with power points with 6-2 records at the cutoff date.
Hillside’s top player – senior running back Brian Ugwu (6-3, 230) – is sticking to his decision of taking official visits after the season before giving any Division 1-A school a verbal commitment prior to the February signing period.
“I really want to make a good decision,” Ugwu said after Friday night’s 23-13 win at 3-0 Bernards. “I also plan on taking some game visits too.”
Ugwu’s lastest list includes – he said these schools Friday – Nebraska, Michigan, Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Temple. His sister Martha is a senior at Rutgers.
Union (4-1 for the second time in three years) has won three straight road games – the last two over 3-0 (Phillipsburg) and 3-1 (South Brunswick) squads that played in state championship games last year. The Farmers, who played three straight regular season road games for the first time since 2006, have won six of their last seven, with five of those wins away from home.
“We feel pretty good,” sixth-year head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. said. “We just went up against two really good programs. We’re progressing right now.”
Union last won three straight road games in 2015, including two regular season (Watchung Hills and Ridge) and then a North 2, Group 5 first-rounder (Piscataway).
Last year’s 4-6 season included three straight one-point losses – the third one in overtime – and another loss by a field goal.
“We were a little bit better than our record indicated last year,” Grasso said. “That was a big motivating factor for us. We put those results on a scoreboard and looked at them all off season.
“Hopefully that has come on to the field. Our guys keep fighting.”
Union scored late to win at P-Burg and much earlier to prove a little more dominant at South Brunswick, a team Union used to scrimmage a few years ago.
“I liked our game plan the last two weeks,” Grasso said. “A lot of it was adapting on the fly from what they gave us.
“We did well enough to tinker here and there. You can prepare, but when you play against great coaches and great programs there are still some things you are not necessarily ready for.”
When Union went against South Brunswick last week it was vs. a head coach, Joe Goerge, who used to be the head coach at Dayton when Grasso was the head coach at Roselle. Goerge’s Dayton teams played their home games at Union before Dayton’s new field turf was finished.
“I’ve known Coach Goerge for years and his team was what we expected,” Grasso said. “It was a great environment. Thankfully we played really well.”
Union will be back home Friday night and will be seeking to do something for the first time in exactly six years. That will be beating Westfield, which is 2-2, at home. Union last defeated Westfield at its Cooke Memorial Field by the score of 35-23 on Friday night, Oct. 5, 2012. That was the year before Grasso took over as Union’s head coach.
Union’s last win over Westfield was a 25-14 decision at Westfield’s Gary Kehler Stadium in 2013. Since then, the Farmers are 0-4 against Westfield, including North 2, Group 5 semifinal round defeats at Westfield in 2015 and 2016. Because they were in different Mid-State Conference divisions for two years, Union and Westfield did not face each other in the 2014 and 2015 regular seasons.
Last year at Union the Farmers scored on the final play of the first half and then missed the extra point. There was no scoring in the second half. Westfield held on for a 7-6 victory en route to a third straight 12-0 finish that saw the Blue Devils ultimately three-peat as North 2, Group 5 state champions.
Westfield, winners of 39 of its last 41 games, has not lost two straight since the 2013 season. Westfield produced the program’s second-longest winning streak of 37 games before falling in this year’s opener at Linden 14-7.
“Westfield is the standard for what we’re trying to do,” Grasso said. “Until someone else wins they are still state champions.”
When Westfield captured North 2, Group 5 for the first time in 2015 it was the program’s first state championship in the playoff era since 1977 and only third overall.
After Westfield won North 2, Group 4 for the first and only times in 1976 and 1977, from 1978 to 1993 Union won N2, G4 for a still-record 10 times in 16 seasons.
Twenty-five years later, Union has not won a state championship since.
“We know it will take everything we have to be successful this week,” Grasso said.
After following the Linden loss with a win at Watchung Hills, Westfield hosted Middlesex County foes Old Bridge and St. Joseph’s, Metuchen the past two weeks. The Blue Devils came back from a 17-14 halftime deficit to top Old Bridge 33-17. After a 7-7 halftime score against St. Joe’s, Westfield was thwarted 27-18.
“They just had a couple of tough games against some tough teams,” Grasso said. “They are always very disciplined and very tough. It will be a chore for us Friday night.
“If you blink against them, if you make a mistake they take advantage. There are no easy ones in our conference.”
Right now Linden leads the Mid-State’s Watchung Division at 4-1, while Union and Elizabeth are tied for second at 3-1 each and Westfield fourth at 2-1.
Friday night’s game includes talented returning junior quarterbacks, Hank Shapiro for Westfield and Andrew Sanborn for Union. Among Shapiro’s targets is senior Emmitt Smith, while a go-to receiver for Sanborn is senior Isaiah Stewart.
Sanborn has already proven to be quite effective when Union has been down late in the fourth quarter, rallying the Farmers to late wins at home against Linden (in overtime) and at P-Burg.
“It feels like Andrew has been here forever,” Grasso said. “He’s a special kid, a great teammate and a good leader. He’s coming into his own at the right time.
“Nothing he does really surprises us. It’s kind of to the point where we expect him to be special. He enjoys that kind of pressure and situation.”
Although Union might have gotten off to a better start than Westfield, Grasso doesn’t feel for one bit that his team may have an edge as a result.
“We never pay attention to when we are the underdog and we’re certainly not going to pay attention if we are perceived as a favorite,” Grasso said. “Westfield is always a challenge. All of these games are, literally, a blood war every week.
“I told Jim (Westfield head coach DeSarno) that for them to win 37 games in a row was one of the most impressive things I ever saw.”
With the exception of falling at home to Elizabeth in its second game, Union has turned last year’s close setbacks into this year’s prominent victories. Union’s wins over Linden, Phillipsburg and South Brunswick are over teams with a combined record of 11-4.
“We’re learning and maturing,” Grasso said. “Everyone knows exactly what we want from them. Many have stepped in and been productive.
“We have a lot of weapons on offense. We can attack in many different ways.
“We had a really good off season. We were so close last year, but didn’t finish it out. It was miserable to go through, but it was something we were able to point to all pre-season long. It was a rallying cry for us all off season.”
The only blip so far is a 28-14 Watchung Division home loss to Elizabeth.
“They broke a couple of long runs and we didn’t tackle well in the second half,” Grasso said. “We had some bad center-to-quarterback exchanges. We fixed that and hopefully that will not be a problem anymore.
“We didn’t come out of the game discouraged. We had opportunities to get stuff done, but didn’t. We still felt good enough about our team.”
After Westfield. Union’s final regular season game on the road is at Hunterdon Central, presently 2-2. Union then returns home for games against Watchung Division foe Watchung Hills (0-5) and Bridgewater-Raritan (1-4).
Union is in the middle of a season where the Farmers are scheduled to play all nine regular season games on consecutive weekends. If it works out for Union and it gets to a state championship game the weekend before Thanksgiving the Farmers will have played 12 straight weekends.
“That’s fine by me,” Grasso said. “The way we’ve done our format and schedule it’s conducive to our goal – to be a state champion.
“To play Linden early was a good test for us and it meant something. In the past when we played on Thanksgiving one year we were preparing for a state championship game and one year they were. Other years either us or them were coming off losing semifinal (playoff) games and had only three days to prepare.
“If you want to chase this dream you do the best you can. Our goal is the same as everyone, to win every game we play.”
With J.P. Stevens defeating Plainfield, St. Joseph’s, Metuchen downing Westfield and Union coming out on top against South Brunswick, Union County now has a 7-4 edge in crossover matchups against Middlesex County teams so far this year. That includes Brearley and Dayton forfeit wins over Highland Park.
There are now only four weekends of regular season football remaining before the start of a playoff system that is going one step beyond sectional state champions for the first time.
New Jersey high school football has created the thrill of “Bowl Game” victory at the expense of half of the public school state champions going out with the agony of defeat.
New Jersey high school football has created the thrill of “Bowl Game” victory at the expense of half of the public school state champions going out with the agony of defeat.
The season is too long (official practice commences Aug. 6, with 7-on-7s taking place for many schools long before then), too confusing (figuring out power points, etc.) and ultimately rewarding now for a very few (those who demanded sectional state champions was not good enough).
But to make up for it there will be 10 public school Bowl champions – five from the North and five from the South. Soon that number will be sliced in half to just five – one overall public school state champion in each of the five group sizes.
Then will a Tournament of Champions follow?
Beginning this year with the Bowl games football – a sport played once a week – has been turned into another TOC sport in New Jersey. Half of the public schools that win state (sectional) championships – now doing so for the first time the weekend before Thanksgiving – are going to lose their final games. Some could lose twice more if they play on Thanksgiving. Doesn’t make sense.


Friday, Oct. 5 (10 games)

Westfield at Union, 7 p.m.
Plainfield at Elizabeth, 7 p.m.
Linden at Watchung Hills, 7 p.m.
Cranford at Somerville, 7 p.m.
Carteret at Rahway, 7 p.m.
Hillside at Johnson, 7 p.m.
Roselle at Delaware Valley, 7 p.m.
Belvidere at Brearley, 7 p.m.
Dayton at Bound Brook, 7 p.m.
New Providence at Newark Academy, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 6 (2 games)
Warren Hills at Scotch Plains, 2 p.m.
Colonia at Summit, 2:30 p.m.
Off: Gov. Livingston.

Friday, Sept. 28 (8 games)

Union 27, South Brunswick 14
J.P. Stevens 19, Plainfield 7
Linden 42, Franklin 7
Cranford 28, Voorhees 21
Rahway 52, North Plainfield 12
Hillside 23, Bernards 13
Roselle 30, South Hunterdon 6
Brearley 17, Bound Brook 14
Saturday, Sept. 29 (4 games)
St. Joseph’s, Metuchen 27, Westfield 18
Summit 64, Scotch Plains 25
Somerville 58, Gov. Livingston 0
New Providence 41, Manville 0
Off: Dayton forfeit vs. Highland Park,
Elizabeth, Johnson.

Union over Westfield
Elizabeth over Plainfield
Linden over Watchung Hills
Somerville over Cranford
Rahway over Carteret
Hillside over Johnson
Roselle over Delaware Valley
Brearley over Belvidere
Bound Brook over Dayton
New Providence over Newark Academy
Warren Hills over Scotch Plains
Summit over Colonia
Best bet: New Providence
Upset special: Roselle
Last week: 10-2
This year: 45-10 (.818)
Best bets: 5-0
Upset specials: 5-0

TOP 10:

1-Linden (4-1)
2-Elizabeth (3-1)
3-Union (4-1)
4-Westfield (2-2)
5-Summit (4-0)
6-Hillside (4-0)
7-Rahway (3-1)
8-Cranford (3-1)
9-New Providence (5-0)
10-Brearley (4-0)
Gov. Livingston (2-3)
Johnson (2-2)
Dayton (2-2)
Plainfield (1-4)
Roselle (1-4)
Scotch Plains (0-4)