Hillside football will enter CJ,G2 playoffs as not only defending champions, but with perfect 8-0 record; Comets top Group 4 Cranford in first game on new turf field

Defeat Cougars for first time since 2009

PHOTOS BY JR PARACHINI – Hillside’s offense is on the move vs. Cranford.
Cranford’s offense, at right, was held in check during the first half.
Hillside senior running back Brian Ugwu comes off the field after scoring his team’s first touchdown vs. Cranford.

HILLSIDE – After going 8-0, winning the Mid-State Conference’s Valley Division championship for the first time and concluding a regular season schedule with home wins over Group 3 North Plainfield and Group 4 Cranford – the latter on its new turf field – now comes the difficult part for the Hillside Comets.
Defending last year’s – first-ever – Central Jersey, Group 2 state championship.
The Comets won CJ, G2 last year as the seventh seed, first winning at second-seeded South River, which was 9-0. Then came the win at third-seeded Johnson, which was where Hillside lost one of its three games last year. What followed was a win over 11-0 Point Pleasant Boro – the top seed – in the final at Rutgers.
In 12 months Hillside has gone from the little engine that could to – perhaps – the prohibitive favorite.
When the pairings come out the Comets expect to the be the top seed in CJ, G2 for this year’s new, earlier and expanded playoff format.
That means that if all goes well Hillside will host sectional playoff games on the first three Saturdays in November, with the third one to be the CJ, G2 final.
It’s all there in front of them as the Comets – who have won all eight games by double digits and are winning by an average score of 42-9 – go from the hunter to being the hunted.
Against a talented Cranford team Friday that had come off decisive wins at home against 5-0 Summit 25-12 and at 4-2 Immaculata 35-7, Hillside took it to the visiting Cougars immediately. After holding Cranford to just one first down on its initial possession, Hillside moved deep into Cougar territory before losing a fumble.
The Comets came right back on their next possession, which began at their own 42. Junior running back Jahon Moore began the drive with a seven-yard gain. A slant pass by junior quarterback Gavin Melendez to senior wide receiver Shadon Willis went for 12 yards, giving Hillside a first down at the Cranford 40.
Senior running back Brian Ugwu took the next hand off and on his second carry of the day found room on the right side and then sprinted down the sideline for the game’s first points and the first touchdown on the team’s new turf field.
In the second quarter, Melendez completed a pass to senior wide receiver Boris Nicolas-Paul, who caught the ball at the Cranford 27 and then ran left and ultimately dove into the end zone for Hillside’s second score. The touchdown reception covered 42 yards and put Hillside ahead 13-0.
With time running out before intermission, Nicolas-Paul made a move on Cranford strong safety James Shriner and was headed toward the end zone before losing the ball. Teammate Nahree Biggins was there to recover the ball in the end zone to give Hillside a 19-0 lead 26 seconds shy of the second quarter closing.
In the first half, Ugwu carried the ball five times for 45 yards and his one score, while Shriner gained 45 yards on 15 carries.
Hillside junior running back James Louis gained 72 yards on seven first half rushes.
“When we played Cranford two years ago and they beat us we scored on the last play of the game and the refs didn’t give us a chance to kick the extra point,” said third-year Hillside head coach Barris Grant, referring to a 49-13 Cranford win at Hillside. “I told the kids to look at the scoreboard and then I said that would never happen again.
“Last year we came close.”
At Cranford a year ago the host Cougars defeated Hillside 34-21.
“This time we were locked in and focused,” Grant said. “Coming out of conference play we faced a Group 3 school in North Plainfield and a Group 4 in Cranford.”
Hillside’s 48-20 win against North Plainfield at Rahway River Park last Saturday was its first over a Group 3 foe since defeating Scotch Plains in 2013. The Comets followed it up with a rare victory over a Group 4 opponent.
“We just battled history,” Grant said. “Cranford is a good team and will be tough in the playoffs. Our offensive line played their butts off. I think we ran for something like 300 yards.”
This was Hillside’s first win over Cranford since a 14-7 home triumph in Week Two of 2009. The Comets previously lost their last six games against Cranford. The teams did not play each other in 2013 and 2012.
“We wanted this game to be a battle of two good teams,” Grant said.
Now it’s do-or-die football for Hillside.
“We have to be prepared mentally,” Grant said. “Every week we talk about our game being the other team’s Super Bowl.
“The most important thing about the playoffs is the next game. We’re not going to change our approach.
“We tend to play a little better on turf and ours is new. It’s a great environment for the kids.
“We need to stay focused and follow the game plan.”