Welcome to the Tournament of Champions in New Jersey high school football.
I say that because for the first time half of the public school state championship teams will lose games afterwards. Some could lose twice.
Those fortunate enough will still game-plan for another contest – a first-time Bowl Game. Some will game-plan for two more if they play on Thanksgiving.
Half of the public school teams that are good enough to win state championships will not take their trophies and smiles and go shouting directly to basketball, wrestling or indoor track season.
They will walk off the football field after a loss, some bound to be largely excruciating.
Is this new system for everyone? Or is it for what seems like a minority that is not satisfied with stopping at sectional (state) champions.
“The game’s in trouble, less kids are playing and they’re making it longer,” one coach said this pre-season.
In Union County nine of its 16 schools qualified for the playoffs. Unfortunately for Brearley the 6-2 Bears fell a bit short in North 2, Group 1. However, Westfield still qualified in North 2, Group 5 at 2-6, although the Blue Devils lost their last five games, the past two by shutout.
Cranford is preparing for its first North 2, Group 4 playoff game since 1975. The Cougars should still be in Group 3. The last seven times Cranford qualified for the playoffs was in Group 3.
Linden, which is hosting Cranford Friday night, should be in Group 5. The Tigers are good enough to be in North 2, Group 5, a section they captured in 2014.
New Providence, back in Group 1 and playing a Group 1 schedule, has made a nice turnaround after consecutive 1-9 seasons. The undefeated Pioneers (8-0) get to travel to the Route 17 portion of Bergen County to clash with another 8-0 squad, Hasbrouck Heights.
Rahway (7-1) has won seven straight, including three shutouts and has allowed only 43 points in that span. The Indians are playing like one of the best teams in the state at the moment. Their only loss came in their opener vs. Group 3 powerhouse Somerville. Last year Rahway was the only team to beat Somerville, which went on to capture Central Jersey, Group 3.
The third seed in North 2, Group 3, Rahway has not won the section – or any section for that matter – since 1984. The top two seeds include top-seeded Summit (7-1) and second-seeded and defending champion West Essex (8-0).
Summit has averaged over 40 points in its seven wins. Rahway won at Summit in the first round last year and then lost at West Essex in the semifinals.
Union will host longtime arch rival Elizabeth for the second time this year and will play the Minutemen in the playoffs for the 10th time and first time since 2011.
Hillside will play South River for a second time and for the third time in 12 months.
Hillside won at South River 28-7 in the first round of the Central Jersey, Group 2 playoffs 12 months ago and then on Oct. 13 won at South River again, this time by a 40-13 score after leading 14-13 in the fourth quarter.
The roles are completely reversed for this weekend’s playoff clash at Hillside’s new turf field. Last year South River was home as the second seed, was 9-0, and Hillside was the seventh seed at 6-3.
This time Hillside is at home as the top seed, is 8-0, and South River is the eighth seed at 5-3.
There are five matchups Friday night and two more Saturday involving Union County’s nine playoff teams.
Here’s a look at each:
FRIDAY, NOV. 2:
North 2, Group 5:
6-Elizabeth (6-2) at 3-Union (7-2): Union lost at home to Elizabeth 28-14 on Sept. 7. For the Minutemen, Clarence Wilkins has performed admirably under center in place of injured quarterback LeShane Taylor.
The Farmers have been led offensively by junior quarterback Andrew Sanborn, with his primary wide receiver targets being Ahmirr Robinson and Isaiah Stewart.
Elizabeth senior running back Javon Wactor rushed for more than 250 yards in his team’s win over Union. He also rushed for both scores in Elizabeth’s 12-0 victory at Westfield.
“They broke a couple of long runs and we didn’t tackle well in the second half,” Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. said of the first meeting. “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 that game Union went on to produce a six-game winning streak that was surprisingly snapped last week at home by 1-7 Bridgewater-Raritan 21-19. Elizabeth’s lone non-Watchung Division setback was three weeks ago at 0-5 Franklin 28-21, minus Taylor.
7-Westfield (2-6) at 2-Union City (7-1): The three-time defending champion Blue Devils will travel to Hudson County as decided underdogs and seeking to score their first points in three weeks. Westfield is still stingy defensively, giving up only more than 18 points twice – to powerhouses Phillipsburg and Piscataway.
Westfield, which began the season with a state-leading 37-game winning streak that Linden snapped, has now lost five straight for the first time since 2012, which was its last season under .500.
Union City is in North 2, Group 5 for the first time. The Eagles – coached by Wilber Valdez, who earlier this year won his 100th game – reached their first state championship game last year, falling to Montclair35-14 in the North 1, Group 5 final at MetLife Stadium.
North 2, Group 4:
5-Cranford (5-3) at 4-Linden (7-2): The last time these Union County foes played each other was Sept. 29, 2006 at Linden, a 35-20 Tiger victory when both were members of the National Division of the Watchung Conference. The last time Cranford defeated Linden was on Oct. 3, 2003, which was a 15-8 Cougar win at home to put Cranford at 4-0. That Cougar team narrowly missed going to the North 2, Group 2 final after a 27-24 semifinal defeat at 10-0 Rutherford – a game Cranford led 7-0, 14-7, 21-14 and 24-21 before the host Bulldogs scored the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
This game features two of Union County’s top running backs in seniors James Shriner for Cranford and BJ George for the Tigers, who is now Linden’s all-time leading rusher.
Both teams took it on the chin a bit on the road last Friday, Cranford falling at 7-0 Hillside 39-10 and Linden having a seven-game winning streak snapped by 6-1 Ridge by the score of 29-13. That was the first time Linden gave up more than 14 points in any of its nine games.
North 2, Group 3:
6-Parsippany Hills (6-3) at 3-Rahway (7-1): This first-ever playoff matchup between Group 3 powers features a program – Parsippany Hills – which finally won it all in 2014 vs. a school – Rahway – seeking to win it all for the first time since 1984. These were the teams that lost in the semifinals last year on the same Friday night – Parsippany Hills at home to Voorhees and Rahway at eventual champion West Essex. Rahway has won seven straight and Parsippany Hills six of its last seven.
The Indians are led on offense by senior running back Zion Pendleton and on defense by senior linebacker Shimei Page. Since 2011 Parsippany Hills has made the playoffs in North 2, Group 3 every year but one.
Friday night’s game will take place at Rahway River Park, which will be Rahway’s first playoff game contested there.
North 2, Group 1:
7-New Providence (8-0) at 2-Hasbrouck Heights (8-0): The Pioneers have followed up a 12-game losing streak by winning nine of their last 10 starting with last year’s consolation game victory.
Hasbrouck Heights captured North 1, Group 1 the past two seasons, doing so at Kean last year to wrap a 10-1 season that included the only blemish being a regular season overtime loss and at MetLife in 2016 to conclude a perfect 11-0 slate.
The Aviators are 29-1 since the start of the 2016 season and this year have defeated seven foes by double digits and have a forfeit win.
New Providence has six wins by double digits, including a big 27-17 home win over Bound Brook. The two wins not by double digits were big ones too, the season-opener at defending Central Jersey, Group 1 champion Middlesex 27-19 and then at home a month later vs. 5-0 Brearley 27-21 in overtime.
“Beating Middlesex, the kids started to believe,” second-year head coach Chet Parlavecchio, Jr. said.
New Providence has junior Owen Kovacs at quarterback, senior Jack Gertie at running back and senior linebacker Mario Fuentes as a prominent player on defense. Fuentes had 17 tackles and a key interception in the Union Division win over Brearley.
SATURDAY, NOV. 3:
North 2, Group 3:
8-Voorhees (4-5) at 1-Summit (7-1): What does Summit do best? The Hilltoppers simply score and especially at home. Summit is averaging 43 points in its seven wins and 37 in its four home games.
Summit was only slowed down offensively by Cranford in a 25-12 loss at Cranford in which the Hilltoppers didn’t score in the second half.
Following that blip they have been impressive in beating 6-1 St. Joseph’s, Metuchen 46-20 at home – snapping the Middlesex County school’s six-game winning streak – and then winning at 4-3 Immaculata 44-0 last weekend to capture the Mid-State Conference’s Raritan Division championship at 5-0.
Summit is sparked offensively by senior backs Max Jackson, Jackson Tyler and Skylar Schluter. Jackson leads in rushing yardage and TDs with 12. Jack Kelly, Ryan Reigle, Justin Luckshire and Austin Croce are among the team leaders in tackles.
Voorhees is 2-5 in its last seven games and has just one win over a team above .500, that being a 21-17 home victory over Delaware Valley, which is 5-4.
Central Jersey, Group 2:
8-South River (5-3) at 1-Hillside (8-0): The Comets are 8-0 – maybe for the first time ever in the playoff era – and have outscored all eight foes by double digits. Hillside won its first five games at night and then its last three during the day – at South River, vs. Group 3 North Plainfield at Rahway River Park and then at home on its new field turf against Group 4 Cranford.
South River pulled to within 14-13 early in the fourth quarter when Hillside senior Boris Nicolas-Paul blocked the extra point following South River’s second touchdown to keep Hillside ahead.
The Comets then scored the game’s final 26 points on four fourth quarter touchdowns to triumph 40-13.
Scoring the final four touchdowns for Hillside were senior Shadon Willis on a pass from Gavin Melendez, senior Brian Ugwu and junior James Louis (80-yard) on runs and Nicolas-Paul on a 50-yard interception return.
Scoring Hillside’s first two touchdowns were junior Nahree Biggins on a pass from Melendez and Louis on a 10-yard run.
“Melendez had a great day, completing 14 of 16 passes,” third-year head coach Barris Grant said.
A junior in his first year as the starting quarterback, Melendez threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns.
“This was similar to our Roselle game,” Grant said.
Hillside defeated Roselle 35-7 at Rahway River Park, coming back from a 7-6 halftime deficit. The Comets scored 22 points in the third quarter to pull away.
If Hillside is to advance again in Central Jersey, Group 2 the defending champions will have to beat South River a third time in three tries in the span of one year.
“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.”
ELIZABETH VS. UNION PLAYOFF HISTORY (Union leads 6-3):
2018: Elizabeth at Union – North 2, Group 5 quarterfinals at Union
2011: Elizabeth 25, Union 7 – North 2, Group 4 quarterfinals at Elizabeth
2008: Union 15, Elizabeth 7 – North 2, Group 4 quarterfinals at Union
1997: Elizabeth 20, Union 6 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Elizabeth
1996: Union 34, Elizabeth 26 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Elizabeth
1993: Union 14, Elizabeth 7 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Elizabeth
1992: Union 14, Elizabeth 0 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Union
1991: Union 17, Elizabeth 3 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Union
1985: Union 34, Elizabeth 3 – North 2, Group 4 semifinals at Union
1981: Elizabeth 21, Union 0 – North 2, Group 4 final at Giants Stadium
SEASONS HILLSIDE HAS MADE PLAYOFFS (8-7 record):
2018: Central Jersey, Group 2 – top seed
2017: Central Jersey, Group 2 – seventh seed (3-0, champs)
2008: North 2, Group 2 – top seed (1-1)
2003: North 2, Group 2 – eighth seed (0-1)
2000: North 2, Group 2 – second seed (1-1)
1998: North 2, Group 2 – sixth seed (0-1)
1985: North 2, Group 2 – second seed (2-0, champs)
1983: North 2, Group 2 – top seed (1-1, finalists)
1982: North 2, Group 2 – top seed (0-1)
1978: North 2, Group 2 – third seed (0-1)
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD:
I was too young to know of the complaints in 1973 or before or in 1974 when the very first teams were selected to compete in the initial playoff games contested in Atlantic City or even in 1975 when the first power points system put four teams from each section into brackets that included two semifinals and one final.
However, as a young reporter nearly 30 years ago I remember quite well the outcry of teams that were beginning to not make it at 7-1 and then looking over to other sections and seeing the top seed at only 5-3.
That was when only four teams were making it. You also had to be at least .500 to gain entry.
In 1989 Union County schools Union in North 2, Group 4 and Roselle Park in North 2, Group 1 were 7-1 at the cutoff date. Both did not garner enough power points to make the playoffs in their sections. Union was edged by 7-1 Bloomfield and Roselle Park was behind Mountain Lakes.
Union’s only loss was to Watchung Conference arch rival Elizabeth 14-0 at home. That Elizabeth team, which received a scare from Bloomfield before beating the visiting Bengals 19-9 in the first round of the North 2, Group 4 playoffs, went 11-0, won N2, G4 for the first time since 1981, and finished ranked No. 1 in New Jersey.
Two more Union County schools didn’t make it at 7-1 the very next year. Elizabeth, with only a loss at home to Union, failed in North 2, Group 4, while Brearley Regional was denied in North 2, Group 1.
Irvington was 7-1 at the cutoff in 1995, its only loss against Elizabeth. The Blue Knights failed to gain entry in North 2, Group 4 that year.
I believe the same – going 7-1 and not making it – scenario may have also happened in the early 1990s at other Essex County schools Caldwell and Orange.
This was now happening too often. No problem said the NJSIAA. Beginning in 1998 the sections were expanded to eight teams, thus there would now be three rounds of playoffs to win a state championship.
It also meant that teams would be playing at least 10 games instead of nine, thus the invention of “consolation” games if you didn’t make the playoffs.
With eight teams now making it in each section there would be NO WAY that a 7-1 team would not have enough power points to make it. Teams that were 8-0 still didn’t have to worry, it was still ruled automatic that they would be included.
Over the past 20 years the system was tweaked. First the formula everyone was familiar with and could figure out was altered when teams were beginning to get points from losses. Then in 2012 teams under .500 were allowed to make it.
Two years ago we had the situation where Columbia made it at 1-7 over 4-4 Linden in North 2, Group 5 because of a heavy dose of points gained from a loss against parochial school Seton Hall Prep.
Before teams under .500 were allowed to make it, Linden and Delaware Valley had seasons where they did not gain entry at 6-2, those schools at the time not too happy about that. At least it wasn’t 7-1.
Now to have a team such as Delran finish 7-1 and not make it – especially in a climate where eight teams make it and teams under .500 are just as playoff worthy – it’s time for the NJSIAA to go back to the drawing board.
I don’t think it’s overblown at all that Delran did not qualify this year at 7-1. The standard reason I’m reading seems to be that the Bears did not play a “tough enough” schedule.
What I see is that two of their wins came over 6-3 and 5-3 teams and the lone loss was on the road to a 6-2 squad.
Delran won five games by double digits, one by nine points, one by eight and produced two shutouts.
Does this mean next year that Delran should schedule Alabama, Notre Dame and the New England Patriots? For the benefit of the doubt should the Bears also add the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Red Sox?
With the high percentage of teams that are now making it under .500 – many at 2-6 and even one at 1-6 – how can a team that went 7-1 not qualify?
Whether it’s Bill Born or the NJSIAA or both, the present system needs to be overhauled.
For a 7-1 team – 20 years after the sections were expanded to eight teams – not to make it is just ridiculous. It doesn’t look too good either when 2-6 and 1-6 teams are making it.
Also, we need a system that even the guys on The Big Bang Theory can understand.
The system should not include teams under .500 qualifying. If a team goes 1-6 that means that out of seven game plans, only one worked out. A playoff game – put in a situation where there is the possibility of winning a championship – should not be where that team is headed.
Isn’t that why there have been “consolation” games for the past 20 years. To “console” the teams that did not have a great, very good or even mediocre regular season?
Perhaps we should call the consolation games – for teams that don’t make the playoffs – the Bowl Games and just keep the playoffs three rounds. Extending the playoffs another round with the goal of – probably within two years – going even one step further to a true group state champion is not what’s needed in New Jersey.
Practice on the NJSIAA calendar beginning Aug. 6 is not either.
What needs to be done is improving the product on the field. There are WAY TOO MANY blowouts. There are too many teams that simply can’t compete anymore. Why else would the NJSIAA adopt the mercy rule?
As a reporter I used to always root for what I would call “fourth quarter drama.” Now there are times when I’m pulling for the mercy rule so the clock will continue to run so I can get out the heck out of there.
It was one thing to not make the playoffs with a record of 7-1 some 25-30 years ago. Only four schools in each section were and you had to be at least .500.
Coaches like Lou Rettino at Union didn’t like it and then did something about it, moving up Union’s longtime Thanksgiving rival and fellow Group 4 school Linden to the eight-game portion of the schedule that counted toward gaining power points. Union put Group 3 Scotch Plains on Thanksgiving.
At the onset, only the first eight games counted because the first round of the playoffs would be contested before Thanksgiving.
Now with Thanksgiving Day games becoming more and more extinct – for example no more Union-Linden, Bloomfield-Montclair and Roselle Park-Roselle – some teams are getting points from playing nine games, some eight and even a few seven. That just adds to the confusion.
There is no perfect system. However, the system in place now rewards teams far, far from perfect and has excluded teams much, much more deserving – for example Delran this year.
UNION COUNTY PLAYOFF TITLES:
Union Farmers – (10) – all in North 2, Group 4 (still the record) – last: 1993.
Elizabeth Minutemen – (8) – 7 in Group 4, 1 in Group 5 – last: 2012.
Summit Hilltoppers – (8) – 4 in Group 2 and 4 in Group 3 – last: 2013.
New Providence Pioneers – (6) – 1 of them declared – last: 2010.
Westfield Blue Devils – (5) – 2 in Group 4 and 3 in Group 5 – last: 2017.
Brearley Bears – (5) – all in North 2, Group 1 – last: 2006.
Rahway Indians – (3) – all in North 2, Group 3 – last: 1984.
Roselle Park Panthers – (3) – 1 of them declared – last: 1993.
Hillside Comets – (2) – 1 in N2,G2, 1 in CJ,G2 – last: 2017.
Linden Tigers – (2) – 1 in Group 3 and 1 in Group 5 – last: 2014.
Cranford Cougars – (2) – both in North 2, Group 3 – last: 2015.
Johnson Crusaders – (2) – both in North 2, Group 2 – last: 2002.
Roselle Rams – (1) – in North 2, Group 2 – last: 1989.
Scotch Plains – (1) – in North 2, Group 3 – last: 1990.
Plainfield, Gov. Livingston and Dayton have not won a state
championship in the playoff era.
Plainfield is 0-4 in the finals, GL 0-2 and Dayton 0-1.
UNION COUNTY LEADS MIDDLESEX COUNTY 14-10
In this year’s Union County vs. Middlesex County crossover games, Union County leads 14-10, including Brearley and Dayton having forfeit wins over Highland Park. Middlessex County went 4-2 in last weekend’s six clashes.
This weekend, Hillside hosts South River in a Central Jersey, Group 2 quarterfinal Saturday, while on Thursday night Gov. Livingston plays at Carteret and Johnson hosts Spotswood for the second straight week.
The Mid-State Conference and GMC will merge in 2021.
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
Friday, Nov. 2 (5 games)
North 2, Group 5
6-Elizabeth at 3-Union, 7 p.m.
7-Westfield at 2-Union City, 7 p.m.
North 2, Group 4
5-Cranford at 4-Linden, 7 p.m.
North 2, Group 3
6-Parsippany Hills at 3-Rahway, 7 p.m.
North 2, Group 1
7-New Providence at 2-Hasbrouck Heights, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 3 (2 games)
North 2, Group 3
8-Voorhees at 1-Summit, 1 p.m.
Central Jersey, Group 2
8-South River at 1-Hillside, 2 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 1 (4 games)
Plainfield at Roxbury, 7 p.m.
Gov. Livingston at Carteret, 7 p.m.
Spotswood at Johnson, 7 p.m.
Wood-Ridge at Brearley, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 3 (2 games)
Dayton at Bogota, 1 p.m.
Kearny at Scotch Plains, 2 p.m.
LAST WEEK’S RESULTS:
Friday, Oct. 26 (12 games)
Bridgewater-Raritan 21, Union 19
Elizabeth 26, Old Bridge 7
Piscataway 26, Westfield 0
Ridge 29, Linden 13
New Brunswick 59, S. Plains 44
Hillside 39, Cranford 10
Rahway 49, Gov. Livingston 0
Summit 44, Immaculata 0
New Providence 31, Belvidere 14
Dunellen 24, Brearley 20
South Hunterdon 41, Dayton 21
Johnson 35, Spotswood 13
Saturday, Oct. 27 (1 game)
Edison 15, Plainfield 0
PLAYOFF PICKS (7):
Union over Elizabeth
Union City over Westfield
Linden over Cranford
Rahway over Parsippany Hills
New Providence over Hasbrouck Heights
Summit over Voorhees
Hillside over South River
Best bet: Summit
Upset special: New Providence
Last week: 8-5
This year: 84-22 (.793)
Best bets: 8-1
Upset specials: 6-3
JR’s UNION COUNTY
8-New Providence (8-0)
Gov. Livingston (3-5)
Scotch Plains (0-8)