These are the final steps that need to be taken on the road to playing for a state championship.
Five Union County football teams are 48 minutes away from playing for one.
Three are home in sectional semifinal playoff action this weekend: Rahway, Summit and Hillside; and two are on the road: Cranford at the western end of New Jersey and Union at the opposite end in Hudson County.
The last time Rahway (8-1) reached a state championship game was when the Indians made it to the 2008 North 2, Group 3 final. The Indians have won eight straight, all by double digits. Second-seeded and defending champion West Essex was 8-0 (all double digit wins) when seventh-seeded South Plainfield shocked the Knights 17-16 in North Caldwell last Friday night.
“That was a great win for South Plainfield,” Rahway fourth-year head coach Brian Russo said. “They executed their game plan by shortening the game.
“It’s not the first time South Plainfield pulled off an upset. They like the underdog role.
“Our kids enjoy playing at home, but know that any team can win in the playoffs, so they have to continue to play hard. This group is very confident. With winning comes confidence.”
Summit (8-1) is one win away from reaching a sectional final and the North 2, Group 3 state championship game since last winning it in 2013. Saturday’s opponent – Montville – is coming off just its third-ever playoff victory. The Mustangs, who did not win a game in 2011, is enjoying their first season over .500 since 2008.
“For us we’ve always taken the approach of – ‘next team up,’” Summit sixth-year head coach Kevin Kostibos said. “It’s a nice fact that Montville is a new team, someone we haven’t seen and that, maybe, we can establish a new rivalry. We expect them to be a great team.
“Taking care of the football and playing your game is what counts, as simple as that sounds. However, it’s something that’s very tough to do.
“The recipe for success is doing what you’ve done to get there.”
Hillside (9-0), which last year became the first Union County team to win a state championship in Central Jersey – capturing Central Jersey, Group 2 – is one win away from advancing to a state championship game for the second straight season. That has never happened in program history.
For the second straight Saturday Hillside will go up against a team it beat in the regular season on the road – this time 8-1 Bernards, which has bounced back to win five straight since falling at home to Hillside 23-13 on Sept. 28.
Hillside was flagged for 15 penalties – seven in the first half and eight more in the second – and committed three turnovers in – perhaps – its sloppiest game of the season.
Third-year Hillside head coach Barris Grant recognized the penalties and turnovers and viewed them this way: “we dealt with adversity with the turnovers, especially the last two at the end.
“Fifteen penalties and three turnovers is not the way you want to win. It’s really a recipe for losing.
“Our kids fought through the penalties. We’re going to get some because our kids play fast. I’m more concerned about the self-inflicting turnovers.”
Cranford (6-3) won at Linden when it was not expected to. The Cougars are underdogs again at Phillipsburg, which has won its last eight semifinal playoff games at home – all in North 2, Group 4. Cranford has a road semifinal playoff victory under its belt, winning at Colonia – which had won seven straight at the time – by the very convincing score of 34-7 back in 2011. Cranford then went on to capture its first state championship in the playoff era with a 27-0 win over Parsippany Hills at Kean University for that season’s North 2, Group 3 title.
“I think the first thing is that we have to survive the first knockout punch,” said Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier, at the helm of the Cougars since 2005. “Phillipsburg is very tough at home and it’s quite the setting that they play at.
“We’ll have to find a way to hang in there with them and then, hopefully, we can kind of play our game and go from there. This is the ultimate challenge for our kids.”
Union (8-2) has only reached a sectional final twice since the playoffs were expanded to eight teams in each section and three rounds in 1998. Those years were 2003 and 2013, with the Farmers winning both semifinal games at home. Union then went on to lose state championship games – rather handily – afterwards.
Union last won a sectional semifinal playoff game on the road in 1996 when the Farmers beat 8-0 Elizabeth 34-26 at Williams Field. Union’s last five (2005, 2006, 2008, 2015 and 2016) road semifinal games saw the Farmers lose at Phillipsburg twice, at Piscataway and then at Westfield twice. Union is now preparing to play Union City for the first time, a perennial North 1 Hudson County school that makes North 2 that much more challenging.
“We didn’t need any help, it’s already a brutal section,” said Union sixth-year head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. “They’ve been a consistently tough team and I know Coach (Wilbur) Valdez from the North-South Game. They were in a final (North 1, Group 5) last year.
“We scrimmaged them at their place this year and last.”
The field the Soaring Eagles play on is on a roof.
“It’s a pretty good setting actually,” Grasso said. “It’s a cool atmosphere. We will be on the bleachers side and they will be on the opposite side, where there are no fans. It’s similar to North Plainfield’s field (Krausche Field on Route 22).
“We will just have to block all of that stuff out and go about our business.”
The injury bug – so prevalent at this time of the year – is affecting Cranford with James Shriner, Union with Isaiah Stewart and Summit with Jackson Tyler and Tyrone Hines. What those four seniors provide can’t be measured alone by rushing yards, receptions and kickoff returns.
So here we have it, the final battle to get to the ultimate challenge – having the opportunity to hoist something symbolic of what all the hard work is for.
Here’s a look at the five sectional semifinals this weekend involving Union County teams:
FRIDAY, NOV. 9, 7 P.M.
NORTH 2, GROUP 5:
3-Union (8-1) at 2-Union City (8-1) – It took until the third quarter, but Union was able to bounce back from a 21-19 home loss to Bridgewater-Raritan to turn back arch rival Elizabeth 28-17 at home in the first round. Senior running back Michel Lucien scored three touchdowns and rushed for 163 of his 178 yards in the final two quarters.
“We were not surprised at all by what he did,” Grasso said. “When he gets locked in he’s as good as anyone.
“He’s only 16, he turns 17 in December, so he’s a young senior. His potential is really limitless.
“He’s one of our best weight room guys, strength-wise, and he’s accepting his role as a leader now.”
The offensive linemen that provided the blocking for Lucien, who scored on runs of 43, 65 and five yards vs. Elizabeth, were junior tackle Jared Durand, senior guard Excellent Osare, sophomore tackle Warren Francis, senior guard Ernesto Hernandez and junior center Chiemela Onuegbu.
Union City is led by senior Jean Alvarez, who has rushed for over 1,000 yards, has scored 20 touchdowns and has also produced nearly 50 tackles.
“They run well and have good size too,” Grasso said. “Scheme-wise, they run the Wing-T and we didn’t play any Wing-T teams. They’re big, physical and play really hard.”
Union City reached its first-ever state championship game last year, falling to Montclair 35-14 in the North 1, Group 5 final at MetLife. Union City lost to Montclair twice last year in an 8-4 season.
Union is 4-0 on the road this year, with impressive wins at Phillipsburg and South Brunswick. Union is the only team to beat Phillipsburg.
NORTH 2, GROUP 4:
5-Cranford (6-3) at 1-Phillipsburg (8-1) – Cranford has now produced nine straight winning seasons, eight consecutive playoff campaigns and has won at least one playoff game six of the past eight seasons. The Cougars are a win away from playing in their fourth state championship game since 2011.
However, Cranford has never played a playoff game – or a game, period – at Phillipsburg’s Bellis Field at Maloney Stadium, where you see the signs – MOST WINS OF ANY TEAM IN NEW JERSEY, 693 AND COUNTING!
Phillipsburg is led offensively by senior quarterback Jack Stagaard and senior running back Joe Green.
Stepping in for Shriner in his absence last week at running back was standout senior defensive end Rob Schork, who rushed for more than 200 yards.
NORTH 2, GROUP 3:
7-South Plainfield (5-4) at 3-Rahway (8-1) – The Tigers were in a state championship game just two years ago, falling to defending champion Rumson-Fair Haven in the 2016 Central Jersey, Group 3 final.
When a 4-4 team wins at 8-0 and the defending champs and the home team won all eight games this year by double digits, the next opposing coach takes notice.
“Their record is not amazing, but they’ve been in every game,” Russo said. “We know they will be ready to go and have a game plan that will try to shorten the game and do what they do.”
Running backs Ashwin DeGroot and Zachary Delvecchio have both rushed for 700 yards.
For Rahway, senior running backs Zion Pendleton and Dashon Moore combined for nearly 350 yards rushing in their team’s 48-21 come-from-behind first-round win at home over Parsippany Hills. Pendleton gained 203 on 23 carries and Moore 145 on 19.
Providing the necessary blocking on the offensive line were junior right tackle Jahlee Bailey, junior right guard Joshua Dorisme, senior left guard Jymier Anderson, senior Fernando Cardoza and junior Brayden Pierre-Louis.
Leading tacklers on a game-in and game-out basis include senior Shimei Paige and junior Qualil Lumpkins. Page had 12 tackles vs. Parsippany Hills and Lumpkins seven.
“Every game we’ve gotten better, the kids believing in what we do,” Russo said. “We’re executing the game plan better and putting together a nice streak.
“We tell the kids it’s just one game at a time. The playoffs are a whole other season.”
South Plainfield has never won a state championship in the playoff era. The Tigers are 0-4 in finals.
Rahway last won a state championship in 1984, which was the third time the Indians captured North 2, Group 3 in the playoff era, the first two times coming in 1978 and 1979.
SATURDAY, NOV. 10
NORTH 2, GROUP 3:
4-Montville (8-2) at 1-Summit (8-1) – Summit has won eight state championships in the playoff era – four in North 2, Group 2 and four (including its last two) in North 2, Group 3. The Hilltoppers have now made the playoffs 11 straight seasons, with the first 10 in that span including three state championships and four state championship games.
In contrast, Montville has three playoff victories total and has never won a state championship in the playoff era. The Mustangs have only reached one state championship game and that came in 2006 in North 2, Group 2 when only six teams qualified, thus the Mustangs needed just one win to get to the final.
Montville won its first playoff game in 2003, its second in 2006 and its third last week. The Mustangs were edged by West Essex 8-7 in the 2006 North 2, Group 2 state championship game played at Giants Stadium.
When talking about Montville football this time you start with these two words: Mike Burke.
“He’s a great player who does a little bit of everything,” Kostibos said. “He can throw the ball well, runs the ball well and we have to scheme for him to know where he is at all times. He makes possibilities for them on every play.
“He’s the real deal and he has plenty of teammates who are also playmakers, Nos. 9, 16, 28 and 6 to name a few. If those guys get in space you can be in trouble.”
Standout senior running back Max Jackson leads the Hilltoppers on the ground with 1,213 yards on 170 carries, a 7.1 average. Jackson also leads Summit with 16 touchdowns and six other points for 108 total.
“Max is a tough kid, a great runner and a guy that you try to get the ball in his hands as many times as possible,” Kostibos said. “You don’t find very many 215-pound tailbacks on the high school level who can run like him.
“Our philosophy is always downhill running. That’s why he’s blossomed so well.”
Sophomore Austin Groce stepped in admirably in the first half against Voorhees with a rushing touchdown and an interception.
Two key Summit seniors were knocked out of the game in the first half, senior running back Jackson Tyler (right ankle) and kick returner Tyrone Hines (left leg).
“Like anything else you have to prepare going in that they are not playing,” Kostibos said. “We’ll be looking for guys to step up.
“We’ve had guys go down all year; (Dominic) Yorio for six weeks, Hines for two, Joe Lusardi also.
“This is high school football and kids will get banged up. We will be expecting kids to step up on Saturday.”
CENTRAL JERSEY, GROUP 2:
5-Bernards (8-1) at 1-Hillside (9-0) – Bernards, like Union City, South Plainfield and Montville, has not won a state championship in the playoff era. The Mountaineers are 0-2 in finals.
Hillside won only its second last year. The Comets are seeking to repeat in CJ,G2.
The last time Bernards played at Hillside the Mountaineers were soundly defeated 42-0 last Sept. 23. Bernards went 3-7 last year. The Mountaineers are 8-1 so far this year, with a five-game winning streak after falling at home to Hillside 23-13 on Sept. 28.
Hillside won the Mid-State Conference’s Valley Division for the first time, doing so with a 4-0 record. Bernards finished second at 3-1.
Bernards offensive leaders include sophomore quarterback Teddy Gouldin, running back Cookie Desiderio and receivers Jackson Tantleef and Lucas Ritchie.
For Hillside there are plenty of weapons as well. To name a few there are seniors Brian Ugwu, Boris Nicolas-Paul and Shadon Willis and juniors Nahree Biggins and James Louis.
Bernards was a much tougher opponent in late September than Hillside was anticipating.
“The penalties, we need to eliminate some of that stuff and lock in and protect our quarterback – you know, have some fun,” Hillside third-year head coach Barris Grant said. “Bernards did a good job of limiting our run game.
“They have a lot of players that can make things happen like we have. We have to corral those guys as much as they have to corral ours.”
For the second straight week Hillside is playing a team it beat on the road in the regular season.
“Against South River and Bernards we didn’t play our best.” Grant said. “We still haven’t been lights out.
“That’s what builds character. We want to be able to capitalize on their mistakes.”
Last year Hillside lost at Johnson and Johnson won the Valley Division by one game over Hillside. Then Hillside won at Johnson in the CJ, G2 semifinals.
Hillside is hoping that the same scenario does not happen again on Saturday.
Union County Mid-State Conference division winners still alive in the playoffs:
Union – shared Watchung Division title with Linden and Elizabeth.
Summit – Raritan Division champion
Hillside – Valley Division champion
Union County opponents this week which have never won a state championship in the playoff era: Union City, South Plainfield, Montville and Bernards.
CRANFORD COULD HAVE, BUT DIDN’T AND FOUND A WAY
When one of your teammates goes down, gets taken away and you know he will not return there’s very little time to pontificate.
You can either feel sorry or do something about it.
The Cranford football team chose to do the latter last Friday night.
That might be the biggest reason why the Cougars are preparing to play again this Friday night.
Still in the first quarter of Cranford’s playoff game at Linden, standout senior running back James Shriner was hit hard on a rushing attempt, knocked woozy.
Cranford, coming off a decisive 39-10 loss at Hillside, was already down a score, with Linden returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
“We tried to squib the kick,” Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier said.
Now the Cougars were without one of their leaders, offensively, defensively and spiritually.
“It didn’t look good,” Rosenmeier said. “James is, arguably, the leader of our team, certainly one of them. We had to adjust and quick.”
Fellow senior Rob Schork – one of the area’s top defensive linemen – stepped in at running back and filled in quite well. Schork rushed for just over 200 yards and produced two touchdowns to help lead fifth-seeded Cranford to a stunning 30-12 win at fourth-seeded Linden in a North 2, Group 4 first-rounder.
It was the first time the teams clashed since 2006 when they were members of the Watchung Conference. Cranford defeated Linden for the first time since 2003.
Linden, the 2014 North 2, Group 5 state champion, moved down to North 2, Group 4 last year. Cranford, the 2011 and 2015 North 2, Group 3 state champion, moved up to North 2, Group 4 this year.
This was Cranford’s first Group 4 state tournament victory. Cranford’s only other playoff appearance in North 2, Group 4 came as one of the four teams that qualified in the very first year, 1975. In the semifinals, Cranford was shut out at top-seeded Livingston 44-0.
At Tiger Stadium’s Cooper Field Friday night, Linden scored on the game’s first play and then again on the game’s last. In between Cranford scored 30 points – amazingly without one of its best players – against a team that averaged giving up only 9.8 per game through its first nine contests.
“We rallied around the cause and everyone really stepped up,” Rosenmeier said. “Schork stepped in at tailback and Cole Zuckerman stepped in.
“Our offensive line really stepped up their play with the way they blocked.
“We got some key pass receptions from Cole Blazek and Michael Kalnins. We didn’t throw the ball a lot, but enough to move the chains.
“Connor (Katz – Cranford junior quarterback) also ran the ball on a couple of big plays.
“What I was proudest of was that we got our butts kicked last week by Hillside and then this game against Linden started off pretty bad. The guys that went in for James gave it everything they had and everyone else stepped up.”
Cranford’s first points against Linden came on a safety. The next came on a four-yard touchdown pass from Katz to Blazek that gave Cranford the lead for good at 9-6.
Cranford was the first team to score 30 against Linden.
“We had to rely on our offensive line, which didn’t block well against Hillside,” Rosenmeier said. “We had to be reactionary – play poorly to learn our lesson – so we put a lot on our offensive line.”
The OL Rosenmeier speaks of includes senior left tackle Dan Wessolock, junior right guard Patrick Blowe, senior center Dan Swanson, senior left guard Matt Savino and senior right tackle Sam Caminos.
“They were determined not to let their guy make the play,” Rosenmeier said. “We ran the ball hard, found some things that were working and were able to move the chains.”
Linden produced a touchdown pass of just over 40 yards on the game’s final play for the only points the Tiger offense put on the board.
“Our kids are really happy,” Rosenmeier said. “They were proud to go in there and have success. It was a really nice accomplishment.”
Cranford did a good job of limiting junior quarterback Zion Marshall and senior running back BJ George.
“One of the biggest keys was that our defense kept giving us the ball back,” Rosenmeier said. “It’s a good feeling to win a game and add a game to the schedule. It’s magical.”
That next game is at top-seeded Phillipsburg (8-1) Friday night at 7 at Maloney Stadium.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” Rosenmeier said.
Phillipsburg’s defensive coordinator is 1984 Cranford graduate Chris Hull, who was the head coach at Cranford from 1999-2004, leading the Cougars to the playoffs in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
Cranford was a possession away from reaching the 2003 North 2, Group 2 state championship game.
Hull’s quarterback in 2002, 2003 and 2004 is present Millburn head coach Chris Drechsel.
In his sixth season at the helm, Hull guided Morristown to the 2010 North 2, Group 3 state championship.
Rosenmeier was twice a resident of Phillipsburg, the first time from 1994-1997 and the second from 2001-2005.
In last year’s North 2, Group 3 first-round playoff game at Parsippany Hills – a 48-21 Cranford loss – it was the Cougars who returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
“Our second touchdown (by Schork) was also on a kickoff return,” Rosenmeier said.
Cranford’s last seven playoff appearances all came in Group 3, six of them in North 2 and its 2016 one in Central. Enrollment figures continue to increase.
“We’re more used to Group 3 and the usual suspects of schools like Rahway, Summit and Parsippany Hills,” Rosenmeier said.
Had Cranford lost to Linden, Rosenmeier said his team would not have played a consolation game.
“If we lost, that was it, nine games,” Rosenmeier said. “Our kids play other sports. It would have been time to let them go and play.”
NOTES: P-Burg football has been in North 2, Group 4 every year but one (2008 N2G3) since 2004. The Stateliners are 8-0 at home in N2, G4 semifinal games in that span.
The last time P-Burg lost a semifinal playoff game at home was in 2003 to Ridge 31-27 when the Stateliners were in N2, G3 that year.
WHAT CRANFORD IS UP AGAINST
THIS FRIDAY NIGHT AT PHILLIPSBURG:
PHILLIPSBURG HAS WON ITS LAST 8
SEMIFINAL PLAYOFF GAMES AT HOME – ALL
COMING IN NORTH 2, GROUP 4.
THE LAST TIME THE STATELINERS LOST AT HOME
IN A SEMIFINAL WAS IN 2003 IN
NORTH 2, GROUP 3.
* * *
HERE’S A LOOK AT PHILLIPSBURG’S
DOMINANCE AT HOME IN
NORTH 2, GROUP 4 SEMIFINAL GAMES
2004: Phillipsburg 14, Elizabeth 12
2005: Phillipsburg 56, Union 14
2006: Phillipsburg 42, Union 20
2009: Phillipsburg 35, Westfield 7
2013: Phillipsburg 42, Iselin Kennedy 14
2014: Phillipsburg 34, Woodbridge 13
2015: Phillipsburg 28, Colonia 13
2017: Phillipsburg 21, Irvington 20
* * *
PHILLIPSBURG’S LAST LOSS AT HOME IN
A SEMIFINAL GAME WAS IN 2003 WHEN THE
STATELINERS WERE IN NORTH 2, GROUP 3:
2003: Ridge 31, Phillipsburg 27
Phillipsburg moved into North 2, Group 4 in 2004 and has been in the section every year since but one – in 2008.
That year Phillipsburg was back in North 2, Group 3 and won that section, beating Rahway 20-6 in the final at Rutgers. P-Burg defeated Irvington 13-6 at Untermann Field in Newark in the semifinals.
The last time P-Burg lost a semifinal game was in 2010 at Piscataway 28-21.
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
THIS WEEK’S SCHEDULE:
Friday, Nov. 9 (3 games)
North 2, Group 5
3-Union at 2-Union City, 7 p.m.
North 2, Group 4
5-Cranford at 1-Phillipsburg, 7 p.m.
North 2, Group 3
7-South Plainfield vs. 3-Rahway, 7 p.m.
At Rahway River Park
Saturday, Nov. 10 (2 games)
North 2, Group 3
4-Montville at 1-Summit, 1 p.m.
Central Jersey, Group 2
5-Bernards at 1-Hillside, 1 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 8 (4 games)
Spotswood at Gov. Livingston, noon
Johnson at Chatham, noon
Plainfield at Paterson Eastside, 1 p.m.
Westfield at West Morris, 7 p.m.
LAST WEEK’S RESULTS:
Friday, Nov. 2 (5 games)
North 2, Group 5
Union 28, Elizabeth 17
Union City 21, Westfield 7
North 2, Group 4
Cranford 30, Linden 12
North 2, Group 3
Rahway 48, Parsippany 21
North 2, Group 1
Hasbrouck Heights 42, New Providence 0
Saturday, Nov. 3 (2 games)
Summit 57, Voorhees 39
Hillside 39, South River 0
Thursday, Nov. 1 (4 games)
Roxbury 14, Plainfield 13
Gov. Livingston 28, Carteret 25
Johnson 40, Spotswood 6
Wood-Ridge 19, Brearley 13
Saturday, Nov. 3 (2 games)
Scotch Plains 49, Kearny 0
Bogota 49, Dayton 7
THIS WEEK’S PLAYOFF PICKS (5):
Union over Union City
Phillipsburg over Cranford
Rahway over South Plainfield
Summit over Montville
Hillside over Bernards
Best bet: Rahway
Upset special: Union
Last week: 5-2
This year: 89-24 (.788)
Best bets: 9-1
Upset specials: 6-4
JR’S UNION COUNTY
8-New Providence (8-1)
Gov. Livingston (4-5)
Scotch Plains (1-8)