Hillside football to host only second state championship game on its field and first in 35 years; Nov. 17 battle pitting Manasquan at Hillside will be clash of last 2 CJ, G2 state champions

PHOTOS BY JR PARACHINI – Hillside will host Manasquan in the 2018 Central Jersey, Group 2 state championship game – to be played Nov. 17 at John Zappulla Field.

HILLSIDE – Yankee Stadium is referred to, for example, as The Stadium, the home of the Bronx Bombers, and most appropriately – The House that Ruth built.
There’s another field that has multiple names.
That’s where the Hillside Comets football team calls home.
Now with field turf for the first time, we can start with Woodfield Stadium at Conant Park – the field off Conant Street.
“It’s not really part of Conant Park, though,” says 1986 Hillside High School graduate Jim Hopke.
How about John Zappulla Field at Woodfield Stadium? The field was dedicated in 2015 to longtime assistant coach and Hillside educator John Zappulla, who passed away in June of 2015 at the age of 76.
“That sounds right,” Hopke says.
For only the second time – and the first time in 35 years – Hillside will play a state championship game on its home field.
On Saturday at 1 p.m. the top-seeded and defending champion Comets – 10-0 for the first time – will host second-seeded Manasquan (8-1) in this year’s Central Jersey, Group 2 state championship game. It will be a battle of the last two CJ, G2 state champions.
Last year Hillside captured CJ, G2 for the first time, beating top-seeded and 11-0 Point Pleasant Boro 20-13 in the final at Rutgers. It was Hillside’s second state championship in the playoff era and first in 32 years. Hillside’s first was when the Comets captured North 2, Group 2 in 1985.
Hillside also became the first school from Union County to win a state championship in a Central Jersey section.
Now the Comets are preparing to repeat and do so against a Shore Conference school – Manasquan – which is 5-0 vs. Union County schools in the CJ, G2 playoffs the past 10 years. In the 2008 CJ, G2 final at Rutgers, the Warriors came back in the second half to defeat Johnson of Clark 19-14.
Manasquan last won a state title in 2016 when the Warriors last captured CJ, G2. Manasquan has won 12 state championships in the playoff era, with a state championship game record of 12-6.
Hillside is 2-1 in state championship games. Its first one was played on its home field in 1983. Top-seeded Hillside lost a close 16-8 game to defending champion and second-seeded Butler.
Hopke, who has been a health and physical education teacher at Hillside High School now for 27 years, remembers the game well.
As a sophomore that 1983 season was his first on the varsity with Larry Coppola in his second-to-last year as the head coach.
“I remember a lot of starters were rested on Thanksgiving against Dayton that year and I had a good game,” Hopke recalled. “I got to start the championship game on defense (at end).”
The year before in 1982 Butler captured the first of its seven state championships in the playoff era, blanking Caldwell 23-0 at home in the first North 2, Group 2 final it participated in.
“Butler had a pretty good passer and we wanted more pressure,” Hopke said.
“We had these cold, little, tiny locker rooms that Pop Warner also used.
“The crowd, it was five deep the entire length of the field. I never saw that many people before.
“When we walked out it was a little intimidating at first, but we were home and we were feeling good with the crowd behind us. It was cold and muddy, but a great experience.”
That Hillside team was sparked by the outstanding play of senior Darrell Gordon who went on to excel collegiately at Notre Dame. Gordon was a starting outside linebacker for third-year head coach Lou Holtz on the 1988 Fighting Irish squad that went 12-0 and captured the program’s last National Championship – beating West Virginia 34-21 in the Fiesta Bowl.
In 2003 Gordon, who resides in Indiana, received The National Williams D. Reynolds Award by the Notre Dame Alumni Association for performing exceptional work with youth for the betterment of the quality of life.
Hopke remembered that Hillside dropped a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
“Coach Coppola said he was very proud of us and that we came so close,” Hopke said. “No other Hillside team had ever reached a state final up until that point.”
After a so-so year in 1984, Jerry Alexander took over as head coach in 1985. Hillside went 10-1, with its only loss to Immaculata. That season the Comets were the second seed in North 2, Group 2.
First came a 25-20 win at home over third-seeded and defending champion Dover. Then came a 13-12 win at top-seeded Madison for Hillside’s first state championship in the playoff era.
“Having never won it before, it was something really special,” said Hopke, who also started in that game, which was the last high school game he ever played.
“I remember each week it seemed like we had a close game that year. Also, every week we weren’t picked.”
The 1985 season was a special one for Union County football. Union County swept North 2 (back then the geography was every simple – 4 counties: Warren, Morris, Essex and Union), with Union winning Group 4 for the fifth time in the playoff era, Linden Group 3 for the first time, Hillside Group 2 for the first time and Brearley Regional Group 1 – over neighborhood rival Roselle Park in the final – for the second time.
“It was a good year for Union County, no doubt,” Hopke said.
Hillside actually made the playoffs three years in a row back then. The 1982 team also made the grade in North 2, Group 2 and according to gridironnewjersey.com is listed as the top seed that year.
Hillside lost to fourth-seeded Caldwell 44-26 in the first round. A freshman that fall, Hopke remembers that Hillside traveled to Caldwell to play that game despite being the higher seed.
After Hillside lost a 14-13 decision at home to arch rival Roselle in its 2008 regular season finale the Comets played their two playoff games that season at Union. Hillside was the top seed again in North 2, Group 2.
“That game against Roselle the field was so muddy and chewed up afterwards that I don’t think it was deemed playable afterwards,” Hopke said.
Hillside ousted eighth-seeded Orange 13-6 in the first round and then on a very cold Friday night at Union’s Cooke Memorial Field the Comets – who returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown – fell just short of beating fifth-seeded Caldwell 28-21. Hillside turned the ball over six times, with the last four coming in the fourth quarter. Despite the miscues Hillside was still in the game until the very end.
New grass was put down on the Hillside’s field shortly after.
The field and the program goes back nearly 100 years.
“I’m guessing the 1920s at least,” Hopke said.
According to the book: What It Means To Wear The Red And Black – 100 Years Of Rahway High School Indian Football (written by former Rahway player Bobby Akbar (McClain)), the first year Rahway played Hillside was 1933 – a 7-6 season-opening Rahway victory.
“We found an old ticket from when Hillside played Weequahic, which was from the 1950s,” Hopke said. “Hillside played Weequahic on Thanksgiving years ago.”
Not only is Hillside 10-0 for the first time, but the Comets outscored all 10 opponents by double digits. Hillside also presently leads all Union County schools with a 14-game winning streak.
Hillside has never won state championships in back-to-back years.
For 50 years Zappulla was an assistant coach at Hillside under numerous head coaches. His tenure began in 1963 and lasted through the 2014 season.
“John Zappulla was the face of Hillside High School and a big part of it,” Hopke said. “One day he was my elementary school teacher and the next he was one of my coaches in high school.”
After serving as an assistant coach at Johnson for one year, Hopke was an assistant coach at Hillside and coached with Zappulla from 1992-1998.
Hopke was Hillside’s head coach from 1999-2007, in between Gary Westbury and John Power, who is presently the head coach at Morristown. Hopke guided the 2000 Comets to a 9-2 record that included them reaching the North 2, Group 2 semifinals.
John Kaye, who just stepped down as head coach at Matawan, also had a solid run as head coach of the Comets, leading three straight non-playoff teams to seven-win seasons in 1992, 1993 and 1994. One of those players – running back Kendall Ogle – went on to star collegiately at Maryland and play in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns. Kaye guided Matawan to the 2014 Central Jersey, Group 3 state championship, with freshman QB George Pearson leading the Huskies.
“When I was the head coach John Zappulla coached the defensive backs and the wide receivers,” Hopke said.
“We would have him at our house every year for Thanksgiving.”
Born in Plainfield, raised in Garwood and a resident of Rahway, Zappulla was a highly-respected Hillside football coach for half a century.
“We used to give out the John Zappulla Award for the kid that showed the most determination,” Hopke said. “When John had a heart attack, the first question he asked the doctor was, ‘when can I go back and coach again?’
“He loved coaching that much and he meant so much to Hillside football.”