As the season progressed schools in all five group sizes were making their case for what they hoped would be strong playoff runs.
Nine of Union County’s 16 teams qualified for the playoffs, with the Brearley Bears – who had a solid year and finished 6-3 – just missing in North 2, Group 1.
Three teams – Summit, Rahway and Hillside – reached state championship game and two – Summit and Hillside – reached their ultimate goal by winning state titles.
Rahway reached a state championship game for the first time in 10 years, Summit for the first time in five and Hillside – after taking nine years to produce its next season above .500 last year – repeated as a state champion for the first time.
Summit and Hillside also won division championships and so did New Providence, which bounced back after consecutive 1-9 seasons by playing a more representative Group 1 schedule.
Cranford – sparked by seniors James Shriner (RB) and Rob Schork (DL) and by junior quarterback Connor Katz – qualified for the playoffs for the eighth straight season and produced a winning record for the ninth consecutive year. Moving up to Group 4 this year, Cranford went to favored Linden and captured its first-ever playoff victory in North 2, Group 4.
Union reached the North 2, Group 5 semifinals for the fourth time in the past six seasons.
Summit and Rahway met in the North 2, Group 3 final for the second time and for the first time since 1980 at Giants Stadium. Summit won 38 years ago 10-7 to prevent Rahway from 3-peating.
Summit also won this time 36-14 in only the third state championship game played at its own Tatlock Field. It was Summit’s second state title won at home and first since 1993.
Summit lost at home to Rahway 45-37 in the first round of last year’s N2, G3 playoffs just two weeks after winning at Rahway 34-14 in a Mid-State 38 Conference-crossover clash at Rahway River Park.
Ten Union County schools produced winning seasons this year, including Gov. Livingston for the first time since 2008. GL topped New Providence on Thanksgiving for the fifth straight season.
GL and Johnson both won two consolations games to put themselves in a position to finish with a winning record.
In an increased climate where many schools are finding it more difficult to compete – forfeits are up because smaller schools simply don’t have the numbers – it appears that varsity football will be back at Roselle Park next season.
Roselle Park head coach Terry Hanratty reports that his numbers are up and that the Panthers will be back with a varsity team for the 2019 season.
Team of the Year: Hillside Comets
After winning Central Jersey, Group 2 for the first time last year as the seventh seed and with a 9-3 record, this year the Hillside Comets proved to be one of the most dominating teams in all of New Jersey.
Not only did Hillside repeat as CJ, G2 state champions and did so as the top seed – going from the hunter to the hunted – but the Comets reached 11-0 for the first time ever by outscoring all 11 foes by double-digit margins. Hillside outscored its three playoff opponents by a stellar 96-13 margin that included one shutout and victories over two teams the Comets also defeated in the regular season.
“It was a great season and we accomplished a lot,” third-year Hillside head coach Barris Grant said.
Hillside finished 11-1 after falling to repeat South Jersey, Group 1 state champ Haddonfield 17-7 in the first-ever South, Group 2 Bowl Game played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford on Dec. 1. Before that Hillside put together a 15-game winning streak that began with a regular season victory before last year’s playoff run.
Hillside’s first-time field turf was ready for its final regular season game, which was a dominating 39-10 win over Cranford on a Friday afternoon at John Zappulla Field. The Comets then won all three playoff games at home, including a state championship win over Manasquan.
Hillside won a state championship on its home field for the first time in only the second state championship game ever played at Hillside.
Coach of the Year: Dominic Cuniglio, Dayton
Did Kevin Kostibos do a great job at Summit this year? Yes.
Brian Russo at Rahway? Yes.
Dan Guyton at Gov. Livingston? Yes.
Chet Parlavecchio, Jr. at New Providence? Yes.
Scott Miller at Brearley? Yes.
I could go on and on.
Maybe this was Jim DeSarno’s best coaching job at Westfield despite the Blue Devils finishing 4-7? Who knows?
Erik Rosenmeier guided Cranford to the program’s first-ever playoff victory in Group 4, which clinched a ninth straight season of at least six Cougar victories. Before 2002 it used to take Cranford something like three years before it would win a total of six games.
This time I’m putting wins and losses aside. Although Dayton was the only Union County school that did not win a game on the field this season – the Bulldogs finished 2-7 with two forfeit victories – the fact that they were even competing on the gridiron was a huge triumph in itself.
“We opted to play a varsity schedule and the kids are playing to the best of their ability,” fifth-year Dayton head coach Dominic Cuniglio said following a late-season home game.
This came from a man who lives and breathes high school football. No one has more passion for the sport or his kids.
“We didn’t succumb to a JV schedule and ruin it for our seniors,” Cuniglio said. “We’ve played hard, yes against a Group 1 schedule, but the other Group 1 teams we’ve gone up against have been far more experienced.”
Every week it was Cuniglio, defensive coordinator Bob Martin and assistant coach Mike Abbate teaching, directing and guiding their players as they have done for some time now.
No, Dayton did not fill the win column, but the Bulldogs – sparked by promising sophomore defensive end Daniel Munoz (6-4, 220) – gave everything they had every week to be out there, competing, and trying to improve.
Offensive Players of the Year:
Max Jackson, Summit, senior, RB, (6-2, 210): Jackson was both prolific and consistent. Every single game it seemed like the opposition had major troubles trying to bring him down. That resulted in the announcer often yelling: “touchdown Jackson!”
Jackson set the Summit program record for rushing yards in a season this year with 1,796. He passed the previous mark of 1,579 set by Chris Zanelli in 2014. If you’re wondering where 1974 graduate Willie Wilson is on the list – he’s eighth with his senior season total of 1,118 in 1973 (obviously less games were played back then).
Jackson also set the school record for rushing yards in a single game with 249 at Scotch Plains on Sept. 29 – a 64-25 Hilltopper victory that saw him score three of his team-high 21 touchdowns. Jackson also led Summit in points scored with 148.
“Max is an incredibly hard worker who cares more about his teammates than himself,” Summit sixth-year head coach Kevin Kostibos said. “He’s more focused on trying to help others achieve.”
“Winning a state championship was great, especially since it was against the team (Rahway) that we lost to in the playoffs last year,” Jackson said.
Summit finished 10-2 after falling to North 1, Group 3 state champion Ramapo 36-22 in the first-ever North, Group 3 Bowl Game played on Nov. 24 at MetLife. Jackson scored Summit’s first two touchdowns in that contest and rushed for over 100 yards once again.
Jackson’s outstanding running helped Summit reach 10 wins for the first time in five years.
Andrew Sanborn, Union, junior, QB, (5-11, 180): Sanborn has a winning quality about him, one that he put on display late in the fourth quarter in comeback wins at home over Linden in the season-opener and at eventual North 2, Group 4 state champion Phillipsburg a few weeks later.
For the second straight season he passed for more than 2,000 yards, with 19 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. He carried the ball 55 times for 460 yards and five more TDs.
“It feels like Andrew has been here forever,” Union sixth-year head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. said. “He’s a special kid, a great teammate and a good leader. He’s coming into his own at the right time.”
When Sanborn helped lead Union to a come-from-behind 28-17 first round North 2, Group 5 home playoff win over arch rival Elizabeth on Nov. 2 – a game that saw Union running back Michel Lucien explode for three second half touchdowns – this is what he had to say afterwards: “this is the playoffs and we wanted to show that we belong.”
Union only trailed host Union City 14-0 at intermission the following week after twice being stopped inside the Union City five-yard line in the first half.
With Sanborn back under center for a third year next season Union will continue to seek that elusive state title once again in 2019.
Defensive Players of the Year:
Brian Ugwu, Hillside, senior, LB, (6-3, 230): He was the man in the middle for Hillside. If the running back got through the line he had to deal with Ugwu. Often times that running back went down, courtesy of another Ugwu tackle.
“I’ve seen him grow up from a young boy to a young man,” Hillside head coach Barris Grant said. “He put in the hard work.
“As a sophomore he liked playing the game. As a junior he proved that he could play the game.
“As a senior he showed what a great player he could be.
“He looks different. He’s not the same kid that wore No. 32 as a sophomore and had his breakout game vs. Johnson.”
Grant said that Ugwu plans on taking official visits to Rutgers, Pitt and Temple.
When Ugwu hit you he hit you hard and you felt it. He was a dominating presence on defense for the Comets and a big reason why Hillside was able to progress the way it has the past three seasons.
Among Ugwu’s 118 tackles were eight sacks. He also caused two fumbles and recovered one. Once again passing 1,000 rushing yards, he broke off a 71-yard touchdown run in Hillside’s state championship win at home over Manasquan.
Shimei Page, Rahway, senior, LB, (5-11, 220): Rahway led Union County with three shutouts. Leading the Indian defense – along with junior linebacker Qualil Lumpkins – was Rahway’s leading tackler Page. He was as consistent as a player could be defensively this year, one of the area’s top run-stoppers.
Page led Rahway in tackles in his final game for the Indians, a come-from-behind 34-13 Rahway win at Johnson on Thanksgiving. Against the Crusaders he produced six tackles and 11 assists for 17 total.
“Shimei was a leader for us back there along with players like Qualil and Joshua (Darisme),” Rahway fourth-year head coach Brian Russo said.
Page finished with 155 tackles, including three sacks.
Rahway posted shutouts over Cranford, Immaculata and Gov. Livingston, with Cranford and GL finishing over .500 and Immaculata at .500. Cranford and Immaculata made the playoffs.
Special teams standout: Nahree Biggins, Hillside, junior, KR, (6-0, 180): Biggins will be one of Union County’s biggest recruits next year. Among his 11 touchdowns scored were two on punt returns. He was as dangerous returning the ball on kicks as he was catching it, running it or even throwing it.
Biggins also caught six touchdown passes, ran for three scores and threw one touchdown pass.
“The Union Drive” enabled the Farmers to tie visiting Linden, with Union going on to beat the Tigers in OT on Opening Night: Just before the calendar turned to September, Union opened at home against former Thanksgiving Day rival Linden on Friday night, Aug. 31.
Linden led 7-0 and took that lead into the final minute of the fourth quarter. That was before Union junior quarterback Andrew Sanborn was able to lead the Farmers down the field and finally into the end zone with just 49 seconds remaining.
Here’s a look at that comeback drive by Sanborn and what resulted soon after:
On first and 10 from the Union 12 Sanborn completed a pass to junior wide receiver Ahmirr Robinson on the left that got the ball to the 30. After an illegal procedure call against Union pushed the Farmers back five yards, Sanborn hit Robinson again over the middle, this time for 16 yards to the 41 and a first down. Sanborn’s next pass was incomplete, his final incompletion of the game, which stopped the clock.
On second-and-10 from his own 41, Sanborn got out of the pocket and ran to the right side toward the Union sideline. Not only did Sanborn get out of bounds and pick up a few yards along the way, he was hit late by a Linden player. That gave Union 15 more yards and an automatic first down on the Linden 39 with 1:35 remaining. Union still had its one timeout.
Sanborn then connected with Robinson again, good for a seven-yard completion to the Linden 32. Moving the offense forward quickly and saving the team’s final timeout, Sanborn then threw a pass high over the middle to senior wide receiver Isaiah Stewart, who jumped up and with both hands came down with the reception in front of double coverage. That gave Union a first down at the Linden 11.
Sanborn then went back to pass again on the next play and threw the ball to the left side at the three, seeking to complete a pass against single coverage. The pass then deflected off, what looked like, both the Union receiver and the Linden player covering him.
The ball then popped up in the air and fell into the arms of Union sophomore wide receiver Jalen Carter, who was all alone in the end zone to make the dramatic touchdown grab. Carter was simply in the right place at the right time.
Last year Union lost three straight games by one point. That was not to be the case this time as first-year placekicker Ricardo Casas, a junior, was perfect with the game-tying extra point.
“The Union Drive” – as I call it – covered 88 yards in seven plays and took 1:23. The Farmers never had to use their final timeout, thanks to the smooth and highly-effective play of Sanborn, who was clutch big-time – along with his receivers – under pressure.
Linden got the ball back with just over 40 seconds to go and one carry by senior running back BJ George was stuffed for only a one-yard gain. George finished regulation with 49 yards on 26 attempts.
Overtime was next.
Union got the ball first and this time moved forward with a running attack up the middle that saw senior running back Justin Peterman gain 20 yards, four more on his next carry to the one and then fellow senior running back Michel Lucien taking it into the end zone to give Union its first lead. Casas again came through with a solid extra point to make the score 14-7 in favor of the Farmers.
When Linden got the ball George was held for no gain on first down. Then after an illegal procedure call against the Tigers this time, George bounced back to gain 10 yards to the Union 20. George was then stopped for a seven-yard loss by Union junior defensive end Sean Simmons and senior defensive back Jacqu’e Cook. On fourth-and-12 from the Union 27, Linden junior quarterback Zion Marshall completed a pass to the left side, but Union was quick to swarm to the receiver that caught it and brought him down to clinch a very satisfying comeback victory.
Union defeated Linden for the third straight year and now leads the series 39-32-5.
Sanborn completed 11of-21 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown. He did not throw an interception and showed great poise in leading Union down the field for the tying touchdown.
Plainfield produces first shutout in eight years: The Cardinals went 2-9, winning at Watchung Conference foe Watchung Hills 22-21 in their second game and then in their second-to-last contest they won at Paterson Eastside 18-0 in a consolation game on Nov. 8.
The win at Eastside was Plainfield’s first by shutout since the Cardinals blanked Somerville 7-0 in Somerville on Sept. 24 of 2010.
Coaches have milestone victories on horizon in 2019: Westfield’s Jim DeSarno has already won over 100 games, including his first head coaching stint at Kinnelon. However, he is three wins away from reaching his 100th win at Westfield.
DeSarno’s 13-season record at Westfield – including a 37-game winning streak that came to an end this year – so far is 97-43 (.693).
Erik Rosenmeier’s 14-season record at Cranford reads 96-50 (.658). Rosenmeier is four wins shy of reaching 100 for the first time.
Here’s a year-by-year look at DeSarno’s record at Westfield and Rosenemeier’s at Cranford:
Jim DeSarno’s first 13 seasons at Westfield:
2017: (12-0) – N2, G5 champs
2016: (12-0) – N2, G5 champs
2015: (12-0) – N2, G5 champs
2014: (7-4) – N2, G5 semifinals
2013: (6-4) – N2, G5 first round
2011: (7-3) – N2, G4 first round
2010: (7-3) – N2, G4 first round
2009: (8-3) – N2, G4 semifinals
2008: (7-3) – N2, G4 first round
2007: (7-4) – N2, G4 semifinals
Total: 97-43 (.693)
Erik Rosenmeier’s first 14 seasons at Cranford:
2018: (6-4) – NJ, G4 semifinals
2017: (6-4) – NJ, G3 first round
2016: (7-3) – CJ, G3 first round
2015: (12-0) – N2, G3 champs
2014: (11-1) – N2, G3 finalist
2013: (7-4) – N2, G3 semifinals
2012: (7-3) – N2, G3 semifinals
2011: (10-1) – N2, G3 champs
Total: 96-50 (.658)
4-New Providence 287
Least points against:
5-New Providence 157
Best point differential:
4-New Providence: 287-157=130
Scored more points than given up:
New Providence 130
2-Summit, Elizabeth, Hillside, New Providence
1-Brearley, Linden, Cranford, Johnson, Westfield,
Plainfield, Scotch Plains
1-0: Union, Roselle, New Providence
0-1: Brearley, Linden
Best home records:
Gov. Livingston (4-1)
8-New Providence (3-1)
Best road records:
New Providence (5-1)
Raritan: Summit (5-0)
Union:New Providence (6-0)
Valley: Hillside (4-0)
Watchung: Union (4-1), Elizabeth (4-1), Linden (4-1)
New Providence (8-2)
Gov. Livingston (6-5)
Playoff qualifiers, record:
Summit (3-0) – N2, G3 champs
Hillside (3-0) – CJ, G2 champs
New Providence (0-1)
JR’s FINAL PICKS FOR 2018:
Best bets: 11-1
Upset specials: 8-4
Overall record: 98-26 (.790)
UNION COUNTY TOP 10
9-Gov. Livingston (6-5)
10-New Providence (8-2)
Scotch Plains (1-8)