LINDEN – While last season certainly did not have the ending the Tigers were seeking to produce, for their first eight games they were right up there with the best teams in the state.
A 7-1 record and seven-game winning streak at the time saw Linden give up no more than seven points in regulation time in any of its first seven games. Game No. 8 was a 21-14 win over Hillsborough.
Linden’s defense was dealing.
Offensively, the Tigers were excelling as well, led by senior running back B.J. George, who became the program’s all-time leading rusher with more than 1,500 yards.
After the winning streak was snapped at Ridge, with the Red Devils becoming the first team to score a bunch of points against Linden with a 29-13 triumph, Linden sought to bounce back big in the North 2, Group 4 playoffs.
It didn’t happen.
Instead it was Cranford who bounced back.
The Cougars came to Cooper Field and left with a 30-12 triumph, one week after losing at undefeated Hillside 39-10.
Instead of moving on to play at Phillipsburg in the next round, Linden was done for the 2018 season, finishing 7-3.
“Cranford ending our season, the kids that are back have not forgotten that,” fifth-year head coach Al Chiola said. “That taught us a lesson that we have to treat every game like it’s a big game.
“Our players now have a chip on their shoulder. That should provide extra motivation.”
Back to lead the spread offense is returning quarterback Zion Marshall, a three-year starter. His first game as Linden’s starting signal-caller was as a freshman on Thanksgiving Day 2016 at Union.
“Zion has come a long way since that Thanksgiving game,” Chiola said. “He’s our fastest kid. His gift is his legs.
“Last year he was able to make good decisions and didn’t force things, there were not many turnovers. He learned to take what was given at times.”
Replacing George’s production will not be easy.
The lead running backs are seniors Christian San-Clemente and Caleb Davis.
“Both couldn’t wait for their opportunities,” Chiola said. “Christian is tough and runs hard and Caleb is shifty.”
Leaders on defense include three-year starters Nashawn Holmes at inside linebacker and San-Clemente at safety and two-year starter Dami Awoyinfa at end. All three are seniors.
“They are the anchors,” Chiola echoed. “Holmes is the captain of our defense, San-Clemente is solid and Awoyinfa is dominant. They understand what we are teaching them.
“Our defense continues to be aggressive and physical, like last year.”
Chiola said the team’s biggest question mark is at the offensive line, with three starters (Samuel Aristizabal-Sanchez, Isiah Alejo and Kelvin Chinekezi) lost to graduation.
“We have a great group here,” Chiola said.
NOTES: Before embarking on its Mid-State Watchung Division schedule against Westfield, Watchung Hills, Elizabeth, Plainfield and Union, the Tigers will travel south – more than an hour away – to Toms River to open their season at Donovan Catholic.
“We were asked if we wanted to play on Week Zero or not and when the schedule came out we didn’t have a game on Week Zero,” Chiola explained. “We wanted to open that week and were told to put it out there to find a team on our own.
“We actually found several schools all over the state. I previously coached in the Shore Conference (assistant at Asbury Park), so we put it out there that we were looking for a game and the Donovan Catholic coach (Dan Curcione) reached out and we said yes.
“I think this is great for Union County, one of its teams going out to play a team from the Shore Conference. We know it will be a tough opener.”
Donovan Catholic, situated in Non-Public, Group 3, also fashioned a 7-3 record last year, but did so by winning its final two games.
Linden’s final three regular season games are its two Middlesex County crossovers against North Brunswick and St. Joseph’s, Metuchen and then vs. Ridge.
LINDEN’S SPREAD OFFENSE:
LT Sebastian Sanchez, junior, (6-2, 250)
LG Michael Martinez, senior, (6-0, 255)
C Syrus Casanas, senior, (5-9. 245)
RG Darrin Williams, senior, (6-1, 250)
RT Shawn Patterson, senior, (6-3, 315)
TE Dami Awoyinfa, senior, (6-0, 210)
WR Jaden Pierre, senior, (5-11, 170)
WR Sameer Scott, senior, (5-11, 180)
WR Jonathan Ortiz, senior, (5-7, 160)
QB Zion Marshall, senior, (5-11, 180)
RB Christian San-Clemente, senior, (5-11, 190)
RB Caleb Davis, senior, (5-7, 160)
PK Rafael Martinez, junior, (5-11, 160)
He will kick extra points.
PK Jonathan Rengifo, junior, (5-10, 160)
He will kick off and kick field goals.
Returning starters (5): Patterson, Scott,
Ortiz, Marshall, R. Martinez.
LINDEN’S 3-5 DEFENSE:
E Dami Awoyinfa, senior, (6-0, 210)
E Michael Martinez, senior, (6-0, 255)
NG Kenny Medina, junior, (6-2, 275)
OLB Sameer Scott, senior, (5-11, 180)
OLB Ramo Julius, senior, (5-10, 170)
MLB Darrin Williams, senior, (6-1, 250)
ILB Nashawn Holmes, senior, (5-11, 210)
ILB Michael Mitchell, senior, (5-8, 175)
CB Caleb Davis, senior, (5-7, 160)
CB Zion Marshall, senior, (5-11, 180)
S Christian San-Clemente, senior, (5-11, 190)
P Jonathan Rengifo, junior, (5-10, 160)
Returning starters (6): Awoyinfa, Scott,
Holmes, Mitchell, Davis, San-Clemente.
LINDEN TIGERS 2019
Sept. 6 at Donovan Catholic, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Westfield, 2 p.m.
Sept. 20 Watchung Hills, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 Elizabeth, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 at Plainfield, 2 p.m.
Oct. 11 Union, 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 at North Brunswick, 7 p.m.
Oct. 26 at St. Joseph’s, Metuchen, 1 p.m.
Nov. 1 Ridge, 1 p.m.
Head coach: Al Chiola,
2018 LINDEN TIGERS (7-3)
(A) Union 14, Linden 7 (OT)
(H) Linden 14, Westfield 7
(A) Linden 14, Elizabeth 3
(H) Linden 42, Plainfield 7
(A) Linden 42, Franklin 7
(A) Linden 35, Watchung Hills 7
(H) Linden 14, South Plainfield 0
(H) Linden 21, Hillsborough 14
(A) Ridge 29, Linden 13
(H) Cranford 30, Linden 12
Head coach: Al Chiola,
Section: North, Group 4
Conference: Mid-State 36
Division: Watchung, 4-1, tri-champs
Points for: 214
Points against: 118
Head Coach: Al Chiola, since 2015.
A 1992 Colonia graduate.
Fifth season: 22-18 (.550)
Conference: Mid-State 37
Section: North, Group 4
Linden’s last sectional title: 2014
2018: (7-3 and 4-1, tied for first in Watchung Division)
Cooper Field: Turf.
Chiola was an assistant coach at Asbury Park for
five seasons from 2002-2006 before joining Linden’s
staff in 2007. He was the offensive coordinator under
head coach Deon Candia for six seasons, 2009-2014.
Linden is 2-0 in sectional consolations games under
Chiola, with wins at Bayonne and home vs. J.P. Stevens.
Chiola guided the Tigers to the North 2, Group 4 playoffs
the past two seasons. Last year’s 7-3 squad won seven straight’
following a season-opening 14-7 loss at Union. Linden gave up
seven points or less (in regulation time) in each of its first
seven games a year ago.