Eight teams preparing to take what they hope will be the first of three steps.
The ladder to a state championship begins this weekend and you better bundle up.
Teams begin the pre-season suffocating in brutal August heat.
Now in order to reach their ultimate goal teams will see their breath right in front of them.
Union County football will be represented eight times for this first round of the NJSIAA playoffs, three times on Friday night, with temperatures possibly dipping to below freezing, and on five more occasions Saturday, with temperatures to barely get above 42 degrees for 1 p.m. kickoffs.
Union, which is Union County’s only 9-0 team, has never won North 2, Group 5, coming its closest in 2013 when the Farmers were humbled by Ridge 48-13 in the final at Rutgers. Union is now the top seed and is two wins away from hosting a state championship game for the first time since 1992. The Farmers last won a state title in 1993, long before any of the constant changes that have been made to this state’s playoff system.
Union (9-0) will host eighth-seeded Paterson Kennedy (4-4) Friday night at 7 at Cooke Memorial field. It will be the first playoff meeting between the two.
Union is 9-0 for the first time since 1992 and has won seven of its games by double digits, including one by shutout. The Farmers also captured the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Watchung Division championship perfect at 5-0 after sharing the crown with Linden and Elizabeth a year ago.
Westfield (5-3) is situated in North 1, Group 5 for the first time and gets to host fellow Mid-State 38 Conference squad Bridgewater-Raritan (4-5) on Saturday. The teams clashed in a non-division contest in Somerset County on Oct. 18 with the Panthers coming out on top 17-6. That was the least amount of points Westfield scored in any game this season.
Union, guided by standout senior quarterback Andrew Sanborn and Westfield, led by Lehigh-bound senior QB Hank Shapiro, are both three wins away from facing each other in a bowl game. Wouldn’t that be something?
Cranford, sparked by the play of senior quarterback Connor Katz, may now have the record for playing playoff games in the most different sections. Cranford first qualified in North 2, Group 4 in 1975 and when the Cougars next made the playoffs in 2002 they did so in North 2, Group 3.
Then Cranford qualified in North 2, Group 2 in 2003 and in Central Jersey, Group 2 in 2004.
When Cranford made the playoffs again in 2011 it was in North 2, Group 3. The Cougars made the playoffs in N2G3 for five straight seasons, 2011-2015, before being moved over to Central Jersey, Group 3 in 2016 and making it in that section that year.
After qualifying again in N2G3 in 2017, Cranford was moved back to N2G4 and qualified again in that section last year.
Now Cranford, 5-3 and the fifth seed, is in North 1, Group 4 for the first time and will play at fourth-seeded Irvington (6-3) Saturday at 4 p.m. The section N1G4 is the sixth different section Cranford is playing in come playoff time.
Cranford has also now qualified for the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season and has clinched a winning record for the 10th straight year.
CRANFORD APPEARANCES IN THE STATE PLAYOFFS:
North 2, Group 4: 2 times
North 1, Group 4: once
North 2, Group 3: 7 times
Central Jersey, Group 3: once
North 2, Group 2: once
Central Jersey, Group 2: once
Last year in N2G4 Cranford upset fourth-seeded Linden as the fifth seed, winning 30-12 after giving up a touchdown on the opening kickoff and losing its best player, James Shriner, to a game-ending injury early in the first quarter.
Cranford’s last two playoff openers included the opening kickoff returned for a touchdown, the Cougars doing so in a loss at Parsippany Hills in 2017.
While members of the Watchung Conference, Cranford and Irvington clashed when both were on winning streaks in 2003. Cranford was 7-1 and winners of three straight and Irvington was 6-1 and on a five-game winning streak when the Blue Knights came to Cranford’s Memorial Field and walked away with a 30-0 win the week before the playoffs.
Cranford rebounded the next weekend to beat Voorhees 28-21 at home for the program’s first-ever playoff victory.
In 2004 both teams were 6-1 and on five-game winning streaks when they met at Irvington’s Matthews Field on the weekend before the playoffs. In head coach Chris Hull’s final road game at the helm of the Cougars, Group 2 Cranford came away with one of its best regular season victories at the time, turning away Group 4 Irvington 28-25 behind senior quarterback Chris Drechsel, now the head coach at Millburn. The only downside for Cranford was that standout senior Jamar Ingram suffered an injury and was unable to play in the following week’s CJG2 home playoff game against Rahway, which Cranford lost as the second seed.
Irvington and Cranford played again for the final times in 2005, a 21-14 Irvington win at Cranford, and in 2006, a 37-20 Irvington triumph at Irvington on Nov. 4. The teams have not clashed since.
Cranford, guided by present head coach Erik Rosenmeier in both of those games, moved to the Mountain Valley Conference for 2007.
Since 2007 Irvington’s Matthews Field has not only upgraded to field turf, but also has lights. While Saturday’s 4 p.m. kickoff might not merit the game starting with the lights on you can be sure that the game will end with them lit.
Last year Rahway and Summit faced each other in the North 2, Group 3 state championship game, with Summit coming out on top. This year both schools were placed in North 1, Group 3 for the first time in their playoff histories and are seeded on opposite sides of the bracket.
Fifth-seeded Summit (6-2) will face fourth-seeded West Side (8-1) in the playoffs for the first time, with Saturday’s 1 p.m. game scheduled to be played at Untermann Field in Newark. West Side was 8-0 before falling at West Essex 23-20 in overtime last Friday night.
The Hilltoppers are lifted by the play of senior running back Joe Lusardi.
Second-seeded Rahway (6-2) will host seventh-seeded Bergen County school Garfield (6-2) – I think – on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Rahway River Park. An Indians victory would pit them against another Bergen County school in the semifinals, the winner of Demarest at Pascack Valley. Top-seeded Ramapo, another Bergen County school, is the defending champion and the team that defeated Summit in last year’s N2 vs. N1 state champions Bowl Game at MetLife Stadium.
Rahway is sparked by the efforts of senior middle linebacker Qualil Lumpkins.
Side note: nj.com has the game scheduled to be played Saturday, while gridironnj.com has the game scheduled to be played Friday.
Rahway, Summit and Somerville shared the Mid-State’s Mountain Division championship this year, each finishing 5-1. Rahway defeated Summit, Summit defeated Somerville and Somerville defeated Rahway.
Hillside just completed a second straight 8-0 regular season but will not be able to defend its back-to-back Central Jersey, Group 2 state championships. That’s because the state put the Comets in South Jersey, Group 2 for the first time. Hillside won the Mid-State’s Valley Division championship for the second straight season, both times at 4-0.
Third-seeded Hillside (8-0) will host sixth-seeded Cinnaminson (4-4) Saturday at 1 p.m. at John Zappulla Field. The Comets outscored eight foes by a 325-28 margin that includes five shutouts and only four touchdown scores against. Hillside has won seven games by double digits.
Conversely, Cinnaminson was 1-4 and shut out twice in three weeks before putting together three straight wins entering the playoffs.
If Hillside and second-seeded Haddonfield win their first-round games then the two will meet in Haddonfield in the semifinals. Haddonfield defeated Hillside in last year’s Central Jersey vs. South Jersey state champions Bowl Game at MetLife, a game the Comets entered at 11-0 for the first time in their history.
Haddonfield was one of the first teams in state history to finish 13-0 a year ago. After a 4-0 start this year the Bulldogs lost back-to-back games to St. Joseph’s, Hammonton and West Deptford.
Hillside, lifted by Division 1 senior recruit Nahree Biggins, is 28-4 since the start of the 2017 season and will enter its 2020 campaign with a 17-game regular season winning streak. Since the week before the 2017 playoffs Hillside is 23-1.
Group 1 schools Brearley and New Providence were placed in different sections.
Brearley, which defeated New Providence 35-13 at home last Friday night to capture the Mid-State’s Union Division championship, is in North 2 as the sixth seed. The Bears (8-1 and winners of eight straight) will play at Untermann Field on Friday night when they take on third-seeded Weequahic (4-4).
Brearley’s only setback was at home to Cedar Grove in its season-opener by the score of 31-7 back on Sept. 6. Weequahic evened its record last Friday night with a 36-24 home triumph over Cedar Grove.
Brearley, led by junior quarterback Dan Ramos, is in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and seeking its first playoff win since reaching the North 2, Group 1 state championship game in 2015.
Brearley’s last road playoff win was at South River 26-15 on Nov. 14, 2009 in Central Jersey, Group 1 first-round play.
New Providence, sparked by sophomore running back Charlie Barth, was placed in North 1, Group 1 for the first time after, in its playoff history, participating in North 2, Group 2; North 2, Group 1 and Central Jersey, Group 1.
The Pioneers (6-2) are the eighth seed and will travel to Bergen County again to face top-seeded Cresskill (6-2) Friday night. The Cougars were 6-0 before falling at Park Ridge and at Waldwick the past two weekends.
Last year as the seventh seed in N2G1 New Providence fell at eventual champion Hasbrouck Heights 42-0. The second-seeded Aviators won the section perfect at 11-0 and then finished 12-0 after beating Butler in the N2 vs. N1 state champions Bowl Game at MetLife.
New Providence’s last road playoff win was at Secaucus 39-20 on Nov. 15, 2013 in North 2, Group 1 first-round play.
FRIDAY, NOV. 8 (3 games)
North 2, Group 5
8-Paterson Kennedy at 1-Union, 7 p.m.
North 2, Group 1
6-Brearley vs. 3-Weequahic, 7 p.m.
At Newark’s Untermann Field
North 1, Group 1
8-New Providence at 1-Cresskill, 7 p.m.
SATURDAY, NOV. 9 (5 games)
North 1, Group 5
5-Bridgewater-Raritan at 4-Westfield, 1 p.m.
North 1, Group 3
5-Summit vs. 4-West Side, 1 p.m.
At Newark’s Untermann Field
7-Garfield at 2-Rahway, 1 p.m.
South, Group 2
6-Cinnaminson at 3-Hillside, 1 p.m.
North 1, Group 4
5-Cranford at 4-Irvington, 4 p.m.
JR’s PLAYOFF PICKS (8):
Union over Paterson Kennedy
Brearley over Weequahic
Cresskill over New Providence
Westfield over Bridgewater-Raritan
Summit over West Side
Rahway over Garfield
Hillside over Cinnaminson
Cranford over Irvington
Best bet: Union
Upset special: Brearley
Last week: 12-2
This year: 82-30 (.732)
Best bets: 8-1
Upset specials: 2-7