Former Irvington player, assistant coach and head coach Darnell Grant left Irvington to take over as head coach at Shabazz in 2010.
With Shabazz dropped down to Group 2 at the time and now in a different conference he thought his days of preparing for the Union Farmers were done.
He then became the head coach at West Orange this year. Union has never played West Orange and since the NJSIAA went to reclassification in 2003 the Mountaineers were even moved from the section North 2 to North 1, so no chance of a possible playoff matchup either between the schools.
Then the state came up with another change to the playoff system this year, tweaking the matchups in an attempt to make the sections more evenly balanced.
So what happens? After double-digit first-round wins at home by both, we get fourth-seeded West Orange (7-3) at top-seeded Union (10-0) as the top side of the bracket North 2, Group 5 semifinal.
So now Grant – for the first time since September of 2008 – is once again producing a game plan to try to beat a Union Farmers team, although this time it will be to send the West Orange Mountaineers to their first-ever sectional state championship game.
Kickoff is Friday night at 7 at Union’s Cooke Memorial Field, the setting where Grant has played and coached against the Farmers many times.
“Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in,” said Grant in his best tongue-in-cheek Al Pacino playing Michael Corleone impression from “Godfather 3” (1990). “It’s all good. In the early part of my coaching career I spent a lot of time preparing for those (Union Farmers) guys.”
Grant, a 1991 Irvington graduate, played on the 1988 Blue Knights squad as a sophomore that upset Union 20-7 at home behind a monster performance from senior Derrick Gaddy. Grant then went on to beat Union the last five times he coached against them from 2004-2008, all season-openers.
Union hosting West Orange is one of three sectional semifinals involving Union County teams this weekend, all on Friday night. Westfield and Hillside are on the road. Here’s a closer look:
FRIDAY, NOV. 15
NJSIAA SECTIONAL SEMIFINALS
NORTH 2, GROUP 5:
4-West Orange (7-3) at 1-Union (10-0), 7 p.m.
West Orange defeated defending champion
Piscataway 30-18 at home in first-round play.
NORTH 1, GROUP 5:
4-Westfield (6-3) at 1-Ridgewood (7-2), 7 p.m.
Ridgewood is the defending champion.
SOUTH JERSEY, GROUP 2:
3-Hillside (9-0) at 2-Haddonfield (7-2), 7 p.m.
Haddonfield is the defending champion.
Hillside won Central Jersey, Group 2 the past two seasons.
Hillside’s head coach is Darnell Grant’s younger brother
Barris, a 1997 Irvington graduate.
When West Orange beat fifth-seeded Piscataway 30-18 at home last Friday night it was just the third playoff win in program history for the Mountaineers. The first came on Nov. 11, 2006 and the second on Nov. 12, 2011, both in North 1, Group 4. Those West Orange teams were guided by head coach John Jacob, who played his high school ball at Roselle Park for head coach John Wagner.
Here’s a closer look:
2011 NORTH 1, GROUP 4 – West Orange was 4th seed
(the state went to Group 5 in 2012)
West Orange 34, Livingston 9 – at West Orange
Montclair 42, West Orange 0 – at Montclair
2006 NORTH 1, GROUP 4 – West Orange was 2nd seed
West Orange 33, Bloomfield 21 – at West Orange
West Orange and Bloomfield both had yet to win a
playoff game heading into this first-round matchup.
Paterson Eastside 40, West Orange 20 – at West Orange
Darnell Grant has seen his share of elite quarterbacks. Union senior Andrew Sanborn is definitely among them.
“He’s exactly what I look for in a high school quarterback,” Grant said. “He makes all the throws, is good on his feet and makes the right decisions more than not. He’s a major weapon.”
Grant said Sanborn reminds him of two Class of 2013 signal-callers, Sonny Puzzo of Caldwell and P.J. Walker of Elizabeth.
“Sanborn plays with a lot of confidence,” Grant said.
Sanborn hooked up with junior wide receiver Desmond Igbinosun for three scores in Union’s 35-0 first-round triumph over eighth-seeded Paterson Kennedy. Senior receiver Ahmirr Robinson, headed for Rutgers, is a major threat at left end.
Other highly-capable targets Sanborn has the option to throw to include senior Kayir McBride and juniors Jalen Carter and Elijah White.
“Their receivers will be tough for us to deal with,” Grant said. “Igbinosun and Robinson are both very explosive. Any 50-50 ball thrown their way can take the game over for them.
“Union is a complete team. Offensively they don’t have a weakness. They are solid in the run game, passing game and play-action. They are going to be a lot to deal with.”
Grant succeeded Jeff Weiner, who moved over to Elizabeth, as head coach of Irvington in 2002, Grant’s first head coaching stint. The next year he had the Blue Knights in the playoffs for the first time since 1975 and as the top seed in North 2, Group 4. In the first round Irvington lost at home to eventual champion Piscataway, which defeated Union in the final as the eighth seed.
“I’m getting old I guess, I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Grant said. “That 2003 Irvington team was given a lesson of what it was like to be in the playoffs by Piscataway.”
Grant went on to lead Irvington to many other playoff seasons, including 2006 when the Blue Knights lost a tough 18-14 decision to New Brunswick in the North 2, Group 3 final at Rutgers.
Grant then guided the Shabazz Bulldogs to their only two state championships in the playoff era, North 2, Group 1 crowns in 2014 (8-4) and 2017 (12-0). Last year’s squad fell at home to undefeated Hasbrouck Heights 13-7 in the N2G1 final, but rebounded to win at Weequahic 6-0 in overtime to conclude its 2018 campaign at 10-2.
“I’m not a big fan of this year’s playoffs, the scenarios,” Grant said. “You shouldn’t need to have a math degree to figure out who you are going to play.
“It’s almost like the NCAA Tournament, like Selection Sunday. Who are you going to play? It’s exciting for the fans, but as a coach it gives you ogida.
“Now we have no idea and time on who to prepare for.”
Union first over Curtis of Staten Island by the score of 20-12 and then West Orange second by the score of 29-6 over Montclair both won their season-openers at Rutgers back on Sept. 7 in the second week of the Rumble at the Raritan contests.
“We got there early, our guys were getting ready, and I was able to see the end of Union’s game, it was close,” Grant said. “I was looking, but not really looking because I was so focused with our game against Montclair. Who knew then that we would end up being in the same bracket come playoff time.”
“As a player Union was always our big rival and as a coach Union was the gold standard at the time. We always wanted to beat Union. If you wanted to have a program that was going to be successful, you had to beat Union.
“They have been competitive over the years and Coach (Lou) Grasso does a great job of getting his kids ready to play. His team last year was similar to our team this year, they were 8-3 and an upstart. They play good competition.
“Now here we are, trying to play with the same kind of intensity I like. We’re now playing a seasoned, veteran group and we know that we’re in for some kind of challenge.”
At quarterback for the Mountaineers is junior Mason Murdock.
“We’re really happy with his play this year,” Grant said. “He has 21 touchdown passes, which is one shy of the school record, and only seven interceptions.
“He’s a heady kid who has gotten better each week. He’s learning, has a good arm and gives guys a chance to make big plays.”
One of those guys is junior running back Shakhi Carson, who has also received an offer from Kentucky. Carson had a big kick return for a touchdown vs. Piscataway.
Standout wide receivers include 6-5 junior Jason Raines and sophomore Makhi Green.
Defensive stalwarts are named Adonis May, a senior linebacker, and Dorian Rawls, a three-year starter in the secondary. May produced three sacks and an interception last Friday night.
“May makes a ton of plays,” Grant said. “He’s physical, fast and can rush the passer. He is getting a lot of FCS interest and will be offered.”
Grant took over the reigns from Jim Matsakis, who became the head coach in 2013 and that year led the Mountaineers to a 7-3 finish.
West Orange is now, for the third time in program history, four quarters away from playing for its first sectional title in the playoff era.
“That’s kind of why I came here, I wanted another challenge, to rebuild another program,” Grant said. “We’re a little bit ahead of schedule.
“West Orange won six games the last two years and graduated a big senior class. This is a brand new team. We wanted to at least be competitive right away.
“The kids are grasping what we’re teaching them, buying in and playing hard.
“Right now we’re playing with house money.”
More than two months ago when Union seventh-year head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. walked off the field at the place where he played his college ball in Piscataway he was just happy to be 1-0 at the time.
“It’s weird the way the sections are now, so that was the furthest thing from my mind,” Grasso said of a possible playoff meeting against West Orange. “By the time we were done they (West Orange) were still warming up. I would have loved to have stayed and watched their game, but it didn’t work out.”
Grasso on the Mountaineers: “they’re fast, explosive and Coach Grant does a good job of putting his players in position to make plays. They are battle-tested and have played in a lot of tough games. It will be a stiff challenge for us.”
Union is 10-0 for the first time since 1992 and is now two home wins away from capturing the program’s first state championship since 1993. The last time Union reached 11-0 status was when the Farmers defeated Randolph 21-7 at home to repeat as North 2, Group 4 champions in early December of 1992.
The Farmers are healthy, at home and the favorite. Does that add any pressure for winning another playoff game?
“Pressure is not the right word,” Grasso said. “We had some anxiety last week in the first round, but this kind of level in the playoffs brings on anxiety. We’re ready to go.”
All of what has to be done to win the game and advance is nothing new for a team that has won eight of its contests by double-digits, including the last seven. Union lost at Union City 46-6 in last year’s semifinals to conclude an 8-3 season that was left with unfinished business.
“If we don’t execute and turn the ball over, West Orange is a good team and they will make us pay,” Grasso said. “On a daily basis we’re (coaching staff) critical of them (Union players), coach them up and correct their mistakes.”
Those tasks are done to prevent the Farmers from becoming overconfident.
“I hope our kids are confident,” Grasso said. “But if they are overconfident that’s not a good thing.”
HILLSIDE GETS ANOTHER SHOT AT HADDONFIELD,
THIS TIME IN A SECTIONAL SEMIFINAL AS THE VISITING TEAM
Hillside was 11-0 and just repeated as Central Jersey, Group 2 state champions a year ago when the Comets were defeated by a 12-0 Haddonfield team 17-7 in the first Group 2 Bowl Game played at East Rutherford’s MetLife Stadium that featured the Central Jersey and South Jersey G2 champions.
Now third-seeded Hillside (9-0) will play at second-seeded and defending champion Haddonfield (7-2) Friday night in a South Jersey, Group 2 semifinal.
“It’s fitting,” fourth-year Hillside head coach Barris Grant said. “This is revenge-oriented. It was a chippy game last year.”
After having its bye week following a second straight 8-0 regular season it took Hillside until the third quarter to score against sixth-seeded Cinnaminson last Saturday. Trailing 2-0 at intermission, the host Comets exploded for touchdown runs of 69, 67 and 62 yards and went on to score five touchdowns total in the second half for a resounding 36-2 first-round triumph.
“If we stay in South Jersey, this could become a rivalry between us and Haddonfield,” Grant said. “The only drawback to this new system is not knowing where you will be.
“We’re a North Jersey school that’s placed in South Jersey.”
Hillside standout senior Nahree Biggins, also filling in at quarterback for fellow senior Gavin Melendez, scored the game-winning touchdown against Cinnaminson on a 69-yard run down the right sideline midway through the third quarter.
“Losing to Haddonfield last year was extremely tough,” Biggins said. “Even though we won another state championship there’s nothing better than finishing your season undefeated.”
WESTFIELD JUST SEEMS TO HAVE BR’S NUMBER COME PLAYOFF TIME;
IS ANOTHER MIRACLE IN STORE FOR BLUE DEVILS IN BERGEN COUNTY?
Westfield trailed visiting Bridgewater-Raritan 23-0 late in the third quarter of last Saturday’s North 1, Group 5 first-round encounter contested at Westfield’s Gary Kehler Stadium.
Not wanting to go out in the first round of a playoff section for the second straight season – a two-win Westfield team played tough before falling at Union City in last year’s North 2, Group 5 first round – the Blue Devils rallied to score the game’s final 27 points en route to a 27-23 win over the Panthers.
In regular season Mid-State 38 Conference non-division play back on Oct. 18 it was BR who held Westfield to its lowest-scoring game of the year in beating the Blue Devils 17-6.
However, when it comes to the playoffs, Westfield has BR’s number. Westfield also defeated BR in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 North 2, Group 5 state championship games.
Now it’s on to Bergen County for Westfield (6-3) as the Blue Devils will take on top-seeded and defending champion Ridgewood (7-2) in a North 1, Group 5 semifinal clash this Friday night.
When you have a head coach in Jim DeSarno, three undefeated state championships on his resume, and a Lehigh-bound senior quarterback in Hank Shapiro, one state championship on his, Ridgewood is surely taking notice of what is most likely the first meeting between the schools.
Westfield is now a road win away from reaching a sectional final for the fourth time in five seasons. The Blue Devils are the only team that beat North 2, Group 4 top seed and defending champion Phillipsburg (8-1), topping a 7-0 Stateliners squad 20-14 in overtime on Oct. 25 at Maloney Stadium.