UNION – Just four plays into the game Union junior running back Diante Wilson set the tone for what was about to come. He burst through the middle of the line and then raced, untouched, into the end zone for the game’s first points.
With the Farmers ahead by six in the third quarter he broke several tackles on his way to a 66-yard gain to the Clifton five.
Then after Union’s defense came up with its biggest stop midway through the fourth quarter to prevent Clifton from taking its first lead, Wilson shook the stadium crowd by sprinting down the left sideline for a huge 69-yard touchdown run to give the host Farmers another two-touchdown lead with just over six minutes remaining.
Wilson might not have planned on being the game’s No. 1 star, but it worked out that way for the elusive runner, who carried the ball 14 times for 210 yards and his two scores, which were the game’s first and last.
“We found the holes and the success we had running just kind of happened,” said a modest Wilson on behalf of everyone on the Farmers who ran the ball.
Including seniors Andrew Sanborn and Christian Murrell combining for over 100 yards, top-seeded Union rushed for more than 300 on its way to a convincing 42-28 triumph over third-seeded Clifton in Friday night’s 8th annual North 2, Group 5 state championship game that was held at Union High School’s Cooke Memorial Field.
For the sixth time a team from Union County won North 2, Group 5, including Elizabeth the first one in 2012, Linden in 2014 and Westfield in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Ridge won in 2013 and Piscataway in 2018.
More importantly for Union it was the program’s first state championship since winning North 2, Group 4 for the record tenth time in 1993. Union lost its three previous state championship game appearances by a combined score of 97-20. The streak of not winning a state championship ends at 26 years.
To say this was sweet for the Farmers, who moved to 12-0 for the first time in program history, would be a mighty understatement.
“We read on social media how big their line was, but we just kept running, kept going at them,” said senior running back Christian Murrell, who carried the ball 14 times for 67 yards and one score and also caught a touchdown pass.
Sanborn was, well, Sanborn. He carried the ball four times for 45 yards, including a big 42-yard gain in the first half that led to a score. Sanborn also completed 11-of-14 passes for 115 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He completed eight-of-nine passes for 76 yards and one score in the first half.
To cement the theme of the number 11 it was Sanborn, No. 11, who completed 11 passes in helping lead the Union Farmers to their 11th state championship in the playoff era. It happened in the 11th month. I’ll stop right there.
“It’s already starting to sink in,” Sanborn said. “It’s been a great four years. We’ve really worked hard every day to get to this point.
“I grew up here and wanted to do this here, wanted to do this for the town, for the community.”
Union will next prepare for repeat North 1, Group 5 state champion Ridgewood (9-2) which defeated visiting Passaic Tech 10-7 Friday night in its sectional final.
The second Group 5 North 2 vs. North 1 Regional Championship Game will take place either next weekend or the first weekend in December, most likely at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. The schedule for the regional championship games, they are being called that this year instead of being called Bowl Games, should be released by the NJSIAA by Monday at the latest.
“We don’t want the season to be over,” Union standout junior Desmond Igbinosun said.
Ridgewood is another opponent Union has never faced. All three teams Union beat to win North 2, Group 5: Paterson Kennedy, West Orange and Clifton, Union never faced them before either.
Union is now one win away from reaching 13-0 status, which was produced for the first time in state history last year by Bowl Game champions Piscataway (North, Group 5), Ramapo (North, Group 3) and Haddonfield (South, Group 2).
Union received contributions from all three phases of the game. Offensively it was Wilson, Sanborn and Murrell leading the way.
“Our offense has been ruling for a couple of months now,” Igbinosun said.
Defensively the Farmers held Clifton at the Union 31 with under seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter after consecutive incomplete passes ended the only time Clifton had a chance to take the lead.
“Coach Dan (Grasso) is the best defensive coordinator,” Igbinosun said. “We stood up to them and we executed.”
On special teams senior Kayir McBride’s dazzing, 85-yard kickoff return right before halftime turned out to be the game-winning touchdown as it gave Union the lead for good at 20-14 following the second time Clifton tied the game.
Union also fell on its own kickoff in the third quarter to re-gain possession. Elijah White, who also had four big receptions for 57 yards including two in each half, came up with the ball. However, Union did not score on the ensuing drive.
Clifton also recovered an on-sides kick, which was the play in the fourth quarter that gave it back the ball after the Mustangs scored their final touchdown. Like Union, Clifton was unable to score after the execution.
However, throughout the game the Mustangs kept coming back time after time. Clifton answered Union touchdowns four times with touchdowns of its own. The Mustangs fought hard until the very end and have everything to be proud of after the performance they turned in.
Lead running back Christian Bonaparte certainly didn’t disappoint. The senior carried the ball 27 times for 197 yards and two touchdowns, including 140 yards in the second half.
“Clifton is tough,” Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. said. “The Bonaparte kid is every bit as good of a runner as advertised.”
Clifton sophomore quarterback Kyle Vellis also turned in a gutsy performance. He completed eight-of-20 passes for 159 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Vellis also found running room outside for several important gains.
Essentially it was a 6-4 touchdowns game in favor of Union.
“Our offense was able to make a couple of really big plays and our special teams have been pretty good all year,” Grasso said. “On defense we made a huge stop when we had to.”
Clifton will wrap its season at home on Thanksgiving against Passaic (6-3). This was the first time the Mustangs lost away from home this year in five games.
Union has now won seven straight games at Cooke Memorial Field, starting with last year’s 28-17 first-round playoff win over Elizabeth. The following week Union was defeated at Union City 46-6 in the semifinals, which is the last time Union lost.
“Any time a season ends that way sometimes you just want to forget it and put it behind you, but that loss did motivate us in a way,” Grasso said.
Friday night was simply the case of Union having too many options to go to. This Union offense is worthy of being ranked with any of the state championship Farmer teams of the past.
“Our teenagers are unselfish and guys don’t mind spreading it around,” Grasso said. “Our senior class is excellent and they put in a lot of hard work.
“We also have one of the best quarterbacks in state history.”
“Sticking together, coaching and just fighting through adversity is what got us through,” Sanborn said.
NOTES: Grasso joined his father Lou, Sr. as state championship coaches. Lou, Sr. guided Roselle to its only state championship in the playoff era, the 1989 North 2, Group 2 crown.
Two coaches now have led Union to state championships in the playoff era: Lou Rettino and Lou Grasso, Jr.
“No words can really explain how happy I am now,” Grasso said. “So much hard work goes into this. I’m really happy for the kids.”
Interceptions were produced by Clifton junior Caleb Bonaparte, preventing Union from going up by three scores in the third quarter, and by Union sophomore Davison Igbinosun, who seemed to have possibly wrestled the ball out of the arms of his older brother Desmond for the pick.
Union junior defensive end Terell Cannon produced a sack of Vellis for a seven-yard loss on Clifton’s final drive.
2019 NORTH 2, GROUP 5 STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
AT UNION HIGH SCHOOL’S COOKE MEMORIAL FIELD
3-Clifton (7-4) 07 07 07 07 – 28
1-Union (12-0) 07 13 07 15 – 42
Union – Diante Wilson 29 run, Ricardo Casas kick (U 7-0)
4 plays, 54 yards, 2:13 used
Key play of drive – Andrew Sanborn to Elijah White on left side
for 19-yard gain on Union’s first play from scrimmage.
Clifton – Christian Bonaparte 1 run, Cristian Esteves kick (7-7)
7 plays, 80 yards, 3:38 used
Clifton immediately answers Union’s first score.
Both teams scored on their first possessions.
Key play of drive – after a Union holding penalty extended
the drive, two plays later quarterback Kyle Vellis connected
with Caleb Bonaparte for a 37-yard gain to the Union 8.
Union – Christian Murrell 7 pass from Andrew Sanborn, Ricardo Casas kick
10 plays, 86 yards, 5:52 used
Key play of drive – On first-and-10 from his own 14 Sanborn got outside left
and ran down the sideline for a 42-yard gain on the first play of the drive.
Clifton – Caleb Bonaparte 43 pass from Kyle Vellis, Cristian Esteves kick
7 plays, 71 yards, 3:32 used
Clifton immediately answers Union’s second score.
Key play of drive – After five straight rushes by Christian Bonaparte, the
touchdown pass came with just over a minute remaining in the first half.
Union – Kayir McBride 85 kickoff return, kick failed (U 20-14)
This time Union immediately answered a Clifton score, with McBride running
to about the Clifton 40, finding his way through a scrum, and then bolting up the
middle of the field and into the end zone for six points.
Union – Andrew Sanborn 11 run, Ricardo Casas kick (U 27-14)
4 plays, 54 yards, 2:22 used
Key play of drive – Diante Wilson breaks tackles and scampers
for a 66-yard gain to the Clifton 5.
Clifton – Christian Bonaparte 6 run, Cristian Esteves kick (U 27-21)
9 plays, 78 yards, 3:43 used
Clifton immediately answers Union’s fourth score.
Clifton capitalized on a turnover – an interception by Caleb Bonaparte.
Key play of drive – Christian Boneparte had a 16-yard gain to the Union 13.
Including his TD, Boneparte carried the ball seven times on the drive for 69 yards.
Union – Christian Murrell 2 run, Ricardo Casas kick (U 34-21)
9 plays, 67 yards, 4:34 used
Key play of drive – On third-and-nine from the Clifton 18 Sanborn hit
Desmond Igbinosun over the middle for a 16-yard gain to the Clifton 2.
Clifton – Angel Payano 13 pass from Kyle Vellis, Cristian Esteves kick (U 34-28)
8 plays, 75 yards, 2:11 used
Clifton immediately answers Union’s fifth score.
Key play of drive – Christian Boneparte ran for 30 yards to the Union 13
for the third first down of the drive.
Union – Diante Wilson 69 run, Diante Wilson run (U 42-28)
1 play, 69 yards, :12 used
Key play of drive – Wilson broke free and scampered down left sideline.
Clifton was off sides on the extra point attempt, with the ball moving up
half the distance. Union then decided to go for two, with Wilson reaching
the end zone again.