In New Jersey now if you are good and fortunate enough to win a state championship, which means winning three sectional playoff games in three weeks, you then run the risk of failure afterwards.
Last year Hillside was among New Jersey’s state championship football teams that concluded their campaigns with a season-ending loss.
Hillside’s first 11-0 squad a year ago fell to 12-0 Haddonfield 17-7 at MetLIfe Stadium in the first Group 2 Bowl Game featuring the Central Jersey champ clashing with the South Jersey winner.
Hillside is 11-0 once again. This time the Comets, winners of South Jersey, Group 2 for the first time, will face either Cedar Creek or Camden in the first billed South, Group 2 Regional Championship Game, set to kick off Sunday, Dec. 8 at 1 p.m. at Rutgers. It was at Rutgers two years ago where Hillside won its first state championship since 1985 when it downed Point Pleasant Boro 20-13 in the 2017 Central Jersey, Group 2 state championship game.
“Losing to Haddonfield last year was extremely tough,” Hillside senior Nahree Biggins said. “Even though we won another state championship there’s nothing better than finishing your season undefeated.”
Hillside repeated as Central Jersey, Group 2 state champs last year, but was unable to win a bowl game and finish its state championship-season undefeated.
This year the games are now called Regional Championships, with trophies to be awarded afterwards.
“This group is one win away from perfection,” Hillside fourth-year head coach Barris Grant said. “If we win this last game we can say that this is the best Hillside team ever at 12-0.
“If you want to be great you need to be in a constant chase for something.”
Because of the tragic off-the-field shooting that took place at the Nov. 15 Central Jersey, Group 2 semifinal which featured Camden at Pleasantville, Hillside is awaiting the winner of this Saturday’s Camden at Cedar Creek CJG2 final before it can prepare for this season’s final showdown.
Camden and Pleasantville continued their game Nov. 20 at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles, with Camden coming out on top 14-0.
Camden (8-2) is still playing on Thanksgiving Thursday at Woodrow Wilson and will then play at Cedar Creek (9-2) just two days later on this Saturday. Cedar Creek does not play on Thanksgiving.
Camden and Woodrow Wilson have been playing each other on Thanksgiving since 1933.
“The fact that Camden is playing its playoff game two days later says a lot,” Grant said. “The Camden and Pleasantville kids have been through a lot.”
Hillside has outscored its 11 foes by an impressive 410-40 margin. However, the Comets had zero points at halftime in their first playoff game vs. Cinnaminson and also in last Friday night’s sectional final at West Deptford.
Hillside trailed sixth-seeded Cinnaminson 2-0 at intermission and then scored five touchdowns at home to win 36-2.
Last Friday night the visiting Comets trailed top-seeded West Deptford 7-0 after two quarters and then fell behind 10-0 in the third quarter before Biggins found senior wide receiver James Westry open for a touchdown that cut the lead to 10-7, still in the third.
Then in the fourth quarter Biggins cramped up and fellow senior Gavin Melendez went in at quarterback for the first time since he suffered a dislocated hip injury in Hillside’s third game. Melendez came back on the field to rotate at defensive end when the playoffs commenced, with Biggins continuing at quarterback.
After Jonathan Delva forced a fumble that Tyler Gardner recovered for the Comets, Grant inserted Melendez under center. Melendez was able to find Westry for a touchdown pass that put Hillside in front for the first time at 14-10. The score remained that way the final seven minutes, with Melendez finishing as Hillside’s signal-caller for the first time since game No. 2.
“Throwing Gavin in was the perfect fit,” Grant said. “We called for play-action and he was able to hit Westry.”
Westry, who grew up in Hillside, played his first three years at DePaul. This time he was able to be part of and celebrate a state championship with his hometown team.
“This was probably the toughest three-game run we’ve had here,” Grant said. “We had to stop the big lineman (Boston College-bound Cam) Horsley when we played Cinnaminson and there was the revenge factor with Haddonfield. West Deptford and Haddonfield are the top programs down here, have won the most.”
Two years ago Hillside became the first team from Union County to win a state championship in a Central Jersey section. Now the Comets are also the first team from Union County to win a state crown in a South Jersey section.
“It’s crazy all the traveling we’ve done in the past month,” Grant said.
Hillside has now won 26 of its last 27 games dating back to November of 2017. The Comets will take a nine-game sectional playoff winning streak into their 2020 season.
“It took a lot to overcome West Deptford,” Grant said. “We did so with our best player, Nahree Biggins, not on the field for the play where we caused the fumble and for the play where we scored the go-ahead touchdown.”
Hillside held West Deptford to its lowest point total since the Eagles were defeated at Camden 12-7 in last year’s South Jersey, Group 2 semifinals.
“We played really good defense in the second half,” Grant said. “In the first half West Deptford did a good job of keeping the ball away from us. We only had nine offensive plays.
“The only way to be quick-strike is to possess the ball and that’s what we were able to do better in the second half.”
Hillside played eight straight weeks, repeating as Mid-State 38 Conference-Valley Division champions, and had its bye week right before the playoffs. Now the Comets will next play 16 days after beating West Deptford.
“As a program we will take this time to heal,” Grant said. “It takes so much out of you to win a sectional title.”
HILLSIDE COMETS (11-0)
(A) Hillside 54, Spotswood 0
(H) Hillside 20, Bernards 7
(H) Hillside 34, Johnson 7
(H) Hillside 47, Roselle 0
(H) Hillside 48, South River 0
(A) Hillside 49, Bishop Ahr 0
(A) Hillside 20, Delaware Valley 14
(H) Hillside 53, Bound Brook 0
(H) Hillside 36, Cinnaminson 2
(A) Hillside 35, Haddonfield 0
(A) Hillside 14, West Deptford 10
Dec. 8 Camden/Cedar Creek
at Rutgers, 1 p.m.
Head coach: Barris Grant,
Section: South, Group 2
Conference: Mid-State 38
Division: Valley, 4-0 champs
Points for: 410
Points against: 40
2019 SOUTH JERSEY, GROUP 2 PLAYOFFS
Friday, Nov. 8
West Deptford 49, Sterling 0 – at West Deptford
Haddonfield 28, Shore 14 – at Haddonfield
Saturday, Nov. 9
Hillside 36, Cinnaminson 2 – at Hillside
Delran 29, Manasquan 14 – at Manasquan
Friday, Nov. 15
West Deptford 56, Delran 17 – at West Deptford
Hillside 35, Haddonfield 0 – at Haddonfield
Friday. Nov. 22
Hillside 14, West Deptford 10 – at West Deptford
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME HISTORY (4-1):
1983 NORTH 2, GROUP 2 FINAL
Butler 16, Hillside 8 – at Hillside
1985 NORTH 2, GROUP 2 FINAL
Hillside 13, Madison 12 – at Madison
2017 CENTRAL JERSEY, GROUP 2 FINAL
Hillside 20, Point Pleasant Boro 13 – at Rutgers
2018 CENTRAL JERSEY, GROUP 2 FINAL
Hillside 36, Manasquan 10 – at Hillside
2019 SOUTH JERSEY, GROUP 2 FINAL
Hillside 14 West Deptford 10 – at West Deptford