PISCATAWAY – The book on Union has always been that the one thing you can do against a pretty good Farmer team is pass on it.
Who would know that history better than 1986 UHS graduate Bill Tracy?
The fifth-year Ridge head coach didn’t instruct talented senior quarterback Conor Hughes to throw the ball until his team’s ninth play from scrimmage, but it didn’t matter.
When Hughes – arguably the best player in SomersetCounty this season – did throw the ball, he did so with his usual accuracy and to receivers that, for the most part, were wide open the entire game.
Hughes completed 10-of-13 passes for 156 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for a five-yard TD to lead top-seeded Ridge to a dominant 48-13 triumph over second-seeded Union in the second North 2, Group 5 final, contested Sunday morning at Rutgers Stadium.
Ridge also came up with three interceptions and scored touchdowns on possessions following all of them – including a big score right before halftime that gave the Red Devils a two-touchdown lead at intermission.
Ridge completed its first 12-0 season and captured its third title in the playoff era and second on the field. Ridge was declared the Central Jersey, Group 2 champion in 1987 when it was the only team that qualified in the section that season and then blanked Scotch Plains 27-0 in the 2003 North 2, Group 3 championship game at the old Giants Stadium.
Union lost its last two games and finished 8-4, which was a three-game improvement from last season.
Ridge, which finished 7-3 last year after starting 7-0, has now won playoff titles in three different group sizes and this year went 6-0 against UnionCounty teams, including 3-0 in the playoffs.
Tracy is now 2-1 as a head coach in state championship games, leading Livingston to its only playoff title in 2008 (North 1, Group 4) and Ridge to the North 2, Group 4 final in 2009 where it lost to Phillipsburg.
Hughes threw three touchdown passes to senior end Ryan Bell and his first one to senior end Thomas Chiriaco, which completed an opening nine-play, 55-yard drive that consumed four minutes.
“Conor’s the man,” Tracy said. “He may not have the stats because we don’t pass that much, but he’s definitely a first team all-state player for everything he does for us.”
Hughes was also a perfect 6-for-6 on extra point kicks and finished with 12 points on the day.
Union answered Ridge’s opening scoring drive by putting together a 55-yard scoring march of its own, capped by a two-yard touchdown run by standout senior running back Jamauri Bogan.
Limited to 64 yards rushing on 21 carries, Bogan, it was believed, was in reach of surpassing the 6,000-yard career rushing mark. Union’s all-time leading rusher and touchdown scorer will continue playing on scholarship at Division 1-AA Western Michigan.
“The ball just didn’t go our way,” Bogan said. “We scored after they did and got some momentum, then they got a big turnover and the momentum went back to them. Football is a game of momentum and they took it away from us.”
After both teams had the ball just once in the first quarter, Ridge went to the air a bit more on its second drive, with Hughes completing three of four passes to move the Red Devils from their own 25 to the Union 3. A 20-yard field goal attempt by Hughes hit the left upright, with the game remaining tied at 7-7.
Ridge then held Union to an important three-and-out, with Bogan gaining just two yards rushing on third-and-three from the Union 27.
Ridge could not be stopped again when it got the ball back. This time Hughes was 3-for-3 through the air, capping another scoring drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Bell.
On third-and-six from the Union 45, Farmer senior quarterback Diego Rios was intercepted by Ridge senior linebacker Matthew Soulas, who returned the pick 25 yards to the Union 23.
With just 17 seconds left in the second quarter, Hughes dropped back and found Bell open again this time for a 23-yard touchdown pass nine seconds from halftime.
At that point, Hughes was 8-of-9 through the air for 121 yards and three touchdowns.
“We learned that you can’t turn the ball over three times in a game like this,” first-year Union head coach Lou Grasso Jr. said.
Union took the second-half kickoff and marched 80 yards in 10 plays to pull to within 21-13 after senior running back Jabree Robertson scored on the ground from one yard out. Bogan’s biggest run of the game came on the play before when he went up the middle for 12 yards before being tackled right before the goal line.
Ridge came right back to go ahead again by two touchdowns at 28-13 when Hughes rolled left and reached the end zone from five yards out exactly one minute after Union scored. A 35-yard kickoff return by senior Nick Franzese gave the Red Devils excellent field position again at their 44. Four running plays later, including a 24-yard gain by Hughes, saw Ridge reach the end zone once more.
With 4:15 to go in the third quarter, Bogan was stopped short again, this time on fourth-and-three from his own 36. Trying to gain the necessary yardage up the middle, Bogan was stopped by several defenders for no gain.
“That drive was big, the guys in the huddle liked the call,” Grasso said. “We were stopped a couple of times just short of gaining first downs.”
Ridge also received an excellent second-half effort from senior fullback Liam Derkasch, who rushed for more than 80 yards in the final two quarters, including his biggest run of 35. He scored Ridge’s first of two fourth-quarter touchdowns on a four-yard run.
“This shows what you can do when everyone stays together,” Tracy said. “Scoring first was big. We knew Union, a great team, was going to run and we wanted 9 guys up in the box to respond.”
Ridge did not turn the ball over once and committed just one penalty, which was a 15-yarder for a defensive face mask during Union’s second second-half possession. The lone penalty against the Red Devils came with five minutes to go in the third quarter.
“Do I think that Ridge is 35 points better than us? No,” Grasso said. “But you have to give them credit for the way they played to become state champions.”
NOTES: Also coming up with interceptions for Ridge were Franzese – which led to his team’s sixth touchdown – and senior linebacker Connor Stieglitz, which led to the seventh and final score. According to the Ridge roster, Hughes spells his first name with one n and Stieglitz with two.
Union is now 10-5 in state championship games – 10-4 in North 2, Group 4 and 0-1 in North 2, Group 5. Union was playing in its first title contest in 10 years, since it fell to Piscataway 29-7 in the 2003 North 2, Group 4 final.
Union last won a state championship in 1993 when the Farmers came back from a 10-point third quarter deficit to win at Randolph 19-16 in the 1993 North 2, Group 4 final, which was its third straight state crown at the time.
Union has now lost its last three state championship games by a combined score of 97-20. The first of those three title contests saw Union fall to Montclair 20-0 in the 1996 North 2, Group 4 final at the old Giants Stadium.
In title contests played at the higher-seeded team’s high school field, Union is 9-1, with the only loss coming at home to Montclair 14-10 in the 1983 North 2, Group 4 final, which was Montclair head coach Butch Fortunato’s final game as the Mounties’ mentor. In championship games played at either the old Giants Stadium or now Rutgers, Union is 1-4.
NORTH 2, GROUP 5 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME AT RUTGERS
2-UNION (8-4) 0 7 6 0 – 13
1-RIDGE (12-0) 7 14 14 13 – 48
RIDGE – Thomas Chiriaco 9 pass from Conor Hughes, Conor Hughes kick
(R 7-0) 9 plays, 55 yards, 4:02 used
UNION – Jamauri Bogan 2 run, Lucas Dragone kick (7-7)
14 plays, 55 yards, 7:53 used
RIDGE – Ryan Bell 15 pass from Conor Hughes, Conor Hughes kick
(R 14-7) 7 plays, 68 yards, 3:02 used
RIDGE – Ryan Bell 23 pass from Conor Hughes, Conor Hughes kick
(R 21-7) 1 play, 23 yards, :08 used
Ridge capitalized on a turnover – an interception by Matthew Soulas
UNION – Jabree Robertson 1 run, kick failed (R 21-13)
10 plays, 80 yards, 4:24 used
RIDGE – Conor Hughes 5 run, Conor Hughes kick (R 28-13)
4 plays, 56 yards, 1:00 used
RIDGE – Ryan Bell 12 pass from Conor Hughes, Conor Hughes kick
4 plays, 36 yards, 1:40 used
RIDGE – Liam Derkasch 4 run, Conor Hughes kick (R 42-13)
11 plays, 83 yards, 5:04 used
Ridge capitalized on a turnover – an interception by Nick Franzese.
RIDGE – Michael Dunsheath 3 run, kick failed (R 48-13)
4 plays, 10 yards, 1:57 used
Ridge capitalized on a turnover – an interception by Connor Stieglitz.