A look back on 2023 Union County championship teams

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UNION COUNTY, NJ — Among the Union County teams that won championships in 2023, four stood out in a very distinctive manner.

The Cranford High School wrestling team captured a record-setting eighth straight Union County Tournament championship at Kean University’s Harwood Arena in January.

The Linden High School boys basketball squad won North 2, Group 4 at home by one point against Newark’s East Side High School on the final day in February, en route to a 24-7 record. It was the first time the Tigers won the section with head coach Anthony Drejaj and it was also the first time Linden captured the crown since repeating as champions for the fifth year in a row in 2017. This year’s squad has already won its first five games in December.

The Cranford baseball team, which finished 26-1 and lost only its last game of the season in the North 2, Group 3 semifinals, captured a second straight UCT crown in May at Kean University and became the first team to repeat since the Cougars did so in 2010 and 2011. Cranford won the 2010 title at Elizabeth and the 2011 crown the first year the UCT final was played at Kean.

The Summit High School girls soccer squad, usually a tough out in county tournament competition, this time captured its first UCT championship in October. In an all-Summit town UCT girls’ soccer final, Summit edged Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child 1-0 to capture the title at Arthur L. Johnson High School’s Nolan Field in Clark.

There were other distinguished 2023 champions as well. The New Providence High School girls basketball team first repeated as UCT champions, the Pioneers only won the UCT once in 1990 before winning it again in 2022, and then captured Central Jersey, Group 2 for the first time. New Providence then won the Group 2 state championship for the first time and finished 28-3, winning its final 20 games.

For the first time ever, Union County had both parochial boys basketball state championship teams. Union Catholic High School captured Non-Public A for the first time since 1987 and Roselle Catholic High School captured Non-Public B for the third year in a row and for the seventh time in 11 seasons.

The Cranford softball team, which also repeated as UCT champions and has a combined record of 46-11 the last two years, captured North 2, Group 3 and fell just two runs shy of reaching the Group 3 state championship game.

This past fall at home, the Scotch Plains–Fanwood High School gymnastics team captured a fifth straight Union County meet championship.

The Elizabeth High School – Frank J. Cicarell Academy boys soccer team edged Union High School 1-0 in single overtime to capture the UCT crown outright for the first time since 2008. Union came so close to doing the same for the first time since 1999. Both teams had won titles since, but were shared with other schools after a tie that did not include a penalty kick format to follow.
Also, this past fall, Oak Knoll won another field hockey UCT title and the Union Catholic cross country teams both excelled to the point where the boys and girls, again, finished ahead of the competition.

Fall 2023 UCT champions

• Boys soccer: Elizabeth High School – Frank J. Cicarell Academy

• Girls soccer: Summit High School

• Girls volleyball: Westfield High School

• Field hockey: Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child

• Gymnastics: Scotch Plains–Fanwood High School

• Boys cross country: Union Catholic High School

• Girls cross country: Union Catholic High School

The Cranford wrestlers produced six champions in the first UCT to take place at Kean. As a result, Cranford outscored Governor Livingston High School, 269.50-240, for the team title. Cranford has won the crown every year since 2015. There was no UCT in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cranford’s UCT champions included Mike Daly at 106, Luke Scholz at 126, Jordan Chapman at 157, Lucas Esposito at 175, Shane Kanterman at 190 and Dylan McDonald at 215.

Cranford then went on to also capture District 13 in its own gym, this time with five champions. They included Ryan Conners at 113, Michael Tona at 120, Scholz at 126, Connor Hoefling at 150 and Chapman at 157.

In both the UCT and District 13, Cranford had 12 of its 14 wrestlers who placed.

The Linden boys basketball team had finishing second down pat. They were second to Elizabeth in North 2, Group 4 in 2022 and second to Elizabeth again in the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division and second to Roselle Catholic in the UCT in 2023.

The Tigers broke through the second-place barrier in 2023 by beating Newark’s East Side, 63-62, at home in the North 2, Group 4 final. The Tigers lost their final game of the season in the Group 4 semifinals.

Linden’s main cast of characters included, last year’s grades, junior forward Elijah Butler, freshman forward Jekhi Burnam, senior guard Jaylan Hodge, senior guard Elijah Motley, junior forward Hashim Nadir and junior guard Nas Robinson.

The last three teams to repeat as UCT baseball champions:

Cranford, actually a three-peat, in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Cranford in 2010 and 2011.

Cranford in 2022 and 2023.

The Cougars are 11-1 in the final since winning it for the first time in 1999, all with head coach Dennis McCaffery. Not bad.

It had been seven years since Cranford won the crown in 2022, but the Cougars were good enough to win the tournament again for the 11th time in 2023.

Sparked by a complete-game, four-hit shutout hurled by senior right hander Sean Woodruff and freshman Brayden Fry’s game-winning, RBI-double that plated senior pinch runner Matt Chapman from first base with the game’s only run in the bottom of the seventh, top-seeded Cranford went on to edge second-seeded Governor Livingston 1-0 in the final played at Kean University.

Also hitting safely in the UCT final for Cranford, all singles, were All-State third baseman Ryan Jaros, now playing at Georgia Tech, as well as Jake Carter, Shea Grady and Sean Riley.

Seeded third in this past fall’s UCT girls soccer competition, the Summit Hilltoppers first defeated Cranford 2-0 at home in the quarterfinals behind goals scored by Catalina Zumbado and Mackenzie Matter. The Hilltoppers then beat Scotch Plains–Fanwood 2-0 in the semifinals at Arthur L. Johnson behind goals from Sloane Ricciuti and Bridget Grennon.

In the final at Arthur L. Johnson against fourth-seeded Oak Knoll, Zumbado’s goal in single overtime, off an assist from Nell Ducey, proved to be the difference in a 1-0 Summit triumph. Hilltopper goalkeeper Catherine King made five saves. Oak Knoll goalie Isabella DaSilva stopped nine of 10 shots her way.

In the other semifinal at Arthur L. Johnson, Oak Knoll upset top-seeded Westfield 1-0 behind a goal scored by Reagan Moore with 17 minutes remaining. State-ranked Westfield entered with a 54-match unbeaten streak, 49-0-5, since 2020, best in the state over that period. Anna Wojie earned an assist on Moore’s goal.

Who will win Union County championships in 2024? We are about to see.

Photos by JR Parachini and Courtesy of Cranford Wrestling Coach Pat Gorman