UNION, NJ — There’s the Battle at the Beach this weekend in Ocean City.
There’s the Rumble at the Raritan in Rutgers later in September.
So why not some good old fashioned football right here in Union County at Kean University to kick off the 2023 season?
How about something like the “Kickoff at Kean”?
“Why not?” asks Linden High School football head coach Al Chiola.
Officials from Elizabeth High School and Linden got together to not only pit the neighborhood rivals against each other for the first time in four years, but to also make sure the proceeds go to a very worthy cause.
When the Minutemen and Tigers — it’s Linden’s home game — battle for the first time on the football field since 2019, the money received will go toward a memorial scholarship in the name of former Linden football player Xavier McClain, who died last year.
“This is really awesome that we were able to make this work,” Chiola said. “It’s also another way to honor Xavier and all that he meant to our lives.”
Both Elizabeth and Linden are not coming off playoff seasons, but have the necessary talent returning to get back to where they want to be.
It will all start this Friday, Aug 25, at Kean University’s Alumni Stadium in Union. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
“We thought that opening against each other was one thing, but then to make it happen at a place like Kean, we ran with the idea and made it work,” Elizabeth head coach John Fiore said.
This is the first meeting between Elizabeth and Linden since Sept. 28, 2019, when the Tigers defeated the Minutemen 28-14 at Linden’s Cooper Field.
Elizabeth last defeated Linden on Sept 20, 2016, a 23-10 triumph at Elizabeth’s Williams Field.
Linden is sparked by returning three-year starters Te’Quan Thomas at quarterback and Myles Hamilton at linebacker.
Elizabeth standouts include senior wide receiver Ibn McDaniel and senior outside linebacker Jaquy’ri Williams.
“This is a tough opener,” Chiola said. “Both teams are gunning for each other. We must be quick on all cylinders.”
“We have a lot more returning starters, coach continuity and a year in the weight room,” said Fiore, now in his second season at the helm of the Minutemen, after a highly successful stint at Montclair High School, where he led the Mounties to several state championships.
Linden moved down to Group 4 status in 2017. The squads play in different divisions in the Big Central Conference. Elizabeth is in the America Gold, along with fellow Group 5 schools Union High School and Westfield High School, Group 3 power Somerville High School and parochial standout St. Joseph High School of Metuchen. Linden is in the Liberty Gold, along with fellow Group 4 schools Colonia High School, John F. Kennedy Memorial High School and Woodbridge High School and Group 5 school Perth Amboy High School.
“I think this will be great exposure for our kids,” Chiola said. “Perhaps we can have more games here in the future.”
Linden and Elizabeth are both seeking to produce their first season of finishing better than .500 since 2018, when the Tigers and Minutemen, along with the Union Farmers, shared the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Watchung Division title with 4-1 league records. Union finished 8-3 overall that year, while Linden was 7-3 and Elizabeth 6-3.
Linden rallied to finish at .500 last year with a 5-5 record that included season-ending victories against Barringer and Bergenfield high schools to capture the first North, Group 4 Regional Invitational Tournament.
Elizabeth, difficult as it may be to seem, is just 9-26 the past four seasons.
“I love the passion and effort our kids have and give,” Fiore said. “I couldn’t have a better group.”
While Linden has a veteran in Thomas back at quarterback, Fiore is going with a 14-year-old freshman behind center, Arique Fleming.
“He’s a pro-style type of athlete who can run and has an unbelievable arm,” Fiore said. “He loves to compete. If we let him, he will play middle linebacker, too.
“He will have a dynamic group to get the ball to, including McDaniel, who is one of the best players in the state.”
McDaniel (6-3, 185) is also considered a top-notch defensive back who can play free safety, strong safety and cornerback.
“We need to be more consistent, especially with ball security,” Fiore said.
When Elizabeth and Linden clash, it’s usually the team that turns the ball over the least that comes out on top. Both teams have nine-game regular season schedules, so the winner of Friday night’s contest will get off to a good start toward qualifying for a state playoff berth.
Photo by JR Parachini