Hillside Comets feature replacements at key spots

HILLSIDE, NJ – Salters is gone.

Simonson is gone.

Parkman is gone.

You’re talking about Caleb Salters, three-year starter at quarterback, and 2,000-yard rushers Kyle Simonson and Muwaffaq Parkman. All players are competing in college now and no longer for the Comets.

So how will they be replaced?

“It’s not going to be easy,” Hillside High School football head coach Barris Grant said. “We’ll have all new guys at those positions, but we’ll be OK.”

Replacing another college player, Zamir Hawk, a standout on both lines, will also be no easy task.

There are a lot of new faces this year, as the Comets seek to finish better than .500 and make the state playoffs both for the seventh straight season.

Grant has been at the helm since 2016, which was the only year Hillside did not finish with a winning record and also not make the playoffs under his tenure. The Comets went 4-6 his first year.

Here’s how Hillside has fared the last six seasons, which is among the top records of any school in the state:

• 2017: Hillside went 9-3 and won Central Jersey, Group 2, which was the program’s second state championship in the playoff era and first since 1985. Hillside became the first Union County school to win CJG2.

• 2018: Hillside went 11-1, won Central Jersey, Group 2 again and then lost in the first South, Group 2 Regional championship game.

• 2019: Hillside went 12-0, won South Jersey, Group 2 and then won the South, Group 2 Regional championship game.

• 2020: Hillside went 4-2, with its losses by two points and then in overtime.

• 2021: Hillside went 7-3 and reached the South Jersey, Group 2 semifinals.

• 2022: Hillside went 9-2 and reached the North 1, Group 3 final.

That’s a combined record of 52-11 or .825, which includes three sectional state championships, one regional championship and another appearance in a sectional state championship game.

Players expected to step in and make their presence felt immediately include, on offense, seniors Chibugo Chigozie-Nwosu at running back and Diego Rodriguez on the line and, on defense, senior Marcus White at free safety and junior Darren Ikinnagbon at defensive back. Ikinnagbon has already received interest from several colleges.

Representing the Comets

• Diego Rodriguez, No. 60, senior, OT-DE
• Marcus White, No. 8, senior, WR-FS
• Chibugo Chigozie-Nwosu, No. 32, senior, RB-DB
• Darren Ikinnagbon, No. 30, junior, WR-DB

Other key players on both sides of the ball are returning seniors Kendrell Gordon Jr. and Darvens Tunis, receivers on offense and standouts in the secondary on defense.

Hillside remains in Group 3 this year – North, Group 3 again to be exact – and remains in the Big Central Conference’s Patriot Silver Division along with fellow Union County schools Arthur L. Johnson, New Providence and Abraham Clark and Middlesex County school Metuchen.

Hillside won the Patriot Silver Division title outright last year at 4-0.

Hillside’s first six games are scheduled to be played on Saturdays at 1 p.m., all five in September and the first Saturday in October. Four of them will be played on its home turf, John Zappulla Field.

The Comets open with consecutive home games against non-division rival Bernards High School and division foe Metuchen.

The season-opener is Saturday, Sept. 2, at home at 1 p.m. vs. Bernards, which went 8-2 last year and was knocked out of the North 2, Group 2 playoffs in the first round. The Mountaineers won the Patriot Gold Division title outright at 4-0.

Hillside and Bernards have developed quite an intense rivalry the last seven seasons that Grant has been at the helm of the Comets. Hillside has won five of the seven games, including last year’s 35-20 early September meeting in Bernardsville.

Bernards was scheduled to open its 2023 season on Friday, Aug. 25, at Jefferson Township High School of Morris County.

2023 Hillside Comets

• Saturday, Sept. 2, at 1 p.m., Bernards High School
• Saturday, Sept. 9, at 1 p.m., Metuchen High School
• Saturday, Sept. 16, at 1 p.m., at Abraham Clark High School
• Saturday, Sept. 23, at 1 p.m., at New Providence High School
• Saturday, Sept. 30, at 1 p.m., St. Thomas Aquinas High School
• Saturday, Oct. 7, at 1 p.m., Arthur L. Johnson High School
• Friday, Oct. 13, at 7 p.m., at Delaware Valley High School
• Friday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m., at Carteret High School