HILLSIDE, NJ — Five years ago, in order to win Central Jersey, Group 2 for the first time, Hillside High School’s football team needed to travel to Piscataway to play the championship game at Rutgers University.
Two years later, the Comets had to go all the way south to West Deptford High School to try to claim South Jersey, Group 2 honors.
Those ventures south concluded with a very good ending for Hillside, as the Comets were able to win Central Jersey, Group 2 for the first time in 2017, repeat as champions in 2018 and then capture South Jersey, Group 2 for the first time in 2019 for three straight state championships.
Now for something completely different.
Not only was Hillside, with an increased enrollment figure, bumped up to Group 3 status for the first time this season, but the Comets were moved by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association to the North.
Hillside, now a North, Group 3 school, proceeded to earn the second seed at 7-1 for the North 1, Group 3 playoffs.
As the favorite at home, Hillside needed to come back from double-digit deficits in the second half to thwart seventh-seeded Parsippany Hills, 33-28, on Saturday, Oct. 29, in the first round and then faced seldom-seen Bergen County opponent River Dell, the third seed, 33-13, on Saturday, Nov. 5, at Hillside’s John Zappulla Field.
Now, Hillside will get back on a bus but will be headed north. The Comets will face a second straight Bergen County foe when they tangle with top-seeded Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan on Friday, Nov. 11, at 6 p.m. The Golden Knights of the Super Football Conference are, like the Comets, 9-1, with all nine wins by double-digits.
“They are big and physical, from what we’ve seen so far,” Hillside head coach Barris Grant said. “They play at 6 p.m. It’s an hour commute, and they have a legendary coach.”
Old Tappan is guided by longtime head coach Brian Dunn, who has been at the helm since 2000 and who has led the Golden Knights to the last two of their eight state championships in the playoff era. His 23-season record is 165-82.
“They dropped down to a three and we moved up to a three,” said Grant, referring to Old Tappan moving down to Group 3 status beginning in 2021.
Hillside has won nine games for the fourth time in the past six seasons. The Comets have also reached a state championship game four of the past five seasons there were playoff games — there were none in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hillside made five huge fourth-down conversions to pull off the comeback win against River Dell.
“Sometimes you have to roll the dice,” Grant said.
The first big fourth down made came late in the first half, when senior running back Muwaffaq Parkman was given the ball. On fourth-and-4 from the River Dell 38 and with less than a minute and a half to go and Hillside still trailing 7-0, Parkman ran up the middle for a 6-yard gain. Before that, Parkman was held to exactly zero yards on his first five carries.
Four plays later, Hillside senior quarterback Caleb Salters scampered for a 22-yard gain on fourth-and-10 from the River Dell 32 with just 21 seconds left. The drive-continuing plays by Parkman and Salters led to a field goal, which put Hillside on the scoreboard for the first time and cut River Dell’s lead to 7-3 at the break.
The third key fourth-down play Hillside made was another option run by Salters that saw the elusive quarterback find running room on the left side for a 17-yard gain when he needed 10. Unfortunately, Hillside would lose the ball on a fumble at the River Dell 1-yard line three plays later, which was the first play of the fourth quarter. At that point Hillside remained ahead 17-13.
Ahead by six at 19-13 after recording a safety, the Comets came through on two more fourth-down calls during the final time their offense put points on the board.
On fourth-and-3 from its own 37, Hillside moved the chains in its favor after a 45-yard run by Salters to the River Edge 18. Four plays later, the Comets were faced with fourth-and-4 from the River Dell 12 with five minutes to go. This time, the call went to senior running back Kyon Simonson, and he took the ball all the way into the end zone for his lone touchdown of the afternoon.
“I wasn’t thinking touchdown there,” Simonson said. “All I really wanted was to get the first down. The hole opened and I was able to go all the way.”
Simonson rushed for 149 yards on 23 carries. Salters, in just 10 attempts, rushed for 105.
Hillside senior lineman Zaimir Hawk, in the middle of the action all game long and the producer of several key tackles, iced the game with a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown down the left sideline.
“I wanted to go in my Heisman Trophy pose there,” joked Hawk after the game.
McNaully Erminal and Gerald Thompson came up with key sacks for the Comets, while teammate Marcus White had two more interceptions, with one of them leading to a Hillside touchdown. White has three interceptions so far in the playoffs.
Now the Comets will have to get the job done in enemy territory in order to win another state championship. Hillside accomplished the feat three years ago, when the Comets won at top-seeded West Deptford 14-10 in the South Jersey, Group 2 final. Hillside was the third seed.
“We don’t give up and just keep on working,” Hawk said.
“As a team, we can play more as a unit and we can build on that,” Simonson said. “Other than that, we feel pretty good and are ready to go.”
Hillside’s only loss was at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, 17-7, on Friday, Sept. 30; the Edison school is another team that is 9-1 at the moment and is awaiting its next nonpublic playoff game.
“With a loss comes a lesson, and we didn’t prepare well enough for that team,” Grant said.
Expect Hillside to be well prepared for Old Tappan, as the Comets will be going for a fifth state championship in the playoff era and fourth with Grant.
North 1, Group 3 semifinals at John Zappulla Field
No. 3 River Dell High School (5-5) 07 00 06 00 – 13
No. 2 Hillside High School (9-1) 00 03 14 16 – 33
River Dell: Vin Doornheim 4 run, Alejandro Carballeda kick (RD 7-0).
11 plays, 45 yards, 3:23 used.
Doornheim was the holder on a 22-yard field goal attempt. He received the snap and then ran with the ball 4 yards up the middle for six points.
Hillside: FG Giovanni Lavoura 27 (RD 7-3).
11 plays, from own 41 to River Dell 10, final 3:23 of half used.
River Dell: RJ Weiss 16 pass from Jacob Sconza, kick failed (RD 13-3).
7 plays, 75 yards, 2:05 used.
Hillside: Caleb Salters 1 run, Giovanni Lavoura kick (RD 13-10).
7 plays, 70 yards, 2:49 used.
Hillside: Caleb Salters 1 run, Giovanni Lavoura kick (H 17-13).
4 plays, 46 yards, 3:55 used.
Hillside: Safety Jacob Sconza tackled in end zone (H 19-13).
Jayden Anderson had the first hit and Ibn Muhammad the second.
Hillside: Kyon Simonson 12 run, Giovanni Lavoura kick (H 26-13).
9 plays, 80 yards, 5:01 used.
Hillside capitalizes on a turnover, a diving, two handed interception by Marcus White, his second of the game and third of the playoffs.
Hillside – Zaimir Hawk 28 interception return, Giovanni Lavoura kick (H 33-13).
The following are times when Hillside was in the playoffs under head coach Barris Grant.
2017: Central Jersey, Group 2
• Hillside High School 28, South River High School 7, at South River High School.
• Hillside High School 19, Arthur L. Johnson High School 16, at Arthur L. Johnson High School.
• Hillside High School 20, Point Pleasant Borough High School 13, at Rutgers University.
• Hillside finishes 9-3 and wins its first state championship since 1985.
Hillside is the first Union County school to win a state championship in Central Jersey, Group 2.
Hillside went 4-6 in Grant’s first year, 2016, a non-playoff season.
2018: Central Jersey, Group 2
• Hillside High School 39, South River High School 0, at Hillside High School.
• Hillside High School 21, Bernards High School 3, at Hillside High School.
• Hillside High School 36, Manasquan High School 10, at Hillside High School.
• Region final: Haddonfield Memorial High School 17, Hillside High School 7, at MetLife Stadium.
Hillside finishes 11-1 for the first time in program history and repeats as Central Jersey, Group 2 state champions.
2019: South Jersey, Group 2
• Hillside High School 36, Cinnaminson High School 2, at Hillside High School.
• Hillside High School 35, Haddonfield Memorial High School 0, at Haddonfield Memorial High School.
• Hillside High School 14, West Deptford High School 10, at West Deptford High School.
• Region final: Hillside High School 25, Cedar Creek High School 3, at Rutgers University.
Hillside finishes 12-0 for the first time in program history and wins a third straight state championship and then a first regional championship.
Hillside is the first Union County school to win a state championship in South Jersey, Group 2.
2021: Central Jersey, Group 2
• Hillside High School 34, Overbrook High School 0, at Hillside High School.
• Raritan High School 41, Hillside High School 34, at Hillside High School.
Hillside falls in Central Jersey, Group 2 semifinals and finishes 7-3.
Comets went 4-2 in the no-playoffs 2021 pandemic season.
2022: North 1, Group 3
• Hillside High School 33, Parsippany Hills High School 28, at Hillside High School.
• Hillside High School 33, River Dell High School 13, at Hillside High School.
Nov. 11: Hillside at Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, 6 p.m.
Hillside is 9-1 and on a five-game winning streak.
Hillside is 56-16 or .778 with head coach Barris Grant at the helm of the Comets since 2016. That includes a 13-2 record in playoff games, which includes a 1-1 mark in regional championship contests.
Photos by JR Parachini