BELLEVILLE, NJ — He scored his team’s only touchdown, and that was a struggle to get into the end zone against a pretty solid defensive unit that jelled.
He dropped back to pass and, when his receivers were covered, he zig-zagged his way to positive yardage, trying to ease through whatever holes his blockers ahead of him were able to provide.
That was the assignment East starting quarterback Caleb Salters drew last week at Belleville High School, getting one last opportunity to put the shoulder pads on and run with the ball before he does so at the collegiate level.
Salters, Hillside High School’s standout signal-caller the past three falls, did not disappoint.
Although the team he stood out for did not come out on top, Salters demonstrated a strength at the QB position that included his connection with a wide receiver from Orange.
Here’s an account of the Paul Robeson East-West Classic on Tuesday, June 13, and the impact Salters and other players from Union County made for the first time:
Was West running back Jonah Ripley of High Point Regional High School down, or did the ball come loose when he was smacked before his knees hit the turf at the East one-yard line?
The referees’ initial reaction, after some brief thought, was that he turned the ball over. East ball.
Then they got together for a longer discussion on the play that would decide the game.
West ball. Ripley was down.
Now it was third-and-goal from the one with 44.5 seconds to go, the West trailing 10-6. Brent Rojas of Passaic County Technical Institute handed off to Suliman Pitts of Clifton High School, a Passaic County connection that sought to put the ball in the end zone. The East was there to halt Pitts, stacking him up at the line of scrimmage.
Now it was fourth-and-goal from the one with 25.2 seconds left. This time, Rojas bulled his way forward, following his blockers and getting a huge push, to reach the end zone with 11.6 seconds left to play. Robert McCullough of Newton High School added the extra point to put the West back on top at 13-10.
Salters, East’s quarterback, playing catch all game long with standout wide receiver Khy’Ron Hill of Orange High School, completed three more passes to the star receiver from Essex County, but it only got the ball down to the West 45 as time expired.
The West, with players from Morris, Passaic and Sussex counties, held on for a hard-fought and thrilling at the end 13-10 triumph against the East in the 29th Paul Robeson East-West Classic, which was played for the first time at Belleville High School’s Municipal Stadium, also known as William Doc Ellis Field, on June 13.
The East consisted of players from Essex, Union and Hudson counties. Players from Union County high schools, 11 of them on the final roster, participated in the all-star game for the first time.
“It was amazing to be out here playing with all of these really good players,” said Salters, who was chosen as the East’s offensive MVP.
Salters, Hillside’s starting quarterback the past three seasons, scored the lone East touchdown on a four-yard run with 6:19 left.
“This allowed me a chance to showcase my talents. It was a great opportunity,” said Salters, who started the game at quarterback for the East and, in the second quarter, completed a perfectly thrown 30-yard pass to Hill at the West 43.
Salters, who will continue playing in college at Elizabeth City State University in Elizabeth City, N.C., had a fine senior season for the Hillside Comets. Salters completed 90 passes in 160 attempts for 1,360 yards. He threw 13 touchdown passes and was only intercepted seven times in 11 games.
One of his best games last year was completing eight of 10 pass attempts for 221 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a convincing 33-7 win at Arthur L. Johnson High School.
Hillside finished 9-2 after reaching the North 1, Group 3 sectional state championship game, falling at Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan 28-14.
A three-year starter at Hillside for head coach Barris Grant, Salters had career totals of 231 completions in 347 attempts, 3,899 yards, 33 touchdown passes and just 17 interceptions.
“He is Hillside’s all-time leading passer for touchdowns and total yards,” Grant said. “He was a leader for us from day one.
“He is a student of the game. He understands concepts and how to get to his teammates. He was a coach on the field for us and will be greatly missed.”
Salters will throw his next passes for a Division 2 school in North Carolina. His first visit was in March.
“My three years at Hillside was the best experience of my life,” Salters said. “Now it’s time to help my new school return to prominence.”
The game on Tuesday night, June 13, had the look of 0-0 at the half, before the West recovered an East fumble at its own 41 with 2:13 remaining in the second quarter. West quarterback Sean Clark of Randolph High School, his team’s offensive MVP, then connected on a 27-yard pass to wide receiver Elijah Carroll of Paterson’s Eastside High School on the right side of the field that gave the West a first down at the East 14. East defensive back Jayden Phillips of Orange High School made the touchdown-saving tackle.
Two plays later, Clark fired a pass to wide receiver Michael Kiritsis of Passaic Tech for a nine-yard score and the game’s first points, putting the West ahead 6-0 with 1:12 to go in the first half. The ensuing extra point kick was blocked and the game moved to halftime with the West still ahead 6-0.
At halftime, four men were inducted into the game’s Hall of Fame, including former NFL standout Stanley Woods who played at Pitt after starring at Seton Hall Prep; former Clifford Scott head coach Bill Norwood; former Seton Hall Prep head coach John Allen, who succeeded Tony Verducci in 1988; and present Bloomfield assistant coach Ed Capozzi.
The West had a third-and-seven at the East nine and was looking to add to its 6-0 lead with a little more than three minutes left in the third quarter. Then, East linebacker Isaiah Holm came up with an interception on a ball thrown right to him at the East eight.
Holm then rambled down the left sideline for a 56-yard return to the West 36. Holm’s interception set up the first East score.
Holm was named the East’s defensive MVP. Pitts was named defensive MVP for the West.
On a drive that included a 34-yard pass from Salters to Hill to the West two-yard line, the East had to eventually settle for three points. The East finally got on the scoreboard with 32.7 seconds left in the third quarter on a 25-yard field goal kicked by Gage Hammond of Montclair High School.
Earlier in the first half, Hammond produced a punt that went for more than 50 yards. It not only had great height and distance, but came down with a perfectly kicked spiral that continued to bounce forward before coming to a halt.
Next, on a drive that continued with nine minutes to go, Salters scrambled for a nine-yard run. Salters, shaking off getting hit pretty hard, then managed to gain a yard and a big first down for the East at the West 18. Three plays later, Salters took the handoff and found room on the left side to sneak into the end zone from four yards out. Hammond added the extra point to give the East what turned out to be its only lead of the game at 10-6.
On the West possession that ended with a blocked field goal later in the second quarter, East defensive lineman Andrew Boyle of Verona High School came up big on one play. Boyle got through the line and sacked Rojas for a 13-yard loss on second-and-goal for the West at the East 12.
East defensive lineman Tim McKeever of Summit High School, who will play at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, recovered a fumble on the first East punt, giving the East possession at the West 33.
Also MVP-worthy on offense for the East were Hill, the receiver from Orange with the moves and the ability to go up and grab and catch any pass thrown his way, and Hammond, who proved his worth not only as a solid place kicker with a strong foot, but a talented punter who knows how to get the most out of his kicks.
2023 Robeson Classic MVPs
North Offense: 12-Caleb Salters, QB, (6-0, 175), Hillside
North Defense: 17-Isaiah Holm, LB, (6-4, 205), Montclair
South Offense: 15-Sean Clark, QB, (6-3, 220), Randolph
South Defense: 11-Suliman Pitts, LB, (6-2, 215), Clifton
Union County players on the final east roster
First players from union county schools to play in game:
5-Elijah Stewart, RB, (5-8, 195), Union
6-Samir Rivet, DB, (5-6, 140), Roselle
11-Weston Fischer, QB, (6-1, 175), Scotch Plains
12-Caleb Salters, QB, (6-0, 175), Hillside
13-Joshua Pinick, WR, (5-10, 170), Elizabeth
50-Jayden McIver, LB, (6-0, 250), Plainfield
54-Tim McKeever, DL (6-2, 220), Summit
65-Bryan Alvarez, OL, (5-11, 250), Elizabeth
68-Ayomide Adejumo, OL, (6-0, 250), Elizabeth
77-Darren Nesmith, OL, (6-2, 285), Hillside
88-Jayden Castro, WR, (6-1, 170), Plainfield
Photos by JR Parachini