LINDEN, NJ — Last year, on the first Friday night in November to be exact, the Linden Tigers football team, with a backup quarterback inserted, was less than a quarter away from pulling off what would have been considered the biggest upset of the first round of the state playoffs.
Linden High School, on a five-game losing streak, led host and top-seeded Irvington High School by a field goal in the fourth quarter, before the Blue Knights rallied to produce an 8-point touchdown in the game’s final two minutes to escape with an 11-6 triumph.
That comeback victory propelled Irvington to its first-ever sectional state championship in the playoff era, with the Blue Knights beating Middletown High School North 28-13 at home in the final after having to come back again to beat Colonia 14-7 at home in the semis. The Blue Knights then went on to win what turned out to be the third and final North 1 vs. North 2 regional championship game for Group 4, downing Northern Highlands High School 19-14 on a Saturday night at Rutgers University.
Conversely, Linden concluded its 2021 campaign at 3-6 and on a six-game losing streak. However, the Tigers came oh so close to knocking off the Blue Knights and adding another heartbreaking playoff loss to Irvington’s frustrating postseason past.
“That was the best we played since our third game of the year,” Linden head football coach Albert Chiola said.
With starting quarterback Tequan Thomas, who returns this year for his junior season, out of the lineup, Chiola inserted then-senior Victor Gritsai to run Linden’s spread offense. Thomas was injured the week before in Linden’s regular-season finale, a 27-6 setback at Woodbridge.
Even though the Tigers lost five straight, they still garnered enough power points to qualify as one of the 16 teams out of North, Group 4. Linden, only 3-5, was placed in the North 2, Group 4 section as the eighth seed. That meant traveling to top-seeded Irvington for the first round. In 2017, Linden also gave Irvington all it could handle in a North 2, Group 4 first-round contest at Irvington. The host Blue Knights prevailed 16-13.
Gritsai and his Linden teammates did a great job of just staying within themselves.
“Gritsai was from Staten Island, and he was so prepared for the game, he did an incredible job,” Chiola said. “He had only five snaps the whole year prior to the game.
“We told the kids to just go out there and give Irvington everything they had. They were the favorite, and the pressure was on them. We almost pulled it off. I was proud of the way we played right until the end.”
Chiola said he hopes to be just as proud of his Tigers on a weekly basis this season and has a mix of returning players and new talent to mesh.
On offense, it starts behind center with Thomas at the controls once again.
“The offense runs through him,” Chiola said. “He’s the captain of our offense. He has a lot of weapons around him.”
Chiola said Thomas is looking to play at the next level. He also said that the other skill players are young, but it’s a good group.
“Thomas is one of those football-basketball players who is one of the fastest kids on the team,” Chiola said.
Myles Hamilton is one of four returning starters on defense. The junior two-year varsity starter is a menace in the middle.
“He’s sideline to sideline,” Chiola said of one of his five linebackers in a 3-5 scheme. “Myles has a lot of fire and sets the tone.”
Chiola said that Hamilton, 6-3, 190, has received interest from Pitt, UConn and Rutgers.
Linden had its game scrimmage on its home field vs. East Brunswick on Thursday, Aug. 25.
Linden will open at Rahway High School on Friday, Sept. 2, at 6 p.m. at Rahway River Park. Both schools are situated in North, Group 4, with the Indians moving up in group size this year.
However, the teams are in different divisions in the Big Central Conference. Linden is in the Liberty Gold along with Colonia, Iselin Kennedy, Perth Amboy and Woodbridge.
“It’s kind of weird that we are the only Union County school in that division,” Chiola said.
Crossover opponents include Rahway, Summit, Cranford and Montgomery.
Rahway is in the BCC’s United Gold Division, along with St. Thomas Aquinas, Cranford, Scotch Plains–Fanwood and Summit.
Linden and Rahway will clash for the first time since Sept. 11, 2009, when the host Tigers won by the score of 21-12 in the season opener for both 13 years ago.
“We have a good group here that began to bond during camp and summer workouts,” Chiola said. “We have some young and inexperienced players, but we also have decent size and speed.”
Linden’s spread offense:
LT Jahwan Gass, sophomore, 6-3, 220
LG Dillon Thompson, senior, 6-2, 225
C Andrew Plummer, senior, 6-2, 220
RG Rochnel Saint-Juste, senior, 6-0, 240
RT Kevin Taylor, sophomore, 6-1, 215
WR Semaj Irving, sophomore, 5-11, 170
WR Jawon Lee, sophomore, 6-1, 180
WR Joey Fitz, junior, 5-10, 170
WR Davon McClintock, junior, 6-0, 165
QB Tequan Thomas, junior, 5-11, 170
HB Alex Donic, junior, 5-11, 175
HB Myles Hamilton, junior, 6-3, 190
RB Jahson Correa, senior, 5-8, 170
RB Rajuhn Charles-Evans, senior, 5-7, 160
RB Kerdel Moses, senior, 5-11, 165
PK Josue Jimenez, senior, 5-10, 160
Returning starters: Thompson, Plummer, Thomas.
Linden’s 3-5 defense:
E Dillon Thompson, senior, 6-2, 225
NG Andrew Plummer, senior, 6-2, 220
E Shahad Brown, sophomore, 6-1, 215
LB Jahson Correa, senior, 5-8, 170
LB Tyrone Hinton, sophomore, 5-11, 215
LB Myles Hamilton, junior, 6-3, 190
LB Alex Donic, junior, 5-11, 175
LB Kerdel Moses, senior, 5-11, 165
CB Semaj Irving, sophomore, 5-11, 170
CB Tequan Thomas, junior, 5-11, 170
S Quadir Booker, senior, 5-11, 180
P-LB Alex Donic, junior, 5-11, 175
Returning starters: Hamilton, Donic, Thomas, Booker.
2022 Linden Tigers football schedule:
• Sept. 2: at Rahway, 6 p.m.
• Sept. 9: vs. Woodbridge, 7 p.m.
• Sept. 16: at Colonia, 7 p.m.
• Sept. 23: vs. Perth Amboy, 7 p.m.
• Sept. 30: at Iselin Kennedy, 7 p.m.
• Oct. 7: vs. Summit, 7 p.m.
• Oct. 14: vs. Cranford, 7 p.m.
• Oct. 21: at Montgomery, 7 p.m.
Head coach: Al Chiola, eighth season
2021 Linden Tigers, 3-6:
• Linden 33, Iselin Kennedy 13, away.
• Linden 3, Montgomery 0, home.
• Linden 20, Westfield 14, home.
• Colonia 23, Linden 14, home.
• Scotch Plains–Fanwood 17, Linden 10, away.
• North Hunterdon 42, Linden 7, away.
• Cranford 42, Linden 13, home.
• Woodbridge 27, Linden 6, away.
• Irvington 11, Linden 6, away.
Head coach: Al Chiola, seventh season
Section: North, Group 4
Conference: Big Central
Division: 4, 2-5
Points for: 112
Points against: 189
Head coach: Al Chiola, since 2015,
1992 Colonia graduate.
Eighth season: 29-35, or .453
Conference: Big Central
Division: Liberty Gold
Section: North, Group 4
Linden’s last sectional title: 2014
Cooper Field: Turf
Chiola’s oldest son, Casey Chiola, a junior, is a starting varsity player, WR-CB, for the first time at Colonia, which is Al Chiola’s alma mater. Linden’s third game is at Colonia on Sept. 16. Last year, after a 3-0 start, Linden lost at home to Colonia 23-14, with then-sophomore and now a starter Casey Chiola. “One of us will be happy after the outcome,” Al Chiola said. Chiola’s best team at Linden so far was his 2018 squad, which shared the Mid-State 38 Conference’s Watchung Division title with Union and Elizabeth. That year Linden went 7-3 overall and won seven straight after opening with a 14-7 overtime loss at Union. One of the seven wins was a 14-3 victory at Elizabeth. Linden yielded 7 points or fewer in regulation time in each of its first seven games in 2018, with much credit to defensive coordinator Anthony Reinoso.
Photo by JR Parachini