Local players excel during the 41st annual Phil Simms North/South All-Star Football Classic

UNION, NJ — Union Farmers Ashan Harris and Matthew Nazaire enjoyed themselves and made the most of every moment.

After being denied, along with their teammates, the opportunity to compete in the North 2, Group 5 football playoffs last year because of COVID-19 cases that surfaced within the team, Harris and Nazaire were two of the North’s most prominent players in 41st annual Phil Simms North/South All-Star Football Classic, played at Kean University’s Alumni Stadium on Sunday, June 12.

Both started and played nearly the entire game. Harris was a middle linebacker for the North defense, while Nazaire was lined up on the left side of the North offense.

Harris made several key tackles, while Nazaire came up with a handful of receptions, including one for a first down on the game’s initial drive and one for a 12-yard gain in the second quarter.

The South jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first half before the North took the lead for good, with its second touchdown coming early in the fourth quarter. Harris and Nazaire and their North teammates were all smiles when the North defeated the South, 21-16.
The first North/South game was in 1979. There was no game in 2002 because of inclement weather and no game in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID-19.

“This is the best of the best,” said Harris, who is slated to play running back at Division II Lock Haven University. “I enjoyed it here, but the practices were hard. We had three sessions Saturday and Sunday.”

When the North took the lead for good at 13-10 in the fourth quarter, Nazaire regrouped on the sideline while the North defense was on the field. He soaked in the all-star atmosphere for all it was worth, a Union High School player playing one more game in his hometown.

“This is great; I’m enjoying this,” said Nazaire, who will play at Merrimack University, the Division II Football Championship Subdivision school located in North Andover, Mass.

Union head coach Lou Grasso was also a secondary head coach for the North and present on the North sideline to see two of his seniors close their high school careers with a victory in their hometown.
Union was 9-1, on a nine-game winning streak, and had yielded only 7 points or fewer in six of its previous seven games before being forced to forfeit its North 2, Group 5 home semifinal game against Eastside High School in Paterson when the team was shut down by the COVID-19 virus in November 2021. Union had routed visiting Livingston High School 41-3 in the first round.

“It was very tough then and is still tough now,” Harris said. “It will always be tough, because we were the favorites.”

Union was seeking to repeat in North 2, Group 5. Union won the section for the first time in 2019, which was the program’s first state championship since 1993, a span of more than a quarter of a century.

There was just a shortened regular season in 2020 and no state playoffs, which made last year’s playoffs that much more special.
East Orange Campus High School ended up winning the section and then captured the North, Group 5 Regional Championship game to finish 13-0 for the first time.

The North won the previous Simms Classic, 24-23, at Kean in 2019, which is its only 1-point victory in the series. A third straight win next year would tie the series, which the South still leads 20-19-2. The North has never led.

Scoring touchdowns for the North were Nick Dunneman of Seton Hall Preparatory School from quarterback Raeden Oliver of East Orange Campus late in the first half, Matt Weir of Ramsey High School from Oliver early in the fourth quarter and Dominick Verducci of Parsippany Hills High School from quarterback Cael Zebrowski of Verona High School later in the fourth.

The South led 10-6 at the half before the North went ahead 13-10, after Carson Hecht of Randolph High School made his only point-after kick after missing his first following a missed field goal attempt.

Dunneman ended up passing to Hecht for a successful 2-point pass following the North’s final score. The South scored once more later in the fourth, but missed the PAT.

An interception by Zaon Laney of Rahway High School, who played on both sides of the ball as he also ran with it well at running back, clinched the victory.

The North had four interceptions, including two that led to scores. The first pick was by North Defense MVP Dashawn Lawton of Newark West Side High School on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
Oliver, who will attempt to walk on at Rutgers, was the North Offense MVP.

Photos by JR Parachini and Lou Grasso Jr.