UNION COUNTY, NJ — When the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association finally released the football classifications in early August, Union County schools Rahway, Hillside and Jonathan Dayton didn’t think anything of it.
All three expected to be in the same group size they were in last year and in the recent past, which meant Group 3 for Rahway High School, Group 2 for Hillside High School and Group 1 for Jonathan Dayton High School.
Perhaps the state might have moved any of them over to another section, say from South to North or North to South, but all three expected to remain in the same group size as last year.
When the NJSIAA came out with where each school would be situated, however, that was not the case. There were not many changes across the state, but three involved Union County schools Rahway, Hillside and Jonathan Dayton.
Rahway moved up to Group 4 for the first time. The Indians were in South, Group 3 last year and qualified for the playoffs, competing in the South, Group 3 section, where they lost in the first round at Somerville High School 38-21.
Hillside moved up to Group 3 for the first time and this year are in North, Group 3; they were in South, Group 2 last year. In 2021, Hillside qualified for the state playoffs out of South, Group 2 and played in the Central Jersey, Group 2 section, reaching the semifinals.
Jonathan Dayton has been in North, Group 1 since the formation of the groupings this way began in 2018. Not only did the Bulldogs move up to Group 2 status for the first time since the 1990s, but they were placed in the South and are in South, Group 2 for 2022.
Rahway’s enrollment always has the team teetering between Group 3 and Group 2. Cranford used to be in the same boat. Now, both schools have to wonder whether they will be in Group 4 or Group 3. Cranford was in Group 4 for a couple of years recently.
The range for the schools in North, Group 4 this year is 895 to 1,296 students. Rahway is listed with an enrollment of 909. Only Roxbury has fewer students, with 895.
“We’re really a Group 3 program numberswise,” said Rahway head coach Brian Russo, at the helm of the Indians since 2015. “I think what bumped us up is that we have an incoming freshman class of over 300 kids.
“It’s wild. When I saw it I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I just saw Irvington and said, ‘Wow.’”
Irvington won North 2, Group 4 for the first time last year and then won the following North, Group 4 regional championship game that took place at Rutgers University. The Blue Knights, again in North, Group 4, opened their 2022 season on Friday, Aug. 26, with a 20-7 win at Woodbridge High School.
Rahway has three Group 4 schools on their schedule, including fellow Union County schools Linden and Scotch Plains–Fanwood and close-by Middlesex County foe Colonia.
Hillside head coach Barris Grant guided the Comets to state championships in Central Jersey, Group 2 in 2017 and 2018 — Hillside was the first Union County school to win a state championship in that section in the playoff era — then the South Jersey, Group 2 section in 2019. He has been at the helm of the Comets since 2016.
This year’s squad plays seven Group 2 schools; one Group 3, Carteret; and one nonpublic, St. Thomas Aquinas.
“It is what it is,” Grant said. “They changed the numbers this year and made it even more of a challenge for us.”
Should Hillside, which is loaded with standout returning seniors such as quarterback Caleb Salters and 1,000-yard running backs Muwaffaq Parkman and Kyon Simonson, get through its eight-game schedule, as many feel it will, then the Comets will be dealing with a totally different landscape out of North, Group 3 come playoff time.
“We have to get their first,” said Grant, whose team’s opener is at Bernards High School on Friday, Sept. 2. “If we’re good enough to make it to the next season, we won’t be used to playing any of those teams.
“We’re going to go from playing schools like Camden all the way south to possible matchups with teams like Cranford right here in Union County or schools like Wayne Hills further north. It’s going to be interesting.”
Hillside’s enrollment is 698, with the range for North, Group 3 being 680-884 students. Hackettstown High School at 680 and West Milford High School at 689 are the only schools in the group with lower enrollments.
“My biggest concern is that we’re probably going to have to go on the road for second- and third-round games, because we’re going to be a lower seed, based on playing only one Group 3 school on our schedule.
“It was a shock to us when we saw this. We’ve really only beaten one really good Group 3 school since I’ve been here, and that was our one win in four games against Cranford.”
When Nick Iannacone played at New Providence High School in 2010, 2011 and 2012, the Pioneers were in Group 1. His sophomore season in 2010, they captured the North 2, Group 1 state championship for the first time since 1989.
Now his alma mater is firmly entrenched as a Group 2 school and situated in South, Group 2. Much to his surprise, the first-year Jonathan Dayton head coach found out that his Bulldogs moved up to the same field.
“I couldn’t believe it; I thought there was no doubt we were still going to be in Group 1,” Iannacone said.
Jonathan Dayton has two Group 2 schools on its schedule: Spotswood and Metuchen. The Bulldogs have not qualified for the state playoffs since 2012.
“It’s pretty much out of our control,” Iannacone said. “We can only prepare and play for who is in front of us.”
In South, Group 2 this year, the range is 480-674. Jonathan Dayton’s enrollment is at 484. Only Gloucester City High School has a smaller enrollment, in the range at 480.
Rahway and Jonathan Dayton both open their 2022 campaigns at home on Friday, Sept. 2, with Rahway hosting Linden High School at Rahway River Park and Jonathan Dayton hosting Dunellen High School. Both are 6 p.m. kickoffs.
Because of last year’s heavy rainfall in early September, Jonathan Dayton’s field was unplayable and the Bulldogs had to play their first two home dates at Scotch Plains–Fanwood.
Iannacone, an assistant coach at Jonathan Dayton the past two seasons, said that everyone on the team is very pleased to be able to be back at their own home field to start the 2022 season.
Photos by JR Parachini