Cranford Cougars win title, go for their place in football history

CRANFORD, NJ — For the third time in program history, the Cranford Cougars football team reached 11-0 status, and, for the first time, they captured the North 2, Group 3, state title.

Cranford did so last Friday night, dominating Sparta 45-21 in the 2021 North 2, Group 3 state championship game played at Memorial Field in Cranford.

When Cranford reached 11-0 for the first time, in 2014, it put the Cougars into the North 2, Group 3, final that year. The Cougars were defeated by Parsippany Hills 20-13 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.

When Cranford got to 11-0 for the second time, the very next year, the Cougars advanced to the North 2, Group 3, final for the second straight season and for the third time in five. Cranford this time handily defeated Chatham 50-23 at Kean University to capture the program’s second state title in the playoff era.

This year’s team had only an eight-game regular season schedule, which commenced on Friday, Sept. 10. On that night at Memorial Field, the Cougars came back from a 16-point deficit in the game’s final five minutes and then defeated visiting North Hunterdon in overtime, 43-37.

Cranford went on to win its next 10 games by double digits.

The Cougars proved to be truly dominant in 2021. Cranford outscored its three sectional playoff opponents by a combined score of 143-54, before winning the North 2, Group 3, final, 45-21.

Cranford will wrap 2021 with its first-ever North, Group 3, regional championship game on Friday, Nov. 26, at 4 p.m. against North 1, Group 3, state champion West Morris, at MetLife Stadium.

In the game against Sparta, senior running back Colin Murray rushed for a game-high 330 yards on 41 carries to push him past 2,000 yards for the season; he also scored two touchdowns, the second one on an electrifying, tackle-breaking 67-yard run, to give him 31 for the season.

“This is just so amazing,” Murray said. “This is something we’ve dreamed of and worked hard at since freshman year. It’s surreal to have the whole community here to enjoy this with us.”

Cranford senior quarterback Shane Van Dam, who passed for a touchdown in the first half and ran for two more in the second vs. Sparta, first reflected on Cranford’s season-opening comeback win over North Hunterdon and then talked about the big 38-28 win at 6-0 Woodbridge. “We talked about the North Hunterdon game before every game,” he said. “We decided not to break after we were down. Beating Woodbridge, we realized that we could take this all the way. In PAL, we played Sparta every year, and the games were always close. I hang out all the time with (Cranford football senior) Will Gallagher. We’re very good friends, and I know I can go to him at any time in the game. This just feels the best. We want to feel this way one more time.”

Senior defensive back Angelo Fiorenza, who for the second straight game produced Cranford’s first tackle, said, “This is the best thing ever. We had no choice but to win. The whole team felt that way. We played well on defense and defense wins championships.”

Senior wide receiver/defensive back Gallagher, who caught a touchdown pass and had three interceptions, which led to 17 points, said, “Their quarterback, Austen Frattura, is very good, a Power Five school QB. I was just in the right spot at the right time. This is a great way to go out like this in my last game on this field. It feels kind of weird that we’re still going to play another game. We’ll keep grinding. We have one more to go.”

Junior placekicker and defensive back Liam Godwin, who kicked a 30-yard field goal for the game’s first points vs. Sparta and was then a perfect six for six on extra-point kicks, and also had a fumble recovery and an interception, said, “I’ve been playing soccer ever since I was young, so kicking just comes naturally to me. This means so much, especially for the seniors. I hope we play at MetLife. I am a big Giants fan. It would be a dream come true for me to be able to kick there. I thought against Sparta we played consistently on defense, and, with Murray and Van Dam leading the way, our offense is just overpowering.”

Cranford senior offensive lineman Matt Fries, one of the behemoths up front that provide the running room for Murray, Van Dam, senior back Lucca Limeira and others, said, “It’s great to see the little kids here coming out to celebrate this victory with us. It’s just amazing.”

When Fries was asked if the 2021 team was better than the 2015 state championship team that his older brother, Will, who now plays in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts, was a senior standout for, he said, “Yes, but we still have to prove ourselves for one more game.”

Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier, who has now led the Cougars to three state championships since 2011, said, “To be 11-0 and win this thing at home is really nice. I remember the days of going to see teams like Keyport and Union winning state championships on their home field. To have to prepare for another game now is a weird feeling for me; however, we’ll take it and be ready to go one more time.”