There was a time when public school football was still on an even par with non-public schools.
State championship games – after a period from 1976-1981 for some – were moved back to the high school fields and there was an electricity about them, not a single vacant seat to be found.
Just about the end of that era took place a quarter of a century ago.
When we woke up on Saturday morning, Dec. 7, 1991 it was a time that this country was remembering what happened exactly 50 years earlier – the events that took place at Pearl Harbor.
In the state of New Jersey there were the sectional state championship football games to be played that day.
The marquee matchup pitted a 9-0-1 Randolph team – also owners of a state-record 58-0-1 unbeaten streak – at a 10-0 Union squad, which had its last loss to Randolph a year ago in the N2, G4 semifinals.
Randolph was looking to repeat as the section’s champion in only its second year in the section.
Union was seeking to win the section for the first time in four years which – at the time – seemed like an eternity for the Farmers.
Randolph was also seeking to win for the 59th time in 60 games. The Rams last loss at Seton Hall Prep 14-13 on Saturday, Oct. 25, 1986 – the same day a baseball hit by lefty-swinging Mookie Wilson would go through the legs of lefty-fielding Bill Buckner, with Vince Scully proclaiming: “here comes Knight and the Mets win it!”
I was covering the game for the Union Leader during the first season I was covering Union football and Union County sports. I previously covered Morris, Sussex and Essex counties and was still learning Union County.
I wish I could have also been in Morris County that day to see Brearley come back from a 13-0 deficit to beat Mountain Lakes 14-13 in the mud in the North 2, Group 1 final.
When I got to Union High School it was exactly what I expected. Both stands were completely filled with fans from Union and Randolph and the fans all the way around the fences were at least two deep.
I had already covered state championship games in New Jersey at Sparta in 1982, Memorial, West New York in 1983, Dover in 1984 and Randolph in 1988. In 1989 I covered Elizabeth’s 19-9 home win over Bloomfield in the N2, G4 semifinals, with the visiting Bengals coming damn close to shocking the No. 1 team in the state that day.
In 1990 I covered three levels of playoffs working for the Pottsville Republican in eastern Pennsylvania, all at high school sites that included enormous crowds.
As a reporter, how I miss those days. They simply cannot compare to a state championship game played at Rutgers, Kean or MetLife. If I’m in the minority here, that’s fine. Just my opinion.
Randolph at Union on Dec. 7, 1991 was the third state championship game played at Union’s Cooke Memorial Field. The first was Montclair defeating Union 14-10 in the 1983 final, which was the final game for Montclair head coach Butch Fortunato. Union then defeated visiting Montclair 34-13 in the 1984 final at Cooke Memorial Field.
In addition to the many sportswriters covering the game, Suburban Cablevision TV3 Sports was there, with the game broadcast by Paul Spychala (play-by-play) and Dick Zimmer (commentary). It can be seen now in its entirety on YouTube.
At the time, Union already led North 2, Group 4 with seven playoff championships, winning its first two at Giants Stadium in 1978 and 1979, its third at Montclair in 1982 and its last four consecutively from 1984-1987, those coming at Union (1984) vs. Montclair at Bloomfield (1985) and at Roxbury (1986 and 1987).
This matchup 25 years ago featured Randolph’s versatile Single-Wing offense vs. Union’s powerful belly Wing-T.
Defensively, Union’s starting unit had not allowed a touchdown in seven games, covering 30 quarters.
When Randolph was winning North 2, Group 3 all those years in the mid to late 1980s, many skeptics doubted they could win against larger Group 4 competition.
Well, the Rams proved those critics wrong. Randolph reached the North 2, Group 4 championship game in each of its first five seasons in the section.
Randolph also won its first three playoff games in the section, the first two on the road to win the section the first year it was in it.
On Dec. 7, 1991 at Union, Randolph received the first half kickoff, starting at its own 15. After a reverse failed for a two-yard loss on first down and then a run was stuffed for no gain on second, junior quarterback John Bauer III completed a 19-yard pass to senior back Steve Conca for the game’s initial first down.
Randolph got all the way down to the Union 36 before – on fourth-and-7 – Bauer gained five yards, but fell two yards short of a first down, with Union taking over. Although Randolph did not score, the Rams did go from their own 15 to the Union 31 on 12 plays that included 10 runs and two completed passes and took six seconds shy of six minutes off the clock.
Meanwhile, it looked like Randolph’s defense was ready to go from the beginning, holding Union to a three-and-out on Union’s first possession.
Three plays later the Rams put the first points on the scoreboard.
After a two-yard run by junior running back Billy Williams, Bauer connected with Williams for a 63-yard pass completion, giving Randolph a first-and-10 at the Union 6. Bauer then completed a six-yard TD pass to a wide open Louis Manzo, the senior end catching the first of his game-high five receptions for 78 yards. Conca’s extra point put Randolph ahead 7-0 in the first quarter.
Randolph won at Union 6-0 in the 1990 semifinals and on this day so far, the Rams were looking good again.
Union went out on three downs again as did Randolph on its third possession, with Union junior linebacker Brian Sheridan and senior tackle Kevin Diehl combining for a sack.
Union had fourth-and-two at the 50, but elected to punt, held without a first down again on its third possession.
A sack by Diehl helped prevent Randolph from registering a first down on its fourth possession.
The game’s first turnover and the only one committed by Union saw Sheridan lose possession of the ball after Randolph senior tackle Chip Thomas was bringing him down. Alex Narcise was there to recover for Randolph, giving the Rams a first down at the Union 45 with 6:05 left in the second quarter.
Narcise was listed as No. 16, but wore No. 42.
The game’s first penalty came on the first play of this drive, which was Randolph’s fifth possession. The Rams were pushed back because of a holding call.
Bauer then connected with senior back Dan Doran for a six-yard completion and then Manzo for a 15-yard game. Williams ran for 11 yards and now Randolph was picking up steam again.
On third-and-nine from the Union 11, Bauer hit Manzo over the middle for a 10-yard gain and first-and-goal at the Union 1. At that point, Bauer had completed 8-of-9 passes for 143 yards and one touchdown.
As good as Union usually was against the run, the Farmers – at times – would give up yardage against the pass.
On second-and-goal from the 1, Williams ran up the middle to put Randolph ahead 13-0.
Covering the game on the Union sidelines, I could hear a pin drop. The silence was deafening.
I then heard someone say, “man, is this Randolph team going to ever lose again?”
Conca’s second extra point made it 14-0 Randolph with about a minute left before intermission.
Union reached the Randolph 21 with 42 seconds left after senior halfback Cameron Chadwick ran 20 yards on a reverse and also got out of bounds.
A combined sack of Union senior quarterback Mike Liloia by Randolph junior tackle Robert Whipple and Thomas for a five-yard loss pushed Union back to the 26.
What followed was an incomplete pass, a delay of game call against Union, another incomplete pass and then a sack for an eight-yard loss by junior end David Plate.
A one-yard run by Doran was the last play of the first half, with Randolph ahead 14-0.
In six quarters of playoff football up until this point, Union still was without a single point scored against the Rams.
Then came the second half.
Union was to receive the second half kickoff, with a chance to immediately get right back in the game. That’s exactly what the Farmers did.
On first down it was Sheridan up the middle for 18 yards. In the first half, Union was limited to 19 yards rushing on 11 carries and Sheridan to just four on four.
Randolph had a 182-25 edge in total offense for the first two quarters.
Two plays later Sheridan bulled his way for another 18 yards up the middle and Union’s second first down of its opening second half possession. Union was held to just one first down in the entire first half.
Why the sudden transformation? We’ll get to that in a moment.
Sheridan’s third 18-yard run up the middle put the ball at the Randolph 14. After Sheridan ran for five yards and then three more, Liloia finally put Union on the scoreboard with a two-yard touchdown run. Marco Caban’s extra point pulled Union to within 14-7 in the third quarter, bringing the Union crowd back into the game as well. Maybe Randolph is beatable after all?
Union drove 77 yards in 10 plays and used four minutes to reassert itself and show Randolph that it was not about to lay down again.
Randolph’s first possession was a quick three-and-out.
Union was then held to a three-and-out, but a 34-yard punt by senior Tom DiGiovanni pinned Randolph back on its own 24.
Once again, Union held Randolph to without a first down as three runs gained only four yards. Bauer’s punt against the wind went only seven yards, with Union starting its third possession on the Randolph 33.
On fourth-and-nine from the Randolph 32, Liloia connected with Chadwick for a huge 12-yard pass and a first down at the Randolph 20. This was one of the game’s most underrated plays.
Union converted another fourth down play. With one yard needed at the Randolph 11, Sheridan went up the middle for a three-yard gain.
On the fourth play of the fourth quarter, Union senior halfback Danny Taylor then went up the middle, untouched, for an eight-yard touchdown run. Caban’s second extra point tied the game for the first and only time at 14-14 with 10:26 to go.
Randolph was able to get one first down on its third possession and was then faced with fourth-and-10 at the Union 40 with 9:05 remaining. Bauer’s pass to Manzo at the Union 22 – Manzo was open – went incomplete, with Union taking over.
Union’s offensive line was now providing plenty of running room, specifically employing an adjusted blocking scheme aimed at Randolph senior lineman Dave Mitchell (No. 79).
Taylor ran for eight, Sheridan for 10. Sheridan then ran for eight up the middle, followed by an eight-yard run by Taylor. You could now see that Union – which had taken control of the game – was on the verge of taking its first lead.
Randolph called a timeout with 7:50 to go. It didn’t matter.
Sheridan gained six yards and then nine more up the middle. Sheridan couldn’t buy a yard in the first half. Now he was unstoppable.
On second-and-goal from the Randolph 2, Sheridan bulled his way into the end zone for the game’s final touchdown, giving Union its first lead. Caban’s third extra point kick in three attempts put Union ahead 21-14 midway through the fourth quarter.
A clip on the ensuing kickoff against the Rams had Randolph start its fourth second half drive on its own 15. Now trailing, Bauer went to the air and was incomplete on first down.
The next play might have been the game’s biggest. On second-and-10 from the Randolph 15, Bauer threw the ball right to Sheridan in the left flank. Sheridan caught the pass at the Randolph 22 and then raced down the right sideline before being forced out at the Randolph 2.
It was a HUGE interception by Sheridan – Randolph’s first of two turnovers – that led to the game’s final points, a 21-yard field goal by Caban with 3:39 left.
Not only did Sheridan – who in 1992 would be New Jersey’s Gatorade Player of the Year – finish with a game-best 131 yards rushing on 25 carries (gaining 127 on 21 attempts in the second half) and one touchdown, but his interception prevented Randolph from having any thoughts of coming back against Union the way it did vs. Montclair 12 months earlier.
Sheridan was involved in each of the turnovers that led to points, his fumble leading to Randolph’s second touchdown and his interception leading to Union’s field goal.
Bauer was hurt on an incomplete pass on the first play of Randolph’s next possession. He limped off the field and was replaced by Narcise at quarterback.
An interception by Union junior cornerback Joe Queli deep in Union territory halted Randolph’s fifth second half possession, with Union taking over at its own seven-yard line.
After Union punted the ball back to Randolph for the final time, an incomplete pass by Narcise from the Union 8 was the game’s final play.
Union did it. The Farmers were the first team in more than five years to beat the Randolph Rams.
From Union head coach Lou Rettino to his standout players, all the post-game talk was about the changing of blocking schemes for the second half – especially on Mitchell – which led the host Farmers to a very historic, comeback victory.
Union didn’t score in the first half and Randolph – outgained by the margin of 184-92 in total yards for the final two quarters – did not score in the second half. The Rams were held to just one yard rushing in five carries during the game’s final 24 minutes.
I remember asking Lou after the game how this championship team stacked up against previous Union title squads he coached. He said that because of the way the defense dominated and the fact that the last win came over a team that had not lost in some time, it was comparable – right up there.
The Union defensive coordinator was Gary Zakovic, who would later lead Dover to the 1996 North 2, Group 2 title before becoming Union’s head coach in 1997.
Jeff Longueil was the offensive coordinator. Longueil passed away in October of this year at the age of 71.
Rettino’s staff also included 1967 Union graduate Chet Czaplinski, Brian Shanahan, Carmen Guarino and John Quinn.
Rettino, who turned 50 in December of 1991, passed away March 22, 1996 of stomach cancer. He was 54.
Although the Farmers have been knocking on the door in recent years, Union has not won a state championship in football since 1993.
18TH NORTH 2, GROUP 4 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
AT UNION’S COOKE MEMORIAL FIELD
2-RANDOLPH (9-1-1) 07 07 00 00 – 14
1-UNION (11-0) 00 00 07 17 – 24
RANDOLPH – Louis Manzo 22 pass from John Bauer III, Steve Conca kick
3 plays, 71 yards, :58 used
Randolph’s second possession.
TD came on first-and-goal from the Union 6.
Bauer 4-4 passing so far for 103 yards, 1 TD.
RANDOLPH – Billy Williams 1 run, Steve Conca kick (R 14-0)
11 plays, 45 yards, 5:00 used
Randolph’s fifth possession.
TD came on second-and-goal from the Union 1.
Randolph capitalized on a turnover – a fumble recovery on defense.
Randolph lineman Chip Thomas (No. 77) hit Brian Sheridan to bring him down and as he did Sheridan lost control of the ball, with Alex Narcise (No. 42) recovering. Narcise was listed as No. 16 on the Randolph program roster.
UNION – Mike Liloia 2 run, Marco Caban kick (R 14-7)
10 plays, 77 yards, 4:00 used
Union’s first possession and the first possession of the second half.
TD came on first and goal from the Randolph 2.
Union more than tripled what it produced in total first half offense (25 yards) on this drive.
UNION – Danny Taylor 8 run, Marco Caban kick (14-14)
9 plays, 33 yards, 4:24 used
Union’s third possession.
TD came on first-and-goal from the Randolph 8.
A punt against the wind by John Bauer for only 7 yards gave Union
the ball on the Randolph 33 to start a short scoring drive.
UNION – Brian Sheridan 2 run, Marco Caban kick (U 21-14)
8 plays, 60 yards, 3:00 used
Union’s fourth possession.
TD came on second-and-goal from the Randolph 2.
On Randolph’s previous drive a pass by John Bauer to Louis Manzo went incomplete on fourth-and-10 from the Union 40 with 9:05 remaining.
UNION – FG Marco Caban 21 (U 24-14)
4 plays, from Randolph 2 to Randolph 4, 1:21 used
Union’s fifth possession.
FG came on fourth-and-goal from the Randolph 4.
Union capitalized on a turnover – an interception by Brian Sheridan that he returned to the Randolph 2.
John Bauer, on second-and-10 from the Randolph 15 on Randolph’s second play of its fourth possession, threw the ball right to Brian Sheridan on the left side. Sheridan caught the pass at the Randolph 22 and then raced down the right sideline before being forced out at the Randolph 2. It was a HUGE interception by Sheridan – Randolph’s first of two turnovers – that led to the game’s final points, a 21-yard field goal by sophomore Marco Caban with 3:39 left.
Randolph, down 24-14, at the start of the possession, would have no magical touchdown drive to take a 22-21 lead, which was the score the Rams beat host Montclair by 12 months earlier in the 1990 Miracle Comeback North 2, Group 4 final at Montclair’s Woodman Field.
FIRST DOWNS: Randolph 12, Union 10
RUSHES-YARDS: Randolph 29-40, Union 46-171
PASSES: Randolph 12-27-2, Union 2-7-0
PASSING YARDS: Randolph 234, Union 18
FUMBLES-LOST: Randolph 0-0, Union 1-1
PUNTS-AVERAGE: Randolph 4-27.25, Union 5-31.4
PENALTIES: Randolph 2-25, Union 5-40
32-Billy Williams 10-22, 1 TD
34-Dan Doran 10-13
20-Mike Barrett 2-4
7-John Bauer III 7-1
Totals: 29-40, 1 TD
7-John Bauer III 10-20-1, 204 yards, 1 TD
42-Alex Narcise 2-7-1, 30 yards, 0 TD
22-Louis Manzo 5-78, 1 TD
32-Billy Williams 3-93
35-Steve Conca 2-26
20-Mike Barrett 1-30
34-Dan Doran 1-7
Totals: 12-234, 1 TD
43-Brian Sheridan 25-131, 1 TD
2-Cameron Chadwick 8-34
29-Danny Taylor 6-33, 1 TD
21-Derrick Cannon 2-0
13-Mike Liloia 5-(-7)
Totals: 46-171, 2 TDs
13-Mike Liloia 2-7-0, 18 yards, 0 TD
2-Cameron Chadwick 2-18
RANDOLPH – None
UNION – 43-Brian Sheridan, 32-Joe Queli
FIRST HALF TOTALS:
First downs: Randolph 7, Union 1
Rushes-yards: Randolph 24-39, Union 11-19
Passes: Randolph 8-9-0, Union 1-6-0
Passing yards: Randolph 143, Union 6
Fumbles-lost: Randolph 0-0, Union 1-1
Punts-avg.: Randolph 2-37, Union 3-31
Penalties: Randolph 1-10, Union 1-5
32-Billy Williams 9-22, 1 TD
34-Dan Doran 8-12
7-John Bauer 6-3
20-Mike Barrett 1-2
7-John Bauer III 8-9-0, 143 yards, 1 TD
22-Louis Manzo 4-47, 1 TD
35-Steve Conca 2-26
32-Billy Williams 1-63
34-Dan Doran 1-7
Totals: 8-143, 1 TD
2-Cameron Chadwick 3-27
43-Brian Sheridan 4-4
29-Danny Taylor 1-1
21-Derrick Cannon 1-0
13-Mike Liloia 2-(-13)
13-Mike Liloia 1-6-0, 6 yards, 0 TD
2-Cameron Chadwick 1-6
Randolph – None
Union – None
SECOND HALF TOTALS:
First downs: Randolph 5, Union 9
Rushes-yards: Randolph 5-1, Union 35-172
Passes: Randolph 4-18-2, Union 1-1-0, 12
Passing yards: Randolph 91, Union 12
Fumbles-lost: Randolph 0-0, Union 0-0
Punts-avg.: Randolph 2-17.5, Union 2-31
Penalties: Randolph 1-15, Union 4-35
20-Mike Barrett 1-2
34-Dan Doran 2-1
32-Billy Williams 1-0
7-John Bauer 1-(-2)
7-John Bauer 2-11-1, 61 yards, O TD
42-Alex Narcise 2-7-1, 30, 0 INT
32-Billy Williams 2-30
22-Louis Manzo 1-31
20-Mike Barrett 1-30
43-Brian Sheridan 21-127, 1 TD
29-Danny Taylor 5-32, 1 TD
2-Cameron Chadwick 5-7
13-Mike Liloia 3-6, 1 TD
21-Derrick Cannon 1-0
13-Mike Lilioa 1-1-0, 12 yards, 0 TD
2-Cameron Chadwick 1-12
Randolph – None
Union – Brian Sheridan, Joe Queli
BREAKDOWN OF RANDOLPH’S
58-0-1 UNBEATEN STREAK:
1986: Won last six games to capture North 2, Group 3 for second time in playoff era and first time since 1983.
The 1982 team was 10-0 and lost to West Morris in the N2, G3 final.
The 1983 team was not undefeated, but won N2, G3 for the first time.
1987: 11-0, repeats as N2, G3 champs for first time. Is head coach
John Bauer Sr.’s first undefeated state championship team.
1988: 11-0, wins N2, G3 for third straight year and fashions back-to-back
11-0 records for first time.
1989: 11-0 for third straight year and won fourth straight N2, G3 crown.
1990: 10-0 (Randolph only played 8 regular season games this year) and captures North 2, Group 4 title first year in section, winning at Union 6-0 in semifinals and then at 10-0 Montclair 22-21 in the final. John Bauer Sr. passes away in November, with son John Bauer Jr. taking over as head coach.
1991: Won first five games for 54-game winning streak, which surpassed previous state record of 48 games (1968-1973) held by Westfield. Randolph and Roxbury then played to a 6-6 regular season tie, putting Randolph’s now unbeaten streak at 54-0-1. Rams won next four games, including 27-6 home win over Roxbury in N2, G4 semifinals to bring unbeaten streak to 58-0-1 for N2, G4 final at Union. After losing to Union, Randolph finished 9-1-1.
RANDOLPH VS. UNION IN THE
NORTH 2, GROUP 4 PLAYOFFS:
1990: Randolph 6, Union 0 – at Union, semifinals
1991: Union 24, Randolph 14 – at Union, final
1992: Union 21, Randolph 7 – at Union, final
1993: Union 19, Randolph 16 – at Randolph, final
1998: Randolph 20, Union 13 – at Union, quarterfinals
(First year of sections expanded to 8 playoff teams.
Union was the 2 seed and Randolph the 7 seed.)
RANDOLPH’S FIRST SIX YEARS
IN NORTH 2, GROUP 4:
1990: Randolph won at Montclair 22-21 in title game
1991: Randolph lost at Union 24-14 in title game
1992: Randolph lost at Union 21-7 in title game
1993: Randolph lost at home to Union 19-16 in title game
(Randolph’s first home loss since 1985.
Rams were ahead 16-6 in third quarter.)
1994: Randolph lost at home to Montclair 22-12 in title game
1995: Randolph went 0-9