Union football finishes stellar season … but no state championships

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UNION, NJ — Arguably the best nine-win Union football team ever was honored by the township on Friday, Dec. 3, for a standout season.
It did not end with a state championship as the 2019 season did, but there was plenty to look back on in awe.

“I think this is a legendary team, or it certainly could have been,” said head coach Lou Grasso Jr., who has been at the helm of the Farmers since 2013.

Grasso guided Union to its first appearance in the North 2, Group 5, state championship game his first year in charge. Six years later, Grasso led Union to its first state title in 26 years, when Union captured North 2, Group 5, honors for the first time. It was Union’s first state championship since winning North 2, Group 4, for the third year in a row in 1993.

After easily dispatching Livingston 41-3 at home in the first round of the North 2, Group 5, playoffs on Friday, Nov. 5, top-seeded Union was tackled for a big loss by a COVID-19 situation the following week and had to forfeit its home semifinal contest against fifth-seeded Paterson Eastside.

Thus, Union finished the season at 9-2. The only loss on the field came in its season opener on Saturday, Aug. 28, at Ocean City High School, where several turnovers hurt the Farmers in a 31-28 setback to Millville. The Thunderbolts went on to win the South Jersey, Group 4, state championship and defeated Central Jersey, Group 4, winner Winslow, 45-35, in the South, Group 4, regional championship game at Rutgers on Sunday, Dec. 5.

“Legendary” is a lofty adjective, but Grasso has his reasons for calling his team that: “First, we had one of the best players the program has ever had in Davison Igbinosun. He was one of the most dominant players I’ve ever been around.

“Second, in seven of our 10 games, there was the running clock.”
That meant Union led by at least 33 points in all of those victories.

“Third,” Grasso continued, “our defense gave up just 6 to 7 points a game.

“Had we played Paterson Eastside, it would have been tough, and, had we won that game, we know that Clifton would have given us another serious challenge.”

Union defeated Clifton, 42-28, at home in the 2019 North 2, Group 5, state championship game. This year, Clifton defeated Paterson Eastside, 19-18, at home to win the North 2, Group 5, title for the first time, after beating Phillipsburg, 28-21, at home in the other semifinal. Clifton later lost to East Orange Campus, 30-24, in the regional championship on Sunday, Dec. 5.

For Clifton, it was only the second state championship the Mustangs have won in the playoff era, which began in 1974.

Also included in the night’s festivities on Friday, Dec. 3, was the theme of this being Union’s 100th season of football. The first season was 1922.

Grasso is the 15th head coach in program history and only the second to lead the Farmers to a state championship in the playoff era. Lou Rettino, who died in March 1996 at the age of 54, guided Union to its first 10 state sectional championships in his 19-season tenure, from 1977 to 1995.

“If you would have told me when I was a little kid that I would be part of this, I would have told you that you were crazy,” said Grasso, whose father, Lou Sr., was the head coach at Roselle for 25 seasons, from 1979 to 2003.

Grasso Jr. was also an assistant coach at Union, under Brian Sheridan, in addition to being on several other staffs as an assistant.

“I think our coaching staff is great, and it includes some of my best friends,” Grasso said. “We share the responsibility of the program.

“We like to coach and also have fun. It’s a lot of hard work, but we like to laugh, too.”

One coach Grasso lost after the 2019 season was offensive coordinator James Melody, who graduated from Union in 2007 and, as the team’s starting quarterback his junior and senior seasons of 2005 and 2006, helped lead the Farmers both of those years to the North 2, Group 4, semifinals.

Melody took the head coach job at Cedar Creek in 2020. Last year, he guided the Pirates to a 3-5 record. This year, he led them to their third state championship in the playoff era, which was the South Jersey, Group 3, title.

Cedar Creek then came back to beat Central Jersey, Group 3, state champion Woodrow Wilson, 35-34, in the third and final South, Group 3, regional championship game, which was played at Rutgers on Saturday, Dec. 4.

The Pirates enter the 2022 season with an overall winning streak of 15, including this year’s record-setting 13-0 performance.

“I was at Cedar Creek for the state championship game,” Grasso said, referring to Cedar Creek’s 30-13 win against Delsea. “I’m not surprised at all by James’ success. We’re all proud of him here.”

Photos by JR Parachini