UNION COUNTY, NJ — After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Jersey’s premier all-star football event is back.
The media day for the 42nd annual Phil Simms NJ North/South All Star Football Classic will take place on Sunday, March 27, at Piscataway High School, with the players and their parents in attendance to find out from the coaches and other people running the game what it’s all about.
The game is scheduled for Sunday, June 12, at Kean University in Union. It is taking place earlier in June than previously and on a Sunday afternoon, rather than the traditional final-Monday-night-of-June contest.
There was a media day at Piscataway High School on March 8, 2020, for what would have been the 2020 game, but a national lockdown due to the onset of the coronavirus began one week later and the game was subsequently canceled.
Because of the ongoing pandemic, there was also no game in 2021. The first North/South game was in 1979. The only other year that there was no game was in 2002, when the game had to be canceled right before kickoff at Rutgers University due to heavy thunder and lightning.
Players, coaches and fans are excited to have the first game in the series in three years. The North held on for its first 1-point win in the series when it captured the 2019 game at Kean University, 24-23. The South missed what would have been a game-winning field goal on the final play of the game, with the ball hitting off the right upright.
Before that, the South had won four of the previous five contests. The South leads the series 20-18-2. The North has never led the series.
Seven players from Union County high schools were selected to play for the North in this year’s contest — three on offense and four on defense.
The three players on offense are running backs Zaon Laney of Rahway High School and Charlie Barth of New Providence High School, and Union High School wide receiver Matthew Nazaire.
The four on defense are back Wendell Cadet of Elizabeth High School, tackle Mathew Ihemesie of Hillside High School, end Ibn Nadir of Linden High School and linebacker Aaron Roach of Plainfield High School.
Laney rushed for 1,475 yards and scored 15 touchdowns for the Indians, who bounced back from an 0-3 start to win four of five and qualify for the South Jersey, Group 3, playoffs. They were even at the half with heavily favored host Somerville High School at 15-15 before falling 38-21.
Rahway went to 6-1 Hillside the week before the playoff cutoff and shocked the Comets 40-21 at Hillside’s John Zappulla Field, snapping Hillside’s six-game winning streak.
Laney ranked as one of the more prolific running backs in the state. He also excelled on defense and special teams.
Against Hillside, Laney had 35 carries for a career-high 293 yards and three touchdowns, the longest one 65 yards. Laney also caught two passes for 11 yards. He returned two kickoffs for 53 yards, with a long of 31.
On defense, Laney had three solo tackles, one assist, one interception returned for 21 yards and one pass defended.
On senior night in a 27-7 win at home against Warren Hills Regional High School at Rahway River Park, Laney carried the ball 17 times for a then–career-high 271 yards. He scored three touchdowns, all in the second half, on long runs of 38, 45 and 87 yards. They all came on the first possession of drives. Laney was held to 31 yards on seven carries in the first half.
“This is the best feeling,” Laney said, moments after the triumph. “When the second half began, we were looking to score right away and then dominate.”
Regarding Laney’s superstar performance, Rahway head coach Brian Russo said, “Zaon worked his tail off in the off-season, doing all of the dirty work. He’s got a great attitude and good grades. He did a lot of it on his own.”
Barth was New Providence’s lead running back for three years. Outside of legendary 1977 graduate Ted Blackwell, there might not have been anyone that did it better for the Pioneers.
As a senior, Barth rushed for 2,025 yards on 215 carries — an average of 9.4 yards. He finished his career with 5,303 yards on 586 attempts, for a final average of nine yards per carry.
Barth rushed for 1,510 yards on 174 carries and scored 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. In his junior season, he gained 1,072 yards on 186 attempts and reached the end zone 25 times. Barth even had carries as a freshman, rushing for 66 yards on 11 carries and scoring twice in 2018.
He scored 27 touchdowns as a senior and finished with 73.
More importantly, Barth helped lead the Pioneers to records of 8-2 in 2018, 7-3 in 2019, 8-1 in 2020 and 9-2 in 2021.
Barth’s play on both sides of the ball was instrumental in leading New Providence to its first playoff win since a victory at Secaucus High School in 2013. New Providence won at Delaware Valley Regional High School, 35-13, in the first round of the 2021 South Jersey, Group 2, playoffs.
Delaware Valley was 4-0 at home last fall, before the Pioneers went there and beat the Terriers, who finished 7-3.
Barth carried the ball 44 times for a career-high 334 yards and three touchdowns. On defense, he produced eight tackles — five of them solo and three assisted. Four tackles were for losses, including three quarterback sacks.
Barth also came up with a big first-quarter interception in New Providence territory, which set up his team’s first touchdown. That score was a 3-yard run by him to give the Pioneers the lead for good.
“I’ve not seen anyone in my time as a player or coach have the impact on a game that Charlie had against Delaware Valley,” New Providence head coach Chet Parlavecchio Jr. said. “What he did running the ball was something, and on defense he was all over the field. He was a great player the way he was supposed to be. It was so incredible to watch.”
Nazaire caught 16 passes for 399 yards and six touchdowns. In a 42-7 home win against Watchung Hills, he had four receptions for 103 yards and two scores. In Union’s 41-3 home playoff victory over Livingston, Nazaire hauled in four passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
Nadir produced 41 solo tackles and 34 assists for the Tigers, who were winning at Irvington High School 6-3 in the fourth quarter before falling 11-6 in North 2, Group 4, first-round playoff action. After coming back to win that game, Irvington went on to win North 2, Group 4, for the first time, capturing its first state title in the playoff era. The Blue Knights then won the North, Group 4, regional championship, also for the first time.
Cadet had four interceptions, including three in Elizabeth’s 19-18 home win against Plainfield. He finished with 33 total tackles.
Ihemesie, who just had a fine wrestling season as Hillside’s heavyweight, had five total tackles in Hillside’s dominating 34-0 shutout of Overbrook in the first round of the South Jersey, Group 2, playoffs. He also had five, including a sack, in Hillside’s thrilling 21-19 regular-season home win against Delaware Valley.
Ihemesie was a District 14 wrestling champion at South Plainfield and finished fifth in Region 4 at North Hunterdon Regional High School.
Roach was a force at linebacker all season long, including Plainfield’s wild 45-44 win against Monroe Township High School in the team’s home finale. In that game, Roach was in on eight tackles — four solo and four assisted.
Roach’s fine performance helped Plainfield win five games for the first time since 2005, with the Cardinals finishing 5-5.
Union County players on the North roster:
Charlie Barth, RB, New Providence No. 32 (6-0, 215)
Wendell Cadet, DB, Elizabeth No. 12 (6-0, 165)
Mathew Ihemesie, DT, Hillside No. 66 (6-1, 285)
Zaon Laney, RB, Rahway No. 2 (5-10, 175)
Ibn Nadir, DE, Linden No. 23 (6-1, 210)
Matthew Nazaire, WR, Union No. 6 (6-0, 190)
Aaron Roach, LB, Plainfield No. 13 (6-0, 190)
Photos by JR Parachini