Hillside football preview: Comets seek to stretch field in their favor

HILLSIDE – With five wide receivers and a tight end in their spread offense mix, the Comets will seek to, “stretch the field with any one of their receivers,” according to first-year head coach Halim McNeil.

“We have a lot of running back type of kids, kids who can get out and catch the ball and then run with it,” McNeil said. “We’re not afraid to throw the long toss.”

Throwing the ball to those many targets will be first-year starting quarterback Kevin Miller.

“Kevin is very smart and athletic,” McNeil said. “He’s trying to make the right reads now and the right throws. He’s proven to be a team leader so far and he has a tremendous work ethic. He never stops working.”

Miller, along with several of his teammates, competed in a Prospect Camp held at Syracuse this July.

“He has all the tools,” McNeil said. “He just has to fine-tune them now.”

The lead running back is junior Siraj Abdul-Malik, with sophomore Chris Branch back in the fold as well after playing as a freshman last season.

“Siraj is a nice fit for us,” McNeil said.

Senior wide receiver John Mays is a player McNeil said, “can take the ball to the house any time.”

Returning starters include linemen Natez Winston, a senior tackle, and Alex Joseph, a junior tackle.

Back as starters in Hillside’s 4-2-5 defense include senior tackle Osa Omokaro, cornerbacks Bernie Nerestant, a junior, and Abdul-Malik and safety Joe Stuckey.

McNeil said that senior tackle Eugene Johnson anchors the middle and Omokaro anchors the edge up front.

“Osa, coming off the end, is a great pass rusher,” McNeil said. “Stuckey is a playmaker.”

McNeil also praised the talents of Branch at middle linebacker and senior Donnell Amaker, Hillside’s tight end on offense, at outside linebacker.

“Chris reads the run well and Amaker is a fire plug,” McNeil said.

A match teacher at Speedway Elementary School in Newark, McNeil comes over from Newark West Side where he was the head coach there the past four seasons (2011-2014). His record was 10-28 (.263), including a 7-3 record and playoff season in 2013.

This is his second head coaching stint.

McNeil was officially approved as Hillside’s new head coach back in May.

Kendall Ashford, the head coach at Hillside the previous three seasons, is now an assistant coach at Newark Central. Ashford’s record at Hillside was 7-23 (.233), including 2-8 in 2014, 4-6 in 2013 and 1-9 in 2012.

McNeil, a 1999 Union graduate who played for John Johnston in 1996 and for Gary Zakovic in 1997 and 1998, was previously an assistant coach for two seasons (2001 and 2002) at Union, six seasons (2003-2008) at Irvington, one season (2009) at Belleville and one season at Shabazz (2010).

McNeil coached under Marc Crisafi at Union and under Darnell Grant at Irvington and Shabazz. The year he was at Belleville he was the defensive coordinator for the Buccaneers, who were coached that season by Chris Strumolo.

McNeil, 34, graduated from St. John’s in 2003 and received his master’s degree from Fordham in 2008.

Hillside got out to a 2-2 start last year before closing with a six-game losing streak.

Hillside opens at Dayton Sept. 11 and then plays at Roselle Sept. 19.

The first home game is Sept. 26 against Rahway, which also has a new coach in former Woodbridge mentor Brian Russo.

On that day Hillside plans on honoring former long-time assistant coach John Zappullo, who passed away June 27 at the age of 76. Known to the program as “Coach Zap,” Zappullo was an assistant coach at Hillside for 52 seasons, with his first year being 1963. He also taught physical education.

Hillside wraps its scrimmage schedule Sept. 2 at home at 5 p.m. vs. Plainfield.



Head Coach: Halim McNeil, first season.

A 1999 Union graduate.

Conference: Mid-State 38

Division: Mountain

Section: Central Jersey, Group 2

Hillside’s last sectional title: 1985

2014: (2-8 and 0-5, sixth in Mountain Division)

Wood Field Stadium (Conant Street): Grass.

McNeil was previously the head coach at

Newark West Side the past four years (2011-2014).

Before that he was an assistant coach at Union,

Irvington, Belleville and Shabazz. His record at

Newark West Side was 10-28 (.263). His 2011 and

2014 teams went 0-9. His 2012 squad was 3-7 and

his 2013 team went 7-3, reaching the N2, G2

quarterfinals. McNeil earned a coach of the year

honor in 2013.



T Natez Winston, senior, (5-10, 235)

G Sekou Diaby, junior, (6-1, 250)

C Samuel Oberj, junior, (5-10, 235)

G Marvin Jerome, senior, (5-8, 210)

T Alex Joseph, junior, (6-1, 260)

TE Donnell Amaker, senior, (6-1, 225)

WR Joe Stuckey, junior, (6-0, 205)

WR Osa Omokaro, senior, (6-2, 210)

WR John Mays, senior, (5-7, 170)

WR Jahaad Slit, junior, (5-9, 175)

WR Joshua Graham, junior, (5-8, 175)

QB Kevin Miller, junior, (5-10, 180)

RB Siraj Abdul-Malik, junior, (5-7, 170)

RB Chris Branch, sophomore, (5-11, 220)

PK Joseph Jaramillo, junior, (5-7, 170)

Returning starters (2): Winston, Joseph.



T Eugene Johnson, senior, (6-3, 225)

E Osa Omokaro, senior, (6-2, 210)

E Uche Mbagwa, senior, (6-0, 205)

T Marvin Jerome, senior, (5-8, 210)

OLB Donnell Amaker, senior, (6-1, 225)

OLB Jason Merise, senior, (5-10, 180)

MLB Tyrese Latimore, junior, (5-10, 190)

MLB Chris Branch, sophomore, (5-11, 220)

CB Bernie Nerestant, junior, (5-11, 170)

CB Siraj Abdul-Malik, junior, (5-7, 170)

S Joe Stuckey, junior, (6-0, 205)

S John Mays, senior, (5-7, 170)

Returning starters (4): Omokaro, Nerestant,

Abdul-Malik, Stuckey.



Sept. 11 at Dayton, 7 p.m.

Sept. 19 at Roselle, 1 p.m.

Sept. 26 Rahway, 1 p.m.

Oct. 3 Pingry, 2 p.m.

Oct. 9 at Bernards, 7 p.m.

Oct. 16 at Cranford, 7 p.m.

Oct. 24 Johnson, 2 p.m.

Oct. 31 Delaware Valley, 1 p.m.

Nov. 7 at Summit, 2 p.m.

Head coach: Halim McNeil,

first season


2014 COMETS (2-8)

(H) Hillside 12, Dayton 7

(H) Roselle 21, Hillside 14

(A) Rahway 35, Hillside 12

(A) Hillside 27, Pingry 10

(H) Bernards 36, Hillside 12

(H) Cranford 40, Hillside 6

(A) Johnson 35, Hillside 7

(A) Delaware Valley 42, Hillside 12

(H) Summit 35, Hillside 20

(H) Pemberton 20, Hillside 12

Head coach: Kendall Ashford,

third season

Section: Central Jersey, Group 2

Conference: Mid-State 38

Division: Mountain 0-5

Record: 2-8

Home: 1-5

Away: 1-3

Points for: 134

Points against: 281

Shutouts: 0

Overtime: 0-0