HILLSIDE – When Erik Rosenmeier took over as the Cranford head coach in 2005 – his first head coaching stint – he inherited a program that had just qualified for the state playoffs three years in a row.
Those were only the second, third and fourth seasons that Cranford did qualify, with 1984 Cranford graduate Chris Hull doing a fine job of leading the Cougars to heights they had never reached before.
Hull moved on to Morristown and guided the Colonels to the North 2, Group 3 state championship in 2010. He is now the defensive coordinator at Phillipsburg.
Meanwhile, it took some time for Rosenmeier to get Cranford back to the state playoffs. Although he had some quality teams early on that posted winning records, those squads had to excel against bigger schools such as Linden, Westfield, Plainfield and Irvington until Cranford left the Watchung Conference and then became a part of the present Mid-State 38 Conference.
After not qualifying from 2005-2009, it appeared that his sixth team might break on through. Cranford opened its 2010 season with a convincing 43-20 win at Johnson and followed up with a 35-6 triumph at Voorhees for Rosenmeier’s first 2-0 start.
However, after losing at Summit 17-13 a 5-3 record at the cutoff date did not earn the Cougars enough power points to qualify in Central Jersey, Group 2 that season.
Instead, Cranford played in a sectional consolation game for the sixth straight season. Cranford’s season-ending 14-3 home win over Red Bank saw the Cougars finish 6-4 and improve to 6-0 in consolation games under Rosenmeier.
“You can never underestimate making the playoffs,” Rosenmeier said. “I never played in a playoff game.”
Rosenmeier, a 1983 Johnson Regional graduate, played on capable Crusader teams under head coach Steve Ciccotelli, but they were never fortunate enough to make the playoffs.
“Every team is unique,” Rosenmeier said.
Cranford’s non-division 49-13 Mid-State 38 Conference win at Hillside Saturday assured the Cougars of qualifying for the sixth straight year after Cranford didn’t during make it during Rosenmeier’s first six seasons at the helm.
His record at Cranford, including this season’s 6-2 start that includes a five-game winning streak, is now 83-41 (.669).
Cranford will wrap its regular season at Delaware Valley next Friday night and will then, most likely, be on the road for the first round of the Central Jersey, Group 3 playoffs.
Cranford’s playoff history includes the Cougars making the grade in North 2, Group 4 in 1975; North 2, Group 3 in 2002; North 2, Group 2 in 2003; Central Jersey, Group 2 in 2004 and again in N2, G3 from 2011-2015.
With New Providence not making the playoffs this year, snapping a long string of consecutive seasons of qualifying, the only Union County team that has made the playoffs in more consecutive years than Cranford is Summit, with the Hilltoppers qualifying for the ninth straight season this year.
When Cranford did finally make the playoffs under Rosenmeier – in 2011, led by junior quarterback and future Pitt and Robert Morris player Reggie Green – the Cougars made program history. Cranford’s 10-1 finish included the program’s first appearance in a state championship game and first state championship in the playoff era, with the Cougars capturing North 2, Group 3.
Cranford got back to the N2, G3 final two years ago and last year won it for the second time. Cranford is the only Union County team to have won a playoff game in each of the last five seasons.
In two weeks the Cougars will attempt to win a playoff game for the sixth straight season.
“It’s always exciting,” Rosenmeier said. “We’re in a new section this year (CJ, G3) and are now among the top eight teams in it. It’s not an easy section by any stretch.”
At 1-2, Cranford was in territory it was not used to after posting 11-1 and 12-0 records in 2014 and 2015.
Somerville outplayed Cranford in the second half of the season-opener for both at Cranford’s Memorial Field, winning going away by the score of 41-17 after trailing 17-14 at intermission.
Perhaps Cranford’s sloppiest game followed two weeks later, a 40-34 setback at Rahway.
Cranford bounced back with expected home wins over North Plainfield 56-35 and over Scotch Plains 40-14.
However, the defense had to be a little more than just tweaked if the Cougars were to be taken as seriously as they were in recent seasons.
“We told the kids that they had to take it more personal,” Rosenmeier said.
“Basically, you have to play base defense and then it’s a matter of execution,” Cranford defensive coordinator Joe Hubert said.
It all started with an outstanding performance at 5-0 Summit, with Cranford limiting a Hilltopper team averaging 34 points to just 103 yards of total offense and no points going into the fourth quarter. Cranford’s best effort from an execution standpoint – on both sides of the ball – saw the Cougars dominate Summit 37-7.
Cranford then handled Governor Livingston 49-7 at home.
The No. 1 area on defense that had to improve was the secondary. Against Summit, GL and Hillside, Cranford has allowed a combined one touchdown pass against.
“We were giving up too many points, too many yards and had to put a stop to it,” Rosenmeier said. “We were okay against the run, but were getting beat with the pass.”
A key player who has come on in the secondary since his first-ever start against North Plainfield is senior Aaron Cancio, No. 40. On Saturday against Hillside’s best player – senior wide receiver Joseph Stuckey – Cancio came down with an interception in the end zone to help keep the host Comets off the scoreboard the first 24 minutes.
Fellow senior cornerback Brian Oblachinski returned another interception for a touchdown vs. Hillside.
“We started from the ground up,” Rosenmeier said. “It was technique, personnel changes and scouting. If you have no defense you are not going to win, especially in the playoffs. It’s as simple as that.”
A key component in Cranford’s 3-3 defensive alignment is senior first-year starter Alex Esposito (6-3, 250), an imposing figure who lines up in the middle up front.
“We had to learn to keep our heads in the game,” Esposito said. “We weren’t aggressive enough. We weren’t staying in our gaps in the beginning of the year and that was a big problem.
“Against Rahway it was a little frustrating and I was guilty of it myself.”
Sometimes it takes a game against a budding rival, especially one that is undefeated at the time, which can spur a team on to showing signs of improvement in areas that require it.
“Our pass defense really stepped it up,” Esposito said. “We want to be perfect in practice, because we know we’re not going to be perfect in the game.
“Against Summit the main thing was coming out ready to go from the first whistle. Our confidence just continued to go up as the game went on.”
Losing to Somerville to start the season was definitely an eye-opener for a Cranford team that had won 20 consecutive regular season games up until that point.
“We weren’t ready,” Esposito said. “We didn’t know the feeling of losing. We had to work much harder.”
So far that hard work is paying off.
NOTES: Cranford clinched a seventh straight winning season and has won at least six games for seven consecutive years.
In his now 12 seasons at the helm of the Cougars, Rosenmeier has led Cranford to nine winning seasons and six playoff campaigns. His playoff record is 9-3, including three state championship games and two state championships.
MID-STATE 38 CONFERENCE-NON DIVISION
CRANFORD (6-2) 07 28 00 14 – 49
HILLSIDE (3-5) 00 00 00 13 – 13
CRANFORD – Brian Oblachinski 20 run, Valentino Ambrosio kick
6 plays, 52 yards, 2:05 used
CRANFORD – Brian McGovern 27 run, Valentino Ambrosio kick
7 plays, 60 yards, 3:10 used
CRANFORD – Brian Oblachinski 38 run, Valentino Ambrosio kick
2 plays, 43 yards, :41 used
CRANFORD – Brian Oblachinski 25 interception return,
Valentino Ambrosio kick (C 28-0)
CRANFORD – Connor Fitzsimmons 14 pass from Brian Oblachinski,
Valentino Ambrosio kick (C 35-0)
5 plays, 54 yards, 1:37 used
CRANFORD – Anthony Araujo 1 run, Valentino Ambrosio kick (C 42-0)
CRANFORD – Daniel Curren 4 run, Valentino Ambrosio kick (C 49-0)
HILLSIDE – Kevin Miller 47 run, Joseph Jaramillo kick (C 49-7)
HILLSIDE – Kevin Miller 13 run, no PAT (C 49-13)