UNION COUNTY, NJ — Phil Simms came running into the student cafeteria at Piscataway High School back on media day for the Phil Simms NJ North/South All-Star Football Classic in March, excited as could be, his presence still larger than life.
The former New York Giants quarterback and 1986 season Super Bowl MVP stepped up to the podium and said, “Well, here we are. It’s about time.”
For the first time in three years, there will be a North/South game, which is the premier high school football all-star game in New Jersey.
The COVID-19 pandemic sacked the 2020 and 2021 games. Now it’s back.
The 42nd annual Phil Simms Classic is scheduled to kick off on Sunday, June 12, at 6 p.m., at Kean University’s Alumni Stadium in Union.
It is taking place earlier than usual this year, ahead of high school graduations this time, and on a Sunday. Historically, it was contested on the final Monday night in June.
Nine players from Union County are on the North roster. Here is the breakdown.
• Stephon Barbosa (6-2, 315), lineman, Plainfield, No. 73.
• Charlie Barth (6-0, 215), running back, New Providence, No. 32.
• Zaon Laney (5-10, 275), running back, Rahway, No. 2.
• Matthew Nazaire (6-0, 190), wide receiver, Union, No. 6.
• Wendell Cadet (6-0, 165), back, Elizabeth, No. 12.
• Ashan Harris (5-8, 190), back, Union, No. 22.
• Mathew Ihemesie (6-1, 285), tackle, Hillside, No. 66.
• Ibn-Yusuf Nadir (6-1, 210), end, Linden, No. 23.
• Aaron Roach (6-0, 190), linebacker, Plainfield, No. 13.
Nazaire and Harris had their possible state championship season at Union High School cut short in the middle of the North 2, Group 5, playoffs by COVID-19. Union won its first-round game but was then shut down for the rest of the playoffs after some players tested positive.
Plainfield had one of its best seasons in some time.
“It was an adjustment with Coach Williams coming in,” Roach said of his new head coach for 2021, James Williams, formerly the head coach at Roselle High School.
Williams was Plainfield High School’s fourth head coach since Clinton Jones’ second stint concluded after the 2013 season.
Plainfield’s last three-win season was 2011, last four-win team 2010, last playoff squad 2008 and last winning team and squad to win five and six games was 2005 — with a record that year of 6-4.
“We had some adversity in the beginning of the year, but we just continued to push and practice as hard as we could,” Roach said.
After a tough 19-18 loss at Elizabeth High School put the Cardinals at 0-3, a setback that ended up preventing Plainfield from making the playoffs for the first time in 16 years, the team found a way to bounce back and post a 40-37 double-overtime home win against Watchung Hills Regional High School the following week.
Then came the dramatic 19-13 triumph at South Plainfield High School, where Plainfield scored on the game’s final play to walk off the field in total jubilation.
Roach tossed the ball to Tahmir Ellis, who then threw the Hail Mary pass to Samir Cherry, who caught the ball and reached the end zone.
“The play was called ‘Texas Peter,’” Roach said. “We ran it in practice and tried it against Elizabeth, but it fell incomplete. When we scored against South Plainfield, I was just shocked.”
Plainfield followed with its most dominating win of the season, a 40-0 shutout at the home of J.P. Stevens. After a 34-27 loss at Franklin High School, Plainfield came back again to edge Monroe, 45-44, in a sectional consolation game played at Hub Stine Field.
That enabled Plainfield to go into its annual Thanksgiving Day clash against Westfield High School with a winning record, for a change. Plainfield hung in there at home before falling 14-0.
“This means so much to me to be able to play in this game and motivates me so much to want to do well,” said Roach, who played quarterback, wide receiver and linebacker at Plainfield.
The reason he loves to play linebacker, where he will be for the North squad in the June all-star game, is simply this: “I get to hit.”
Barth was New Providence High School’s lead running back for three years. Outside of Ted Blackwell, there might not have been anyone that did it better for the Pioneers.
This year, Barth rushed for 2,025 yards on 215 carries, for a 9.4 average. He finished with 5,303 yards on 586 attempts for a final average of 9 yards per carry.
Barth rushed for 1,510 yards on 174 carries and scored 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. Last year, he gained 1,702 on 186 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.
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 this year to its first playoff win since a victory at Secaucus in 2013. The Pioneers went to Delaware Valley for the first round of the South Jersey, Group 2, playoffs and came away with a resounding 35-13 win against a 7-2 Terriers team that was 4-0 at home this year. It turned out to be Delaware Valley’s only home loss of its 2021 campaign, which ended 7-3.
Barth carried the ball 44 times for a career-high 334 yards and three touchdowns, and on defense produced eight tackles, five of them solo, three assisted, one for a loss and three of them counting as quarterback sacks. Barth also came up with a big interception in New Providence territory in the first quarter that set up his team’s first touchdown, which 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.”
When you’re on the road in a playoff game in front of a hostile crowd, you don’t want to get off to a bad start or fall behind early if you can prevent it.
“His interception was huge,” Parlavecchio said. “We not only stopped them, but we were able to go down and score. We ended up scoring the first three times we had the ball, for a 21-0 lead.”
Barth scored two of New Providence’s first three touchdowns, senior quarterback Dean Licari scoring the other, and then reached the end zone again in the third quarter to make it 28-0.
“That’s what he’s capable of,” Parlavecchio said of Barth’s ability to make something happen on offense and defense. “He’s that special.”
Rahway High School’s Zaon Laney has a second half to remember: Sometimes statistics do tell the story, painting an accurate picture of the events that took place.
Laney made Rahway senior night a game he will always look back on and cherish with a big smile.
The senior running back carried the ball 17 times, for a career-high 271 yards and three touchdowns, all three of his scores coming in the second half and on one-play possessions.
It added up to an impressive 27-7 victory for the host Indians in their season finale at Rahway River Park against Warren Hills Regional High School.
After the game was tied 7-7 at intermission, Laney scored on a 38-yard run and then on a 45-yard run in the third quarter. Laney’s third and final touchdown came on an 87-yard run down the left sideline for the game’s final points.
“When the second half began, we were looking to score right away and then dominate,” Laney said.
“Zaon worked his tail off in the off-season, doing all the dirty work,” Rahway head coach Brian Russo said.
There was a media day on March 8, 2020, at Piscataway High School for what would have been the 2020 game. A national lockdown due to the onset of the coronavirus began less than a week later, and the game was subsequently canceled.
Because of the ongoing pandemic last year, 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 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 of the series when it captured the 2019 game in thrilling fashion at Kean by a score of 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 of the goalpost.
Before that, the South had won four of the previous five contests.
The South leads the series 20-18-2.
North/South football MVPS:
North offense is named for Dave Szott of Clifton.
Szott played collegiately at Penn State and then in the National Football League for the Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and New York Jets.
North defense is named for Jim Burt of Orchard Park, N.Y.
Burt played collegiately at Miami and then in the NFL for the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. Burt played on the Giants team that won the Super Bowl after the 1986 season.
South offense is named for Joe Theismann of South River.
Theismann played collegiately at Notre Dame and then in the NFL for the Washington Redskins. Theismann played on the Redskins team that won the Super Bowl after the 1982 season.
South defense is named for Jim Jeffcoat of Matawan.
Jeffcoat played collegiately at Arizona State and then in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills. Jeffcoat played on the Cowboys teams that won the Super Bowl after the 1992 and 1993 seasons.
North offense: Azhaun Dingle of Bayonne
North defense: Christopher Stultz of East Orange Campus
South offense: Jacari Carter of Sayreville
South defense: Eric Cowan of Manchester
North offense: Andrew Luehs of Verona
North defense: Nasier Givens of Orange
South offense: Nahsir Morgan of Atlantic City
South defense: Ji’Ayir Brown of Trenton
North offense: Isiah Byrd of Roselle
North defense: Harrison Fernandez of Union City
South offense: J.J. Scarpello of Seneca
South defense: Amir Murray of Willingboro
North offense: Mike Pimpinella of Pascack Valley
North defense: Keneek Tomlinson of East Orange Campus
South offense: Tyreek Jackson of Clayton
South defense: Dashon Burdett of Collingswood
North offense: Juwan Dolbrice of Linden
North defense: Tevaughn Grant of Paterson Eastside
South offense: Vincent Mota of Long Branch
South defense: Justin Thompson of Palmyra
North offense: Joe Slattery of Cedar Grove
North defense: Jason McRae of Roselle
South offense: John Chamberlin of Williamstown
South defense: Chris Noesges of Manalapan
South leads series 20-18-2
2021: No game because of the COVID-19 pandemic
2020: No game because of the COVID-19 pandemic
2019: North 24, South 23, at Kean University
2018: South 38, North 16, at Kean University
2017: South 30, North 22, at Kean University
2016: North 7, South 0, at Kean University
2015: South 23, North 21, at Kean University
2014: South 20, North 14, at Piscataway High School
2013: North 54, South 8, at Kean University
2012: North 14, South 7, at Kean University
2011: South 21, North 14, at Kean University
2010: North 17, South 3, at Kean University
2009: South 7, North 0, at Kean University
2008: North 31, South 25, at Rutgers Stadium
2007: South 14, North 7, at Rutgers Stadium
2006: North 31, South 16, at Rutgers Stadium
2005: North 9, South 7, at Rutgers Stadium
2004: North 26, South 21, at Rutgers Stadium
2003: South 3, North 0, at Rutgers Stadium
2002: No game was played at Rutgers
because of inclement weather before kickoff.
2001: North 24, South 0, at Rutgers Stadium
2000: South 20, North 5, at Rutgers Stadium
1999: South 22, North 19, at Rutgers Stadium
1998: North 33, South 31, at Rutgers Stadium
1997: South 28, North 24, at The College of New Jersey
1996: South 32, North 23, at Rutgers Stadium
1995: North 37, South 15, at Rutgers Stadium
1994: South 21, North 16, at Trenton State College
1993: South 9, North 8, at Giants Stadium
1992: North 7, South 7, at Giants Stadium
1991: North 26, South 12, at Giants Stadium
1990: North 14, South 10, at Rutgers Stadium
1989: South 24, North 0, at Rutgers Stadium
1988: South 12, North 9, at Rutgers Stadium
1987: North 21, South 10, at Rutgers Stadium
1986: North 20, South 17, at Rutgers Stadium
1985: North 10, South 10, at Rutgers Stadium
1984: North 7, South 0, at Rutgers Stadium
1983: South 41, North 7, at Rutgers Stadium
1982: South 16, North 7, at Rutgers Stadium
1981: South 32, North 0, at Rutgers Stadium
1980: North 13, South 6, at Rutgers Stadium
1979: South 34, North 13, at Rutgers Stadium
Photos by JR Parachini