For a program long respected in Central Jersey, and which has turned out pros like Ricky Proehl and Shaun O’Hara, one might be surprised to learn the Raiders have only won two titles in school history.
And that since the playoff format began in 1974, only four Hillsborough teams have ever made the finals.
Those finals appearances have been pretty well spaced out. Their last finals appearance was over 20 years ago – in 2000.
And both their wins were huge upsets.
Here’s a look back at all four of Hillsborough’s title game appearances.
1974: The First Ever
Hillsborough is deceptively large, and most people don’t realize how big it actually is. It’s 55 square miles make it the largest town in Somerset County, and the 28th largest in New Jersey. And while it still has a lot of open space, there’s a good deal of development in the central part of the township, around Amwell Road and Route 206. But much of that was built after the mid-1970s.
The school only opened in 1969, and its first football team took the field in 1970. By 1974, the Raiders were still a Group 2 team, playing the likes of Roselle Park, Manville, Metuchen and Bound Brook.
Their opening game was against Middlesex, and the teams played to a 6-6 tie. Their seasons paralleled from there, each winning their next eight games. Neither was happy with the tie, and both really wanted a rematch.
And with both at 8-0-1, they got it.
“That’s what we anted; that’s what it’s all about,” Raiders coach Joe Paulino told the Courier-News at the time. “Now we’ll have another chance to see who’s best.”
But they had to travel a long way to get there.
While the season opener was at Middlesex, a mere ten miles away, the first ever Central Jersey Group 2 title game was being played in Atlantic City, at the Convention Hall, which in the 1930s became the first facility to host a full-size football field indoors. It was part of a six-game slate being held December 6-8, 1974, and also the last state finals to be held at what’s now known as Boardwalk Hall.
Perhaps part of the reason was the distance to travel for what was scheduled as a 10 am game on a Sunday morning, about a two-hour bus ride from Hillsborough.
(Oh, and as always, there was some playoff controversy. Red Bank was 9-0, and Middlesex coach Paul Murphy said “I’m sure they figure they’re just as good as us and Hillsborough.”)
In any event, the game was tightly contested early on. Blue Jay Carl Mayer benefitted from option plays to bust off 26- and 17-yard runs en route to a one-yard TD run by Bob Parlo, which put Middlesex up 8-0 with a 2-point run.
They could have pulled away on their next possession, but Hillsborough’s Gary Bell recovered a Middlesex fumble at the nine-yard line that set up the Raiders. John Crawford ran off left tackle 83-yards, and though the two-point run failed, they had cut it to 8-6.
But in the second half, the Jays’ defense clammed up, and Hillsborough didn’t cross the midfield stripe until the fourth quarter. But by that time Middlesex had exploded for 16 points, and taken a 24-6 lead they would never relinquish, to win the first ever Central Jersey Group 2 title game.
By the way, the games got so much attention, a full story with photo even ran in the Daily News.
1980: Another Shot, and Two Upsets
Hillsborough was moving up in the world, at least in school size. By 1980, with more development in town, they had become a Group 3 school.
And the NJSIAA was moving on up, too, playing state title games at the relatively brand-new (circa 1976) Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands.
To even get there, Hillsborough would have to pull of an upset. They did that in the opening round, in the semifinals (the playoff brackets were four teams then) by beating heavy favorite Somerville.
That pout them in the finals with a mark of 9-1, yet they were another big underdog, this time to the top-ranked team in the state, Madison Central of Old Bridge.
And they locked horns, with neither team giving any quarter, playing to a 0-0 tie through three quarters. Neither team could capitalize off the other’s turnovers. Central even had two touchdowns called back: one on offensive pass interference, one on a holding penalty.
In the fourth quarter, the Raiders got on the board first with a one-yard touchdown plunge by John Salerno, capping a 12-play, 87-yard drive. But the lead only last four minutes until Ken Chanley’s one-yard scoring run tied it for Central.
Overtime at this time was no “chance apiece” affair. It was “sudden death.” And it would turn out to be a sudden victory for Hillsborough.
Less than two minutes into sudden death, on fourth-and-two from the eight-yard line, the Raiders booted it through. A 25-yard field goal for a 10-7 win. A monumental upset.
And the young man who won them that game – 20 years later – would orchestrate another huge upset in a state final.
1996: So Close, but So Far
With a perfect regular season at 9-0, Hillsborough earned the top seed in Central Jersey Group 4 – yes, they were in with the big schools by now – and topped fourth-seed Howell in a four-team bracket (eight-team sections didn’t come until 1998) in the opening round 38-18.
That put them up against 7-3 Middletown North out of the Shore Conference.
Hillsborough was led by quarterback Shawn Mayer, who would go on to play at Penn State, then the New England Patriots. (He recorded a single tackle in Super Bowl 38, ironically taking down another Hillsborough alum, Ricky Proehl of the Carolina Panthers, in a game perhaps better known for an infamous “wardrobe malfunction.”)
Columnist Jim Carty of the Courier News wrote, after the fact, that perhaps the CJ4 title tilt should have been at Noonan Field, which was rocking with packed stands and standing room only for the Howell game. Instead, it was played at Giants Stadium, which seats 70,000, but looked quite empty with about 3,000 fans in attendance.
It might not have mattered, as Middletown North’s run game was too much for the Raiders, dominating with a 302-119 advantage on the ground. And Hillsborough just couldn’t match the Lion’s physicality, on either side of the ball.
That’s not to say the Raiders still didn’t have their opportunities. In fact, they led 8-6 late in the first quarter. But given enough chances, they couldn’t capitalize, allowing Middletown North the next 27 points to lose 33-8.
Senior Demetrious Tzovolos told reporter Art Stapleton after the game, “This was big, this was the one that counted. This was the one that would have made our season. But we just didn’t get it.”
2000: An Upset Ends the Drought
By now, it had been 20 years since Hillsborough’s last – and only – state title. At 6-2, the Raiders – in a now expanded eight team field – would come in as the No. 6 seed. In the first round, they beat third-seed Piscataway 31-21, then exacted a bit of revenge in the semis, getting by 7th-seed Middletown North 28-14 at Noonan Field.
This time, the final wouldn’t quite be as far away as East Rutherford. The Raiders were off to Piscataway to Rutgers Stadium, where they would meet Sayreville.
The Bombers were undefeated, 11-0, and ranked No. 4 in the Gannett statewide Top 20. And they had a quarterback who was committed to Notre Dame, by the name of Brandon Hoyte.
But Hillsborough – even with a pair of losses – wasn’t that far behind. The Raiders were No. 1 in the Courier News rankings at the time, and 13th in Gannett’s statewide poll.
In 1999, in the CJ4 semis, Hillsborough jumped out to a 13-0 lead, but saw it slip away in the fourth quarter, falling 20-13 to Hunterdon Central. So, when the Raiders got out to a 16-0 advantage against Sayreville, they knew it wasn’t over yet.
And sure enough, it wasn’t.
“It was deja vu all over again,” Rick Mantz – the kicker who won the ’80 game and whose team came so close 16 years later – told Harry Frezza after the game. “We just couldn’t put them away. But Sayreville is an outstanding team.”
But in the end, they did. But it took Mantz surprising Sayreville head coach George Najjar in order to do it. With just 2:20 to play and a fourth-and-1 from their own 41, following a time out, Hillsborough went for it with the wind at their faces and Sayreville’s punt return team on the field.
They picked up the first down, thanks to a five-yard push from senior fullback Caliph Santiago.
That sealed it. 16-13 was the final.
Hillsborough hasn’t been back since, but that will change Friday night when they’ll play North Brunswick at Noonan Field, where perhaps they should have played Middletown North 25 years ago.
TOMORROW: Rick Mantz looks back at his two state championships, one as a kicker, one as head coach, as he talks with Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko.