Championship Weekend: A complete preview of both title games involving Hillsborough, North Brunswick and Cranford

Championship Weekend has finally arrived. It’s been two years since the last one, and we’re all starving for some trophies to be handed out in football.

Central Jersey Sports Radio is your place for all the action this Friday night. The North 2, Group 3 title game is the Big Central Game of the Week, driven by Mark Montenero and his team at the world-famous Autoland. That features top-seed Cranford and third-seed Sparta. Kickoff is at 7 with Mike Pavlichko and Justin Sontupe calling all the action from Memorial Field in Cranford, but we’ll begin around 6:30 with an extended pregame show.

Meanwhile, Tim Catalfamo will be camped out at Noonan Field in Hillsborough for the Battle of the Raiders, the Central jersey Group 5 final between top-seed Hillsborough and third-seed North Brunswick.

Below, you can find previews on each game, as well as links to key prior coverage of Hillsborough, North Brunswick, and Cranford this season.

North 2, Group 3 Championship

Teams: #1 Cranford (10-0) vs. #3 Sparta (8-3)
Where: Memorial Field, Cranford
When: Friday, 7 pm
Coverage: Live play-by-play on Central Jersey Sports Radio (click here to listen)

Finals History:

Cranford: The Cougars are 2-1 all-time in three finals appearances, all coming under current head coach Erik Rosenmeier.

  • 2011: #3 seed, beat #4 Parsippany Hills 27-0 at Kean University
  • 2014: #1 seed, lost to #3 Parsippany Hills 20-13 at Met Life Stadium
  • 2015: #1 seed, beat #6 Chatham 50-23 at Kean University
Cranford head coach Erik Rosenmeier talks to his team after a 38-28 win over Woodbridge on Oct. 15, 2021. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

Sparta: The Spartans have made ten title game appearances, winning seven of them, including two of their last three under current head coach Frank Marchiano. Finals from 1976 through 2005 were in North 1, Group 2. Appearances from 2012 on were in North 1, Group 3.

  • 1976: beat Tenafly 34-7
  • 1979: beat Garfield 14-7 at home (game-winning touchdown was a 74-yd punt return for a touchdown by Brad Winfree)
  • 1980: beat Saddle Brook 13-7 (2 OT) at home
  • 1982: beat Ridgefield Park 21-14 at home
  • 1995: lost at Hoboken 37-6
  • 2003: #1 seed, beat #2 Dover 16-0
  • 2005: #4 seed, lost to #2 Hopatcong 20-14 (OT)
  • 2012: #5 seed, lost to #2 Ramapo 27-34 at Kean University
  • 2013: #2 seed, beat #5 River Dell 40-0 at Met Life Stadium
  • 2014: #1 seed, beat #3 River Dell 31-23 at Met Life Stadium

How they got here:

The Cougars earned the top overall seed in the North 3 supersection, entering the playoffs with an 8-0 record. Along the way, they knocked off then-No. 4 Woodbridge on the road in a battle of undefeated Big Central Division 4 teams, 38-28, as heard on Central Jersey Sports Radio. In the playoffs, they beat 8th-seed Demarest in the opening round 56-26, and 4th-seed Pascack Valley in the semifinals 42-7. Senior runningback Colin Murray had career highs of 235 yards and 5 touchdowns in the win over Demarest.

What to watch for:

Cranford is well-renowned for its big offensive line this season, which has paved the way nicely for Murray, and also kept quarterback Shane Van Dam upright, giving him plenty of time to throw to his favorite target, Will Gallagher, who’s also a star shortstop for the Cougars’ baseball team. The numbers on that line are impressive: av average of 6-foot-4 and 267 across the board, with all but the center at least 280 pounds a pop. Sparta has a senior defensive lineman named Parker Williamson who can only be described as a beast off the line, and he’s got the bona fides to prove it: 17 sacks on the season. Fellow senior Nick Doumbe, on the other side of the four-man front, has seven sacks, none too shabby on any other team. Somebody’s gotta give.

More on Cranford:

Sparta Preview: Sparta rebounded from inauspicious start to earn first finals bid since 2014

Central Jersey Group 5 Championship

Teams: #1 Hillsborough (11-0) vs. #3 North Brunswick (8-3)
Where: Noonan Field, Hillsborough
When: Friday, 7 pm
Coverage: Live updates by Tim Catalfamo during the Cranford-Sparta game (click here to listen)

Finals History:

Hillsborough: The Raiders are 2-2 all-time in four finals appearances. They played in the very first state tournament, which began in 1974, but have not been to the finals in 21 years.

  • 1974: Central Jersey Group 2: lost to Middlesex 24-6 at Atlantic City
  • 1979: Central Jersey Group 3: beat Madison Central 10-7 (OT) at Giants Stadium
  • 1996: Central Jersey Group 4: lost to Middletown North 33-8 at Giants Stadium
  • 2000: Central Jersey Group 4: #6 seed, beat #1 Sayreville 16-13 at Rutgers Stadium
Hillsborough head coach Kevin Carty Jr. with his team after a 44-0 win over Old Bridge on Oct. 15, 2021. (Photo: Tim Catalfamo)

North Brunswick: The Raiders have only been to two finals in their history and have never won, but this year marks their second trip to a title game in the last three playoff seasons.

  • 1979: Central Jersey Group 2: lost at South River 23-3
  • 2018: Central Jersey Group 5: #2 seed, lost at #2 Sayreville 6-0

How they got here:

Hillsborough has only trailed twice all season en route to an 11-0 record thus far. They fell behind 14-0 at home against Phillipsburg and came back to win 21-14 in overtime, and were behind briefly after halftime against Bridgewater-Raritan at Basilone Field, a game they eventually pulled out. (Scroll down for postgame coverage of that contest.) In the opening round, the Hillsborough beat 8th-seed New Brunswick 49-6, then topped 5th-seed Williamstown in Friday night’s semifinals 49-14.

For North Brunswick, it’s been an up-and-down season; the Raiders never strung together more than three wins in a 6-3 regular season. Their losses came to Sayreville by 13, to Union 42-0, and three weeks ago in their regular season finale, on the road against this very same Hillsborough team, 41-0. That game was played on a raw, cold, windy and rainy night across the state. In the playoffs, North Brunswick beat two South Jersey teams: 6th-seed Eastern in the opening round, 39-30 at home, and second-seed Cherokee on the road, 34-21 in last week’s semifinals.

North Brunswick gets set to take the field against Edison. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

What to watch for:

Hillsborough really has done everything right this year. Early on, head coach Kevin Carty, Jr., added in the wrinkle of lining up Rutgers commit Tommy Amankwaa as a runningback, and he’s taken the bull by the horns. Not to say their main back Tyler Michinard, can’t run the rock; quite to the contrary, he rushed for a school record seven touchdowns last week against Williamstown. Quarterback Jay Mazuera can throw the ball, and Will Dixon can pressure opposing QBs from his defensive end position, as he did against Phillipsburg in overtime, leading to Amankwaa’s game-clinching interception. All that said, North Brunswick’s best defense is a good offense here. Keep the ball out of the playmakers’ hands. If you can keep Amankwaa and Michinard off the field, they can’t score. Hillsborough feels the same way, but North Brunswick really needs to get that pass game going with Frankie Garbolino to open up the offense, something he couldn’t do in awful conditions three weeks ago at Noonan Field. Then, they can get it to Marquis Perry to work his magic on the ground.

More on Hillsborough:

More on North Brunswick:

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