Everyone remembers the first.
Within about a half-hour of each other last Friday night, the Big Central Conference got its first two state champions ever, as Cranford took the North 2, Group 3 title with a win over Sparta, and Hillsborough claimed the Central Group 5 title with a victory over North Brunswick.
Though the league is officially in its second season, they were the first state titles since the NJSIAA didn’t have playoffs in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But more than that, it was great to see so many in the community pack the stands again for championship football games, the third year that’s been a thing since the NJSIAA altered its playoff formula in 2018, returning title games to the site of the higher seeded teams.
I had always had fun broadcasting state finals at Rutgers, or MetLife Stadium; getting to see the best of the best in a big venue, especially when some of those student-athletes might be playing there again over the next four years, or beyond. It’s not every day a kid gets to play on a college or NFL field, before he’s in college or the NFL.
At the same time, they also had a bit of an empty feeling. A few thousand in a college stadium that seats 50,000, or a pro park that seats over 80,000, at time felt silly. And quieter than it should have been.
At Cranford Friday night, Central Jersey Sports Radio broadcast among the masses since there was no room at the Inn (read: the press box). No matter, we had a wide, expansive view, with an older couple to our left, fans standing to our right, and kids rolling themselves down the hill toward the bleachers. It was a great community event, and really what football is all about.
And we had a wonderful view of the show Cranford put on. How about that big offensive line with Illinois commit Matt Fries blocking for Colin Murray’s career-high 327 rushing yards, his first-ever game over 300. How about Will Gallagher’s three interceptions, part of five the entire Cougar defense had on a quarterback who’d thrown 16 TD passes with only two INTs coming into the game?
It wasn’t out first time seeing Cranford. We knew they were good. We’d seen them handle Woodbridge at Priscoe Field earlier in the year, and came away impressed. Even when the Barrons lost again the following week at Scotch Plains-Fanwood, we had known Division 4 was competitive, and it took nothing off Cranford’s win.
But Friday night was another story. Cranford – still very good – was also fueled by its home crowd. And even though this Friday, they will be playing at MetLife Stadium at the Meadowlands, there aren’t many scenarios you could tell me that I would believe and would lead me to pick against the Cougars – even though I never pick games.
Say all you want about the flawed playoff system – and I’ll have more to say about that at the proper place and time – but here’s one that got it right: Cranford, without the help of a multiplier, or anything else, earned the Number One seed in the North 3 supersection.
And you know what? They are the Number One team in that section. I’m convinced Friday will bear that out. I’m sold.
It’s the same thing I’ve been saying about Hillsborough for most of the season.
The Raiders, who fell behind briefly 8-7 to North Brunswick Friday night at Noonan Field – which was also packed to the gills with home fans cheering their team on (and a health contingent from North Brunswick, too) – may be a team of destiny.
The stars have aligned for Hillsborough, which will attempt next weekend to become the first Somerset County team ever to win 13 games. They are being talked about as the best in school history, which is saying a lot. Their 2000 team knocked off statewide No. 4 Sayreville in the Central Jersey Group 4 final, and in 1980 they beat the state’s No. 1 team in Madison Central to win Central Jersey Group 3.
But this team, oh this team has it all. The fact they were able to beat North Brunswick with a rather mundane individual stat line says it all. Every Raider can flat out play. It begins with the line, on the both side of the ball, and extends even beyond the Tommy Amankwaas, Jay Mazueras, Will Dixons, and Tyler Michinards of the ‘Boro. It’s a total team effort.
It’s also great to see Kevin Carty Sr. there with his son, who’s now had two unbeaten regular seasons in his high school coaching career, the first of which came at Bound Brook in 2008. The Cartys can flat out coach. Chip off the ol’ block, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, etc., etc.
The Big Central has some pretty solid standard bearers in these last regional championships. And they should have had a third, but we’ve already covered that, haven’t we?
And while I’m excited for Friday afternoon at the Meadowlands, and next Saturday in Piscataway, I already can’t wait ’til 2022, when we finally see those Group Champions. It’s gonna be a blast!