It’s Black Friday, and while everyone else is at the malls, the opening weekend of regional championship play in New Jersey high school football gets underway today at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.
Central Jersey Sports Radio is your place for all the action this Friday afternoon. The North Group 3 Regional Championship game is the Big Central Game of the Week, driven by Mark Montenero and his team at the world-famous Autoland. That features North 2 Group 3 winner Cranford taking on North 1 Group 3 winner West Morris Central.
You can catch all the action beginning at approximately 3:45, with kickoff slated for 4 pm from East Rutherford, NJ.
Read on for everything you need to know about the game:
North 2, Group 3 Championship
Teams: Cranford (11-0, North 2 champion) vs. West Morris Central (9-3, North 1 champion)
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ
When: Friday, 4 pm
Coverage: Live play-by-play on Central Jersey Sports Radio (click here to listen) with pregame at 3:45
Weather: 42 degrees at kickoff, 0% chance of rain, winds out of the WNW at 16 mph
Cranford: Erik Rosenmeier, 17th season (118-56). His teams have had 12 straight winning seasons.
West Morris: Kevin Hennelly, 25th season (175-91). He took over after five years as an assistant under Pete “Pic” Piccirillo, who retired after 35 seasons as head coach following the 1996 season. Picarillo went 218-99-6, winning three state titles.
Cranford: The Cougars won their third state championship last Friday night, making them 3-1 all-time in four 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
- 2021: #1 seed, beat #3 Sparta 45-21 at home
West Morris: The Wolfpack have made 13 title game appearances, winning eight of them, five coming under current head coach Kevin Hennelly. All were in North 2, Group 3 except this year’s title, which was in the North 1 section.
- 1982: beat Randolph 10-6
- 1985: lost to Linden 19-7
- 1987: lost to Randolph 14-13
- 1990: lost to Scotch Plains 25-12
- 1991: beat Nutley 14-0
- 1995: beat Nutley 21-0
- 1997: lost to Morristown 6-0
- 2000: lost to Warren Hills 21-13
- 2001: beat West Morris-Mendham 15-14
- 2004: beat West Morris-Mendham 10-7
- 2009: beat Passaic Valley 28-19
- 2012: beat Warren Hills 35-7
- 2021: beat West Essex 21-0
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.
That was, at least until the sectional final against Sparta, where Murray – aided by the Cougars’ huge offensive line, anchored by Illinois commit Matt Fries, rolled off a new career high: 334 yards on a career-heaviest work load of 40 carries, en route to a 45-21 win over Sparta for the North 2, Group 3 championship. The win was gave Cranford its first crown since 2015.
As for West Morris Central, they were the overall 2-seed in the supersection, garnering them the other top seed, in North 1, Group 3. In the opening round they beat 8th-seed Summit out of the Big Central in a shootout, 56-31. But in the next two games, they hunkered down on defense, shutting out 4th-seed Old Tappan in the sectional semis, 21-0, then beating second seed West Essex by the same score at home last Friday night for the sectional title.
Cranford and West Morris, despite being in the North 2, Group 3 section together for many years, have never played each other in football.
Players to watch:
For Cranford, it’s the tandem of Shane VanDam, the senior quarterback, and Colin Murray, the senior runningback. Murray – after his outstanding performance against Sparta in the sectional final – is now the leading rusher in the Big Central Conference with 2,052 yards. But if it’s not his night (it rarely isn’t) and the Wolfpack defense is taking him out of the game in any way, Van Dam has the arm to make throws to bring his team a win.
Will Gallagher may be his favorite target, but it was on defense where Gallagher – a starting shortstop on the baseball team who has signed his National Letter of Intent to play at rider – made his biggest impact last week. He had three of the team’s five interceptions on Sparta quarterback Austen Frattura, part of a stellar overall defensive performance. Watch Lucca Limiera, too; he had a pick and also tipped a pass that ended up in Gallagher’s hands last week.
On the West Morris side, the big back with a ton of yards is junior Stefano Montella, all six-feet, 200 pounds of him. He’s got the most yards on the ground in a season for West Morris since Michael Burton’s school record 1,769 set in his senior season of 2009. (You remember Burton, the former three-year Rutgers starting fullback who’s now with the Kansas City Chiefs, who’s perhaps the most decorated West Morris football player, at least in recent history.)
They are like Cranford in that they have a roughly 2:1 rush to pass ratio. Offensively, though, they can also spread it around. Senior Noah Turner has a team-leading 393 receiving yards, while left halfback Ryan Brady leads with 23 catches and 7 TD grabs. Not to mention Vinnie Desiderio, the cousin of former Somerville Standout Cookie Desiderio, who has a good mix of six receptions and six rushes on the season, as a hybrid halfback/split end.
Defensively, watch out for Montella, too. He leads the team with 135 tackles, 53 solo and 19 tackles for loss, all team bests. Colin Leonhardt, a junior defensive tackle who also starts on the offensive line, is fourth on the team in tackles, and can penetrate the offensive line, scoring 10 TFLs (second-best on the team) and registering a team-high 8 sacks.
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: an average of 6-foot-4 and 267 across the board, with all but the center at least 280 pounds a pop. Matt Fries is the leader of the bunch, headed to Illinois after his scholastic career, but this unit works as a group.
LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST: This Week in the Big Central – Episode 13: The Lucky Threes
What’s intriguing is that for a Group 3 school, only one of the five starts on defense. For West Morris, they all do, including quarterback Trevor Hillier. He’s at defensive end, believe it not, but Hennely says “that’s just how we roll.” West Morris has been doing that all year, and successfully, but it will be critical for them to not tire against a dominating, physical offensive line that will be able to catch its breath when the Cranford defense is out there.
The wind also could be a factor. The forecast calls for WNW winds around 16 miles per hours. But if you know anything about the Meadowlands, it doesn’t matter where they’re from. They can swirl in the wide open expanse that is MetLife Stadium, and it certainly could affect the passing game, with gusts of over 25 miles an hour possible. Could this turn into a battle of Murray vs. Montella? Maybe. But with Cranford’s line: advantage Cougars.
Then watch the Cranford secondary. It had five interceptions last week against Sparta QB Austen Frattura, who had only thrown two picks all year to go against 16 touchdowns. He’ll be seeing Will Gallagher in his sleep until next season, as he had three of the interceptions, one of which was tipped right into his hands by a teammate, Lucca Limiera. Can Cranford come up with a similar performance against a QB in Hillier who hasn’t been as accurate? We’ll find out soon enough.
Central Jersey Sports Radio’s 2021 coverage of Cranford:
- Their state title already won, Cranford puts unbeaten record on the line when they meet West Morris at MetLife
- More Fries? Cranford’s O-line, led by Illinois commit, has been critical to its success
- Monday Musings: Looking back at two state champs, and a look ahead for Cranford and Hillsborough
- Instant Replay: (1) Cranford 45, (3) Sparta 21 (North 2, Group 3 Final)
- PHOTO GALLERY: Cranford celebrates third state title, first-ever on home field
- Murray’s career game, Gallagher’s three picks help Cranford win third state title
- Cranford looks to keep the beat going when Cougars host Spartans in North 2, Group 3 title game Friday night
- Run defense, O-line power Cranford to first sectional final since 2015
- Murray’s 205 yards, 3 TDs, help No. 7 Cranford hand No. 1 Woodbridge its first loss of the season
- Instant Replay: No. 7 Cranford 38, No. 4 Woodbridge 28
- No. 7 Cranford tops No. 10 Colonia 27-14, setting up battle of unbeatens next week in Woodbridge
- Cranford wins a battle of top Union County QBs, Cougars off to 2-0 start
- Johnson and large ensemble cast carried Cranford to another winning season