There’s just one team from the Big Central Conference left in the 2021 NJSIAA state playoffs, and it’s the Hillsborough Raiders, who are in select company.
They’re one of just seven teams undefeated teams left in New Jersey – two of them having already completed their seasons – and strive to become the first perfect team in school history when the Central 5 sectional champion Raiders face South 5 sectional title winner Kingsway Saturday afternoon in the South Jersey Group 5 regional Championship in the Big Central Game of the Week, driven by Autoland.
You can catch all the action beginning at 12:15 on Central Jersey Sports Radio, with kickoff set for 1 pm from Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium in Piscataway.
Read on for everything you need to know about the game:
South Group 5 Championship
Teams: Hillsborough (12-0 overall; 5-0, Big Central Conference Division 5B champions Central 5 champion) vs. Kingsway (8-4 overall, 3-2; 2nd place in the West Jersey Football League’s Continental Division; South 5 champion)
Where: SHI Stadium, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ
When: Saturday, 1 pm
Coverage: Live play-by-play on Central Jersey Sports Radio (click here to listen) with pregame at 12:15 pm
Announcers: Mike Pavlichko & Justin Sontupe, play-by-play; Max Scheiner, sideline
Weather: 48 degrees at kickoff, 1% chance of precipitation, winds out of the West at 4 mph
Hillsborough: Kevin Carty, Jr., 11th season with the Raiders (68-47); also coached Bound Brook from 2006-2010 (29-22) with an unbeaten 9-0 regular season in 2008. Carty is 99-63 in his 16th overall season as a head coach.
Kingsway: Mark Hendricks, 6th season with the Dragons, 29-23
By the NJSIAA’s Strength Index rating, calculating each team through the playoffs (and Kingsway’s Thanksgiving Day win over Clearview), Hillsborough is rated a 95.12, while Kingsway is a 72.30. That’s a +22.82 differential.
The Born Power Index rates Hillsborough at 100.5, while Kingsway is a 79.3, a +21.2 for the Raiders.
Hillsborough: The Raiders are 3-2 all-time in five finals appearances, winning titles in 1980, 2000, and 2021. They played in the very first state playoffs, which began in 1974. This year’s team made it to the school’s first title game in 21 years, beating North Brunswick for the Central 5 championship.
- 1974: Central Jersey Group 2: lost to Middlesex 24-6 at Atlantic City
- 1980: 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
- 2021: Central Jersey Group 5: #1 seed, beat #3 North Brunswick 35-8 at home
Kingsway: The Dragons have made six finals appearances, winning twice.
- 1994: South Jersey Group 2: lost to Hammonton 36-28 on the road
- 1995: South Jersey Group 2: lost to Northern Burlington 20-17 on the road
- 2001: South Jersey Group 2: beat Hammonton 16-14 on the road
- 2012: South Jersey Group 4: #6 seed, lost 57-27 to #1 Timber Creek at Rowan
- 2019: Central Jersey Group 5: #6 seed, lost 35-18 at #5 seed Cherokee
- 2021: South Jersey Group 5: #4 seed, beat #3 Toms River North 21-14 at home
How they got here:
Hillsborough has had a dominating season, only trailing three times in 12 games. They were down 14-7 to Phillipsburg in Week 2 and came back to win 21-14 in overtime. They briefly trailed in the early second-half against at Bridgewater-Raritan in what would be a 31-21 road win in Week 4. And the trailed North Brunswick 8-7 two weeks ago in the Central Jersey Group 5 final, but wound up winning 35-8. In the opening round of the playoffs, Hillsborough beat 8th-seed New Brunswick 49-6, followed by 5th seed Williamstown 49-14 in the semifinals.
Kingsway, meanwhile, was just 4-4 entering the playoffs, but a strong strength of schedule had them seeded 7th overall, in the South 5 supersection, 4th in the South 5 section. They beat 5-seed Old Bridge 51-49 at home in the opening round, two years after upsetting the Knights 34-7 in an opening round 6 vs. 3 game at Lombardi Field. In the semifinals, they beat 8th-seed Lenape (which had knocked off top-seed Washington Township by a field goal in the opening round) 20-17, then topped third-seed Toms River North 21-14 for the sectional title. While Hillsborough had a week off, Kingsway beat Clearview 24-6 at home on Thanksgiving, their first win against the Pioneers since 2016.
Old Bridge: Hillsborough played the Knights in a crossover game on October 15th, and won 44-0 at Noonan Field. Kingsway beat the Knights in the opening round of the playoffs, 51-49. Old Bridge played both games without injured starting quarterback Owen Haughney.
Williamstown: Kingsway fell to the Braves in Week 3, getting shutout 31-0. The transitive property never quite works in sports, but Hillsborough dispatched of Williamstown in the second round of the Central 5 sectional playoffs 49-14. That’s a 66 point swing.
Players to watch:
For Hillsborough, the main four are seniors Thomas Amankwaa, Tyler Michinard, Jay Mazuera, and Will Dixon. Amankwaa – a who committed to Rutgers quickly after being on the field for the Delaware game and being offered a scholarship there by head coach Greg Schiano – has proven himself a versatile player this year, getting the ball as a runningback, not just wide receiver. That has made the Hillsborough offense much more dynamic. Amankwaa still catches plenty of balls, thrown by his childhood friend Jay Mazuera, the quarterback who also punts. Mazuera can get the ball around the field. Another one of his targets can be tight end Will Dixon, who also blocks well, whether it’s Amankwaa or Michinard running the ball. Michinard had a seven touchdown performance in the sectional semifinals against Williamstown, setting a school record.
As much as Amankwaa can do on offense, he also excels defensively; in fact, that’s where he’s projected as to play for the Scarlet Knights, at defensive back. With 14 interceptions on the season as a team defense, Amankwaa leads the way with five, one of which came in overtime against Phillipsburg to seal a come-from-behind win in Week 2 at Noonan Field. But as head coach Kevin Carty explained at the time, it was Will Dixon who made the play happen from his defensive end spot. He’s the one who pressured fill-in quarterback Kakhye McLean; Amankwaa just mopped up grabbing the pass to preserve the win. The point is, Hillsborough has players who can make big plays all over the field.
For Kingsway, you’ll want to watch Nate Maiers. He’s the team’s junior quarterback, but was expected to be one of the team’s top receivers way back in the preseason. Sophomore Joseph Lyons started the team’s first four games behind center, but Maiers eventually got the call, and has blossomed at the position ever since. He’s a dual-threat quarterback who’s got great mobility, and he’ll present a challenge defensively for the Raiders. He’s thrown for 925 yards and five touchdowns, while he’s rushed for six scores and 537 yards. His game, like Kingsway’s overall, is about balance.
What to watch for:
The great thing about Hillsborough is, while they have four big stars, they don’t need any of them to have an off-the-charts game to win. Tyler Michinard had a school-record seven touchdowns against Williamstown, but it might just as well have been two, plus one from Will Dixon, a rush or two from Jay Mazuera, and a rushing and a receiving touchdown from Amankwaa. Look at what the Raiders did to North Brunswick last week: Mazuera threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns. Amankwaa had 81 receiving yards and two TDs, and 39 rushing yards and a score. Michinard had 56 yards and didn’t reach the end zone. Amankwaa and Ryan Tasetano each had a pick. Will Dixon had two sacks.
Yawn. Hillsborough may have trailed 8-7 early in the second quarter, but they scored four unanswered touchdowns to win 35-8. All everyone did was their jobs, just as they should. And that’s the thing with Hillsborough; imagine if one of those guys were to go off for a game?
Kevin Carty admitted this week, there’s really nowhere for Hillsborough to go in the direction of “up.” They are at the top of their game, and have been all season long. There’s been no surge, but no dropoff either. They don’t get a lot of shutouts, but they’ve held teams down all year, especially lately. In their last seven games, the Raiders have surrendered a total of 42 points, with two shutouts. That’s an average of six points a game.
LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST: This Week in the Big Central – Episode 15: The Cartys
It helps that they are plus-10 in the turnover category, a number that’s fueled by the 14 interceptions the Raider defense has racked up this year. That’s five for Amankwaa, three for Tasetano – an unsung hero on defense – and six for the rest. The Raiders also have recovered six fumbles. They have either been even or on the plus side in the turnover battle in every game this year. Little surprise here.
Against Kingsway, they will face a team that runs it as much as they throw it, by design, according to Dragons head coach Mark Hendricks. That starts with Maiers, a threat to run or pass, at QB. That’s Hillsborough’s tall order. For Kingsway, it’s all about stopping the multiple options the Raiders have. Any one of four guys can beat you.
Notes and Scribbles:
100 Even: Hillsborough head coach Kevin Carty, Jr., will be going for the 100th win of his head coaching career Saturday afternoon. Should he get it, he’ll be one of 46 active coaches in New Jersey who’ve hit the century mark.
Speaking of Wins: Hillsborough already has set a program record for wins with 12 this season, and would extend that to 13 should they bring home the South 5 hardware. It’s the first time the Raiders have won double-digit games under Carty, with his previous best seasons coming in 2014 (9-2) and 2019 (8-3). The previous program best for wins was 10, which they did twice: in 1996, when they lost to Middletown North in the Central Jersey Group 4 title game at Giants Stadium, and 1980, when they knocked off statewide No. 1 Madison Central at Giants Stadium 10-7 in overtime for the Central Jersey Group 3 championship.
Almost Perfect: Hillsborough has never had a perfect season since it started playing football in 1970. Other than the pair of 10-1 seasons, the closest the Raiders came was in 1973, the year before the playoff era began, when they went 8-0-1.
Elite Company: A 13th win also would put Hillsborough in a rare strata among Big Central football teams. Since the playoffs expanded one more round beyond sectional finals in 2018, only one other current league team has won 13 games, and no Somserset County team has ever done it. Though the Big Central was still two years away – not beginning play until 2020 – Piscataway won the North 2 Group 5 title in 2018 over Union City, then beat Ridgewood at Met Life Stadium to finish 13-0. Sayreville won the South 5 title that year, but had a regular season loss, and finished 11-1.
Three other current league teams made the regional championships that year, but Hillside lost in the South 2 final to Haddonfield, which finished 13-0, while Phillipsburg and Summit already had a loss each heading into that final game. In 2019, Union was 12-0 having won the North 2 Group 5 title, but lost to Ridgewood in the regional final. And though Hillside finished undefeated, winning the South 2 regional title over Cedar Creek, they only played 12 games. This year, Cranford lost in the regional final to West Morris – last weekend – but still could have only been 12-0.
Next year, the playoffs expand to group champions for the first time ever, meaning there would be a maximum 14 games to win if a team reached their overall group final.
Mirrors: Kevin Carty, Jr. has been at Hillsborough for eleven seasons, but it took until his fourth to field a team with a winning record. The Raiders went 4-6 in 2011, 3-7 in 2012, and 5-5 in 2013 before going 9-2 in ’14. Kingsway head coach Mark Hendricks has been the Dragons’ head coach since 2016, and also took four seasons to field a winning team. His first three years? Kingsway was 4-6, 3-7, and 5-5 from 2016-18, the same three records as Carty’s first three seasons.
Distance Disparity: The bus ride from Hillsborough High School to Rutgers’ SHI Stadium is a 14-mile hop-skip-and-a-jump down Amwell Road, Cedar Grove Lane, a crossover of the Raritan River via Route 287, and a straight shot down River Road. Kingsway has a bit farther to drive from Woolwich Township. They’ve got a 77-mile drive from nearly south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Better bring some reading material.
First Time For Everything: In 2019, when Kingsway knocked off Old Bridge in a 6-3 playoff game at Lombardi Field, it was the first time the Dragons had ever played a Middlesex County opponent. Having played them again this year, they’ve now faced the Knights twice. (I guess the Dragon slayed the Knight.) Saturday, Kingsway will play its first-ever Somerset County opponent. It’s not quite the same for Hillsborough though. They met Williamstown, another Gloucester County school, in the semifinals. Two years ago, they beat Washington Township, before losing to Lenape of Burlington County in the semifinals. Before 2019, the southern-most school Hillsborough had ever played was Lenape, nearly a straight shot East of Camden.
The Undefeated: Hillsborough is one of seven teams left in the state who are undefeated. That number could stay at seven, or end up as low as two. Two 12-0 teams are done with their seasons: undisputed statewide No. 1 Bergen Catholic and Caldwell both played their final games last weekend, with the Crusaders winning Non-Public Group A over Don Bosco, and the Chiefs beating Jefferson for the North Group 2 title. Yet to play are five 12-0 teams, including Hillsborough. The others are: East Orange, which faces Clifton in the North 5 title game Sunday; Cedar Creek, which plays Woodrow Wilson in the South 3 championship Saturday; Northern Highlands, which faces Irvington in the North 4 regional title tilt Saturday; and Woodbury, which takes on Salem for the South 1 crown Sunday.
More on Hillsborough:
- Hillsborough looks to cap amazing year with one more win, in South 5 regional title tilt
- Coaching is in the Carty family; Kevin Jr. and Sr. share the sidelines at Hillsborough
- Mazuera, Amankwaa and Co. are primed to face Kingsway, aiming for first-ever 13-0 season
- Monday Musings: Looking back at two state champs, and a look ahead for Cranford and Hillsborough
- Hillsborough’s complete effort gives Raiders first state title in 21 years
- Mantz still has vivid memories of ’80, ’00 Hillsborough state champs
- First time in a long time: A historic look back at Hillsborough’s title game appearances
- Hillsborough looking to quench 21-year championship drought when North Brunswick comes to town for a battle of Raiders
- Hillsborough continues to roll right into Central Jersey Group 5 title tilt, thanks to Michinard’s record 7 TDs
- Hillsborough – trying to finish unbeaten for the first time in nearly 50 years – still have work to do to bring home a title
- No. 2 Hillsborough rolls to 7-0 with 44-0 win over No. 5 Old Bridge, as Dixon scores twice
- It’s 6-0 for Hillsborough, as No. 2 Raiders pull away from Westfield for 28-7 win
- Instant Replay: No. 2 Hillsborough 28, Westfield 7
- No. 3 Hillsborough was in control virtually wire-to-wire in 42-14 win at No. 5 Ridge
- No. 3 Hillsborough gets it to all the right people in 31-21 road win over rival Bridgewater-Raritan
- Instant Replay: No. 3 Hillsborough 31, Bridgewater-Raritan 21
- Hillsborough’s Amankwaa gets offer from Rutgers, verbals to Knights, all within 48 hours
- Big plays in big spots earn Hillsborough’s Tommy Amankwaa Week Two Bellamy & Son Paving Player of the Week Honors
- No. 6 Hillsborough rallies for OT win over No. 7 Phillipsburg in home opener
- Hillsborough has its sights set high with 1-2 combo of Mazuera and Amankwaa