Part Two of our Ten Questions as practice is underway for 2022 H.S. Football season

St. Joseph-Metuchen and Somerville play a Big Central Conference game on October 16, 2021. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

We’ve already looked at our first five questions, things to look out for as high school football practice got underway yesterday in the Big Central Conference and across the state of New Jersey. (Click here if you missed it.) Now, it’s time to finish the list. Happy reading!

6. What new coach will have the greatest impact on his new team? Of the 59 teams in the Big Central Conference, 14 will have new head coaches this season. Some are taking over established programs, and others will try and turn things around.

Some will jump right off the page, and two of the most intriguing coaching changes are in Somerset County.

Rick Mantz was hired by Bridgewater-Raritan, taking over for Scott Bray, whose program was always competitive, peaking in a three-year stretch from 2015-2017, when the Panthers went 31-5 and made three straight North Jersey, Section 2, Group 5 finals. Heartbreakingly, they lost all three to Westfield, which went 36-0 in that same three-year stretch.

READ MORE: Bridgewater-Raritan Board of Ed. approves Rick Mantz as Panthers’ new football coach

Mantz, of course, is one of the great New Jersey coaches, having won championships both as a player (in 1980) and a head coach (2000) at Hillsborough. He’s also had stints at South Brunswick and Passaic, even serving as a high school football liaison for Chris Ash when he was the head coach at Rutgers. He’ll bring a new energy to Bridgewater, which went 6-4 lost season. And a matchup against his alma mater – the game has always been a big rivalry otherwise – will have extra juice on Friday, September 9th. No wonder that will be our game of the week that week!

Somerville is also an interesting coaching change to watch, as it represents a departure of sorts from the Jeff Vanderbeek/Dallas Whitaker combo of the last seven years. Vanderbeek took over the program solo in 2016 and coached two years before turning over the reins to Whitaker, his offensive coordinator. But after a promotion at his real estate law firm and with an upcoming wedding, Whitaker stepped aside from coaching this past year.

Enter new head coach Ian Pace, who says he literally was in Athletic Director Tim Davis’ office – on a recruiting visit for St. John Fisher College in upstate New York – the day Whitaker handed in his resignation, and practically applied for the job on the spot.

What’s perhaps most interesting here is that Pace is not from New Jersey. He’s from Ohio, although his wife is from New Jersey, a former high school basketball star from St. Rose. The idea was to come back to New Jersey, find stability, and start a family.

There’s a program in place at Somerville, and a solid one. Little needs to be changed. The question is, can Pace avoid reinventing the wheel, while putting his own flourish on the Pioneers?

In Union County, count on John Fiore to make an impact at Elizabeth, and in the league in general. The former Montclair head man is one of the top coaches in the state, and helped reinvent the NJSIAA’s football playoff qualifications, so he’s involved more than just with his team. He’ll no doubt have some ideas for the fledgling Big Central Conference, now in its third season of existence.

But his teams have been great. He was 93-31 with the Mounties, winning four state championships in seven sectional final berths in 11 seasons from 2010-2020, with three undefeated seasons in that span.

He should be refreshed after taking a leave of absence last season, taking over an Elizabeth program that has gone 7-19 the past three seasons.

In Middlesex County, Bill Tracy takes over at St. Joseph-Metuchen, a huge get for the Falcons, after Rich Hilliard stepped down. Tracy won a state championship in 2013 with Ridge, going a perfect 12-0 and beating resurgent Union in the finals on a snowy Saturday morning in December at Rutgers.

More than that, he’s a cerebral coach, a thinker of the game, and he’ll have an impact quickly in Metuchen, no doubt about it.

READ MORE: St. Joseph-Metuchen taps former Ridge mentor Bill Tracy to lead Falcons

Right down the road, Tarig Holman moves just a few miles away from JFK in Iselin to St. Thomas Aquians, where he has the difficult task of taking over for the much-loved Brian Meeney, who passed away suddenly this past winter.

Meeney had Aquinas going in a great way, shutting out their first seven opponents last season en route to tying a modern-day Middlesex County record set by Piscataway in 2004. More importantly, he had his team believing they were that good, instilling a sense of confidence that was several seasons in the making, proof that hard work and believing in yourself would pay off.

It clearly, did, and now it’s a matter of if Holman can keep that going.

At the other end of the county is Joe Goerge, who’s back at South Brunswick, where from 2012-2018 his Vikings’ teams went 63-17 and won three state titles. He’s also won state titles at Franklin, making his name there back when the high school was off Franklin Boulevard. The wealth of experience the 67-year-old will bring to the program is invaluable; there aren’t many like him left anymore.

READ MORE: Legendary football coach Joe Goerge returns to the South Brunswick, where he led Vikings to unprecedented success, and three state titles

Finally, there’s Matt Donaghue at Old Bridge. And that’s a key move because it’s just more consistency at Old Bridge. He’s only the third coach since the mid-90s merger of Cedar Ridge and Madison Central. Madison coach Bob DeMarco coached the merged Old Bridge Knights, before Anthony Lanzafama – one of his players – took over. Donaghue also played for DeMarco, and has been a Lanzafama assistant for years. He’s also the head coach of the baseball team.

READ MORE: Donaghue aims to keep the consistency going as he takes the reins at Old Bridge

Donaghue is a program guy, and he’ll keep it going on Route 9.

Here are the other new coaches in the league:

  • Metuchen: Jordan Leitner
  • JFK: Michael Henderson
  • Franklin: Blair Wilson
  • Governor Livingsdton: Pete Ramiccio
  • North Plainfield: Derrick Eatman
  • Belvidere: Jordan Schreffler
  • Middlesex: Phlip McGuane

7. Will the new “double multipliers” affect the Big Central? Absolutely, and they could hurt a number of teams in the league.

Multipliers have been a godsend to some, and frustrating and baffling to others for several years. They were initially adopted in 2015 as an incentive, a way to encourage public schools to play North Jersey parochial powers like Don Bosco and Bergen Catholic. A few took advantage of it.

For the uninitiated, the multiplier gives a set amount of power points to a public school that plays a designated non-public,. It’s a three-tiered system. The top teams in the “A” category are worth 48 for a win, 32 for a loss. That means “just showing up” gets a team 32 points, which is a bit more than beating the best Group 5 team that’s 7-0 (worth 29 points – 6 quality points for the win, 5 for the group, and a maximum of 18 residuals).

Eventually, multipliers were expanded beyond the North Jersey powers to include the better parochials around the state, like St. John Vianney in the Shore Conference and St. Augustine in deep South Jersey.

But while any public school can schedule a multiplier team, not all will be able to. And it ends up creating an uneven playing field in a particular section.

When teams started scheduling two multipliers, the NJSAA said only one would count, the best of the two, and the other game would be worth the “traditional” power point value. But this year, the NJSIAA is allowing two to count.

There are six teams in the state that have two multipliers on their schedules this year. The Shore Conference has Rumson, Manalapan, Wall and Middletown South all playing Red Bank Catholic and Donovan Catholic, both Tier B multipliers worth 42 points for a win and 28 for a loss.

Granted, power points are an average now, no longer a running total. And the power point rank is only 40% of the NJ UPR playoff calculation, with the other 60% being OSI, which is not weighted for those teams (the thinking being that their success already is factored in to their Strength Index rating).

But still, Wall is in South Group 3, along with Carteret, Somerville and South Plainfield. With 56 points just for showing up, does Somerville – with a brutal divisional schedule of St. Joe’s, Westfield, Union and Elizabeth – even have a shot at a top seed? Not by a long shot.

Same for South Group 5. Cherokee plays St. Augustine (a Tier B multiplier) and Holy Spirit (Tier C, 36 for a win and 24 for a loss). Lenape plays St. Augustine and St. Joe’s-Hammonton, both Tier B teams. There are 11 Big Central teams among the 30 in that supersection. Lenape didn’t crack .500 last year, but Cherokee won seven games, and only played one multiplier. They could really benefit from this, and the Big Central could really hurt.

For the record, there are only two non-public schools in the Big Central – St. Joe’s and Aquinas – and neither are multipliers this year.

You do the math: 11 teams in the division, no local multiplier to play, and only a handful in the state. Should East Brunswick have to schedule Delbarton just to get a leg up? I think we all know the answer to that question.

8. Will we finally have those dream matchups in the Group Finals? While there are still a few holdouts, the overwhelming majority of coaches, players and fans love the fact that the NJSIAA will be holding Group Championships in football for the first time ever.

To be honest, we’re not sure why it took so long. As explained yesterday, it simply required taking one week out of the season. But teams can still play nine regular season games and the playoffs, and they won’t have to play past the traditional Championship Weekend of the first weekend in December, and will get to keep Thanksgiving Day games. (One of the biggest obstacles had been the Phillipsburg-Easton rivalry, and of course, that will remain.)

In any event, just looking back at teams in the Big Central and GMC Conference the last few years, since the playoffs were expanded to “regional bowl games” in 2018, there could have been some great matchups.

In that first season, Piscataway had a dominating year, and became the first Middlesex County team to win 13 games when the Chiefs beat Ridgewood at MetLife Stadium for the North Group 5 bowl title. The weekend before, Sayreville capped a magical year by winning the South Group 5 crown. After topping North Brunswick in an epic sectional final, the Bombers beat Williamstown despite continually failing to score on gift opportunities and trailing most of the game. But Connor Holmes fell on a fumble in the end zone to give Sayreville the win.

Had we had group finals in 2018, the Chiefs and Bombers would have faced off for a second time that season – P’way had won 27-6 on October 19th that year – and it would have been another one to circle on the calendar.

And, of course, last year we could have had another epic battle, had it not been for two obstacles – no group championships yet, and COVID-19.

Everyone knows what kind of terrific season Hillsborough had, becoming the first Somerset County team to win 13 games, winning the South Jersey Group 5 sectional championship, and the South 5 Regional title.

Union also was having an amazing season last year, and was the odds-on favorite to with their playoff section, and possibly even the North 5 regional championship. It would have set off an epic all-Big Central Group 5 final that would have also featured two of the top recruits in the league: Davison Igbinosun – who eventually signed with Ole Miss – and Tommy Amankwaa – who is now at Rutgers.

Do we have a shot at seeing a dream all-Big Central matchup this year? Could be. Those are more likely in the larger groups – Groups 4 and 5 – where most of the league’s teams reside, giving them better odds of meeting in a final.

9. How will Cranford and Hillsborough look after graduating major talent? This falls along the lines of a previous question, where we discussed who would be the preseason Number One team.

For Cranford, QB Shane VanDam passed for 1,542 yardsand 18 TD against just 4 interceptions, while running for another 218 yards and three scores. Runningback Colin Murray was the state’s rushing leader, going for 2,459 yards, 339 of which came in the sectional final win over Sparta. He also scored 33 touchdowns, second-best in the state, and was named Central Jersey Sports Radio Offensive Player of the Year.

READ MORE: NJ rushing leader Murray takes home CJSR Offensive Player of the Year Award

Then, there was receiver Will Gallagher, who had 37 catches for 687 yard and ten scores, and could also catch it on defense, recording six interceptions on the year, three in the title game against Sparta.

All are gone to graduation.

And in Hillsborough, what else can you say? Thomas Amankwaa had a year that won’t be matched for a long time by any Radier; he’s a generational player – and, by the way, an awesome kid, to boot.

Hillsborough’s Thomas Amankwaa (center) signs at his NLI ceremony in the high school library on December 15, 2021, with head coach Kevin Carty Jr. on his right. Offensive Coordinator Brandon Water is on the left. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

Amankwaa – CJSR’s Two-Way Player of the Year – notched career highs of 853 yards at his natural position of wide receiver, along with 13 touchdowns. But when head coach Kevin Carty, Jr., got him involved as a running back, he went for 1,125 yards and 15 TDs. He also came up big defensively, recording just 25 tackles, but grabbing five interceptions for 118 yards – one of which, in the end zone against Phillipsburg early in the season, sealed a critical win – and five pass breakups.

READ MORE: Dominating 13-0 season sees Hillsborough’s Amankwaa and Carty Jr. sweep Two-Way Player and Coach of the Year awards from CJSR

Runningback Tyler Michinard rushed for 1,153 yards and 18 touchdowns, while QB Jay Mazuera threw for 2,038 yards and 23 touchdowns. Tight end will Dixon also had 22 catches for 227 yards and four touchdowns, and was disruptive defensively with 13 sacks. He also tipped Amankwaa’s Phillipsburg OT pick at the line of scrimmage.

Again, all gone.

Both schools had a group of seniors that came up together, not just in the high school program, but playing youth football together from the time they were small. A new generation will surely come about, but both will have to replace players who are irreplaceable. Fortunately, both had solid coaches whose programs have a rock-solid culture.

10. Which will be the best game of the year CJSR’s broadcast schedule? Ah, good question.

Even from the first kickoff, we feel like we have a really good schedule. Here are some of the early storylines:

  • August 27 – Highland Park at Metuchen: Neither has won a lot of games in recent years. Highland Park even owns the state’s longest active losing streak at 33 games. But this game is for pride, and it’s still a big deal for the players, coaches, and parents, especially those who are alums of either school. Highland Park leads all-time, 62-23-1, with the first meeting back in 1937. It’s the second longest nearly-annual former Thanksgiving rivalry in Middlesex County, only behind Carteret-Perth Amboy. Oh, and by the way, the Owls’ last win? It came against Metuchen on Thanksgiving, 2016.
  • September 2 – Hunterdon Central at Piscataway: These two have a long playoff history, having played some epic games, but not so much recently. The Red Devils have struggled of late, and the Chiefs had a rough time last year, going winless for the first time since 1968. But whoever wins this one could be a springboard for an improved season. Critical for both teams.
  • September 9 – Hillsborough at Bridgewater-Raritan: The Battle of Route 206 is always an intense one. Even last year, with the Panthers down a bit, it was a good one against the Raiders. But now, Rick Mantz, who coached Hillsborough to a state title in 2000 after winning one as a player in 1980 – kicking the game-winning field goal – is the head coach at Bridgewater. Extra juice? Yes, please!
  • September 16 – Somerville at Montgomery: The Pioneers have been one of the top programs in the Skyland Conference/Big Central the last several years, and Montgomery is rising. It’s another head coach versus his alma mater, as Zoran Milich will guide his Cougars against a totally new coach to New Jersey, Ian Pace of Somerville. Side note: Milich is the only Big Central coach who is the only coach in the history of his program, having led the Cougars since they began play in 2002.
  • September 23 – Bernards at Delaware Valley: The scenery here makes it a game unto itself, but besides that, this could be for the division this year, whatever it’s eventually called. Jack Bill looks even more the part this year, a physical specimen for the Terriers, while Connor Laverty is back from injury calling the signals for the Mountaineers. And two great coaches in Bernards’ Jon Simoneau and Del Val’s Mike Haughey. It’s also on turf this year, as Del Val got a new surface in the off-season.
  • September 24 – Rahway at Summit: Two solid Union County schools here, and our first game on CJSR with Rahway. Both great coaches, and a good rivalry, should make for a good one. They’ve split the series the last four seasons.
  • September 30Sayreville at East Brunswick: The Bombers are going to be one of the top teams in the Big Central this year, with Zaimer Wright leading the way. East Brunswick will be no slouch, and who doesn’t love a classic GMC Red Division matchup in Week 5 of the season? These teams combined to go 16-5 last year, but Sayreville has won nine straight, their last loss in 2009. The Bears knocked off the top-seeded Bombers en route to the Central jersey Group 4 championship.
  • October 7 – Elizabeth at Union: It’s a battle of the big boys in perhaps the toughest division in the Big Central Conference. Elizabeth will have a spark from new head coach John Fiore, and Lou Grasso, Jr., has a machine going in Union. Even though they also lost a ton of talent, they have a lot coming back; they’re just young. Talented, but inexperienced.
  • October 8 – Edison at St. Joseph-Metuchen: Former Ridge head coach Bill Tracy will make an immediate impact at his new school, too, but will it be enough to power the Falcons past an Edison team with a starting quarterback in Matt Yascko who is a three-year starter, taking over the job mid-year his freshman season. Add in disruptive defender Adekunle Shittu, and this could be a really nice year for Edison. It’s less than a four mile bus trip, so this is a nice little late-season backyard brawl, and only the second meeting between the schools. The Eagles won the first, last year, in Metuchen, 28-20.

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