by Mike Pavlichko
This is my 23rd season of covering high school football in New Jersey. The first 20 were spent covering the GMC and the Somerset County teams in the Skyland and Mid-State 39/38/Etc. Conferences. Two years ago, as we debuted this website, my “local” world expanded to Union, and Hunterdon Counties with the advent of the Big Central Conference.
In all that time, I’ve never been as confused and torn as I was this year when tasked with coming up with my preseason top ten. Everyone I talked to agreed: there were a lot of teams that could be in the top ten, but no clear-cut number one.
And now, it appears, the statewide media are just as confused as I was.
And that’s not to say any of us are wrong, but it speaks volumes that everyone has somebody different.
In the USA Today Network (MyCentralJersey) and NJ.com rankings that came out today, shoot, they can’t even agree on the No. 1 team. Gannet has gone with Bergen Catholic at the top, followed by Don Bosco Prep. NJ.com has it the other way around, the Ironmen first, then the Crusaders. (They’ll meet September 24th in Oradell, incidentally.)
But looking at the Big Central teams therein, there’s even more disagreement.
In the NJ.com Top 20, Hillsborough is the only team to make it. They finished fourth last year, but lose their entire core of Tommy Amankwaa, Jay Mazuera, Will Dixon and Tyler Michinard, guys who played together essentially from youth football all the way up. The Raiders will be good, but will have to prove themselves this year.
They also picked five “on the fringe” teams, with one of them being North Brunswick. The Raiders made their second sectional final in five seasons under Mike Cipot last year, falling to Hillsborough, which in the end went 13-0 and won the South Group 5 Regional Championship. They were one of three Big Central teams to make state title games last year, and the only one not to win. But they have a veteran coming back in Frankie Garbolino, a senior who has two years as a starter under his belt, and a disruptive defensive end in Jared Tynes, an Honorable Mention CJSR Defensive Player of the Year, overshadowed on his own team only by the now-graduated Amari Macklin, who won the award.
And for what it’s worth, they were my vote for No. 1. They didn’t get it in the Central Jersey Sports Radio Top Ten the way the calculations worked out. That went to Sayreville, which got a first place vote from my colleague Justin Sontupe, who will be my main partner in the broadcast booth this season.
In CJSR’s Big Central Media Poll – which includes my vote and Justin’s, plus Marcus Borden and Harry Frezza of MyCentralJersey.com (a Gannett concern) – and Korbid Thompson of the King James Radio Network – North Brunswick did end up No. 1, getting two first place votes, while Sayreville got two. (Korbid Thompson was the other vote.)
And yet, Sayreville – which has a stud runningback in Zaimer Wright who rushed for over 1,400 yards last year as a sophomore and is the top returning back in the league – is nowhere to be found, in either statewide poll.
Are people sleeping on the Bombers? They were 8-3 last year after an 0-2 start and made the sectional semifinals of the playoffs. (They also knocked off North Brunswick when they were No. 1 last year.) They very well could be.
As for USA Today Network’s statewide rankings, three Big Central teams made it. But not Sayreville, North Brunswick or even Hillsborough.
Hillside checks in at 18, while Phillipsburg is No. 23, with Somerville right behind them, 24th in the state.
The Comets have two D1 commit running backs with Syracuse-bound Muwaffaq Parkman and future West Point cadet Kyon Simonson, who combined for 27 touchdowns and over 2,500 yards last year. Phillipsburg returns 11 starters but most key statistical contributors are gone; they could be very good, but they’re unproven. (They also got two first place votes in our media poll, from Borden and Frezza.) And Somerville has a new head coach outside the Jeff Vanderbeek/Dallas Whitaker realm for the first time in a while. They lose Jaimen Bryant and Ethan MacNair, but QB Mike Miller and athlete Hashym Hobbs-Harris are back.
Essentially, the USA Today Network’s consensus is that Hillside is the top team in the Big Central, followed by Phillipsburg and Somerville. NJ.com says it’s Hillsborough then North Brunswick. Justin and I ended up with Sayreville, followed by North Brunswick Somerville and Hillsborough. And the Media Poll says North Brunswick, Sayreville, Phillipsburg and Hillsborough.
Four different polls, four different “Number Ones.”
Strap ’em on, folks! We’re in for a wild 2022 high school football season in the Big Central!