North Group 4 Semifinal Preview: North Hunterdon vs. Northern Highlands

North Hunterdon players celebrate after winning the North 2, Group 4 championship at Singley Field in Annandale on Novmmber 12, 2022. (Source: @AlexanderUryni1 on Twitter)

A trip to the NJSIAA’s first ever true state final is on the line Saturday, when North Hunterdon takes on Northern Highlands in a statewide Group 4 semifinal game at Franklin High School in Somerset.

Here’s a complete preview of the game, with stats, key players, championship histories, notes and more:

Group 4 Semifinals
North Hunterdon (North 2 Champion, 11-1) vs. Northern Highlands (North 1 Champion, 8-3)
When: Saturday, 5:30 pm
Where: Franklin High School, Somerset

Coverage: Central Jersey Sports Radio will broadcast the game live with Mike Pavlichko calling all the action. Click here to listen. Postgame recap and reaction on cjsportsradio.com.

How they got here:

North Hunterdon – the top seed in the section – beat #8 Middletown North 34-7 in the first round, then rallied from 14-0 down in the first quarter to beat #5 Morris Knolls 25-14 in the semifinals. They then won a fourth-quarter shootout against #2 Randolph in the North 2, Group 4 title game, 49-35, with the two teams combining for 49 points in the final 12 minutes, though the Lions never trailed in the game.

Northern Highlands – the No. 4 seed in the section – beat #5 Montgomery at home 27-12 in the opening round, then upset top-seed Irvington on the road in the semifinals, 17-13. In the North 1, Group 4 title game, they beat 2nd-seed Ramapo 29-42 in overtime, in a four-hour epic that saw the stadium lights go out not once, but twice. It was the second straight year the Highlanders beat the Raiders in the sectional final. Last year, it was within days of longtime Ramapo head coach Drew Gibbs dying of heart attack he suffered at practice with the team in preparation for the title tilt.

Who would be next?

The winner of this game would go on to New Jersey’s first-ever public school Group Finals against the winner of the other semifinal, being played Saturday at Cherokee High School in Medford. That features Central Jersey Group 4 champion Mainland (10-1) and South Jersey Group 4 champ Millville (9-2) playing at 2:30 Sunday afternoon at Cherokee. Like North Hunterdon or Northern Highlands, Mainland would have two weeks between games, but Millville plays at Vineland in between on Thanksgiving Day.

Series, League History

This will be the first meeting between North Hunterdon and Northern Highlands in football.

Since the formation of the Big Central Conference, the Highlanders are 3-0 against the league. They beat Somerville in the Rumble on the Raritan last season, 32-20. They’ve also beaten Montgomery twice in the opening round of the playoffs; they won last year 61-14, and this year, 27-12.

North Hunterdon is 2-0 against the Super football Conference this season, with playoff wins over Morris Knolls (25-14) in the sectional semifinals and Randolph (49-35) in the title game.

Finals Histories

North Hunterdon (3-1 in finals)  (12th appearance, 10-9 overall)

  • 2022:  North 2, Group 4:  #1 seed, beat #2 Randolph 49-35 (11-1 through finals)
  • 2017:  North 2, Group 4:  #2 seed, beat #1 Phillipsburg 21-20 at Rutgers (11-1)
    • Lost to Phillipsburg on October 27 that year 20-7 at Maloney Stadium
  • 1978:  Central 3:  #4 seed, lost to #2 JFK 26-6 (8-3)
  • 1975:  Central 3:  #1 seed, beat #3 Franklin 27-18 (10-0)

Northern Highlands (4-2 in finals) (17th appearance, 17-13 overall)

  • 2022: North 1, Group 4: #1 seed, beat #2 Ramapo 49-42 in OT (8-3 through finals)
  • 2021: North 1, Group 4: #1 seed, beat #2 Ramapo 35-30 (12-1)
    • Lost Group 4 semifinals to Irvington 19-14 at Rutgers
  • 2019:  North 1, Group 4: #1 seed, beat #2 Woodbridge 37-7 (9-3)
    • Lost Group 4 semifinals to Wayne Walley 21-17 at MetLife Stadium
  • 1975:  North 1, Group 3:  #1, lost to #2 Ridgefield Park 10-8
  • 1978:  North 1, Group 3:  #4, beat #1 Pascack Hills 6-0
  • 1984:  North 1, Group 3:  #3, lost to #1 Wayne Valley 28-6

Beyond the “Finals”

Since the NJSIAA expanded beyond the sectional semifinals in 2018 with “Bowl Championships” that eventually became renamed “Regional Championships,” Northern Highlands has qualified for the next round after the sectional finals each of the last three years. They didn’t make it out of the first round in 2018, but in 2019, beat Woodbridge 37-7 to advance to the Regional Championship, where they lost to Wayne Valley, 21-7 at MetLife Stadium. With no playoffs in 2020, they again qualified in 2021, beating Ramapo 35-0 to win the North 1, Group 4 title, but falling in the Regional Championship to Irvington.

North Hunterdon’s last sectional title win came in 2017, the year before the NJSIAA added a round to the playoffs. So, neither team has picked up a win in this round, but obviously one of them will on Saturday.

Key Players and Stats

Where do we begin with North Hunterdon? Kente Edwards was the star runningback when the season started, but Kevin Kley has told anyone who will listen that Alex Uryniak could start for any team in the Big Central. That proved to be the case when Edwards got nicked up in the Colonia game, and missed two games, plus parts of two others, coming back in earnest for the sectional semifinals against Morris Knolls. Uryniak didn’t miss a beat. And in the sectional finals, when quarterback Luke Martini didn’t like what the defense was giving the Lions on the ground, he took to the skies to the tune of a career-high 411 passing yards and a career-best five touchdowns – not including two that got called back on the same series – among which were several long bombs.

Martini now has thrown for 2,147 yards on the season with 22 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Edwards leads the ground game with 1,259 yards and 12 scores, while Uryniak has 992 yards on the ground and 13 TDs. In the passing game, Derek Vaddis is Martini’s favorite target, racking up 949 passing yards and 11 scores, and has a streak of three straight hundred-yard receiving and multiple touchdown games. Danny DeLusant is a tasty second option, with 517 yards and seven touchdowns.

Northern Highlands will spread the ball out more, and relies more heavily on the pass game than the run, mixing it up between quarterbacks Nate Johnson and JR Walley, who’ve thrown for 1,335 and 911 yards respectively this season, combining for 20 touchdowns, but also ten picks. Walley started the sectional final game with Nate Johnson out due to injury. Zach Madison is the leading receiver with 801 yards and 5 scores, but Danny Dmiechowski has 9 touchdowns with just 541 yards receiving. Four different players have caught at least 22 passes this season. On the ground, it’s Charlie Sparago who leads the way with 167 carries for 836 yards and eight touchdowns. Defensively, they average just over three sacks a game, 35.5 on the season, so they can get after opposing quarterbacks. Senior Jack Inserra has 15 1/2 of those sacks, and 12 TFLs on the year.

Hot at the right time

On the strength of his career high performance last Saturday in the North 2 Group 4 title tilt, Martini has now thrown for 1,061 yards and 14 touchdowns in the last four games – the annual Milk Can game against Voorhees, and the three sectional playoff games. That’s just under half his season total in passing yards and way more than half of his season touchdown passes. And his favorite target, Derek Vaddis, has been the beneficiary: 20 catches for 333 yards and six touchdowns in the last three games, with two scores in each. If this is the time of year you want to play your best football, these two are leading the way.

Lions’ Milestones

A number of North Hunterdon players are closing in on significant milestones, whether for the season or in their careers.

  • Should the Lions make the Group 4 final in a couple of weeks at Rutgers, and have a modicum of success, Luke Martini could end up eclipsing the 4,000-yard mark for his career, currently sitting at 3,544. With a game like last week, he’s almost there. He’s also a touchdown pass away from 40 in his career.
  • Kenet Edwards is 241 yards shy of 1,500 on the season, and needs a paltry 14 yards to become a career 2,000-yard rusher.
  • Derek Vaddis is already over the 1,000 yard mark for his career, with 1,042, and having tallied just 83 yards on nine catches last season, is 51 away from the 1,000 yard mark this season.

Previews

Past Coverage

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