In Review: Big Central Playoff Notebook

Colonia – celebrating a 35-7 home win over Rahway that helped them get in the playoffs – was among the most intriguing bubble teams to make it into the playoffs this year. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

It was quite the whirlwind of a season getting to Cutoff Weekend. It seemed to go so quickly.

One week, players are cramping up in the summer heat of Week 0 and Week 1, and before you know it, the cheerleaders are in track pants and jackets.

But here we are, with the playoffs upon us, and with the NJSIAA seeding the public playoffs this past weekend – non-publics will be seeded by committee – we thought we’d take a quick look at the tournament from the angle of the Big Central Conference.


31 Teams, Bubble Teams Made It…

Say this: the Big Central is consistent. For the third year in a row, the league got at least 30 public schools in the state tournament.

The league’s first official year was 2020, the COVID-shortened season with no playoffs. In 2021, 32 league teams made the playoffs, including St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Joseph-Metuchen opted out. That meant 31 BCC public schools made the playoffs.

Last season, 30 public schools made it, plus Aquinas and St. Joe’s, making it a total of 32.

This year, it was 31 again, with Aquinas and Joe’s set to qualify next week when the NJSIAA seeds the Non-Public A and B sections, by committee.

And everything broke right for the league with all it’s bubble teams. Brearley was the only team that missed on Cutoff Weekend, but they were probably a longshot even if they’d won their last game against Dunellen, which incidentally was their first meeting since 2020, even though they had been schedule to play the last two seasons; the Destroyers had to forfeit late in the season each time due to lack of players. With Dunellen’s win, they made the top 16 in South 1.

The most intriguing bubble to watch was in North Group 4, where Colonia and Rahway both made it in North Group 4 despite our original take that their matchup Friday night would likely be a play-in game. It did turn out to be, but Colonia still needed some help. Other results and residuals from Friday and Saturday left the Patriots’ fate up to the latest-scheduled game to be played Saturday, Orange and Lincoln at Caven Point in Jersey City, a 4 pm kickoff. Those results would have left Orange in a 15th place tie with Rahway, with a win, and left Colonia out, even though they beat the Indians Friday night. But Lincoln won, leaving Orange out, and Colonia in 16th behind Rahway, which they jumped based on the head-to-head result. Whew!

Bridgewater-Raritan got a Cutoff Weekend win over Old Bridge to solidify its playoff position in North Group 5, though they still might have made it with a loss.

Governor Livingston hung on to make it in North 3 despite a Saturday home loss to a strong Bernards team, which was key.

And Spotswood needed a Cutoff Weekend win over JP Stevens Saturday – which they got – to make the field in South Group 2.

Undefeated and Almost Perfect…

Three Big Central schools ended the regular season undefeated: Bernards is 9-0, North Brunswick is 8-0, and Montgomery is 8-0-1. Yes, the dreaded tie reared its ugly head, a triple-overtime 42-all thriller with Linden Friday night that neither helped nor hurt the Cougars nor the Tigers in their playoff chase.

One more Big Central team – St. Thomas Aquinas – also is undefeated. The 9-0 Trojans have a bye this week, then one more regular season game on Thanksgiving Eve against Immaculata, which was originally slated to be in the Big Central but dropped out late in the summer of 2020 due to a disagreement over its division and scheduling, and now plays in the Super Football Conference.

No Big Central team finished last year undefeated, and only one was unbeaten by the time the playoffs started. That was Phillipsburg, which was No. 1 after Cutoff Weekend, and got stunned in the North 2, Group 5 final by sixth-seed West Orange, 28-7. The Stateliners came back to beat Easton on Thanksgiving to finish off a perfect regular season.

Ending Playoff Droughts…

Two of the longer playoff droughts in the league ended when Spotswood and Dunellen made the playoffs. The Chargers are in for the first time since 2015, and the Destroyers qualified for the first time since 2014.

Two other Big Central teams still have droughts that long: Scotch Plains-Fanwood and Monroe. Franklin hasn’t made it since 2012, Highland Park’s streak dates back to 2010, and JP Stevens holds the longest playoff drought in the Big Central, last making the playoffs in 2006, Frank Zarro’s last year as head coach.

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Bernards’ Historic Season…

The Mountaineers are one of just two teams in the Big Central to complete a perfect regular season. Unbeaten Montgomery has a tie and St. Thomas Aquinas still has to play Immaculata on Thanksgiving, leaving just North Brunswick (8-0) and Bernards (9-0).

The last time Bernards had a perfect regular season was 1996, when they had a 9-0 regular season and earned their first-ever playoff home game by picking up the No. 2 seed. But they lost in the opening round, the Central Jersey Group 1 semifinals, to third-seed South River, 21-14

They also went 9-0 in 1995, earned the No. 4 seed, but lost to top-seed Highland Park, 20-0.

Before that, Bernards had a 9-0 season in 1970, 8-0 seasons in 1955, 1950, 1936 and 1935, and they went 7-0 in 1917.

First Time In A Long Time…

Kudos to North Brunswick, which also has had a minute since it’s last undefeated regular season. This year’s 8-0 mark is the best since the 2000 team, which went 9-1 and was the third-seed in Central Jersey Group 3. They were upset by 6th-seed Wall in the opening round of the playoffs, 7-0.

They were 9-1 in 1985, too, going undefeated until a playoff loss to Colonia in the Central Jersey Group 3 four-team bracket semifinals, 35-0. The Patriots were the top-seed that year, but lost to 3rd-seed Ewing 3-0 in the title game.

Home Sweet Home…

Big Central teams got more home playoff games this year than the league’s first two postseasons, individually.

In 2021, including non-public St. Thomas Aquinas – St. Joe’s opted out that year – the league got 12 teams playing at home and 19 on the road in the first round. In 2022, there were 32 league teams in the playoffs – both non-publics made it – and 12 teams playing at home, 20 on the road in the opening round.

This year, there will be 15 public schools playing first round home games, and only 16 playing away.

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