Author: Mike Pavlichko

Phillipsburg looking for best of both worlds in ’22: State title, and win over Easton

One of the biggest stumbling blocks over the years – though it never seemed really all that complicated in retrospect – to determining public group champions in football was what to do about Thanksgiving. And say what you might, no game is bigger than Phillipsburg-Easton, even though it only has one Jersey team playing in it.

But somehow, the powers that be found a way, shortening the season a week, and with many teams starting on Week Zero.

What it will do for the Stateliners is allow then to play Easton on Turkey Day, and still compete for a sectional, regional and group crown.

P’burg’s last sectional title came in 2018, the first year of the “regional bowl” games, when they beat Irvington. But they lost to Easton the following week, and in fact, haven’t beaten the Red Rovers in eight years, 2014 being the last time, when the liners went 11-1, beating Colonia in the North 2, Group 4 title game at Rutgers.

While Phillipsburg would love another two-fer, everyone knows: Easton’s the thing.

This year will be a challenge, though, as the Stateliners will have to replace their leaders in passing, rushing, receiving, tackles, sacks and interceptions – yes, six different players in all.

But as head coach Frank Duffy tells it, the cupboard isn’t bare, just a little green.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy about the 2022 season:

Young, but talented Union has unfinished business, looks to keep things going against Big Central’s big boys

Davison Igbinosun, Jaden Stewart, Ashan Harris. All key contributors to the 2021 Union football team.

With their significant stats gone from the roster in 2022 – like Stewart’s nearly 1,300 passing yards, Igbinosun’s combined 1,300-plus rushing and receiving yards, and Harris’s 88 tackles, with nine for a loss – a bunch of talented players who were behind them last year will try and pick up the slack.

The Farmers are nowhere near short of athletes, it’s a matter of having them see more snaps than they did last year.

But there’s also a bit of hunger. Last year, Union was considered a favorite in the North 2, Group 5 sectional playoffs, but their season ended prematurely when a number of COVID cases on the team prompted the school district to forfeit the game.

Forget the controversy that ensured. The team is focused on taking care of business this year.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr.:

Tynes looks to defend North Brunswick’s Defensive POY honor

Having a dominant defensive player can be a game-changer. Having two is extra special.

That’s what North Brunswick had last year.

The bad news for North Brunswick fans is that Amari Macklin has taken his state top ten tackle totals (140) along with his 12 1/2 sacks and other gaudy defensive numbers to Lock Haven – which, of course, is good for him and the Bald Eagles. Macklin was Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Defensive Player of the Year last season.

READ MORE: North Brunswick’s Macklin’s top-ten year picks up CJSR Defensive Player of the Year honors

The good news for Raiders fans is they get another year of Jared Tynes – an Honorable Mention for Defensive Player of the Year – who had 83 tackles from his defensive end position, 22 tackles-for-loss, and 9 1/2 sacks, and sits eighth on the career sack list. He also had 9 QB hits.

Having such a dominant player may ease the burden of losing a number of playmakers on offense, like Jayden Myers and Amari Macklin, even though senior quarterback Frankie Garbolino will be back for this third year as a varsity starter, hoping to keep the offense flowing.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with North Brunswick senior defensive end Jared Tynes:

Sayreville looking for more of the Wright stuff

Despite a team decidedly on the young side, the 2021 Bombers had their best season since the magical 2018 campaign, whose penultimate game saw them beat North Brunswick for the Central Jersey Group 5 title on their home field, and culminated with a miraculous win at Met Life Stadium over South 5 champ Williamstown in the first year of regional “bowl games.”

After a 3-6 year in 2019 and a .500 season in the pandemic-shortened year, Chris Beagan’s squad went 8-3 last season. And that’s even after losing their first two games to Bridgewater-Raritan and Woodbridge, both at home.

But the Bombers bucked down, and reeled off seven straight wins – including a COVID forfeit – heading into the playoffs, where they got a home win over Middletown North before falling to Middletown South in the sectional semifinals.

In 2022, the offense will flow through Zaimer Wright. As a sophomore last year, he had an outstanding campaign, rushing for 1,403 yards and 25 touchdowns, making him the top returning runningback in the Big Central Conference.

He’s just a junior, and there’s a good supporting cast of seniors back who will make an impact as well, with Michael Colonnello running the offense (570 passing, 306 rushing yards), and the defense returning Caden Holmes (with a team-best 69 tackles) and Brian Clyne (a team-leading 3 interceptions).

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Sayreville head coach Chris Beagan about this year’s Bombers:

Sunday Conversation: New Elizabeth coach Fiore on playoff system, joining the Big Central, and the future of high school football

John Fiore – who was instrumental in the overhaul of the NJSIAA football playoff system – has a lot of opinions, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It may end up displeasing some people, but he’s OK with that, and there’s
nothing wrong with that either.

In 2018, the NJSIAA moved forward with the “United Power Ranking” system, 40-percent traditional power points and 60-percent Born Power Index, a strength rating of every team in New Jersey. And though the plan backfired when it was discovered larger margins of victory gave teams better playoff position, and some coaches ran up the score as a result, it led to the current system using a similar calculation, but in reverse, using the Opponent Strength Index.

Confusing? You betcha. Accurate? It’s done a pretty good job in the two years it’s been used: 2019 and 2021 (there were no playoffs in 2020 due to COVID-19).

Fiore took a leave of absence last year from Montclair, and left for good in the off-season when he took the job at Elizabeth, bringing him back to Central Jersey, where he coached at Marlboro, his alma mater Neptune, and Spotswood many years ago.

So we thought – while we also caught up with him about his team – we’d ask
him for his take on the state playoffs as they look today, what changes may
come down the road, his thoughts on being in the Big Central Conference, and
the future of high school football in the state.

Click below to hear Part Two of Mike Pavlichko’s interview with John Fiore:

Big Central football divisions named

On the verge of its third season of play, its second full season, the Big Central Conference has announced names for the 12 divisions that make up the league.

Formerly called “5D” or “2A” and largely named that way because of the group size of the teams that comprised them, the numbers wouldn’t really have made sense this year because of a shuffling of teams that also took into account success on the field.

For example, this year’s “5A” Division would have had three Group 5 schools (Westfield, Union and Elizabeth), but also a Group 3 (Somerville) and a Non-Public (St. Joseph-Metuchen).

Here are the division names and the teams in each division, as announced today by the Big Central Conference:

  • American Gold: Elizabeth, Somerville, St. Joseph-Metuchen, Somerville, Westfield
  • American Silver: Bridgewater-Raritan, Hillsborough, Hunterdon Central, Phillipsburg, Ridge
  • National Gold: East Brunswick, Monroe, Old Bridge, Piscataway, South Brunswick
  • National Silver: Edison, Franklin, New Brunswick, North Brunswick, Sayreville
  • Liberty Gold: Colonia, JFK, Linden, Perth Amboy, Woodbridge
  • Liberty Silver: Montgomery, North Hunterdon, Plainfield, Watchung Hills
  • United Gold: Cranford, Rahway, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, St. Thomas Aquinas, Summit
  • United Silver: Carteret, Governor Livingston, JP Stevens, North Plainfield, South Plainfield
  • Patriot Gold: Bernards, Bound Brook, Delaware Valley, South River, Voorhees
  • Patriot Silver: Johnson, Hillside, Metuchen, New Providence, Roselle
  • Freedom Gold: Brearley, Dayton, Highland Park, Roselle Park, Spotswood
  • Freedom Silver: Belvidere, Dunellen, Manville, Middlesex, South Hunterdon

The league officially began play in 2020 with 60 teams and the number-letter division name combos, but did not crown division champs that year since many teams had to cancel games due to the COVID-19 pandemic that hit six months prior to the start of the season.

The Big Central was a merger of the Mid-State Conference and the Greater Middlesex Conference in keeping with the trend of “supercofnerences” intended to aid scheduling, like the massive North Jersey Super Football Conference – which includes almost all of North Jersey except the tiny NJIC – and the West Jersey Football League, which has everyone south of the Big Central and Shore Conferences.

From the Midwest to The ‘Ville: Ian Pace doesn’t need to change much to keep the Pioneers’ engine humming

Since Jeff Vanderbeek took over as head coach at the athletic complex that bears his father’s name, Somerville football has been a player, both in its league and statewide.

In his two years as skipper, and the four that followed led by protege Dallas Whitaker, the Pioneers went a combined 57-8, with three state finals appearances and a championship in 2017.

Not too shabby.

But it also means that the new leader of the program won’t have to change much from an expectations standpoint: there’s already a culture of accountability and excellence in The ‘Ville, so much so that Ian Pace can hit the ground running.

Somerville head coach Ian Pace – in the background – watches his players run drills during voluntary summer workouts on August 1, 2022. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

Pace knew little of Somerville when he was in the AD’s office on a recruiting trip from Division 3 St. John Fisher up near Rochester, but when he learned there was an opening that day, he suddenly became very interested in the job. Plus, it could be a homecoming for his wife, who – as Samantha Clark – was a Top 100 recruit out of St. Rose in Belmar and played collegiately at Fordham.

Besides the “program” already being in place, there’s talent coming back, too. On offense, big numbers return in the form of the senior duo of quarterback Mike Miller and runningback Hashyn Hobbs-Harris.

Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko got a chance to talk to Ian Pace recently. Click below to listen:

Refreshed from a year off, Fiore ready to rejuvenate Elizabeth

Believe it or not, it was a decade ago when Elizabeth won the first-ever North 2, Group 5 title, going 99-yards in the final minute of the game at Kean University to beat Piscataway, led by future Temple and current Carolina Panthers QB P.J. Walker.

Since that 11-0-1 season, the Minutemen have been mostly OK. They won nine games in 2014 but lost in the sectional finals to Linden. And in that span, have only won seven ore more games once besides that 2014 year. In the last three years, they’ve failed to win more than three games, with just seven total victories.

Meanwhile, up in the North Jersey Super Football Conference, John Fiore won four titles and made seven title games in eleven seasons with Montclair, before taking a year off last year to recharge the batteries, and spend more time with family.

Now, he’s hoping to have the same effect on the Elizabeth program, and so far, all signs point in that direction.

Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko got a chance to speak with Fiore after the team’s third practice of the preseason. Click below to listen to Part One of their conversation, as Mike and John talk about leaving Montclair, and Fiore’s move to Elizabeth:

Check back on Sunday for Part Two of the interview, as Mike and John discuss the state’s playoff formula, the future of football, and moving to the fledgling Big Central Conference.

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

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.

Ten questions as football practice opens across New Jersey today

All across the state, many high school football players have been taking part in voluntary off-season workouts. But starting today, August 10th, football practice and heat acclimatization officially begins – and luckily, the July/August heatwave appears to be subsiding at just the right time.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have some burning questions about the 2023 football season. So here’s a look at some of the things we’ll be looking for as we embark on the the third overall and second full season of the Big Central Conference. We’ll run Questions 1 through 5 for you today, and be back with the second half tomorrow.

1. Who’s Number One? Any coach will tell you that it’s not where you start, but where you finish. Just ask Hillsborough and Cranford, both of whom won state titles last year, but were ranked 6th and 8th in the preseason, respectively. The Raiders finished 13-0 and won the South Jersey Group 5 title – their first sectional title in 22 years – and were the South 5 Regional Champions, ending as the No. 1 team and the CJSR Team of the Year. Cranford won the North 2, Group 3 title, and finished third.

READ MORE: Perfection! Hillsborough caps 13-0 season with milestone win over Kingsway

And while we still have some time to decide who our preseason No. 1 team is, there’s not even a moderately clear-cut team to head the list. Last year’s top three in the final rankings – Hillsborough, Union and Cranford – lose a combined nearly 5,000 passing yards between Jay Mazuera, Jaden Stewart and Shane Van Dam, all over 1,000 yard passers, with Mazuera tossing for over 2,000.

Union graduates almost 2,500 rushing yards between Stewart, Davison Igbinosun, Ashan Harris and Kendall Bournes. Hillsborough loses over 2,000 yards on the ground between thousand-yard rusher Tyler Mcihinard, Thomas Amankwaa (nearly 900) and Mazuera. And Cranford loses more than 2,500 yards from Colin Murray (over 2,100 yards himself), Lucca Limiera and Van Dam.

READ MORE: Murray’s career game, Gallagher’s three picks help Cranford win third state title

For Hillsborough and Cranford, last year’s teams were something special: generational teams nobody will ever forget. Both are solid programs to be sure, but without any major contributors returning, they will have to earn a No. 1 ranking this year. Union is always strong, too, but the same goes for them.

So, who else? That remains to be seen. Somerville has key pieces back with QB Mike Miller and athlete Hashym Hobbs-Harris, but has a first-time (at any level) head coach in Ian Pace. North Brunswick returns veteran QB Frankie Garbolino but will need to find new targets. Sayreville went 8-3 last season, dropping its first two, then winning seven straight overall (plus a forfeit by St. Joe’s due to COVID) including a playoff win over Middletown North before falling in the sectional semis to Midd South, and they have a super runningback named Zaimer Wright.

Could a small school make a move? Del Val and Bernards could be poised for big years this season. What about St. Thomas Aquinas, which also received votes in the final rankings last year after going 9-1? What about a team like Bridgewater-Raritan, which brought in legendary head coach Rick Mantz, but will be searching for a QB, although they return some key skill players? Or a Westfield, which played stellar defense all year long last year, holding a number of teams to season low points?

All sound like solid Top Ten picks, but who will be Number One preseason?

It’s not an easy question!

2. Can Piscataway become a perennial power again? As long as Dan Higgins is the head coach, and Piscataway continues to have solid feeder programs in town, the answer is a resounding yes.

Will it happen this year? That’s up for debate. While we take no issue with the district shutting down Fall sports in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (who are we to say what’s right for a town or school district?) there’s now denying the impact it had on the Chiefs’ program. Piscataway who went winless in eight games last year, their first whitewash since 1968 and first losing season since 1992.

Piscataway head coach Dan Higgins instructs his players during preseason camp on Green Acres on August 24, 2021. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

A year of not playing, having practice, or undergoing strength and conditioning doubtless took its tool. It was back to basics for a lot of Chiefs last year. But they were in virtually every game, and lost a few close ones. This year, they will be even more competitive. Top rusher Antonio Rivera is back, along with QB Aleks Sitkowski – yes, Artur’s younger brother – and with a year more experience under the offensive line’s belt – even if some may have been on the jayvee last year – it will make a difference.

If this isn’t the year the Chiefs are back in top form, it’s right around the corner. But you can guarantee they’ll be pesky and win some games this year.

3. How will the Big Central’s new divisions fare? We welcome the move by the Big Central to reshape its divisions in 2022 and 2023, which was previously done largely by group size. They also considered success on the field when moving teams around. The end product is intriguing.

Among the bigger moves:

  • Somerville: Here’s a Group 3 school moving into a division with three Group 5 teams (Elizabeth, Union and Westfield) and a Non-Public (St. Joseph-Metuchen). One of the most successful programs in the area the last several years, the Pioneers are in with the big boys now. Do they have the skill? Yes. As a Group 3, do they have the depth? Stay tuned.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas: The Trojans tied a modern-era Middlesex County record held by the 2004 Piscataway team with seven shutouts – and they were all in a row, not allowing a single point until October 29th, in a 12-9 regular season finale win over Delaware Valley. That was the best team they played in the regular season all year, and the rest were teams like Spotswood, Belvidere and Middlesex. Aquinas also put up a lot of points. But now, they move in to a division with Group 3 schools Summit and Cranford and Group 4s like Rahway and Scotch Plains-Fanwood. Another move up with the big boys. Can new coach Tarig Holman keep the intensity Aquinas had under the late Brian Meeney?
  • JP Stevens: The Hawks move down, and for good reason. They’re a Group 5 school that has lost 23 in a row, with their last win coming on October 26, 2018, a 29-14 home win over Monroe. Last year, they managed just 18 points, getting outscored 369-18 over the course of the year, playing no closer than 37 points in any contest. This year, they move down to what we’re calling “Division 8” (since Group size no longer rules and the BCC has not yet come up with division names). That includes all Group 3 teams: Carteret, Governor Livingston, North Plainfield and South Plainfield. It still might be tough for them, as they also face Edison and Perth Amboy outside the division, but they also close with Metuchen and Spotswood. Those might be their best two chances for wins all year. But they should, at least, hopefully, be in some games this year, and that can boost their confidence.

As we wrote previously, a look at every Big Central team’s Strength Index numbers in the preseason seems to indicate more parity among the divisions this year compared to last year, with a smaller range between the highest and lowest ranked teams in each division. Will that translate on the field in 2022?

4. Who will be the marquee players this year? We’ve already mentioned a few: Miller and Hobbs-Harris from Somerville are capable of putting up big numbers. Garbolino at North Brunswick is a veteran QB, as is Matt Yascko at Edison; both are in their third full seasons as starters, and Yascko started as a freshman after Lucas Loffredo went down to injury and transferred mid-season to Piscataway in 2019. And Zaimer Wright will make an impact for Sayreville, no doubt.

Delaware Valley’s Jack Bill (left) poses with his Autoland Player of the Game football from the 2021 season with head coach Mike Haughey, on the school’s brand-new turf field. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

Jack Bill rushed for nearly 1,700 yards last year at Delaware Valley, and this year, they have some freshly-installed turf, making the transition away from slower natural grass. In their division, QB Connor Laverty returns for Bernards. Brearley QB Matt Sims is a dual threat QB in a schedule the Bears could romp through. Thousand-yard rusher Shaun Purcell is back at Manville. Hillside has RB Muwaffaq Parkman and QB Caleb Salters back, both seniors who racked up well over 1,000 rushing and passing yards respectively in 2021. Nasir McGlone was fun to watch at RB last year for North Plainfield. He returns, as does one of the best kickers in the league, Liam Quigley of Governor Livingston.

QB Jayden Young is back at St. Thomas Aquinas, and fellow signal-caller Luke Martini at North Hunterdon put together a big year last year, passing for over 1,300 yards and 17 TDs to go with just eight picks.

Among the big schools, let’s see how Antoine Hinton develops under new coach Rick Mantz at Bridgewater-Raritan. Franklin’s Quasim Ashford ran for over 1,200 yards last year. Then there are the arms: Vin Jiardullo threw for 1,100 yards last year for South Brunswick and will have a new head coach in Joe Goegre this season. Riley Piscitelli can sling it for Monroe, throwing for over 1,300 yards, with 18 TD and just five INTs last season as a junior.

Defensively, sophomore Charlie Gonella led his team with over 90 tackles last year, and he’s got two more seasons to play. Freshman Eric Thompson had five picks last year for Carteret, and could make an impact. Jaeden Jones has six for Colonia, continuing a string of electric players for Tom Roarty’s club. A.J. Bosch is an exciting two-way player across town for Woodbridge, and just a junior, who had three picks and nearly 600 receiving yards last year. Nahdir Johnson was disruptive last year for Scotch Plains; though he only recorded 12 tackles, he had four sacks. Freshman Chisom Asonye also had four for South Brunswick a year ago. It’s not often a team has two disruptive players on defense, but North Brunswick did last year: Jared Tynes was an honorable mention CJSR Defensive Player of the Year after winner Amari Macklin was given the honor. Tynes had 83 tackles, 22 TFLs, and 10 sacks and is back for his senior year, as he looks to move up from No. 8 on the all-time school sack list; the two combined for nearly a two dozen sacks last year. Adekunle Shittu is also mighty disruptive; he had seven sacks for Edison last year as a junior.

5. How will a condensed schedule affect teams? One of the challenges to having overall Group Finals in football was the schedule. An extra week couldn’t just be added since it would run into the winter schedule, and starting a week earlier would eat even more into summer vacation. Imagine starting practice last week in the midst of this heat wave, and having even more weeks to go?

So, the compromise was to shorten the season to eight weeks, plus a Week Zero (last year was nine weeks, plus Week Zero) which also allowed teams that play on Thanksgiving – most notably Easton-Phillipsburg – to continue that tradition if they wish, with no more “regional title games” spread out over Thanksgiving weekend and the weekend after.

But that means teams who don’t play on Thanksgiving – now the vast majority – will have to play Week Zero through Week Eight without a bye. And if they make it to the Group Finals, they’d play 13 straight weeks, getting a bye before the title game. Those that do play on Thanksgiving and don’t play Week Zero could play 14 straight.

Is it more beneficial to play just eight games in the regular season to stay one game fresher? We’re only talking ten teams that could potentially, ultimately be affected out of over 300 – since two per group make it to the title game, and there are five groups – but don’t forget, power points are now an average, rather than a total. So an extra game doesn’t necessarily mean extra points, just an extra opportunity to boost that average. The old way, even a loss helped, because it was still extra points. Now, fewer points can bring down an average; it could help, it could hurt.

It’ll be more interesting to see from a rest/freshness perspective how that will affect teams down the stretch.

Check back on for more of our questions heading into the 2022 football season, including what new coaches will make the biggest impact on their teams this season, a look at the new group finals, double multipliers, and more!