Category: Football

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!

St. Joseph alum, MiLB broadcaster John Nolan wins one for grooms everywhere

The average guy, when it comes to wedding prep, is somewhere in the background. Maybe an opinion or an idea here and there, but it’s often the bride-to-be designing and creating the wedding of their dreams.

John Nolan – a 2009 graduate of St. Joseph-Metuchen, who’s getting married this December – had one big idea. It went viral, and now it’ll be a part of the celebration when he marries his fiancee, Nicole.

Nolan – now in his tenth season broadcasting Fort Wayne Tin Caps baseball, a high-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres – grew up a big Mets fan, just like his father, who’s also the President of St. Joe’s. He’s been enjoying – from afar – the Mets’ run this year, leading the NL East through the end of play Sunday by 6 1/2 games over the Braves, after taking four of five from Atlanta at Citi Field this past weekend.

John Nolan and his fiancee, Nicole, take in an 8-5 Mets win over San Diego at Citi Field in New York on July 24, 2022. (Submitted photo)

And so John had the idea that he and his bride make their first public appearance, at their reception, walking out to the song “Narco,” performed by Blasterjaxx and Timmy Trumpet. That’s the tune that has been a sensation this summer, played over the PA in Queens as Mets’ closer Edwin Diaz comes in from the bullpen. The whole ballpark – even Mr. and Mrs. Met, faux trumpets blaring – participates.

Nicole didn’t think much of it, so Nolan took his idea to social media, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As of Monday afternoon, the post had surpassed 16,000 likes, more than four times his goal, and many more times what he ever thought it would get.

Click below to hear how John Nolan’s tweet went viral, and how he and his bride will walk out to “Narco” at their wedding this December:

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

The first thing Matt Donaghue talks about when asked about his promotion to head coach of the Old Bridge football program is how Anthony Lanzafama’s January announcement that was was stepping down came as a total surprise.

And why not?

Consider that Bob DeMarco was the head coach for 33 seasons, first at Madison Central, then at Old Bridge when the school was formed via merger with Cedar Ridge in the mid-1990s. Then, former DeMarco student Anthony Lanzafama – who played on the last Madison and first OB team – took over for the next 12 years.

That’s remarkable in this day and age. And now, another DeMarco student – and one who has coached under Lanzafama, too, for the past decade-plus – is the head coach.

Talk about consistency.

No wheel need be reinvented here. The option won’t be going away at Vince Lombardi Field, where the stadium is named after DeMarco, and where the press box will be christened in honor of Mr. Old Bridge, Ron Mazzola, who passed away suddenly this winter.

Donaghue loves coaching, so much so that he’ll remain the head baseball coach as well, a position he’s held since 2018, already with a GMC Tournament title (2019) to his program’s credit.

Click below to listen to Mike Pavlichko’s interview with new Old Bridge football head coach Matt Donaghue:

Some Big Central teams will have a tougher road than others to the playoffs in ’23

Back in the days when power points themselves were simpler, and the only method the NJSIAA used for playoff seeding, there would always be some six-win team that could make a case to get in the playoffs over a four-win team. In 2017, 5-3 Linden missed the playoffs, while Columbia – 0-8 at the cutoff – made it in, thanks to a multiplier.

And even now, with power points more complicated, and OSI added in, there’s controversy. Manville didn’t make the playoffs last year at 6-2, when a Cutoff Weekend loss to Metuchen cost them a playoff spot, meaning the Mustangs would have had to 7-1 to make the playoffs.

This can happen when teams don’t play a strong enough schedule. That was the case with Manville. Meanwhile, other teams could win three games and get in.

And even the NJSIAA adopting a new rule that playoff teams must have a minimum of two wins to qualify (though some coaches and ADs pushed for three) may not be enough.

Over the last few days, we’ve looked at Big Central Strength Index ratings, as well as all 59 teams’ strength of schedule, based on the SI rating of their opponents. We can use that data to determine how many wins a team might need to make the playoffs.

We did this last year, and of the 58 public school teams in the BCC last year, our projections held true for all but three of them.

How did we do it? We took the minimum and maximum OSI each team could get in a year – for going winless or undefeated – and averaged the difference. If a team with eight games could average a 64 OSI for going unbeaten, and a 32 OSI for going winless, that’s a difference of 32. That means each game on average is worth eight points.

Those numbers can change throughout the season, as opponents’ SI numbers go up or down, but generally, they’re fairly accurate because, on average, some teams will go up, some will go down. Unless a whole division is much improved, or entirely down for the year, it often comes close to a wash in the end.

But how many wins would you need to make the playoffs?

We looked at the highest OSI team to miss the playoffs, then took the next team above that which was in the playoffs, and set that as the target goal for OSI. If that team we described above was in a section last year where no one below a 43 missed the playoffs, we could figure they’d probably need just two wins to make the playoffs, three for a lock. Going winless would give them about a 32 OSI, one win would give them 40, two would give them 48, well over the 43 “minimum.”

This is impossible to do with power points because we don’t know what the records of a team’s opponents will be. It’s a much more imperfect science than using SI and OSI, which – after being used in 2019 and 2021 – is a pretty useful – and accurate – tool.

The first year with OSI in use was 2019, after the controversial and failed Born Power Index in 2018. With no playoffs in 2020, OSI was only used again in 2021. So we only have two years of data to work with. But we decided to average the minimum OSI from the last two playoff seasons this year to get the target number.

Back to our predictions last year: in 2021, we were right on 55 of the 58 teams qualifying or not qualifying the playoffs. That is to say, if we said a team needed four wins to make the playoffs, most of those type teams who won only three games didn’t, and those that won more than four often made it. (Technically, 53 of the 58 were accurate, but that was only because Scotch Plains-Fanwood – which made it – was ineligible, and Montgomery – which didn’t make the cut mathematically – took the Raiders’ place).

So, for this year, here are the averages, the minimum OSI we think a team needs to make the playoffs.

  • North 5 – 38.81
  • South 5 – 42.91
  • North 4 – 42.95
  • South 4 – 41.34
  • North 3 – 42.01
  • South 3 – 40.61
  • North 2 – 40.46
  • South 2 – 37.98
  • North 1 – 35.36
  • South 1 – 35.21

Note that North 5 having a 38.81 minimum and South 5 having a 42.91 minimum doesn’t necessarily mean the North playoff teams were better. It just means North 5 playoff teams the last two years generally played tougher schedules. They also may have won closer games (because beating a team by more points drives the opponent’s SI down, thus driving down your own OSI.

Based on the above numbers, our projection is that a team in North 5 would need at least a 38.81 OSI to make the playoffs. That’s the two-season average. It was 40.21 in 2021 (based on 2019 playoff numbers, and they may have been higher because 2019 preseason numbers were based ont the final 2018 Born Power Index numbers) and 37.42 last year; next year, we’ll have three years of OSI to work from.

So, let’s pick a team. Elizabeth has an eight game schedule, with an estimated – because the numbers will change throughout the year – maximum OSI of 64.98 (if they go 8-0) and an estimated minimum of 32.49. Each win with worth about 4.06 OSI points.

One win would get them to 36.55. Two would get them to 40.61. Since the minimum we estimate at 38.81, we would predict that Elizabeth could get in the playoffs with just two wins. Three would give them 44.67. We think three wins would make them a lock. Last year, that would have put them at tenth in the playoff standings.

In actuality, the Minutemen went 3-5 at the cutoff, and made the playoffs, seeded 14th overall. We predicted three wins would get them in and that four would be a lock. They got in with three.

Let’s look at a middle group team: Cranford in North 3. We say 42.01 would be the minimum OSI, which they would also surpass with three wins. The defending North 2, Group 3 champions lose a lot from last year, but we project would be a playoff team with as little as three wins.

The difficulty is that the Big Central doesn’t have a lot of strong small schools, and that makes it difficult for small schools in the league to make the playoffs. For a school like Manville – a Group 1 – its peers are Highland Park, Dunellen, Metuchen. The first two are on their schedule, but overall it’s tougher this year, which could be a good thing – though Manville lost a lot as well.

And believe it or not, Manville is playing just about even against opponents; the average SI of the teams they play is about the same, within a point. But Manville was a 41.07 SI last year, and with a 6-2 season, upped that to 48.84 this season. They got better, and so did their opponents, by about a touchdown.

So, how many wins would the Mustangs need?

In South 1 they would need a 35.21 OSI, averaging out the last two playoff season minimums. With each game worth about 3.01 points, counting up from a winless OSI of 24.10: One win gets them 27.11, two gives them 30.12, three gives them 33.13, four wins gives them 36.14. We think they need four wins to get in, or at least be on the bubble. Five would put the Mustangs at 39.16, a virtual shoo-in.

In that way, we think the Big Central did a good job in Manville’s division and their schedule.

Last year, we predicted they would need an OSI of 37.33. To get that, they would have needed eight wins to get them over the hump. Turns out they would have needed 35.21. They finished 21st – five places out of a playoff spot – with 6 wins and a 29.73 OSI. The loss to Metuchen was the dagger. Seven wins might have made it. Eight likely would have been a lock.

That said, below are all our projections for how many games all 57 public schools in the Big Central (non-publics are seeded by committee) would need to win to make the playoffs:

A few notes and thoughts on our projections:

The Target OSI is the number below above which no team missed the playoffs. Anyone getting having an OSI of that value or better over the last two years, on average, made the playoffs in that specific supersection. The “Closest Over” column is the first number of wins that gets a team “over” the Target OSI. The “Full Step Over” column is simply one additional win.

Inotherwords, Union’s Target OSI is 38.81. They would be need just one win to get over that (39.27) and two to be a virtual lock (43.63). Two wins is the minimum to qualify for the playoffs anyway. So, with two wins, it would be hard for Union to not make the playoffs, unless everyone on their schedule goes winless and their OSI tanks. But that’s highly unlikely. Some will go up, some will go down, it’s usually close to a wash.

Remember the old days when you had to have a .500 record or better to be in the playoffs? Some still believe that, and others don’t. Our projections say the “average” number of wins to make the playoffs is 3.7 (close to 4-4 in an eight game schedule), while a virtual lock would be 4.7 (5-3 over eight games, or 5-4 in a nine-game schedule).

Last year, in the Big Central, the average number of wins we projected was a 4.0, and the lock average was a 5.0. Both numbers are down by 0.3 points. So, on average, the Big Central has made it “easier” for its teams to make the playoffs; requiring only 3.7 wins on average by its teams, compared with 4.0 last year. That’s a good thing.

Some teams, however need a lot of wins. Spotswood, for example, would have to win 7 or 8 games. Based on last year, getting to half that would be a huge success and turnaround for the program. Playoffs may not be a goal for every team. For the Chargers, it’s about getting experience and getting better.

But let’s go back to another team we talked about in a prior story: Brearley. Last year, the Bears were 7-2 at the cutoff with two forfeit wins. We said they needed five or six wins to get in, and they got in with seven, finishing as the 12th overall seed in North Group 1. This year, with a Target OSI of 35.36, they need six wins to pass that at 37.33, and seven wins to virtually lock in a playoff spot with a 40.00 OSI.

Being in a weak division – Bearley has a Strength Index value of 61.53 while only one of the eight opponents on its schedule have an SI over 50 (South Hunterdon at 59.36) – hurts the Bears. They already play four of the other “Division 1” type teams – Dunellen, Manville, Middlesex and South Hunterdon – so they might have been better playing in that same division with Dunellen, et al, and playing schools like Roselle (49.55) and Metuchen (46.59) instead of Spotswood (34.01) and Highland Park (26.32).

And though Brearley likely could make the playoffs, they would probably have to go undefeated to even have a remote shot at a home playoff game.

Carteret, Dayton, Governor Livingston and South Plainfield are the other schools that we believe need at least six wins to get in the playoffs.

As for the “easiest” route? (Remember, we’re not talking easy in terms of opponents, we mean fewer wins needed to make the playoffs.) Bridgewater-Raritan, Phillipsburg, Union and Westfield – we believe – could all make the playoffs with one win, if that were allowed this year by the NJSIAA. Two is the minimum. Roselle, Hillsborough and Elizabeth also fall into that group, needing at least two. That means all those teams are playing tough schedules.

Check back at the end of October; we’ll let you know how we did!

NJSIAA reclassifications move five Big Central teams; others will have new competition, too

According to the NJSIAA football classifications released to the public on its website, five Big Central Conference football teams will compete for a playoff spot in new sections this coming season, with three of them moving up to a larger group size.

Rahway will move up to the North Group 4 playoff supersection, which will feature 31 teams in all. Last year, the Indians played in South 3 with the likes of Carteret, Somerville and South Plainfield. Now, they’re in a supersection with nine other Big Central teams, all with larger populations, including Colonia, JFK, Linden, Montgomery, North Hunterdon, Ridge, Sayreville, Scotch Plains-Fanwood and Woodbridge.

Only one of those schools – Scotch Plains – is in their Big Central division, which also includes Cranford, Summit and St. Thomas Aquinas. Linden, however, is on Rahway’s schedule as an early season divisional crossover.

Hillside also moved up, with the Comets jumping from South Group 2 to North Group 3. They’re in with fellow Big Central schools Cranford, Governor Livingston, North Plainfield and Summit. None of those teams are in their division, however, nor on their schedule as a crossover. The Comets are in a BCC division with New Providence, Roselle, Metuchen and Johnson. With a weaker schedule than the teams they’ll be competing with for playoff spots, such a move at this late date would likely hurt their playoff positioning later in the year.

READ MORE: Who’s the “strongest” Big Central team heading into ’22? We take a deep dive into the numbers

Dayton makes a move up from North Group 1 to North Group 2, and will join fellow Big Central members on Johnson, Bound Brook, Delaware Valley Roselle, Metuchen, New Providence, South River and Spotswood. The Bulldogs and Chargers are also in Dayton’s as-yet-unnamed Big Central division.

Bernards and Dunellen made lateral moves.

The Mountaineers shift over from South Group 2 – where they were previously the second Northern-most school (Newark Central being the furtherst North) – to North Group 2, where they are geographically the Southern-most team. Not only that, they are the only Big Central team in North 2, which is heavy on Bergen County teams and has others from northwest Jersey like Sussex Tech and Newton.

The Destroyers bounce over from North Group 1 to South Group 1, leaving BCC schools like Brearley, Belvidere and Roselle Park, and rejoin former GMC mates like Highland Park and Middlesex, as well as Big Central foes South Hunterdon and Manville. Those two and Middlesex all are in Dunellen’s league division with the Owls also on their schedule.

READ MORE: Strength of Schedule and OSI for 2022 H.S. Football; did the Big Central get it right?

In the non-public realm, St. Joseph-Metuchen will remain in Non-Public Group A, while St. Thomas Aquinas is in Non-Public Group B again. For the Non-Public Equivalency, the Falcons are a Group 3, while the Trojans are a Group 1, the same as last year. Neither team is a multiplier again this year for power point purposes.

For a complete look at the NJSIAA football classifications for the 2022 and 2023 seasons, click here for a downloadable PDF.

Here’s a list of all the Big Central teams and their NJSIAA classification:

  • North 5: Bridgewater-Raritan, Elizabeth, JP Stevens, Phillipsburg, Piscataway, Plainfield, Union, Watchung Hills, Westfield
  • South 5: East Brunswick, Edison, Franklin, Hillsborough, Hunterdon Central, Monroe, New Brunswick, North Brunswick, Old Bridge, Perth Amboy, South Brunswick
  • North 4: Colonia, JFK, Linden, Montgomery, North Hunterdon, Rahway, Ridge, Sayreville, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Woodbridge
  • South 4: none
  • North 3: Cranford, Governor Livingston, Hillside, North Plainfield, Summit, Voorhees
  • South 3: Carteret, Somerville, South Plainfield
  • North 2: Bernards
  • South 2: Roselle, Johnson, Bound Brook, Delaware Valley, Dayton, Metuchen, New Providence, South River, Spotswood
  • North 1: Belvidere, Brearley, Roselle Park
  • South 1: Dunellen, Highland Park, Manville, Middlesex, South Hunterdon
  • Non-Public A: St. Joseph-Metuchen
  • Non-Public B: St. Thomas Aquinas

Locally speaking, outside the Big Central Conference, Immaculata and Pingry both will are classified in Non-Public B again, and are a Group 1 public equivalency. Neither will be a multiplier for power point purposes.

Strength of Schedule and OSI for 2022 H.S. Football; did the Big Central get it right?

Every couple of years, sometimes every year, leagues and conferences around New Jersey do The Shuffle.

It’s less a dance than a Rubik’s Cube, but the goal is to get all their teams in competitive divisions. Ultimately, someone will say they’re playing too many big schools, or will wind up slaying a bunch of smaller schools, but the decision-makers have nothing to go on other than coach or athletic director recommendations, the eye test, and records.

The reformation of the state’s playoff formula four years ago may have made the system much more complicated – and now requires a slide rule for the average fan to understand – but it also leaves us with some numbers based on the on-field results that can help leagues when they make their divisions.

Since each team now has a strength rating not just based on wins and losses or group size, and that number is used in the Opponent Strength Index that’s 60% of the state’s UPR playoff formula, we can now figure out a team’s Strength of Schedule based on each opponent’s preseason rankings.

How do we figure Strength of Schedule. It’s pretty easy.

We simply take the Strength Index of every opponent and average them out. A team with four opponents ranked 80 and three opponents ranked 50 would average out to a 65.

We’ve already showed you the preseason Strength Index numbers for the Big Central Conference, per Gridiron New Jersey, the NJSIAA’s official calculator of the playoff formula – you can find the numbers here – and a full list can be found here in PDF format.

Knowing that, we can now find the Strength of Schedule for all the teams in the Big Central. Note that we left out any games against out-of-state opponents, since those will no longer be considered for playoff qualification, both in terms of Strength Index and power points.

Continue reading “Strength of Schedule and OSI for 2022 H.S. Football; did the Big Central get it right?”

Who’s the “strongest” Big Central team heading into ’22? We take a deep dive into the numbers

We are less than four weeks away from Week Zero – Opening Day for not all, but a good number of high school football teams across the state, and in the Big Central Conference, which will be playing its second full season this year.

And with our Central Jersey Sports Radio play-by-play schedule reveal kicking off our third straight season of high school football coverage on the site, it’s time to delve into some of the numbers before we start previewing teams, the season and looking at some of the new head coaches around the league.

The 2020 season was supposed to be the first season for the Big Central, a merger between the Mid-State and Greater Middlesex Conferences. COVID-19 had other ideas, but officially the league is now in its third season, and second full season. That third year prompted a reshuffling of the divisions, and the schedule-makers in the conference say the aim was to create more balance and evenly-matched teams.

The first two years, divisions were determined primarily by group size, but some of that has been abandoned to more accurately reflect the skill and success level of certain teams, like Somerville – which has moved to a division with larger schools and a non-public after going 14-0 the past two seasons in actual games played on the field against Big Central competition, not including forfeits or non-league/out-of-state competition – and JP Stevens, a Group 5 school with dwindling turnout which has lost 23 straight games overall, spanning four seasons. The Hawks’ last win was on October 26, 2018, a 29-14 home win over Monroe, and they’ll now be in a division with smaller schools, and will face off against Group 2 programs like Metuchen and Spotswood this year.

So, let’s first take a look at the new Strength Index ratings that we’ll be starting 2022 with. Strength Index is a formula used by the NJSIAA, calculated by the website Gridiron New Jersey, which aims to identify how strong a team is. The higher the ranking, the better they are supposed to be.

A team’s ranking changes after every game, depending on how it performed against its opponent, relative to the opponent’s strength.

For example, two teams rated a 60 are considered identical. In a matchup where one team is rated a 70 and the other a 60, the team rated 70 is considered to be ten points better. If it wins by ten, its rating – and that of its opponent – would stay the same, because it matched the expectation for the game based on its rating.

If it won by 20, it “outperformed” its ranking, and the formula says the team that outperformed increases by 1/5th the difference. So, if a team ranked 70 beat one ranked 60 by 20 points, they outperformed by ten. One fifth is two, so the winning team becomes a 72. The losing team drops the same amount, and becomes a 58.

This formula also says that a team that “underperforms” – a higher ranked team losing to a lower ranked team, or even not winning by as many points – would see a reduction in its Strength Index number. So, technically, the winner of a game doesn’t always go up. Their Strength Index could go down, and the losing team’s SI could go up.

But unlike the similar Born Power Index formula, Strength Index isn’t what determines playoff standing (along with traditional power points) anymore, after one rather controversial year in 2018. It’s the OSI, or “Opponent Strength Index.” And the idea is that if you beat better teams, you’ll be seeded higher, but there’s no advantage to winning every game by 40 points. In fact, it’s often a disadvantage, because making your opponents “underperform” makes them less valubale. And if you’re playing weaker teams, that hurts your playoff chances. In this way, the formula encourages sportsmanship.

But let’s get back to Strength Index. Here are the 59 Big Central teams (North Warren left the original 60 teams for this year) ranked from top to bottom:

2022 START
St. Thomas Aquinas72.84
North Hunterdon69.49
North Brunswick69.09
Delaware Valley68.01
New Providence66.80
East Brunswick65.19
St. Joseph-Metuchen63.77
Old Bridge61.78
Watchung Hills60.21
South Brunswick59.62
Scotch Plains59.60
South Hunterdon59.36
New Brunswick58.07
North Plainfield56.78
Bound Brook54.26
Hunterdon Central54.25
South Plainfield51.96
South River47.85
Governor Livingston44.80
Perth Amboy42.43
Roselle Park39.91
JP Stevens33.37
Highland Park26.32

It should be noted that each year’s starting Strength Index is based on the final SI value of the previous year, centered one-third of the way to 60 in order to lessen the impact of the previous year. For example, a team finishing with a rating of 90 would be reduced by one-third of the distance to 60, which is 10 points (90 to 60 is 30, and one third is 10).

It would make sense that Hillsborough and Cranford – both of whom won state sectional championships last year, and the Raiders a regional crown while going 13-0 – would be among the top three, despite the fact both lose almost every significant statistical contributor from 2021. Union was also a heavy postseason favorite before COVID cases controversially sidelined the Farmers’ playoff run.

But the Strength Index doesn’t account for the future. It will let that play out through the 2022 season. While the preseason SI numbers are historical and a starting point, some carryover has to be assumed. Not every player on the roster graduates every position player. There’s carryover in rosters, coaching and even program tradition – or not. Eventually, Strength Index will play out on the field.

While there’s some historical context to the Strength Index, it’s a key difference from power points, which are based on wins and residuals. But Strength Index does not factor in group size, like power points do. An 8-0 Group 3 team could be just as strong as an 8-0 Group 5 team.

One example is St. Thomas Aquinas. The Trojans bulldozed their way through 2021, racking up shutout wins in their first seven games of the season, tying a playoff-era Middlesex County record set by Piscataway in 2004. They didn’t play a schedule like Hillsborough – with teams like Westfield and Phillipsburg on the docket – but they dominated their competition, and their SI improved from a 52.93 at the start of 2021 to a 79.26 at the end of the season. (Don’t forget, the starting SI numbers are centered closer to 60, which is why Aquinas begins at 72.84

The Trojans made the biggest gain in SI in the 2021 season, jumping 19.91 points. Other big gainers in 2021 (meaning they were much improved, according to the Index) were Colonia (+17.77), Metuchen (+17.01) and North Hunterdon (+12.36). Locally, though not in the Big Central, Immaculata also made a huge gain, with a +16.97, playing in the North Jersey Super Football Conference, where they will be again this season.

So how does the Big Central stack up statewide?

Hillsborough is No. 10 in the state overall, according to the Strength Index, just behind Donovan Catholic and Red Bank Catholic at nine and eight. Union is 16th, while Cranford is No. 32. The top five teams in the state are Bergen Catholic, Millville, St. Joseph-Hammonton, Camden Eastside (formerly Woodrow Wilson) and West Morris Central, a decidedly South Jersey lean.

Interestingly, if you broke the rankings into thirds, 30 percent of the Big Central lands in the top third. That’s 18 teams, and the same as the 2021 preseason. But the bottom appears to have slipped. Of the 59 Big Central teams, 20 are in the middle third, four fewer than last year. And 21 are in the bottom third, three more than last year (the difference being North Warren leaving). Essentially, the BCC had more “middle of the pack” teams heading into last year than heading into this year.

Later this week, we’ll take a look at Strength of Schedule, and whether the Big Central’s new divisions achieve parity among the teams. And when the NJSIAA comes out with its football classifications for 2022, we’ll give you our all-too-early playoff projections as to the minimum wins each team should need to get in the playoffs, based on their strength of schedule.

Central Jersey Sports Radio announces 2022 High School Football Broadcast Schedule

For the Big Central Conference’s second full season, Central Jersey Sports Radio’s third season of live high school football action will feature some great matchups, including longtime rivals, and games that will have major implications for division titles and playoff races.

CJSR has scheduled a nine-game regular season slate, and just like last year, the last two weeks are being held as open dates, with games to be determined. More on that in a bit.

The season begins with an old-time, long-time Thanksgiving Rivalry, now played in Week Zero: Highland Park at Metuchen, kicking off the season on Saturday, August 27th.

September will feature some big rivalry games, too. Hunterdon Central will visit Piscataway on Friday, September 2nd, while reigning South 5 champion Hillsborough visits Bridgewater-Raritan the following Friday. It’ll be new Panther head coach Rick Mantz squaring off against his hometown team, for which he kicked the game-winning field goal in the 1980 state title game, and won as a head coach in 2000, defeating heavy favorite Sayreville.

And in October, we’ve got a new wrinkle for you! For Week Seven – the week before Cutoff Weekend for the NJSIAA playoffs – CJSR will put it to the fans, who’ll get to vote on which game we broadcast from a pre-selected slate on the weekend of Friday, October 14th.

Cutoff Weekend – Week Eight on Friday, October 21st – will also be an open date, to be announced that week by Central Jersey Sports Radio.

On Saturday, October 22nd, Central Jersey Sports Radio will also be live with its playoff projection show, a big hit among fans, players and coaches alike.

Below is the 2022 High School Football Broadcast Schedule on CJSR. Friday games are 7 pm, Saturday games are at 1 pm, unless otherwise noted. Schedule may be subject to change. Additional games may be added at a later date.

  • Saturday, August 27 – Highland Park at Metuchen
  • Friday, September 2 – Hunterdon Central at Piscataway
  • Friday, September 9 – Hillsborough at Bridgewater-Raritan
  • Friday, September 16 – Somerville at Montgomery
  • Friday, September 23 – Bernards at Delaware Valley
  • Saturday, September 24 – Rahway at Summit
  • Friday, September 30 – Sayreville at East Brunswick
  • Friday, October 7 – Elizabeth at Union
  • Saturday, October 8 – Edison at St. Joseph-Metuchen
  • Friday, October 14 – Week 7 Fans’ Choice
  • Friday, October 21 – Week 8 Open Date

Central Jersey Sports Radio also will cover the NJSIAA state playoffs, expanded this year to include overall group champions – for the first time ever – just like all other NJSIAA-sponsored sports.

The playoffs begin the week of Friday, October 27 with the opening round of public sectionals, followed by the semifinals on the weekend of November 4, and the finals on the weekend of November 11. Regional finals/group semifinals – which were added in 2018 and were the last game played the last few seasons – will be held the weekend of November 18, with the following week – Thanksgiving – reserved for those who wish to play their rivalry game then.

The weekend of Friday, December 2, will be all five public group finals, 1 through 5.

Non-public schools have an extra available week of the regular season before beginning the playoffs on the weekend of November 4, with their Group A and B Finals on Saturday, November 26th, Thanksgiving weekend.

Click here for the full schedule, which will be updated as games are added or as changes are made.

Full game replay of the Maria Rose Bowl on CJSR

In the inaugural Marisa Rose Bowl presented by Bellamy & Son Paving, Monmouth-bound quarterback Christian Solino of St. Joseph-Metuchen threw for a touchdown and ran for another to lead Team Marisa to a 14-7 win over Team Rose.

Joe Bellamy scored the lone touchdown for Team Rose on an 11-yard run late in the first half.

Click below to listen to the entire game broadcast, with Mike Pavlichko and Korbid Thompson calling all the action live from Steve Libro Field at North Brunswick Township High School:

AUDIO RECAP: Listen to all the scoring in the Marisa Rose Bowl

In the first-ever version of the Marisa Rose Bowl, the all-Middlesex County high school football all-star game, St. Joseph-Metuchen product Christian Solino led Team Marisa to a 14-7 win over Team Rose, throwing a touchdown pass and running for another.

Rocco Bellamy of Piscataway had an 11-yard touchdown run, the lone score for Team Rose, which came just before halftime.

Click below to listen to all three touchdowns, as called by Mike Pavlichko and Korbid Thompson on Central Jersey Sports Radio: