Category: Football

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

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

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

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

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

How they got here:

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

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

Who would be next?

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

Series, League History

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

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

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

Finals Histories

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

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

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

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

Beyond the “Finals”

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

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

Key Players and Stats

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

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

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

Hot at the right time

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

Lions’ Milestones

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

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

Previews

Past Coverage

Start ’em young: Edison Jets continue to grow to become the next generation of Eagles’ champions

Matt Yascko. John Baio. Michael Strachan. Malcom Stansbury. Adekunle Shittu. Matt Beuno. And many others.

All significant contributors to the Edison high school football team, Central Jersey Group 5 champions in 2022.

What else do they all have in common? All played for the Edison Jets.

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That’s the youth football league in town. And while “and under” teams like 12U – 12 and under – can include kids younger than the age specified, they don’t in Edison. They have the numbers to field a Pop Warner team for just about every age on their own. Not just in football, but also in Cheer.

Click the play button above to hear Edison Councilman Richard Brescher congratulate the Eagles on their Central Jersey Group 5 championship, and wish them luck this week against Toms River North!
The Edison Jets Pop Warner program breaks ground on a new field in the township earlier this month. (Submitted photo)

Those numbers alone seem to belie the national trend of shrinking participation in sports, exacerbated by the era of specialization – student-athletes focusing on one sport year-round rather than playing multiple sports.

That’s not what’s happening in Edison, though.

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And all that points to continues success at the next level. Talk to any high school coach, and they’ll tell you the same thing.

Guys like Tommy Amankwaa and Jay Mazuera, the wide receiver/quarterback combo from last year’s 13-0 Hillsborough team that won Central 5 and the South 5 Regional Championship game – they played youth football together since they were eight years old.

Cranford – which won North 2, Group 3 last year with an undefeated record – had many multi-sport athletes who’d also grown up playing together.

Those are the teams that have the most success.

This past weekend, the Edison Jets’ 10U team finished off an undefeated season, going 10-0 and winning a championship, beating the team from Basking Ridge. The Pop Warner program’s other teams won titles this year, too.

Participation is high, the teams are successful, and it can only mean a bright future for the Edison Jets when they someday become Edison Eagles.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Edison Eagles’ wide receivers coach and Edison Jets Pop Warner coach Brian Calantoni talk about the success of the town’s youth sports programs:

Coming off third straight sectional title, Northern Highlands looks to make history

Interrupted by the COVID season of high school football – with no playoffs – Northern Highlands is a three-time defending champion in the sectional finals, winning the North 1, Group 4 trophy the last three postseasons straight: 2019, 2021 and 2022.

That’s something it’s never done before, and the Highlanders want to make one more piece of history: win New Jersey’s first ever true state title.

In their way en route to the Group Finals at Rutgers in a couple of weeks are the North Hunterdon Lions (11-1) – the North 2, Group 4 champions – and a team that has proved to be very special all year long.

But Northern Highlands (8-3) has had its share of overcome adversity, particularly at the quarterback position. Sophomore Nate Johnson won the starting job this summer over junior J.R. Walley, but two injuries forced Walley into action, including in the last week-and-a-half in the playoffs.

He had to spell Johnson – who suffered a concussion – for the second half of the Irvington win in the North 1, Group 4 semifinals, then led his team to a win in a dramatic come-from-behind victory, 49-42 in overtime, over Ramapo in the title tilt.

Though Walley is expected to start Saturday, Johnson has been cleared to play, so at this point of the season, it could be anyone’s guess as to who comes out to lead the Highlanders’ spread offense in Saturday’s game.

You can hear the North Group 4 semifinal live from Franklin High School Saturday on Central Jersey Sports Radio, with pregame at 5:00, and kickoff at 5:30. Mike Pavlichko will call all the action, joined by Shane Dunn. Click here to listen to the broadcast.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko speak with Northern Highlands first-year head coach Dave Cord about the season, and his thoughts on Saturday’s matchup with North Hunterdon:

Fulham knows full well Eagles have their biggest challenge yet against Toms River North

Sports reporters ask a lot of the same type of questions all the time. “How do you feel after that win?” “What can you say about your offense?” “What went wrong tonight?”

One that you would be best not bothering ask this week of the Edison football coaches is: “Have you seen a team as good as Toms River North?”

Because the answer is very easily going to be a big fat “No.”

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Edison (9-3) will play Toms River North (12-0) Saturday afternoon in the Group 5 semifinals at Cherokee High School in Medford, a 5:30 pm kickoff. The Eagles won the Central 5 title, while the Mariners won the South 5 championship. The winner gores on to play in the state’s first ever public school group finals, to be held in two weeks at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium in Piscataway.

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And Edison probably hasn’t seen a team like this in a long time.

Toms River North has scored at least 42 points a game in all but their first, a tight win in the 20s over Washington Township in the same Battle at the Beach in Ocean City where Edison got its season started on the right foot, with a four rushing touchdown performance from quarterback Matt Yascko in a win over Cedar Creek. They also have four shutouts.

Click the play button above to hear Edison Councilman Richard Brescher congratulate the Eagles on their Central Jersey Group 5 championship, and wish them luck this week against Toms River North!

They are led by junior QB Micah Ford, who runs all over the field, and sometimes passes it, with great success on both accounts. He has major D1 interest, including offers from West Virginia and Maryland, and interest from Greg Schiano at Rutgers.

Stopping him isn’t really an option. It’s the old ESPN adage: “You can only hope to contain him.”

Problem is, TRN has other weapons, too.

Click below to hear Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko talk about Edison’s CJ5 championship, and Saturday’s matchup against Toms River North:

Kley knows the challenges in front of North Hunterdon in school’s first trip beyond the sectional finals

This is uncharted territory for North Hunterdon.

In fact, it’s uncharted territory for everyone in high school football in New Jersey.

In 2018, the NJSIAA expanded the playoffs as part of its major overhaul of the postseason, adding an extra round that would pit North 1 against North 2 and South against Central sectional final winners in each group, but go no further. They were called “bowl championships,” and changed the next year to “regional championships.

They were essentially group semifinals, without the finals, and while there were some great games, it was kind of like what they say about ties: it’s like kissing your sister.

This year, however, after a historic vote last December, New Jersey will be playing down to group champions among public schools for the first time ever, so even this is not the last game of the year. There’s one more to play for, one more to get to, one more to win after this weekend.

Be that as it may, that’s not what’s on anyone’s mind in Annandale. They are focused on winning one game, the one against Northern Highlands in the Group 4 semifinals Saturday at 5:30 at Franklin High School in Somerset. The one against a team that has won three straight sectional titles, the last two coming in dramatic fashion over Ramapo.

You can hear Saturday’s game on Central Jersey Sports Radio, with Mike Pavlichko on the call, starting with pregame at 5 pm. Click here to listen.

Head coach Kevin Kley is more worried about how his team will stop North Hunterdon, and put up some points. Never one to tip his hand, those are the vague generalities of what they need to do against the Highlanders Saturday. While both his team and Saturday’s opponent scored a lot of points and gave up a lot of points last weekend, those were somewhat anomalies.

Especially for Northern Highlands. Coming in with an 8-3 mark they had only cracked the 40-point plateau once this season, in a non-competitive 42-6 win over Hackensack back on October 7th. Other than that, their season high output was 29 points heading into the final, which they won 49-42 in overtime.

Coming into the final, Highlands had only been allowing just over 14 points a game, allowing a season high to Old Tappan – this year’s eventual North 1, Group 3 champion – in a shutout loss back on September 9th.

For the Lions, they’ve put up some big numbers this year, and the only other time they allowed more than 24 points in a game was in their lone loss, a 48-21 defeat to Phillipsburg at Maloney Stadium back on September 16th.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk about North Hunterdon and Saturday’s Group 4 semifinals with Lions’ head coach Kevin Kley:

“Big Play Ray” will get his ring, and maybe a game “On the Banks”

Ray Taub has been a fan of Rutgers football – hell, all Rutgers sports – for as long as he can remember. And it’s been his dream to be involved in a game there for about the same amount of time.

Well, he’s 48 minutes away from having that wish come true.

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His first came true back on Friday night, when his beloved Eagle football team, for which he is the team managers, won the Central Jersey Group 5 championship – the program’s first sectional title since 1991 – with a 28-14 win at Lenape in the swirling wind and rain.

Big Play Ray is going to get a championship ring.

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But first things first. There could be as many as two more games for Edison still this season. Saturday at 5:30 they’re back down in Medford to play Toms River North at Cherokee High School at 5:30 pm, in the South vs. Central Group 5 semifinals. The winner will go on to play either Passaic Tech or West Orange – the North 1 and North 2 champs – at Rutgers in two weeks.

Click the play button above to hear Edison Councilman Richard Brescher congratulate the Eagles on their Central Jersey Group 5 championship, and wish them luck this week against Toms River North!

Ray says he knew all the way back at the beginning of the season, especially after a 2022-opening win against Cedar Creek in the Battle at the Beach in Ocean City, that this team was special and would go all the way.

He may believe that every year, but hey, that’s what growing up a Rutgers fan will do to you.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Ray Taub about his experiences as team manager throughout Edison’s championship season:

Edwards, Uryniak have led the show all year, but know this: Martini can throw

For those who think North Hunterdon is going to pound the ball on the ground, and rely solely on runningbacks Kente Edwards and Alex Uryniak, think again.

When senior qaurterback Luke Martini saw the ground game wasn’t getting what he wanted from the Randolph defense in the North 2, Group 4 title game Saturday afternoon at Singley Field, he knew what he had to do.

Throw the ball.

And throw it he did. A lot.

And when the game ended up becoming a shootout in the fourth quarter – with 49 points scored between the two teams – guess how North Hunterdon scored their last two touchdowns? On the ground.

Of course, that was after Martini had thrown five touchdown passes – not counting two that had been called back on penalties before they eventually scored on the same drive with a passing TD anyway – and after he had thrown for the vast majority of his career-high 411 yards in the game.

Those who don’t watch North Hunterdon football all year long had been asking, “Yeah, but can Martini throw.”

Well, even those who didn’t watch them Saturday have their answer.

The offensive versatility will come in handy on Saturday, when North Hunterdon (11-1) takes on Northern Highlands (8-3) in the Group 4 semifinals at Franklin High School in Somerset. Kickoff is at 5:30 pm, with pregame starting at 5:00 on Central Jersey Sports Radio, as Mike Pavlichko calls all the action. Click here to listen.

The winner moves on to New Jersey’s first ever public state finals at Rutgers University on the weekend of December 3-4.

Click below to hear Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko talk with Lions’ quarterback Luke Martini about the season, the championship, and Saturday’s semifinal against Northern Highlands:

Yascko & Yascko: How the father-son QB-OC tandem united to help bring Edison its first title in 31 years

The Edison Eagles have won three state sectional championships in football.

Two of them have involved Yasckos.

There’s the Matt Yascko who was on the ’91 championship team, later played on Monmouth Universty’s first-ever football team, and then coached Carteret to titles in 2007 and 2012, and now is Edison’s Offensive Coordinator.

Then there’s the Matt Yacsko who brought Edison its first title since that 1991 championship year, here in 2022. The one who loves to run the football as much as he loves to throw it, the one who a true team leader, in word and deed.

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Yes, it’s a family affair in Edison. Has been for a long time now.

Even Yascko’s backup, Anthony Calantoni, is in the family mix. His dad was on the ’91 team and was the starting QB in 1992, the senior Yascko’s senior season.

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But the story of how Matt – the son – became the starting QB three years ago, and how his father became his offensive coach is a long and circuitous one. It goes back to 2019, when Eagles’ starter Lucas Loffredo got injured, and Yascko – a freshman – was pressed into action.

Click the play button above to hear Edison Councilman Richard Brescher congratulate the Eagles on their Central Jersey Group 5 championship, and wish them luck this week against Toms River North!

After a few games of trial by fire – and a couple of wins – the two joined forces on the Boulevard of the Eagles, gutting out two solid years, with their third finally bringing a championship.

And, of course, there’s still more to play, with the Eagles taking on South Jersey Group 5 champion Toms River North Saturday at Cherokee High School in Medford at 5:30 pm, with the winner moving on to the state’s first ever public group finals, to be held at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium in Piscataway during the first weekend of December.

Click below to hear Central Jersey’s Mike Pavlichko talk with Edison’s Matt Yascko (the QB) and Matt Yascko (the offensive coordinator) – the father and son duo that has helped bring the Eagles to the brink of New Jersey’s first ever football state finals:

Lineman Rayl loves to hit, keep teammates from getting hit for North Hunterdon

“Getting a sack. All the way. You can’t beat that.”

That’s the answer that comes from Greg Rayl when he’s asked about his favorite thing to do on defense.

Good answer, considering he plays right in the middle of the North Hunterdon defensive line.

And for all the ink that Kente Edwards, Alex Uryniak, Luke Martini and his receivers may get, none of it is possible without the offensive line.

Now, you might not know it to look at babyfaced senior Greg Rayl, but he’s the team leader in sacks, along a get-after-the-QB defensive line that has racked up 38 sacks and 85 tackles for loss. Rayl has eight of each, a steady performer along with Hunter Vos (6 1/2 sacks, 8 TFLs), Aaron Yarnell (5 sacks, 8 TFLs) and Kieran Sturges (1 sack, 3 TFLs).

And on offense, at his right tackle position, he and his teammates up front – starters Alex Moore, Louis White, Tyler Guidetti and Vos – have paved the way for 2,430 team rushing yards, led by Edwards’ 1,259 yard and Uryniak’s 992 to go along with 29 team touchdowns. Not to mention Martini’s 2,147 passing yards.

He’ll be a key part of Saturday’s game if the Lions (11-1) are to beat Northern Highlands (8-3) in the Group 4 semifinals at Franklin High School, and advance to the state’s first-ever public school group finals in two weeks at Rutgers University.

You can hear Saturday’s game on Central Jersey Sports Radio, with Mike Pavlichko calling all the action at 5:30 pm. Pregame starts at 5:00. Click here to listen.

Click below to hear Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko talk with senior defensive lineman Greg Rayl about his favorite part of playing defense, the team’s togetherness, and Saturday’s game against Northern Highlands:

“The Big Central in 2 Minutes” – Playoff Edition: And Then There Were Two

Well, the Big Central has two sectional champions in 2022, just like it did in 2021, just the teams are different. Congratulations to Edison and North Hnterdon, Central 5 and North 2 Group4 trophy-winners, respectively! Veteran sportscaster Mike Pavlichko looks back at the sectional finals on “The Big Central in Two Minutes,” why schools like Edison and North Hunterdon have had success, and looks ahead to this weekend’s group semifinal matchups for the Eagles and Lions.

Click below to listen to the Group Semifinals Playoff edition of “The Big Central in 2 Minutes”: