Tag: champions

OPINION: Do sectional titles still matter? Hell yeah!

When the extra point was tipped, and the Group 4 semifinal game between North Hunterdon and Northern Highlands was over – mercifully for those sitting on cold, metal bleachers in temperatures that clocked in at 27 degrees by the time it was all over, no matter which side of the field you sat on – it marked the end of my 23rd season covering high school football.

That is to say, I have seen a lot of championship games.

There’s been a lot of joyousness, coaches on shoulders, Gatorade (or Tang) baths, pride, thanking of higher beings, et cetera.

There’s also been a lot of crying, players and yes, even coaches at a loss for words, that the unfathomable had happened, that they had come so far to come away empty-handed.

In Medford and in Franklin yesterday, the season ended for the two Big Central Conference teams we had left in the state playoffs, Edison and North Hunterdon. Of course, neither were very happy with how things went down, leaving them, both one game shy of the historic first-ever NJSIAA public school group finals, to be played in two weeks at the State University.

In the briefest of recaps: Edison fell victim to Toms River North in the South Group 5 semifinals just as nearly every other team that’s played the Mariners this year has, by giving up a lot of points, and a lot of touchdowns, most by way of D1 prospect Micah Ford. North Hunterdon lost to Northern Highlands in the North Group 4 semifinals in a game that, if they play like they’d played in all but one game this season – a loss to Phillipsburg – and like they’ve played especially in these playoffs, they should have won, and maybe handily.

Fans of neither team will take that as much comfort, but there is one thing they can both take away: they are both champions. And that is something no one else can take away from them.

Let’s start with Edison, a program that had won two previous sectional championships in the prior 48 years that make up the “playoff era” in New Jersey.

Their last title was in 1991. None of these players were born then. The South side came out to support them all year long. They won a huge come-from-behind semifinal game over rival North Brunswick, with the fathers of the two quarterbacks having been teammates for the Eagles in 1991. They won the 2022 Central jersey Group 5 title on the road against a team that clobbered them and their freshman starting quarterback in the playoffs three years ago. They won it with a bunch of kinds who mainly grew up playing together in Edison Pop Warner.

You think it doesn’t matter to them?

Maybe it won’t be another 32 years before Edison wins another title. Maybe it will. But Matt Yascko, Malcolm Stansbury, Adekunle Shittu, Selbin Sabio, et al, will be talking about this for the next 32 years and beyond. If they become parents, and their kids play football, they will show them those rings, and if they become the offensive coordinator on a team where their son is the QB, the son will give them an eye roll and tell his father his team would whoop them.

Edison’s Matt Yascko (the QB/son, left) and Matt Yascko (the offensive coordinator/father, right) have helped lead Edison to its first sectional title since 1991. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

North Hunterdon also had won just two state titles coming into this year’s playoffs. We found them almost by accident. Sure, we knew about the names Luke Martini and Kente Edwards, but had not yet seen them in person. Then, the AD from the school we’d originally planned to broadcast called one Friday afternoon, and said he was told his press box would be over capacity. No worries. We’d planned to send a reporter to another game, perhaps the best in the BCC that night, Colonia at North Hunterdon. So we called an audible.

We were impressed from the word go. Especially with Edwards getting banged up and Alex Uryniak shouldering more carries than usual. The Lions won handily, and we took notice.

We came back for the North 2, Group 4 sectional semifinals, and even got invited to the Touchdown Club’s tailgate, just up Route 31 from Singley Field. Who could turn down stromboli made by Mrs. Uryniak, chips, salsa, and mozzarella sticks?

The Lions beat Morris Knolls that night. Then we were back the following week for the title game, another North Hunterdon win. There was joy all around. Players talking and tweeting about being #family. But not just talking and tweeting. They are family. They’re close-knit, they love each other. They’re respectful. They love the game and each other.

North Hunterdon players hoist their North 2, Group 4 trophy after beating Randolph 49-35 in Annadale on November 12, 2022. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

You think this title didn’t matter to them? It did, and it always will. This team will go down in North Hunterdon lore, even after they go off to run track (Edwards), play basketball (Martini) and wrestle (Uryniak and Delusant).

And no disrespect to the 2017 squad – which I didn’t see – or the 1975 team – which also won a sectional title and went undefeated – as my guest broadcast partner Shane Dunn (NH Class of ’22) said on our broadcast Saturday night, it may be the best one ever assembled in Annandale.

There was a question asked last year, when the NJSIAA membership voted overwhelmingly to play down to group champions in football, after so many close or overwhelming defeats in past years: Would the move cheapen sectional titles? Some coaches still feel it does.

I’m here to tell you, at least for Edison and North Hunterdon, it doesn’t. Not in the least. Those championships mean just as much as the ones won in 1975, 1976, 1991 and 2017. Maybe even more.

There will be banners, rings, and reunions for the 2022 Eagles’ and Lions’ sectional championship teams. They’ve already got the trophies. They’re champions, and no one can take that away from them.

North Hunterdon head coach Kevin Kley (right) talks with seniors Kente Edwards (middle) and Derek Vaddis after a loss to Northern Highlands in the Group 4 semifinals at Franklin HS on November 19, 2022. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

After the loss in the Group 4 semis at Franklin, when I meekly muttered “Kente” (knowing the situation) for a postgame interview, and he silently nodded toward a huddle of some of his teammates, I knew what it meant. He just wanted to be with his teammates. Teammates who had just taken a rough loss, who would have, could have, should have won on that cold and frigid night. I knew what he meant, even though he messaged me later that night to apologize.

I told him not to worry, I knew why he walked the other way, even if he didn’t. I’ve done this long enough.

He wanted to be with his teammates.

Teammates who had just lost a big game, but also will forever be champions. They won’t forget, and neither will anyone else.

How far has New Jersey come in HS football? The evolution from declared champs to Group Finals in 104 years

In the early 1970s the NJSIAA was still using a version of a ranking formula designed by a Trenton High School math teacher to determine state champions in the eight public school sections in the state, as well as the parochial sections.

After studying 130 teams over a four-year period, J. Whitney Colliton devised a system that paid little regard to group size, but how each team had performed over a four-year basis. They would be put in one of nine groups, in descending order, based solely on their records. Wins over higher-tiered teams would garner more points, with fewer points being awarded for losses.

This system took effect in 1937.

By 2018, the NJSIAA had added another mathematician’s formula – the Born Power Index – to the Colliton System’s eventual replacement, the long-standing “power point “power ranking” system.

Now, the state uses a variant of the BPI – in reverse fashion, so as to not reward teams for winning by greater margins – and for the first time ever, will crown Group Champions in 2022, as nearly every other state in America does.

What a long, strange trip it’s been. But how did we get to this point?

Here’s a look at how the last more than 100 years of crowning football champions have gone in New Jersey

  • 1918: The NJSIAA is formed, initially to regulate football, but eventually all high school sports.
  • 1919: The first football champions are declared by the NJSIAA. The public school championship was given to Barringer out of Newark, while Peddie Institute – as it was called then – of Hightstown was awarded the prep school trophy. Around this time – and no one is really sure how or why – a clause was written into the NJSIAA Constitution stating that no state champion should be declared in football, and for more than a century These words would later dog efforts to determine public school champions.
  • 1937: There’s no documentation as to when the NJSIAA began using the Dickinson method of rating teams, which took into account wins and group size, but by now, there is a plan to replace it with the Colliton System, developed by J. Whitney Colliton, a math teacher from Trenton. NJSIAA Secretary Walter E. Short is “completely sold” on the system, saying, “I don’t know of anything quite like it anywhere in the country. It’s really a scientific solution to our problem.” But over the years, there are more than a few instances where one team would rank ahead of another, despite the lower-ranked team having won a head-to-head matchup. And so, fairly frequently, controversy would ensue, especially when co-champions were declared, when teams were within a certain threshold of points from each other.
  • 1974: Tired of ties and controversies – which were plenty under the Colliton system – the state adopts a playoff, at the behest of a a special Football Playoffs Committee headed by legendary Brick Township coach Warren Wolf. Teams must opt-in after Week Four of the season. Not all do, and some sectional champions are still declared when there are no eligible teams according to the state’s point system. The playoffs aren’t really playoffs with a bracket as we think of them now. They would only include two teams in each section, if necessary; they must be separated by a certain number of points. Too wide a gap between No. 1 and No. 2 means a champion would instead be declared. Out of 16 potential public school playoffs, only eight are held. And there was controversy right off the bat, when in North 2, Group 4, there were four undefeated teams heading into Thanksgiving that many thought deserving of a shot at a state title: Westfield, Morris Knolls, Morristown and Barringer.
  • 1975: Just a year in, calls from the Skyline Conference in North Jersey echo down to Robbinsville to reform the ranking formula, and there’s even talk of the league’s schools seceding from the NJSIAA. The pressure results in changes that are adopted in time for the 1975 season, expanding the playoff field in each section to four teams, with the schools chosen according to a new “power ranking” formula – a precursor to the power points system we now know and love. It deals only in wins and losses, and awards “quality points” based on group size. Almost immediately, Vineland – a Group 4 school – has a gripe in that there aren’t enough “big” schools for it to play in South Jersey compared with schools like Brick Township, and wants credit for beating Philadelphia schools, which it plays on a somewhat regular basis. Sound familiar?
  • 1998: The playoffs are expanded again, this time to eight teams in each section. The minimum for playoff qualification is that a team must be .500 or better at the end of the regular season through its first eight games. Byes are given when there aren’t enough teams to fill a bracket.
  • 2000: Then-Wallkill Valley assistant football coach and co-Athletic Director Mike VanZile proposes a major overhaul to the way the state divides up schools into groups and how they qualify for the playoffs. His idea is to eliminate conferences, creating ten-team groups that are based on geography and school size. Power points would be eliminated, with the top four teams in each group making the playoffs. There would be a uniform start date, no bye weeks, Thanksgiving games would remain, public schools would be mixed in with parochials, and two more weeks added to the playoffs to play to group champions, the first serious proposal to bring New Jersey in line with all but a handful of other states. But the plan fails to gather enough support, with many coaches bemoaning the loss of traditional rivals, extended travel, an earlier start to the season that encroaches upon summer vacation, and a later end to the season that bleeds into the winter sports calendar, even though no more than 16 public schools would play an extra week, and only eight would go the extra two weeks. At least three additional attempts to enact the plan, with variations each time – and even a separate plan that would also include group champs proposed by then-East Brunswick coach Marcus Borden – fail over the next 13 years, but the vote would get closer over the next decade or so, losing by just 23 votes in 2010.
  • 2003: Up until now, teams have been placed in sections based on geographical lines, mainly on county borders. North Group 1 featured Hudson, Bergen, Passaic and Sussex County teams, while North 2 had Union, Essex, Morris and Warren. Central Jersey had Middlesex, Somerset, Monmouth, Mercer and Hunterdon, while the Ocean and Burlington Counties and south were in South Jersey. But that resulted in an imbalance: 92 schools in the south, 82 in Central, 88 in North 1, and 74 in North 2. A redistribution in the works for a couple of years takes effect in ’03, eventually landing some Somerset schools in North 2, while others stayed in Central. Warren, Morris, Essex and Bergen were split among North 1 and North 1. Eventually, some GMC teams found their way into North 2 as well.
  • 2012: In an effort to get more teams in the postseason – and reduce the disparity between the largest and smallest schools in each group, the NJSIAA expands from four to five public school groups, paving the way for 20 public school champions. In order to fill out more eight-team brackets, the state eliminates the rule requiring playoff teams to be .500 or better at the cutoff. The move came after only five teams qualified in North 2, Group 3, in 2011.
  • 2013: The last push to play to group champions in nearly a decade – put forth by the Big North Conference – fails by about a 2-to-1 margin, with a two-thirds majority needed for approval. With such a resounding defeat, and at least four losses in 13 years, another vote would not come until 2021.
  • 2016: The NJSIAA adopts the concept of “multipliers,” where public schools playing certain North Jersey powerhouses – Bergen Catholic, Don Bosco and the like – are awarded extra points. (Controversially, it also allows mutliplier teams to get points for playing multipliers, making a mess of the parochial playoff seeding.) It’s seen as a way to get more public schools to play the big-time schools, but only three public schools take advantage. Those playing United Red Division teams get two times the power points as if they had won, regardless of outcome. United White opponents garner 1.5 times a typical win. The NJSIAA also changes the “power point” system to eliminate each team’s lowest point total, ostensibly to keep at least one weak opponent from hurting schools’ playoff seeding.
  • 2017: After much controversy over the multiplier formulas, teams are now given set amounts for a win or loss against one of those teams. For example, playing a United red team gets a public school 54 points for a win, 36 for a loss. The United White is worth 38 and 32.
  • 2018: The NJSIAA enacts the biggest changes to determining state champions since the dawn of the “playoff era” in 1974. The New Jersey United Committee – a group of Athletic Directors and coaches from around the state – devises a plan that merged elements of two competing overhaul proposals. It added a second playoff metric to complement the “power points” system: the Born Power Index, created by math teacher Bill Born, who’s system had been used for decades to seed county basketball tournaments, and was published in North Jersey newspapers. Each team would be ranked in power points – now an average, and no longer cumulative, eliminating the “Game 9” rule – and in the BPI, with power points accounting for 40 percent and the BPI for 60 percent of a team’s UPR – the United Power Ranking. (For non-public schools, the UPR would be considered, but the tournament would be seeded by a Committee.) Further, instead of four pre-determined geographical sections and eight teams qualifying in each group, they’d be split into North and South, with the top 16 in qualifying in each “supersection.” Teams would then be broken into “traditional” eight-team sections by Northing number. The problem was with the entire setup was that Born’s formula was proprietary, and never released, despite calls for transparency. On the air at WCTC at the time, with the help of Piscataway assistant coach John Thompson, I was able to crack the code, using results from the first few weeks games to figure out how much each team’s Born Power Index ranking would change, and working backwards, eventually able to correctly predict the next week’s Born Power Index rankings. (I never figured out the actual formula, but another path to arrive at the same numbers as Born, even correcting a handful of mistakes made with the official calculations.) But the results showed that teams were being rewarded for blowouts; the more a team won by, the higher their rating went. In addition, there was no blowout cap, so teams could be encouraged to run up the score just to improve their ratings. That was altered a couple of weeks into the season. But by the end of the year, as more coaches and administrators learned of the system, how it worked, and what its results were, the uproar over the Born Power Index being used grew so loud, the NJSIAA promised to take a hard look at the system in the offseason. The other big change, though, was that for the first time, the playoffs wouldn’t end at sectional championships. The North 1 and 2 winners, and the South and Central winners in each group would play each other in “bowl championships” to be held at MetLife Stadium. Sectional finals were moved out of venues like Rutgers, Kean and The College of New Jersey and back to higher seeds. The change got lukewarm reaction, as it was halfway to a group championship, but didn’t go all the way. Some saw – including this reporter – saw it as a “test run” for the idea of playing a longer season.
  • 2019: The NJSIAA ditches the Born Power Index and adopts a similar formula, the Strength Index. They’re essentially the same in that a team’s rating depends on how well it does against an opponent, based on the team’s ratings at the time they play, and the final score. But rather than using a team’s own Strength Index towards a team’s UPR, it uses that number in reverse: the Opponent Strength Index, also known as OSI. Team’s get the full value of an opponent’s SI for a win, half for a loss. In that way, winning by more points doesn’t benefit the team itself; in fact, blowing out a an opponent can hurt a team, by lessening their opponents’ value to that team. The NJSIAA also scraps the “northing number” sorting in favor of “snaking” the top 16 in each section. Team 1 goes with teams 4, 5, 8, 9 etc… and Team 2 goes with team 3, 6, 7, etc., similar to the NCAA college basketball tournament. But it leads to long trips for some games, since about two-thirds of the state’s teams are concentrated in the Northern third of the state, with the rest in the South.
  • 2020: For the first time since the playoff format began in 1974, there are no playoffs, a casualty of the global COVID-19 pandemic, as teams play six-game schedules, with leagues allowed to have two weeks of postseason, in any format they choose. But the beginning of major changes come quickly after the season.
  • 2021: In January, the NJSIAA membership votes to allow football championships by eliminating the language that “no state champions shall be declared in football.” (We think it never had to be, since playoffs to determine group champions is different from declaring champions. But anyhow.) That paves the way for an official playoff proposal to be made, one in which the season would start earlier, but be shortened by a week, preventing the season from ending any later than the first weekend of December, as it has for decades now. Thanksgiving games would be maintained with an off week between the group semifinals and group finals. With something to seemingly please everybody, by June, the tide of oppositionhad turned so much that all but a handful of member schools voted overwhelmingly to have public schools play all the way down to group champions.
  • 2022: The NJSIAA will hold its first-ever public school football Group Championships, with the finals being played at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium on the first weekend of December.

It’s been a long time coming!

Read more on our coverage of the historic vote that brought New Jersey group championships:

A look back at Woodbridge baseball championship history: local historian shares tales

When the Woodbridge baseball team takes on Hunterdon Central today for the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 Championship, the Barrons will be playing for their first-ever state sectional title in the playoff era.

Nick Sardone, Woodbridge Class of ’63, and the town’s resident high school sports historian, knows all the stories, all the names of the past, but says this one, if they can bring home a trophy today, would be one of the greatest achievements in school history.

We got a chance to talk to Nick this morning about the three “other” titles the Barrons won, back when the NJSIAA would choose champions based on a point system. They cam in 1935, 1938 and 1939, the last two under legendary head coach Nick Priscoe.

He was also the football coach – for whom the Barrons’ stadium is now named – and, in fact, also won football titles in 1938 and 1939. Yes, one coach, two years, four titles!

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Nick Sardone about Woodbridge baseball’s championship history:

Here’s the story from the June 23, 1939 edition of the Woodbridge Independent-Leader, announcing Woodbridge’s last sectional championship:

NJSIAA unveils 2022 football proposal calling for Group champs

by Mike Pavlichko

An NJSIAA memo circulated to all member schools by Executive Director Colleen Maguire calls for public school group championships to be contested as early as 2022.

The plan would not extend the season any further than previous seasons (which have typically ended with Championship Weekend coming the week after Thanksgiving for much of the life of the playoffs in New Jersey) and would allow for a week of Thanksgiving play for those who choose to do so.

Playoff games that conflict with Thanksgiving week games have long been seen as a stumbling block to New Jersey playing to overall public group champions on football, making the Garden State one of just two – New York being the other – that do not crown group champs among public schools.

According to a proposal created by the Football Leagues & Conferences Committee – not the NJSIAA itself – the plan would be to have an eight-game regular season, followed by three weeks of sectional playoffs, and a state semifinal round – all before Thanksgiving. Following Thanksgiving week, public group champions would be crowned. The start of the season would be backtimed so that the public school group championships would always be played the week following Thanksgiving.

For 2022, that would put the first day of practice at August 10th, with Week 1 of the regular season September 2nd. Cutoff Weekend would be October 21, and the public group finals December 3rd and 4th.

The proposal would not include any changes to the current playoff system, which uses a mix of traditional Power Points and Opponent Strength Index to form the NJ United Power Ranking, which is used to seed teams.

Much needs to be done for the proposal to become official. The timeline, according to the memo:

  • January 15: A final plan – which could vary from the one described in the memo – will be submitted by the Leagues & Conferences group to the NJSIAA
  • January 28: The Advisory Committee must decide whether to endorse the proposal.
  • March/April: Further feedback would be gathered at two sectional meetings, which have not yet been scheduled.
  • May 12: “Final form and substance” of the proposal would be subject to approval by the Executive Committee
  • June 7: Final vote by NJSIAA membership. (According to the memo, the NJSIAA recently moved its annual meeting from the first Monday in May to the first Monday in June.)

There still could be one more obstacle: The NJSIAA still has in its bylaws language that says “No state championship, however, shall be declared in football.”

It’s widely believed that this Article IX of the NJSIAA Constitution must be eliminated in order to play to group champions, and a two-thirds vote at the NJSIAA’s Business Meeting January 6th would do the trick.

However, the NJSIAA has said publicly in the past that it does not believe crowning group champs in football would be in violation of its own Constitution.

The language does not specifically say “group champions.” It says “no state championship,” which could be perceived as a ban on an overall champion, such as those crowned by the Tournament of Champions which includes various groups, as well as non-public schools.

One added wrinkle to the proposal would include a separate “regional playoff” for the highest-ranked teams in each group that didn’t qualify for the actual playoffs.

Teams seeded one through 16 would still go to the “playoffs,” but the next 8 teams down would go into a “regional playoff,” a kind of consolation bracket featuring teams 17 to 24.

Teams 24 and down would get two weeks of “crossover” games – the typical “consolation” games, while those eliminated from any of the playoff brackets in the first round could request a crossover game in Week 10.