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.
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.
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.
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.