Going on the road is a challenge in high school football unlike any other, with all the logistical concerns that go along with it in terms of equipment, the size of the team, plus the bands and cheerleaders.
But for some schools, it’s a longer bus ride than others thanks to the NJSIAA’s playoff system, which abandoned pre-determined traditional geographical “sections” in 2018.
For that one year, rather than four sections in each group and the top eight in each making the playoffs, the NJSIAA took the top 16 teams in the North and South halves of the state in each group, but broke them up by Northing number. That at least resulted in the eight northern-most schools being together in a section, and the eight southern-most schools being in the other.
But in 2019, it shifted to the more admirable idea of “snaking” each 16-team field into two sections, regardless of geography, potentially resulting in long distance travel, particularly in the South groups. With fewer schools, its a geographical area that includes the southern two-thirds of the state in some cases, putting schools like Hunterdon Central of Flemington and Delaware Valley of Alexandria in “South” sections.
The result? Better bring a briefcase full of cash to pay for gas and tolls.
Here are the six longest trips – all over an hour – for Big Central teams playing on the road in the playoffs:
Elizabeth at Phillipsburg (1 hour, 10 minutes – 62 miles): This actually would have been one of the longer trips even before the playoff changes, in years where both were in the same playoff section, North 2 Group 4 or 5, and sometimes they were in the same playoff section. At least the bus driver should know this route, pretty much a back and forth straight shot down Route 78. Their last regular season meeting was at Williams Field in Elizabeth, a 19-6 win for the Stateliners. The last time the Minutemen went to Maloney Stadium was in 2013, a 41-19 loss to P’burg.
Montgomery at Northern Highlands (1 hour, 23 minutes – 62 miles): It’s either the back roads up to the 202-206 circle or sit through all the lights on Route 206 through Hillsborough at rush hour, then after that, a long trip up Route 287, getting off onto Route 208 and heading to Allendale. Hey, if it worked last year, stick with it; it’s the same matchup in the same place as last year for the Cougars. Dom Savino and I recall that trip well, when we went to cover Woodbridge in the North 2, Group 4 title game in 2019 (our last broadcast on terrestrial radio, and before the pandemic). It’s a long haul, but if you’re a fan, leave an hour early and stop at the Allendale Bar & Grill for a nice sandwich and beverage before kickoff.
New Providence at Willingboro (1 hour, 26 minutes – 78.9 miles): It’s further than Montgomery’s trip, but not much longer since it’s just about all highway driving, but it does require getting to the Parkway, then hopping on the Turnpike at Interchange 11 and taking the straight shot down to near Philadelphia. The Pioneers actually played Willingboro last year in the regular season, but the game was at New Providence. This one’s a long ride.
Somerville at Seneca (1 hour, 33 minutes – 64.6 miles): The way the Pioneers’ season was going up until two weeks ago, with a new coach and having won two straight games, they wouldn’t care right now if they played their first-round game in Baltimore at 9 am Saturday. But, they will have one of the longest trips in the state in the first round, going all the way down to Seneca. Where’s that, you ask? We had to look, too. It’s off Route 206 in Tabernacle. Aren’t you glad we cleared that up? Seriously, though, it’s a little more than halfway down 206 between Bordentown and Hammonton on Carranza Road. (Go about eight more miles to see the Carranza Memorial in honor of the “Lindbergh of Mexico, but make sure you have plenty of gas – read about it here.)
Johnson at Pleasantville (1 hour, 37 minutes – 103 miles): Forget the trip, this will be the Crusaders’ first-ever opponent hailing from South of Exit 91 on the Parkway. In the COVID-year, when Johnson managed just four games, they took a trip to Point Pleasant Beach, but that’s the furthest they’ve gone. Luckily, it’s a short trip to the Parkway, then up and over the Driscoll Bridge and a long haul down to the AC area.
Delaware Valley at Oakcrest (2 hours, 7 minutes – 107 miles): This is a mammoth trip. Even though it’s just four more miles than Johnson’s trip to Pleasantville, it’s another half-hour. Why? Well, the Terriers have to take a lot of back (but very scenic) roads to get to Route 31 alone, then head south down to the I-295 loop, go all the way around Trenton, then South on Route 206 through Hammonton (I’ve been on 206, it’s the road that never ends!) and onto the Black Horse Pike. Whew! It’s quite the haul, but it won’t matter if Del Val comes out with a win. No one would blink at that bus ride back!
Should 4th-seed Manville win its opening-round playoff game over 5th seed Shore – which will be just the Mustangs’ second-ever home playoff game – they would face the winner of the 8/1 game, featuring 8th-seed Penns Grove and top-seed Woodbury. If they Penns Grove (2-7) pulls the monumental upset over Woodbury (6-2), Manville would get the Red Devils at home next Friday night. But should the Thundering Herd take care of business, Manville would play on the road at 10:30 am, which is the listed start time on the Woodbury Athletics sports schedule site for next week, against opponent “TBA.” One would hope they’d move that game a bit later if they wind up facing Manville, since it’s a 60-mile, one-hour, 40-minute drive down from Somerset County. To safely get there 60-90 minutes before game time, they’ll be getting on the bus at 7 am. Ouch!