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.
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.
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.
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.
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 cjsportsradio.com 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!