Tag: North Hunterdon

North Hunterdon’s Vaddis excelled at WR/LB, is named CJSR Two-Way Player of the Year

A year ago, Derek Vaddis wasn’t nearly the first option at receiver for the North Hunterdon football team.

Again this year, quarterback Luke Martini had multiple guys he could throw to, and even more he could hand off to.

Still, Vaddis was able to accumulate over 1,000 yards receiving on a team that also had a pair of thousand-yard rushers. Specifically, he made 55 catches to lead the Lions with 1,054 yards and 11 touchdowns.

But he also contributed significantly on the other side of the ball. Though he “only” logged 46 tackles – at safety with a great group in front of him that didn’t require him to make many stops – he made his minutes count, snatching eight interceptions on the season, third highest individual total in the state. (Adam Meiner of Ridge led New Jersey with ten picks.)

For his efforts, Vaddis has been named the Big Central’s 2022 Two-Way Player of the Year by Central Jersey Sports Radio.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with North Hunterdon WR/S Derek Vaddis:

Honorable Mentions:

Vaddis is probably the only person Alex Uryniak of North Hunterdon wouldn’t mind losing out to. But Uryniak also excelled on both sides of the ball. As part of a two-headed monster – not by design, but by necessity – Uryniak carried for 1,012 yards and 13 touchdowns, filling in quite well when Kente Edwards missed the better part of four games, two of them entirely. At linebacker, he led the Lions with 180 tackles, registering 22 TFLs and seven sacks, along with an interception.

Malcolm Stansbury of Edison may follow his brother to New Hampshire and play defense, or could end up at other places where he has offers, like Maine or Monmouth. The senior WR/DB had 52 catches on offense for 652 yards and four touchdowns, and was a shutdown corner on defense as well, with 59 tackles, 2 TFLs and a pair of interceptions. A four-year starter, Stansbury also is a two-year captain.

Hunter Seubert of Watchung Hills is the coach’s son, so Rich Suebert may have prepped him early on to play on the line. Indeed, he was a rare four-year starter on both the offensive and defensive lines, a rare feat at any level. This year’s Warrior O-line didn’t surrender a single sack, paving the way for 145 rushing yards per game, and 24 scores on the ground. On defense, Suebert had 63 tackles, a pick, three sacks, nine tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

Central Jersey Sports Radio announces “Specialty Awards” for 2022

So many great players, so few awards. When you’ve got multiple deserving players for a single award, it’s time to get creative to honor those who truly deserve to be honored.

So without any further ado, here are Central Jersey Sports Radio’s postseason Specialty Awards for 2022!

Best Rushing QB” Award: Jaeden Jones, Colonia

The top two rushers in the Big Central Conference this season were quarterbacks. Matt Sims of Brearley was No. 2, and topping the list was Colonia junior Jaeden Jones, who succeeded a pretty good runner himself: last year’s “Mr. Dynamic” Award to the most explosive player in the league by far, fellow quarterback Josh Oluremi.

Colonia’s Jaeden Jones (Source: @Jaeden_Jones2 on Twitter)

In fact, Oluremi and Jones share a unique piece of history. So far as we could tell, at least back to the mid-90s – since stats from those years aren’t as readily available as they are now – Oluremi was the first quarterback since then to lead Middlesex County in rushing. (He was second in the Big Central Conference last year to state rushing leader Colin Murray of Cranford, in Union County.)

Now, Jones has made it two years in a row for a QB to lead Middlesex County in rushing, both from the same school. And as for making his own piece of history, he’s also the first quarterback to lead the BCC in rushing in its short three-year history. (Someone remember it when we go digging for that fact in another 20 years, please?

Like Oluremi, Jones’ rushing to passing totals were about a 3:2 ratio in favor of the ground game. Jones threw 86 of 150 for 1,059 yards, but amassed 248 carries of his own on the ground for 1,661 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Jones led Colonia to an 8-2 record this year, and the Liberty Gold Division title. And the best part is, he’ll be back next year.

Click below to hear Justin Sontupe talk with Jaeden Jones of Colonia:

“Best Backfield Duo”: Kente Edwards and Alex Uryniak, North Hunterdon

While head coach Kevin Kley has called runningback Kente Edwards “the most feared runner” in the Big Central, he’s been blessed enough to have a “backup” – yes, we put that in quotes – who he says “could be the starter on any team in the league.”

And he’s not fibbing.

Edwards got banged up against Colonia in Week Five and missed the better part of the next four games, and if you closed your eyes and ears and just looked at the stat line, you wouldn’t know it was Alex Uryniak taking the bulk of the carries.

North Hunterdon’s Kente Edwards (#3, left) and Alex Uryniak (#22, second from left) at midfield for the coin toss before the North 2, Group 4 title game against Randolph in Annandale on November 12, 2022. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

Edwards had been averaging 160 yards a game, and even had 161 against Colonia. But in the first two playoff games, Uryniak ran for 433 yards and five touchdowns, while QB Luke Martini started throwing like a beast (more on him later) in the games Uryniak didn’t top 100. Uryniak ended up with 1,012 yards on the season and 13 scores, giving the Lions two thousand-yard rushers, as Edwards finished with 1,442 and 15 touchdowns.

Go ahead, pick your poison.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with the two-headed monster runningback combo of Kente Edwards and Luke Martini:

“Rising Star” Award: Jett Genovese, Phillipsburg

On a team with so many standouts, and a ton of balance among key players, Jett Genovese was able to run it all with precision for Phillipsburg.

Four runningbacks carried for over 300 yards, with none more than Xavier Moore’s 851. And through the air, Genovese found four different targets for more than 150 yards, with none more than Michael Scerbo Jr.,’s 476. That connection should be hooking up a lot again next year, as both players are sophomores.

But it was Genovese who was able to find his way through it for the Stateliners,

Phillipsburg quarterback Jett Genovese (Photo courtesy @HanisakPhoto)

And though Phillipsburg was knocked off by West Orange in the North 2, Group 5 final, Genovese came up big when it really counted – against Easton. He threw for 86 yards and three touchdown passes, while distributing the ball to five different runningbacks, led by Moore’s 114 yards, and Caleb Rivera’s two rushing touchdowns.

We have a feeling we’ll be talking about Jett a lot over the next couple of years.

Click below to Genovese talk about his first year as a starting QB for P’burg with Justin Sontupe:

Best Returning QB-WR Tandem: Michael Schmelzer, Jr. and Matt D’Avino, Montgomery

Montgomery had a very good season in 2022, starting 5-0 for the first time in school history.

And though the finished 7-3, with a first-round playoff loss to Northern Highlands – the North 1, Group 4 Champions and Group 4 finalist – they are the only team that can make this claim: they will have the top returning quarterback and the top returning receiver in the Big Central Conference when they come back to the field in 2023.

Montgomery QB Michael Schmelzer, Jr. (left) and WR Matt D’Avino are interviewed after a 27-20 home win over Somerville on September 16, 2022 heard on Central Jersey Sports Radio (Photos: Mike Pavlichko)

Quarterback Michael Schmelzer, Jr., threw for 1,658 yards and 21 touchdowns, good for fourth in the conference, but Luke Martini of North Hunterdon, Matt Yascko of Edison and Frankie Garbolino of North Brunswick are all graduating.

Wide receiver Matt D’Avino was second in the conference with 1,053 yards and 14 touchdowns, just one yard behind – and one TD ahead of – Derek Vaddis of North Hunterdon, who’s also graduating.

These two have been playing catch for many years now, and will get one more year together with the Cougars. We’re looking forward to watching.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Michael Schmelzer, Jr. and Matt D’Avino of Montgomery:

“Nobody Scores” Award: Bernards Defense (represented by Enzo Britez)

They may not have been St. Thomas Aquinas from a year ago, which tied a playoff-era Middlesex County record with seven shutouts, but they came pretty damn close.

In an 8-2 season with just one regular season loss, the Bernards Mountaineers played locked down D for the majority of 2022, shutting out six opponents en route to a clean 4-0 division sweep to the Big Central’s Patriot Gold title.

Bernards senior Enzo Britez (Source: @enzobritez on Twitter)

Click below to hear Justin Sontupe talk with Bernards defensive back Enzo Britez:

“Walk Off Defender” Award: Zamir Hawk, Hillside

Walkoff is a term most commonly used in baseball, but Barris Grant uses it to talk about Zamir Hawk, his senior nosetackle. Specifically, his efforts in Hillside’s two playoff wins this season, that got them to the North 1 Group 3 title game.

Hawk, a senior, had 67 tackles this year, and 15 for a loss, along with four sacks and a pick-six.

But he came up the biggest on the biggest of stages.

In the playoff opener against Parsippany Hills, the Comets scored 19 unanswered points to win and advance. But even after taking the lead in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t for good until Hawk’s pass breakup on a last-ditch effort by Par Hills effectively gave Hillside the win.

Zamir Hawk of Hillside (Source: @Hawk_973 on Twitter)

And if that wasn’t big enough, following an even bigger comeback by the Comets against River Dell, his interception sealed yet another win, propelling Hillside into the sectional semifinals.

Don’t challenge this kid!

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Hillside senior Zamir Hawk:

“Playoff Beast”: Luke Martini, North Hunterdon

North 2, Group 4 Champion North Hunterdon had all kinds of players put up all kinds of great numbers this year.

But when push came to shove, and the season was in crunch time, senior quarterback Luke Martini stepped it up a notch.

It started with the Milk Can Game against Voorhees, their big rival, when – with top runningback Kente Edwards nursing a lower body injury – Martini threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings in a 35-7 win.

But it didn’t stop there. He continued his hot streak into the playoffs, all the way to the sectional finals. First came 253 yards and four touchdowns against Middletown North in the opening round. Then 231 yards and two TDs in the second round against Morris Knolls. And finally, in the sectional title game, with everything on the line, in a wild ballgame that saw a combined 84 points, he threw for 411 yards and five scores against Randolph.

North Hunterdon QB Luke Martini (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

Summing up, out of his 2,306 passing yards – best in the Big Central by about 400 yards – and 22 touchdowns on the season, that four-game stretch generated 1,061 yards and a whopping 14 touchdowns.

That’s what we call a playoff beast.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk to Luke Martini about his incredible playoff run:

“Injury-Be-Damned” Award”: Adam Bowles, South Plainfield

It’s one thing to play great defense on a team that went from 2-8 to an undefeated regular season like Adam Bowles did in South Plainfield, but it’s another to do it with your arm in a cast.

Yet that’s exactly what he did for the latter half of the 2022 season.

The senior linebacker tallied 129 tackles – 77 solo – while also notching 7 1/2 tackles for loss, a sack, three quarterback hurries, and three interceptions. And he played the last five games of the season in a cast!

South Plainfield linebacker Adam Bowles (Source: @datboiadamd1 on Twitter)

Click below to hear Bowles talk with Justin Sontupe about toughing it out this season for the Tigers:

“Full 48”: Robert Orzol, Old Bridge

One of the oldest cliches in sport is they saying: “We’ve got to play the whole ___ minutes.”

But in no circumstance was it ever more true that for Old Bridge defensive lineman Robert Orzol.

We documented this game with Old Bridge head coach Matt Donaghue here, but the gist is this: after a missed field goal that would have given the Knights the lead in a Week Two game at South Brunswick, the Vikings needed to gain a first down to take a couple of knees and run out the clock. But a fumble on the second snap caught the eye of Orzol, who dove on it, giving the ball back to Old Bridge. They won the game on a touchdown.

Old Bridge DL and playoff-clinching here Robert Orzol (Source: @OrzolRobert on Twitter)

That’s an amazing enough story on its own. Fast forward to Cutoff Weekend, and Old Bridge finished 17th in the South 5 standings, oh-so-close to a playoff spot. But not so fast.

The NJSIAA playoff seeding rules conduct a top-down head-to-head tiebreaker throughout the entire bracket, meaning if the team in third, for example, beat the team in second, they flip-flop. And down the list they go until they get to number 17.

That was Old Bridge. South Brunswick was 16th. But not for long.

Yes, Old Bridge won the head-to-head. Orzol was the hero again, weeks later, as the Knights made the playoffs, all thanks to Orzol’s fumble recovery.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Robert Orzol – whose never-give-up attitude almost singlehandedly got Old Bridge into the playoffs:

“MVP” Awards: Matt Sims of Brearley and Shawn Purcell of Manville

For the first time, Central Jersey Sports Radio is giving out an “MVP” award, to the players who are, well, most valuable to their team.

While there were so many great players this season, and many with an abundance of talent, two players stood out as perhaps the most critical to their success. And it might not surprise you to see that they’re both from small Group 1 schools: Brearley and Manville

Brearly QB Matt Sims with head coach Scott Miller (left). (Source: @mattsimss6 on Twitter)

Brearley’s Matt Sims finished just behind Jaeden Jones in the Big Central in rushing, with 1,523 yards and 26 touchdowns, the sixth highest total in the state of New Jersey. (That also makes it two quarterbacks leading the Big Central on the ground this season.) He also threw for 1,063 yards and ten touchdowns, an astounding number when you consider he not only didn’t complete anywhere near a hundred passes, but he didn’t even attempt 100 passes, going 67-of-99.

But the most astounding number was this: Sims accounted for 75% of his team’s yards from scrimmage this year.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Brearley senior QB Matt Sims:

Meanwhile, Manville’s Shawn Purcell really could have received this award for a two-year body of work.

Last year, he carried 117 times for 1,176 yards and 15 touchdowns, while this year accounting for 1,238 yards on the ground on just 106 carries, hitting paydirt 22 times. He also excelled on kick returns, and has five career interceptions at cornerback. (He’d probably have more if anyone dared throw at him.)

Manville’s Shawn Purcell (Source: Twitter)

Manville should have made unprecedented back-to-back playoff appearances, amazingly missing out last year at 6-2 at the cutoff, but that’s neither here nor there. In the end, Manville was 14-5 the last two seasons with Purcell as the focal point of the offense. And that’s the best two-year record for the program since a 14-4 run in 1968 – when the Mustangs went 9-0) and 1969 (when they went 5-4). Arguably, it’s even better with better win totals in both seasons.

These seasons don’t come along every year in a small town like Manville, but Purcell was a big reason why they did.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Manville senior RB/CB/KR Shawn Purcell:

You – the fans – get to pick again! It’s the Jersey Central Sports Radio 2022 “Highlight Reel Play of the Year.” Watch the video, and vote!

Central Jersey Sports Radio is giving YOU the chance to weigh in on your favorite play of the 2022 high school football season!

We received a lot of entries from high school football coaches all across the Big Central.
And after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, we narrowed it down to eight!

Watch the video below, then scroll down
to vote for your favorite!!
Voting ends at 11:59 pm on Monday, Dec. 12.
Remember: Vote early, vote often!

15293
Which was your favorite play?

Thanks for your answer!

The poll has expired!

North Hunterdon edges out Phillipsburg for top spot in final Big Central Media Poll

In a split vote, North Hunterdon earned top honors in the final Big Central Media Poll of the 2022 high school football season over Phillipsburg, with the Lions getting three of the five first-place votes. The Stateliners got the other two.

The final media poll of the season mirrored the final Central Jersey Sports Radio Top Ten with one exception: Watchung Hills got in the media poll at No. 9, while Westfield took that spot in the CJSR poll. Both teams were 7-3 on the season.

North Hunterdon got the top spot on the strength of its North 2, Group 4 championship, though the Lions were knocked out in the first-ever group semifinals by Northern Highlands back on Saturday.

Phillipsburg was upset in the North 2, Group 5 finals by West Orange, but beat North Hunterdon early on in the regular season.

Edison came in third, despite four losses, after making a huge run as the sixth-seed in Central Jersey Group 5 to win a sectional title. Along with West Orange, they were the lowest seeds in the state among public schools to reach sectional finals, and both wound up winning titles.

St. Thomas Aquinas, which beat Edison in the regular season, but got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, checks in at No. 4. Aquinas holds the Big Central Conference’s longest league winning streak going into next year at 17 games, with Phillipsburg and Brearley behind them at eleven straight regular season league wins.

North Brunswick checks in fifth, having been knocked out of the playoffs in the Central Group 5 semifinals by Edison.

Ridge came in sixth, followed by North 2 Group 3 finalist Hillside in seventh.

Cranford was No. 8, Watchung Hills rated ninth, and Montgomery finished in tenth, while Westfield, Bernards, and North 1 Group 1 finalist Brearley (10-1) also received votes.

Below is the complete final Big Central Media Poll for 2022:

North Hunterdon rises to No. 1 in final Top Ten rankings; Lions are CJSR 2022 Team of the Year

CORRECTION: Our initial version of this poll inadvertently omitted Watchung Hills, which tied for third in the poll for 9th place with Westfield and Montgomery. The rest of this story has been updated to correct that omission.

In the final Central Jersey Sports Radio high school football rankings of 2022, North Hunterdon is Number One, and the CJSR Team of the Year.

With just one regular season loss – to Phillipsburg, which finished at No. 2 – the North 2, Group 4 Champion Lions finished the season 11-2, after a loss to Northern Highlands in the Group 4 semifinals this past Saturday, 21-20 in OT at Franklin High School.

Led by the backfield tandem of Kente Edwards and Alex Uryniak, quarterback Luke Martini, and top receivers Derek Vaddis and Danny Delusant – with several of those players also playing critical roles on defense – North Hunterdon won its first state title since 2017, beating Randolph in a finals for the ages, 49-35, a contest which saw the teams explode for a combined 49 points in the final quarter.

The Lions also won the Liberty Silver Division of the Big Central Conference.

Phillipsburg, which was undefeated going into the North 2 Group 4 final, was shocked in the title game by West Orange, 28-7. The American Silver Division champs are 10-1, heading into their Thanksgiving Day battle with Easton.

In third was Edison, the Central Jersey Group 5 champion, which beat Lenape in the title game 28-14 a week ago down in Medford. It was the Eagles’ first title in 31 years, and they finished the season 9-4 with a group of seniors that included several four-year starters, including QB Matt Yascko, wide receiver Malcolm Stansbury, offensive lineman Matthew Bueno, and and kicker/linebacker Selbin Sabio.

Tied for fourth was St. Thomas Aquinas and North Brunswick. The Trojans beat Edison in the regular season, but got knocked out of the playoffs in the opening round by Holy Spirit. Aquinas won the United Gold Division title, and will take a 17-game conference winning streak into the 2023 season, the best in the league. (Phillipsburg and Brearley both have won 11 straight regular season BCC games, the closest teams to Aquinas.

The Raiders finished 8-2, National Silver Division champions. Their lone regular season loss came out-of-division to Cranford, but they lost in the Central 5 semifinals to Edison, after the Eagles scored the game’s final 16 points in a furious comeback in the final five minutes of the game, recovering two on-side kicks and winning on a field goal with :04 left on the clock.

Ridge finished the year 7-3 and came in sixth.

In seventh was Hillside, which finished the season 9-2, tied with Cranford. The Comets were the Patriot Silver Division champions, and their only regular-season loss came to St. Thomas Aquinas in a divisional crossover. They made the North 2, Group 3 finals, but lost to Old Tappan 28-14; the Golden Knights are in the first-ever statewide Group 3 final at Rutgers in two weeks.

Cranford was 7-3, and won the American Gold Division title.

Westfield, Watchung Hills and Montgomery all tied for tenth. The Warriors and Cougars both finished 7-3, while Westfield also is 7-3, but still has to play its Thanksgiving game against Plainfield.

Below are the complete final 2022 Central Jersey Sports Radio High School Football rankings:

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.

North Hunterdon’s run falls one PAT short in overtime

It was a great run for the North Hunterdon football team in 2022.

But the Lions fell one point shy of making the state’s first-ever Group Finals at Rutgers University.

Plagued by miscues – high snaps, INTs, a missed field goal, and in the end, a tipped PAT – North Hunterdon fell to Northern Highlands Saturday night in the North Group 4 semifinals, 21-20 in overtime, in the nightcap at Franklin High School, as heard on Central Jersey Sports Radio.

The Lions never led in the game, coming back twice from deficits of 7-0 and 14-7, and missed a chance on a late fourth quarter drive to take their first lead and end the game in regulation, when a 30-yard field goal attempt by Ben Cleary missed.

North Hunterdon still had a chance, even after at least a half-dozen high snaps on plays from scrimmage – most early in the game – and three interceptions thrown by quarterback Luke Martini – one at the goal line – after he had gone the last eight games without throwing a single pick.

Kente Edwards had 12- and two-yard TD runs in regulation.

In overtime, Northern Highlands scored first, and got the PAT to go up 21-14, but Edwards answered to get within 21-20. Kley sent out Cleary for the game-tying PAT to send it to a second overtime, but the Highlanders tipped it, and the kick fell short, ending the game.

North Hunterdon finishes the season 11-2, but still with a trophy to its credit, the North 2 Group 4 championship it won last weekend with a wild 39-35 victory over Randolph.

Northern Highlands goes on to play the winner of the South 4 semifinal being played Sunday at Franklin at 2:30, between Mainland and Millville.

Click below to for postgame reaction with Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko:

Senior QB Luke Martini

Head coach Kevin Kley

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

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:

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: