Tag: playoffs

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.

Edison’s championship season comes to an end against Toms River North

Coming off its first sectional title in over three decades, Edison had earned a date with the top public school in the state, Toms River North.

And on Saturday evening down at Cherokee High School, just 15 minutes from last Friday’s great night of hundred-yard glory, they met the same fate as every other team to play Toms River North this season, and very likely they next one, too.

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The Eagles’ postseason run came to an end just one game shy of New Jersey’s first-ever public school state finals, losing 42-14 to the Mariners in the Group 4 semifinals.

And as it has been week in and week out for TRN, it was all about Micah Ford. The junior quarterback – who has offers from West Virginia and Maryland – rushed for 289 yards and five touchdowns, while the Mariners rolled off 420 yards of rushing offense.

Down 35-0 in the third quarter, Edison got two touchdowns back, with a Matt Yascko connection to Michael Strachan for 32 yards late in the period, and a Yascko one-yard run early in the fourth after the Eagles recovered an on-side kick, but that was as close as they would get, with Ford’s fifth touchdown of the game providing the final margin.

Click the play button above to hear Edison Councilman Richard Brescher congratulate the Eagles on their Central Jersey Group 5 championship, and wish them luck this week against Toms River North!
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Toms River North (13-0) will go on to play the winner of the North 5 semifinal between West Orange and Passaic Tech, which takes place Sunday at 2:30 pm at Franklin High School. Edison finishes its season 9-4, but with the Central Jersey Group 5 title in its trophy case, the school’s third.

Click below for postgame reaction from down on the field with Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Chris Tsakonas:

Edison senior QB Matt Yascko

Edison head coach Matt Fulham

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

South Group 5 Semifinal Preview: Edison vs. Toms River North

A lot has changed since Edison last won a sectional title in 1991.

There were only four-team fields in each playoff section at the time – you know, in the days before everyone got a participation trophy – and you could fill up your gas tank at one of the discount stations along Route One between Old Post Road and Wick Plaza for just over a dollar a gallon.

Ah, good times.

Of course, that long stretch has gone by the boards, after the 6th-seeded Eagles won 28-14 at top-seed Lenape Friday night to claim the Central Jersey Group 5 championship. Now, it’s on the Group 5 semifinals at Cherokee High School in Medford this Saturday.

And we’ve got a complete preview of the game below, with stats, key players, title histories, notes and more:

Group 5 Semifinals
Edison (Central 5 Champion, 9-3) vs. Toms River North (South 5 Champion, 12-0)
When: Saturday, 5:30 pm
Where: Cherokee High School, Medford

Coverage: Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Chris Tsakonas will be covering the game, providing live updates during our broadcast of the North Group 4 Semifinal between North Hunterdon and Northern Highlands, which also begins at 5:30. Follow Chris here on Twitter for updates, and postgame reaction and a recap will be available on cjsportsradio.com after the game.

How they got here:

Edison defeated #3 Hillsborough 10-7 in the opening round, then rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat #2 North Brunswick 33-31 in the semifinals, by way of two touchdowns, two onside kicks, and a field goal with four seconds remaining. In the Central Jersey Group 5 title game last Friday night, the sixth-seeded Eagles doubled up top-seed Lenape 28-14, in a game played just 15 minutes away from where they’ll be Saturday, in Medford.

Click the play button above to hear Edison Councilman Richard Brescher congratulate the Eagles on their Central Jersey Group 5 championship, and wish them luck this week against Toms River North!

Toms River North – the top-seed in the section, and top overall seed in South 5 – has done what they’ve done pretty much the entire season, maul the competition. They beat 8th-seed Old Bridge 49-7 in the opening round, fourth-seed Marlboro 42-6 in the semifinals, and second-seed Kingsway – last year’s South 5 champion – 48-14 in the title game Friday night.

Who would be next?

The winner of this game advances to the state’s first-ever public school Group Finals in two weeks at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium in Piscataway. They would play the winner of the North semifinal, featuring North 1 winner Passaic Tech (10-2) and North 2 winner West Orange (8-3), which knocked off top-seed Phillipsburg 28-7 in the North 2, Group 5 title game. That North Semifinal will be played at 2:30 Sunday afternoon at Franklin.

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Series, League History

This will be just the second meeting between Edison and Toms River North. The Mariners won last year’s sectional semifinal playoff game at home over the Eagles, 48-7, after Edison pulled off an overtime road win at Manalapan in the first round, 23-20 in OT. Edison hung around in that game against the Mariners for three quarters, trailing just 21-7 entering the fourth until the wheels came off.

In 1991, the year of Edison’s most recent sectional title before this year, the Eagles actually beat two Shore Conference teams en route to the Central Jersey Group 4 championship: 4th-seed Manalapan 9-7 in the first round/semifinals, and third-seed Middletown South 20-16 in the finals.

Overall, Edison is 3-1 in the playoffs against the Shore Conference: 2-0 in 1991, and 1-1 last season.

The Greater Middlesex Conference used to have a scheduling arrangement with the Shore Conference, so the Eagles have played a good number of its teams over the years. They had home-and-homes with Jackson Memorial, Marlboro, Freehold Township and Freehold Boro in back to back years from 2010 thru 2017. That makes them 6-14-1 overall against the Shore, 3-13-1 in the regular season.

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Finals Histories:

Edison (3-0 in finals)  (13th appearance, 10-10 overall)

  • 2022:  Central 5:  #6 seed, beat #1 Lenape 28-14 (9-3 thru finals)
  • 1991:  Central 4:  #1 seed, beat #3 Middletown South 20-16 (11-0)
  • 1976:  Central 4:  #3 seed, beat #1 Woodbridge 19-0 (8-2-1)

Toms River North (7-2 in finals) (21st appearance, 24-14)

  • 2022:  South 5:  #1 seed, beat #2 Kingsway 48-14 (12-0 through finals)
  • 2021:  South 5:  #3 seed, lost to #4 Kingsway 21-14 (7-4)
  • 2016:  South 5:  #1 seed, lost to #3 Millville 22-15 at Rowan (11-1)
  • 2015:  South 5:  #4 seed, beat #3 Williamstown 14-7 at Rowan (11-1)
  • 2007:  South 4:  #2 seed, beat #3 Mainland 22-19 (12-0)
  • 1997:  South 4:  #3 seed, beat #4 Millville 30-27 (9-2)
  • 1994:  South 4:  #2 seed, beat #1 Cherokee 28-16 (10-1)
  • 1991:  South 4:  #3 seed, beat #1 Eastern 24-6 (10-1)
  • 1979:  South 4:  #3 seed, beat #2 Brick Township 15-14 (9-2)

Beyond the “Finals”

In 2018, the NJSIAA added another round onto the playoffs following the sectional finals. “Bowl Championships” were held in 2018 with the North 1 and North 2 sectional winners playing in each group, and the South and Central winners doing the same. Those became known as “Regional Championships” in 2019, but they were still one game shy of crowning group champs, as New Jersey will do for the first time this year.

Edison has never taken part, their previous sectional title before this year being back in 1991, when the sectionals only had fields of four teams. Toms River North has never been there either, having not won a sectional title during that “expanded” period, though they had a chance to get there last year; however, they lost to Kingsway 21-14 to finish 7-4.

Key Players and Stats

Take into account anyone on offense or defense, there’s no more important player than senior quarterback Matt Yascko, who took over the reigns midway through his freshman year in 2019 when starter Lucas Loffredo went down to injury, then moved and transferred to Piscataway. He’s gutsy, and leads with words and by example. He’s the heart and soul of the team, whether it’s running for the game-winning two point conversion in a postseason “pod” game against Hillsborough in 2020 to win a 50-49 donnybrook, or taking advantage of open field and running 20 times against Cedar Creek in the Battle of the Beach in the 2022 season opener, scoring four times, and winning Bellamy & Son Paving Player of the Week honors for Week Zero. Or leading three scoring drives in the final four minutes as he did two weeks ago in a dramatic come-from-behind win over North Brunswick in the Central Jersey Group 5 semifinals. But there’s a super supporting cast, and one that has played a lot. Other four-year starters include wide receiver/safety Malcolm Stansbury, offensive tackle/tight end Israel Rodriguez, and defensive end/H-back Adekunle Shittu. Right guard Matt Bueno has also been playing since his sophomore season in 2020. That continuity and experience not only makes those players better, but their teammates as well.

Yascko has thrown for 1,736 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, while only throwing two interceptions. He values the football. Nyekir Eato is the primary ball carrier with 1,224 yards on 171 carries and 15 touchdowns, but Yascko is No. 2 on the list, carrying 96 times for 553 yards and 10 TDs, four of them coming against Cedar Creek. And he spreads the love to his receivers, with at least five guys catching 10 or more passes this season, and three with 24 or more, led by Malcolm Stansbury’s 46 hauls for 579 yards and four touchdowns. Junior Ricky Harvey has 24 for 392 yards and 4 scores, while senior Michael Strachan has 38 grabs for 356 yards and a team-leading 5 TDs.

Defensively, Shittu is a top-notch defensive end with five sacks, 19 tackles for loss and a team-leading 26 quarterback hurries. But Selbin Sabio is the anchor. The senior linebacker is all over the place, with a team-leading 137 tackles, 97 solo, and 30 TFLs. No one else even comes close. Not to mention what he does on special teams as the squad’s kicker; he executed two onside kicks in the final four minutes of the sectional semifinals against North Brunswick, and booted the game-winning field goal. He had done the latter the previous week as well, kicking a field goal as time expipred in the CJ5 semis to give Edison a 10-7 lead at halftime. Those points would be huge, as neither team scored in the second half. Having a reliable kicker is an advantage many high school teams don’t have.

For Toms River North, it all begins with Micah Ford. The junior quarterback already has offers from Maryland and West Virginia, and interest from Rutgers, among other D1 schools. A dual threat, he has thrown for 1,061 yards this year, with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions, while running 187 times for 1,951 yards and 28 scores. And that’s factoring in four blowout games where he never ran the ball more than seven times, hed still went over 100 yards rushing in two of them, and his team won by a combined 249-7.

And that’s the other thing: TR North can score. And play defense. That’s a deadly combo. To wit: they have not scored fewer than 42 points in a game since their Week Zero win over Washington Township in the Battle at the Beach, a 28-21 victory, and are the highest-scoring team in the state, with 590 points already. (They’re also the highest-ranked public school in New Jersey, at No. 3 according to NJ.com.) Since then, they have averaged 51 points a game, scoring over 50 or more points five times, hitting hitting 70 in a 70-6 win over Toms River East; they also beat South 60-0. They’ve pitched four shutouts this season, and held nine of their 12 opponents to single digits. Their average scoring margin this year is plus-41.3 points per game. Be scared.

On the other side of the ball, the same defensive line that held Yascko to 38 yards rushing last season, and 51 as a team, is back. That forced Edison to throw the ball more, and Yascko wouldn up throwing two interceptions, one a pick-six. Ty Kazanowsky leads the team with 5 1/2 sacks and 21 TFLs, while four others have at least ten each.

The bright side for Edison is that Toms River North has been a bit undisciplined, although they have been able to make up for it with superior talent all season long. Can they do that against Edison? We’ll see.

Notes and Nuggets

Edison head coach Matt Fulham, now in his 18th season leading the Eagles, earned his 80th win with the championship over Lenape. He’s now 80-98-1, that lone tie coming in 2016 against Old Bridge. He’s the longest-tenured coach in school history, and the winningest, having passed Mike Wojick’s school mark of 66 last September with a victory over St. Joseph-Metuchen.

With the Central Jersey Group 5 title win, Matt Yascko the quarterback and his father, Matt Yascko the offensive coordinator, both have earned championship rings at Edison. Yascko was a receiver on the 1991 title team, the last one to win a sectional crown before this year’s win. Obviously, neither played on Edison’s only other title team, in 1976, but Yasckos have bee involved in two of Edison’s three sectional title wins.

Also with that win, Edison is 3-0 all-time in sectional finals.

Previews:

Past Edison Coverage:

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

Start ’em young: Edison Jets continue to grow to become the next generation of Eagles’ champions

Matt Yascko. John Baio. Michael Strachan. Malcom Stansbury. Adekunle Shittu. Matt Beuno. And many others.

All significant contributors to the Edison high school football team, Central Jersey Group 5 champions in 2022.

What else do they all have in common? All played for the Edison Jets.

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That’s the youth football league in town. And while “and under” teams like 12U – 12 and under – can include kids younger than the age specified, they don’t in Edison. They have the numbers to field a Pop Warner team for just about every age on their own. Not just in football, but also in Cheer.

Click the play button above to hear Edison Councilman Richard Brescher congratulate the Eagles on their Central Jersey Group 5 championship, and wish them luck this week against Toms River North!
The Edison Jets Pop Warner program breaks ground on a new field in the township earlier this month. (Submitted photo)

Those numbers alone seem to belie the national trend of shrinking participation in sports, exacerbated by the era of specialization – student-athletes focusing on one sport year-round rather than playing multiple sports.

That’s not what’s happening in Edison, though.

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And all that points to continues success at the next level. Talk to any high school coach, and they’ll tell you the same thing.

Guys like Tommy Amankwaa and Jay Mazuera, the wide receiver/quarterback combo from last year’s 13-0 Hillsborough team that won Central 5 and the South 5 Regional Championship game – they played youth football together since they were eight years old.

Cranford – which won North 2, Group 3 last year with an undefeated record – had many multi-sport athletes who’d also grown up playing together.

Those are the teams that have the most success.

This past weekend, the Edison Jets’ 10U team finished off an undefeated season, going 10-0 and winning a championship, beating the team from Basking Ridge. The Pop Warner program’s other teams won titles this year, too.

Participation is high, the teams are successful, and it can only mean a bright future for the Edison Jets when they someday become Edison Eagles.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Edison Eagles’ wide receivers coach and Edison Jets Pop Warner coach Brian Calantoni talk about the success of the town’s youth sports programs:

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:

Fulham knows full well Eagles have their biggest challenge yet against Toms River North

Sports reporters ask a lot of the same type of questions all the time. “How do you feel after that win?” “What can you say about your offense?” “What went wrong tonight?”

One that you would be best not bothering ask this week of the Edison football coaches is: “Have you seen a team as good as Toms River North?”

Because the answer is very easily going to be a big fat “No.”

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Edison (9-3) will play Toms River North (12-0) Saturday afternoon in the Group 5 semifinals at Cherokee High School in Medford, a 5:30 pm kickoff. The Eagles won the Central 5 title, while the Mariners won the South 5 championship. The winner gores on to play in the state’s first ever public school group finals, to be held in two weeks at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium in Piscataway.

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And Edison probably hasn’t seen a team like this in a long time.

Toms River North has scored at least 42 points a game in all but their first, a tight win in the 20s over Washington Township in the same Battle at the Beach in Ocean City where Edison got its season started on the right foot, with a four rushing touchdown performance from quarterback Matt Yascko in a win over Cedar Creek. They also have four shutouts.

Click the play button above to hear Edison Councilman Richard Brescher congratulate the Eagles on their Central Jersey Group 5 championship, and wish them luck this week against Toms River North!

They are led by junior QB Micah Ford, who runs all over the field, and sometimes passes it, with great success on both accounts. He has major D1 interest, including offers from West Virginia and Maryland, and interest from Greg Schiano at Rutgers.

Stopping him isn’t really an option. It’s the old ESPN adage: “You can only hope to contain him.”

Problem is, TRN has other weapons, too.

Click below to hear Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko talk about Edison’s CJ5 championship, and Saturday’s matchup against Toms River North:

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:

Edwards, Uryniak have led the show all year, but know this: Martini can throw

For those who think North Hunterdon is going to pound the ball on the ground, and rely solely on runningbacks Kente Edwards and Alex Uryniak, think again.

When senior qaurterback Luke Martini saw the ground game wasn’t getting what he wanted from the Randolph defense in the North 2, Group 4 title game Saturday afternoon at Singley Field, he knew what he had to do.

Throw the ball.

And throw it he did. A lot.

And when the game ended up becoming a shootout in the fourth quarter – with 49 points scored between the two teams – guess how North Hunterdon scored their last two touchdowns? On the ground.

Of course, that was after Martini had thrown five touchdown passes – not counting two that had been called back on penalties before they eventually scored on the same drive with a passing TD anyway – and after he had thrown for the vast majority of his career-high 411 yards in the game.

Those who don’t watch North Hunterdon football all year long had been asking, “Yeah, but can Martini throw.”

Well, even those who didn’t watch them Saturday have their answer.

The offensive versatility will come in handy on Saturday, when North Hunterdon (11-1) takes on Northern Highlands (8-3) in the Group 4 semifinals at Franklin High School in Somerset. Kickoff is at 5:30 pm, with pregame starting at 5:00 on Central Jersey Sports Radio, as Mike Pavlichko calls all the action. Click here to listen.

The winner moves on to New Jersey’s first ever public state finals at Rutgers University on the weekend of December 3-4.

Click below to hear Central Jersey Sports Radio’s Mike Pavlichko talk with Lions’ quarterback Luke Martini about the season, the championship, and Saturday’s semifinal against Northern Highlands: