2018 from A to Z: A WCTC retrospective on the High School Football Season

With the 2018 Central Jersey High School Football season now squarely in the rear view mirror, there was a lot of excitement, star power, and controversy over the last several months.  So, for the first time, we figured we'd take a look back and go soup to nuts:  a retrospective of the entire season from A-to-Z.

Surely, there will be much to talk about in the off-season regarding what worked and what didn't in the new playoff system - and there were a lot of both - but we had quite the ride in 2018.  So sit back, and buckle up, as we take you through the alphabet!

A – Almost, but not quite:  The NJSIAA’s revamped playoff structure failed to accomplish its ultimate goal of playing to overall group champions.  All that could be mustered was what amounted to group semifinals, “bowl” games that featured North 1 vs. North 2 and Central vs. South winners in each group.  No one knew what to expect from those games.  But they were thrilling, and the players, coaches and fans were into them, treating the games like real championship.  The trophies were sharp, and the banners will hang proudly.  Still, here’s to overall group champs real soon!

B – Born Power Index:  The “secret” formula was used as 60% of the criteria for qualification and seeding for the state playoffs, and led to much controversy when WCTC Sports discovered that margin of victory played a significant part in each team’s BPI rating.  It’s not likely to return as part of the formula in 2019 unless it’s used differently and perhaps tweaked to reduce the need for teams to win games by large margins to improve their playoff standings.

C – The Catch:  "C" could actually stand for a lot for Sayreville.  It could stand for "Championship," as in the two that the Bombers have won in the last three seasons and four overall since Chris Beagan took the reins in one what may have been one of the best coaching hires of the past decade in the GMC.  It could be for the "The Cardiac Kids," as Sayreville seemed to pull out tight game after tight game all season long.  But we'll be really specific here and go with "The Catch."  Jacari Carter’s brilliant catch in the end zone as time expired that helped Sayreville get past Edison was one of the top plays of the year in the GMC.

Piscataway celebrates its 2018 North Jersey Group 5 Bowl Championship on the field at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.

D – Dynasty:  It’s not year in and year out that Piscataway wins a title, but the Chiefs under Dan Higgins have been pretty damn close.  Their 2018 state title was the seventh for Higgins in ten title game appearances since he took over the reins from Joe Kuronyi – under whom he was an assistant – in 2003.  (And since Kuronyi won in his final season, that’s 8 titles in 11 appearances in the last 17 years.)  But even without that, it’s by far the best stretch of success of any program in Middlesex or Somerset Counties in that span.  The Chiefs then added a North Group 5 Bowl trophy just for good measure.  That spells dynasty to us.

E – Edison:  The Eagles came away with a first-round upset of a traditional Central Jersey playoff power, South Brunswick.  On a windy Saturday afternoon, they beat the Vikings on the road 14-7.  The trained eye could see it coming, perhaps, as Edison had allowed just 6 points in the two games leading up to their game against the Vikings.  It was their first playoff win since 2000, and Matt Fulham’s first as a head coach; he had gone his first 139 games without one.  That’s perseverance!

F – Frauenheim returns:  Pierce Frauenheim was back at his old stomping grounds in 2018, joining the staff of new head coach Mike Columbo, the longtime Del Val coach who succeeded Tom Falato for 2018.  Pierce was the coach at Immaculata from the very beginning until retiring in 2012, and is one of the most storied coaches in Central Jersey.  Pierce’s grandson Patrick was a quarterback and linebacker on the team.

G – Getting it Right:  No, not the playoff seeding.  The jury is still out on that.  But the NJSIAA did get at least one big thing right this year:  sectional finals at higher seeds were a big hit, at least in Central Jersey.  Somerville, Piscataway and Sayreville all hosted sectional finals that were well-attended and provided great atmosphere.  As for the schools that had to play on the road instead of at a neutral site?  Rumson-Fair Haven head coach Jerry Schulte, whose team had to play at Somerville in the CJ3 title game, said, “Even if we were at Rutgers, we’d still have to go on the road.”

H – Happy Together:  Sayreville and Piscataway have played sectional finals on the same day four different times, in 2010, 2011, 2016 and 2018.  All four times, both teams have won titles.  This year, Sayreville was originally scheduled to play on Friday against North Brunswick, but snow moved their game to Saturday, the same day as the Chiefs’ scheduled title game against Union City.

I – Interception!  There aren’t a lot of firsts or bests to be done in Piscataway anymore.  The Chiefs have pretty much done it all.  But Kristopher Hernandez managed one in the annual rivalry game against Sayreville.  Late in the game, he ran back an interception 104 yards for a score, sealing what would be a 27-6 victory, making it the longest play in Piscataway football history.

South Brunswick head coach Joe Goerge celebrates with his players after beating Manalapan in the 2017 Central Jersey Group 5 title game. It was Goerge's third title with the Vikings, and 5th in his career, having won two at Franklin in the mid-1990s.

J – Joe Goerge:  the veteran coach of South Brunswick stepped down as Vikings’ head coach November 13th, saying the commute was too difficult on his sons, who were on his staff.  Goerge, who won a pair of titles at Franklin and coached at Dayton before his arrival in Monmouth Junction, expects to be coaching again soon.

K – Kicking Field Goals:  North Brunswick actually kicked a few field goals this year.  Before Aaron Ahr’s 33 yard field goal in the fourth quarter of a 9-7 season-opening home win over North Brunswick, the Raiders hadn’t successfully kicked a field goal in eight years.  Not that they missed a lot; they only made seven attempts in that eight-season stretch.

L – Line Play:  Piscataway got superior line play on both sides of the ball in 2018, and the result was an offense that put up almost 40 points a game, featuring a 1,000-yard passed and an 1,800-plus-yard rusher in Joe Hatcher and Juwon Jackson.  Defensively, the Chiefs pitched 5 shutouts – and should have had a sixth save for allowing a TD to Union City in the North 2, Group 5 title game with 20-seconds left.  They held 8 of 13 opponents to fewer than 10 points.

North Brunswick's Myles Bailey will see a slew of college offers come his way in the off-season.

M – Myles Bailey:  The junior runningback from North Brunswick had another fantastic year, really hitting his stride in his second full season with the North Brunswick varsity, scoring 16 touchdowns and running for 1,460 yards.  He’s fast, strong, dynamic, and he’ll have a slew of college offers coming down the pike as he heads into his senior season.  He's a 3-star recruit on Rivals.com, which has him ranked 16th in the current junior class, the highest of anyone from a WCTC-area school.  He has offers from Boston College, Syracsue and Minnesota, according to Rivals.

N – Nails, as in Tough As:  In an October home game against St. Joseph, South Brunswick senior offensive lineman Mike Slover took a big hit, and ended up flat on the turf.  EMTs were on him almost immediately, his parents came down to the field, and he was taken to the hospital for tests.  Long stoppages tend to indicate something serious, but it turned out Slover had nothing but a stiff neck.  He came back into school with his teammates the next morning, ready to watch game film.

O – Olmstead:  With all the skill position stars to get attention in the GMC (Jackson, Bailey, Joe-Kamara, etc.), St. Joe’s of Metuchen offensive lineman John Olmstead naturally didn’t show up in the box score, but he’s well-known nationally.  And his profile certainly will rise this summer when the mature-for-his-age Olmstead heads to South Bend to play for the Fighting Irish in 2019.

P – Perth Amboy:  A year after the Panthers qualified for the playoffs (albeit with a losing record) for the first time since they were instituted in 1974, Perth Amboy made it to 4-4 at the cutoff for the playoffs.  Still, they didn’t make it, snubbed by a poor playoff system that instead took a trio of 2-6 teams like Bridgewater-Raritan, Westfield, and Passaic Tech, as well as a 3-6 team like East Orange.  We don’t know if the Panthers would have fared any better than those squads, but that’s a debate that will take place in Robbinsville soon enough.  The bottom line is that Perth Amboy finished 5-6 under Brad Bishop, their most wins since 2011 under Mike Giordano, and they beat Perth Amboy on Thanksgiving in Central Jersey’s oldest Thanksgiving rivalry, a series that began (not on Thanksgiving) in 1927.

Q – Quality Counts:  The new playoff qualification system placed a higher importance on strength of schedule, even moreso than wins or losses.  This was evident with more than two-dozen sub-.500 teams making the playoffs, and one of them even winning a sectional title.  That was Shawnee, which was 2-6 heading into the first round, with losses to several sectional finalists en route.  They got in based on the quality of their losses (again, something that will be up for debate this off-season in Robbinsville) and eventually won South Jersey Group 4.  That made them the first sectional champion to have a sub-.500 record after winning the title.  After a Thanksgiving victory over Lenape, Shawnee finished the year 6-7 after a loss to Long Branch in the South Jersey Group 4 Bowl Game, the final high school football game of the 2018 season.

R – Rain, Rain Go Away:  Rain, wind and snowstorms played havoc with the playoffs:  For the first time in recent memory – and despite the proliferation of all-weather turf fields – all three weekends of the sectional playoffs saw games rescheduled due to weather.  The opening round saw games rescheduled due to an impending thunderstorm.  For the semifinals, it was a Nor’easter.  And for the sectional finals – despite being played two weeks earlier than usual – a snowstorm that crippled travel throughout New Jersey on Thursday moved many title games to Saturday and Sunday instead of Friday night.

S – Sayreville’s Miracle at the Meadowlands:  40 years after what Giants fans simply refer to as “The Fumble,” the Bombers snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when Connor Holmes recovered a fumble by Williamstown punter Sean Manion in the end zone to put the Bombers up 12-7.  That score helped Sayreville recover from three fourth-quarter turnovers in the red zone that made it look like destiny as not on their side.

T – Thirteen Wins:  With its North Group 5 bowl win over Ridgewood, Piscataway became the first team from Middlesex or Somerset Counties to reach 13 wins, in the first year it was possible to get 13 wins.  The Chiefs capped off an undefeated season at 13-0, their third under Dan Higgins.  The others came in 2010 and 2004.

U – UPR:  The United Power Ranking was the combination of 60% Born power Index and 40% traditional power points that determined playoff qualification and seeding.  Regardless of whether the BPI should have been used, this mathematical combination proved too difficult to figure out for most coaches, who generally had a good idea of how power points worked.  It also made it very difficult to determine whether a team had clinched a playoff berth or not.

V – Video Replay:  Sure, we had it for 2018 in a pilot program by the NJSIAA, but there didn’t appear to be any major, game-changing situations – at least in the GMC or Somerset County – where it was put to use.  And because the logistics made it impossible, replay wasn’t available when it most counted:  in the bowl games and non-public championship games at MetLife Stadium.  What’s the point of advances in technology if they’re not available for the most important games??

W – West Essex Knocked Off:  One of the biggest opening round upsets of the 2018 playoffs was South Plainfield’s stunner over West Essex.  The 7th-seeded Tigers were 5-4 when they faced 2nd-seeded West Essex, which was 8-0.  But South Plainfield came out with the big road win 17-16 thanks to 41- and 66-yard touchdown runs by Sammy Nieves and a 29-yard field goal by Ashwin DeGroot.

WCTC's Dom Savino toughed it out to make it back to MetLife after suffering a severe ankle sprain in the tunnel during the 4th quarter of Sayreville's bowl game.

X – X-Rays:  That’s what Friday Night Football USA host Dom Savino had to get after severely turning his left ankle in the tunnel at MetLife Stadium in the latter stages of Sayreville’s South Group 5 bowl win over Williamstown (pictured).  Fearing it may be broken, Dom got X-rays that night, but it turned out to be a severe sprain.  Yet, he returned to MetLife to watch Piscataway’s North 5 Bowl Game and co-host the Football USA finale with Mike Pavlichko.

Y – More Yams, Fewer Yards:  With the new playoff schedule moving first round games back an extra week, the extra lag time until Thanksgiving led to many teams in Central Jersey cancelling their rivalry games, or at least moving them to other times of the year.  Highland Park-Metuchen didn’t play because the Owls couldn’t field a team this year.  Old Bridge and Edison played for the final time on Turkey Day, though they’re both in the GMC Red again next year.  Piscataway and Franklin will still crossover, but will play before the playoffs start next year.  JP Stevens and Edison likely met for the last time.  North Brunswick and South Brunswick didn’t meet.  South Plainfield cancelled on North Plainfield only to see the respective elevens play a week before Thanksgiving.  But maybe not all is lost.  Middlesex and Dunellen called it off for next year, but after getting backlash are reconsidering next year.  And there are rumblings about Perth Amboy-Carteret – the granddaddy of ‘em all since 1927 – but nothing official yet.

Z – Zuriel Wright:  He kept the Sayreville Bombers in their South 5 Bowl Game against Williamstown.  The Bombers’ leading rusher scored a second quarter touchdown after it looked like he’d been stopped at the line of scrimmage to cut the deficit to 7-6, though Sayreville would miss the extra point.  They wouldn’t score again until the final minute, when Connor Holmes recovered a fumble by the Williamstown punter in the end zone.