by Mike Pavlichko
Hands down, Piscataway has the most interesting and diverse slate of high school football games in the area for 2019.
It's a result of the GMC's plan to put teams in divisions based strictly on enrollment, and not on past success. That put the Chiefs "down" into the White Division, although that grouping may be the toughest in all of Central Central Jersey.
The Greater Middlesex Conference Red has the big schools, size-wise: East Brunswick, JP Stevens, Monroe, Old Bridge, Perth Amboy and South Brunswick.
But, the Vikings were down last year, and have a new head coach in alum John Viotto, who replaces the legendary Joe Goerge. Old Bridge dropped off, while Perth Amboy flirted with a playoff spot - shafted by the new system that will be dramatically altered this year. And then there are JP Stevens, East Brunswick and Monroe, all of whom continue to struggle. South Brunswick is the only one of the half-dozen that made the playoffs last year. None of the six finished above .500, and their combined record was 20-41.
That leaves the White Division with the following: Edison, New Brunswick, North Brunswick, Sayreville and Piscataway. For a five-team division, that's pretty brutal. And Piscataway has one of the most varied collections of opponents. Their schedule alone is a who's who, both in and out of the division.
Sayreville and North Brunswick were in the White last year, but now Piscataway joins them. The Chiefs will crossover to the Blue to face St. Joseph of Metuchen, then take on Somerset County schools Elizabeth and Hillsborough. And at some point, they'll play Franklin, too.
Out of a nine-game regular season schedule, Piscataway plays five non-divisional opponents. And while I'm not sure if I like that, I love who they play:
Week Zero, vs. Franklin: It's Thanksgiving in September. With the exception of Phillipsburg-Easton's annual tussle - way more important than a state championship - Turkey Day games have gone by the wayside, a victim of the expanded NJSIAA playoffs with a new schedule. It's a shame, but at least they'll play. That series began in 1962, and only three times have they not met: 1989, 1988, and in the wake of the Kennedy assassination in 1963.
Week One, vs. Sayreville: Last year, when the GMC moved Sayreville from the Red to the White Division, the Bombers and Chiefs agreed they wanted to play each other as a crossover, and they did. Piscataway handed Sayreville its only loss of the season, 27-6 (heard on WCTC). It's a great rivalry, and this year it'll also the earliest they've ever met: September 6. In 2009, Sayreville and P'way played in Week Two on September 17th. Piscataway opened at Sayreville in 1995 and 1994, but those games were on September 15th and 16th, respectively.
Week Two, vs. Edison: They didn't play last year, with the Eagles down in the white, but they played annually for a while before that. This one hasn't been competitive, or under 20 points, since 2013, when the Edison knocked off the Chiefs at home 34-22 on a Sunday, the day before the passing of longtime Piscataway coach Tom Higgins, whose son Dan now is the P'way head man.
Week Three, at New Brunswick: After a 9-2 season under Don Sofilkanich in 2015, the Zebras have sputtered. Alum Nate Harris took over the team last year, and got New Brunswick from 2 to 3 wins. They'll have a tall order here, but get the Chiefs at Memorial Stadium, which could be a boost. It's certainly a game the Zebras should have circled on their calendar.
Week Four, at St. Joe's: The Faclons don't have lights. Or a press box. Or more than a few rows of bleachers. But they've got a pretty good football program over there in Metuchen. Big OL John Olmstead is gone to South Bend, but they have year-in and year-out been one of the most consistent programs in the county, and have run the table in their division a few times as well. It's a kitchenette-style table this year with just four games against divisional foes, but that makes each one all the more important, with bigger stakes. How many would have liked to see this game last year? Raise your hand. Thought so. Everyone wants to see the top teams face each other. It didn't happen last year being in different divisions. But now we get it in 2019.
Week Five, vs. North Brunswick: Same as with the Falcons, we want to see the best teams play. It would have been fun to watch these teams play, to see Juwon Jackson and Myles Bailey rack up the yards. But the Raiders have a lot back, and are looking to take it at least one step more this year after a tough loss to Sayreville in the Central Jersey Group 5 title game at War Memorial Stadium last season. If 2018 was a season for the ages in North Brunswick - and it was - a win here would be a victory for the ages. More calendars should be circled here.
Week Six, at South Brunswick: Like Sayreville last year, these are two teams that have been well-accustomed to playing each other over the last several years, with their success often on similar paths. In fact, in the last four years, one or the other has won a sectional title: Piscataway in 2018 and 2016, the Vikings in 2017 and 2015. Joe Goerge may be gone, but that just means the Chiefs will have to go back to the drawing board since new South Brunswick skipper John Viotto plans a "spread zone type offense," as he told MyCentralJersey's Greg Tufaro after he was hired in March.
Week Seven, at Elizabeth: The Chiefs and Minutemen last met in 2014 in the playoffs, a 16-6 semifinal loss in Piscataway. But the real storyline here goes back to 2011 and 2012. In the '11 finals, Tevin Shaw's 27-yard touchdown run with :17 to play avoided overtime and gave the Chiefs a 41-34 victory at Rutgers. The next year at Kean, the Chiefs had a chance to put the game away with first and goal and ahead by three, but couldn't hit paydirt. Elizabeth and Temple-bound P.J. Walker then went 98 yards in 39 seconds for the eventual winnin score to stun the Chiefs. The Minutemen are coming off a 6-3 season, and in just the next-to-last weekend before the playoffs, this game could have a lot of drama.
Week Eight, vs. Hillsborough: This will be the first meeting between the Raiders and Chiefs since 2009, when they opened the regular season. Piscataway won that game 41-14, when some of the Chiefs were Barry Garrard, James White, Coleman Peteet, Steven Miller and JD Griggs. From 1981 to 1987 they played regularly as members of the Mid-State Conference, but sparingly after that: twice in the playoffs and twice in the regular season. Maybe this one is for the older folk. And maybe it's time to admit I'm one of them.