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Middlesex will have to drive 105 miles door-to-door for their first-round playoff game at Salem. (Source: Google Maps)

The regular season – for all intents and purposes in Central Jersey – is in the books, and boy was it a wild ride.

Now the playoffs begin, and there’s a lot to digest.  So let’s dig right in.

Long Flight for the Blue Jays…

Maybe Middlesex should consider a charter plane to avoid the traffic?

In what is most definitely the longest trip of first round for a WCTC-area team, 6th-seed Middlesex travels to 3rd-seed Salem, a mere 105-miles door-to-door from Middlesex High School on Route 28 to Walnut Street Field on the southern outskirts of Salem City, where the Rams.

On Monday afternoon, Google Maps said it would take an hour and 46 minutes to get there based on current traffic.  So, figure about two hours on a Saturday.  Turnpike traffic down south can be very unpredictable.

Why such a long trip?  Until 2018, teams were grouped into geographical sections determined before each or every other season.  Most times they made sense, sometimes they didn’t (see: Snyder and Lincoln in Jersey City being in Central Jersey Group 2).

Last year, instead of the top 8 in each of four sections per group, the top 16 in two sections per group were sorted after qualifying by Northing number, a geographical North-South representation.  It still left some oddities, but mainly made sense, in reference to one another.

This year, the brackets are snaked with the top two teams earning 1-seeds, the next two teams earn 2-seeds with the overall 3 being with the overall 2, and the overall 4 being with the overall 1, and so on.  The idea was to prevent geography from potentially grouping the top three or four teams all in one section.

Hey, no system is perfect.

Home Fields…

North Brunswick was the only area team to earn a top-seed in the state playoffs, but a few other teams in the earned 2-seeds.  Those are important because they lock up home-field advantage for at least the first two-rounds, and guarantee a home sectional final if the top-seed were to get upset

Ridge picked up a 2-seed in North Jersey, Section 2 – Group 5, but got a tough draw with 7-seed Union City.  The Soaring Eagles aren’t quite what they were last year, but are still a fast bunch (think Somerville) who can score early and often.  It’ll be interesting to see how those teams match up.

Speaking of the Pioneers, Somerville also earned a second-seed, ending up in South Jersey – Group 3.  They host 7th-seed Absegami Friday night.  At first glance, it may seem like a blessing that they won’t meet Rumson-Fair Haven in the sectionals again.

They lost to Rumson at home in the 2016 CJ3 semis.  They beat the Bulldogs in the 2017 final at Rutgers, the last game with Jeff Vanderbeek as head coach.  And they lost to RFH last year at home in the CJ3 title game on Sunday (because of snow earlier in the weekend).

But instead, they’re in a section with top-seed Woodrow Wilson out of Camden, the defending South 3 champ.  They lost to Rumson in the South 3 bowl game at Met Life Stadium last year (the game that followed Piscataway’s bowl win over Ridgewood).

The other 2-seed is Woodbridge in North 1, Group 4.  The Barrons, Colonia and Montgomery all are playing out of their natural section here, but are oddly enough in with familiar playoff schools like Irvington, Cranford, Randolph and North Hunterdon.  Nothern Highlands is really the only fish out of water here.  Undefeated Woodbridge hosts 7th-seed North Hunterdon Friday night at 7 at Prisco Field.

Parochial Power…

In perhaps the best example of how seeds don’t matter, St. Joseph-Metuchen earned a 7th seed in Non-Public – Group 4 and will host a first-round playoff game Saturday afternoon.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is they’ll play 10th seed (!) Paramus Catholic.  The Paladins have onlyl beaten two New Jersey schools – Pope John and Hackensack, both on the road – as well as West Catholilc out of Pennsylvania.  But they’re still a “biggie” from North Jersey.  I’ll say this game might be like Rutgers-Michigan in 2014.  It might not be the best PC team ever, but a win over PC is still a win over a big-time North Jersey parcohial school.

Snubbed…

I’ll have a lot more to say about this in a separate post, some of which I’m still formulating as I mull over how bad it is that 2-7 Hunterdon Central made the playoffs.  They beat out a 4-4 East Brunswick team that was much improved over recent seasons.

Yes, the Bears worked hard, yes they won four games, but the schedule wasn’t very strong.  Would they make a dent in top-seed North Brunswick?  Probably not.  That’s not the point.  East Brunswick feels snubbed.

The system failed them, too.  Just three more residual points (they could have had 12 more if New Brunswick didn’t forfeit its games) would have gotten them a playoff berth, and rightly so.

One East Brunswick player started a petition on change.org to get the Bears in the playoffs.  That’s clearly not going to work; you can’t change the rules that the NJFCA signed off on and everyone agreed to several months ago.

But you can change it moving forward, and I’ll have some ideas on that down the line.

M.I.M. (Most Intriguing Matchup)…

Easily, the most interesting and most intriguing matchup of the opening round in Central Jersey is in North Jersey, Section 1 – Group 5, where 5th-seed Bridgewater-Raritan will play 4th-seed Westfield, 1 pm Saturday at Kehler Stadium.

From 2015-2017 these teams met three straight years in the North 2- Group 5 final at Met Life Stadium, and Westfield won each time.  In 2018, both made the playoffs with well-below .500 records.  This year, they met in the regular season and the Panthers finally came out on top.  Now, they have to meet one more time in the playoffs.  Winner likely plays at top-seed Ridgewood last year’s North 5 bowl opponent for Piscataway.

Neither team is what they were during their three-year reign as sectional finalists, but they’re both much-improved.  It’ll sure be fun to watch.

Sleeper…

I really like Hillsborough.  The Raiders are so well-coached and have a go-to guy in Sean Levonaitis running the football.  They have a QB who can throw it, too, in Tom Ramsey, and he has a host of guys who can catch it all over the field.  For a Mid-State Conference school, these South Jersey teams are a bit of an unknown quantity in terms of matchups.  Hillsborough would wind up playing the winner of 7-seed Edison at 2-seed Lenape, then potentially have to go all the way down to top-seed Williamstown for the final.  The Braves are a tall task; they’ve pitched five shutouts an route to an 8-1 record.  In those four other games, they allowed 7 points three times, and 21 in a win against Lenape.  Their defense may actually be even better than it was last year when they lost to Sayreville on Black Friday at Met Life in the South 5 bowl game.

Upset-minded…

If I had to pick an upset, I might go with Colonia over Northern Highlands in an 8-1 game in North 1 – Group 4.  I know all but one of Highlands’ opponents have at least 4 wins, so they’ve played a tough schedule, but Colonia has show it can play tough, and I just love the running of Matt Croteau.  He wore down Carteret in a game we covered on WCTC where he got the ball about ten straight times, and only three players touched the ball the entire scoring drive:  the center, the QB and Croteau.  The kid’s a workhorse and strong.