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This photo from the Home News Tribune published December 5, 2004, shows then-Piscataway Chief Malcolm Jenkins in action in the North 2, Group 4 title game against Phillipsburg. Piscataway won that epic battle 27-26 in overtime at Rutgers Stadium for their third straight state title. The two will meet again in this year's season opener, their first regular-season matchup ever.

Every year, when high school football conferences across New Jersey release their schedules for the coming season, we jump right to see what dates we want to circle on the calendar.  What games are “can’t miss.”

More than that already has happened and it’s not even Spring yet.

The inaugural slate for the Big Central Football Conference – a merger of the Greater Middlesex and Mid-State leagues that officials said was needed to address scheduling concerns – already has set off some fireworks.  Immaculata dropped out after being assigned to what it considered too strong a division, saying the fact the Spartans didn’t field a JV team last year has set the program back, and they should be in with smaller schools.

The Spartans are working to fill out their own independent schedule, and other schools are looking to fill an empty slot in their schedules, though not all may do that.  (More on that later.)

Seven Intriguing Big Central Games in Year One

Keep in mind, while the GMC and Mid-State are all one league, not all Big Central teams are in the WCTC coverage area.  We included matchups between WCTC and out-of-area teams here, but you won’t see a game between Union and Hunterdon County schools in here (so don’t @ me, ok?).

I like two games in particular on September 3rd.  By the way, that’s a Thursday, but it’s the Day listed for Week One – the idea is so people can get away the Friday before Labor Day weekend, before school starts, and still get in a football game.  That decision is up to the host team.

The first is Phillipsburg at Piscataway, and I wish that could be part of a “War Before The Shore” type of High School-Rutgers-Schiano opening weekend extravaganza.  Rutgers hosts Monmouth in what may very well be a sell-out as Greg Schiano 2.0 debuts that Saturday, the 5th.  While the Chiefs and Stateliners have only played four times, all have come in the playoffs.  Two of them were epic back-to-back finals played at Rutgers.

In 2004, the Chiefs beat P’burg 27-26 in overtime to give head coach Dan Higgins his second state title in his second year at the helm, and the Chiefs’ their third straight overall.  (Joe Kuronyi had won one in 2002 in his coaching finale, at home over arch-rival Hunterdon Central to break the spell of the cowbells.)  After surviving a missed field goal try by the ‘Liners with three seconds remaining in regulation, eventual Boise State star and New York Jet Kyle Wilson caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Robert Rose to give the Chiefs a 27-20 lead with the PAT.  P’burg answered with am 8-yard bootleg by QB Scott Kish, but Steve Doran’s two-point conversion run for the win was stuffed by the Chiefs.

The following season, Phillipsburg ended Piscataway’s three-title streak with a 15-6 victory over the Chiefs.

The last meeting between these two schools came back in 2010, another title-winning year for Piscataway, in the semifinals – a 28-21 win for the Chiefs.

The other big matchup that opening weekend is Union at St. Joe’s of Metuchen.  Here you’ve got a battle of 2019’s best Mid-State public against 2019’s best WCTC-area parochial.  This will actually be the start of the Falcons’ tenth season of varsity football (their first was in 2011 after getting the program started with freshman and JV teams a few years prior).  And in that time, they have established themselves as the best parcohial in Middlesex or Somerset County, record-wise.  They have gone 33-3 in regular season play since the start of 2016, including undefeated regular seasons in both 2016 and 2017.

Union, meanwhile, has a rich tradition.  And last year, they cruised right to another sectional title, but had their otherwise perfect season marred by a loss to Ridgewood in the North 5 regional championship game.  (Incidentally, the Maroons had lost the first-ever North 5 title tilt in 2018, when they fell to Piscataway, which that year became the first WCTC-area team to go 13-0 in a season.)

The weekend of September 11th caught my eye when I saw Carteret at Somerville on the schedule.  On paper, based on the last couple of years for these programs, it’s mismatch greatly in favor of the Pioneers.  But it has some sentimental value to me.

It’s the first-ever regular season meeting between the schools, the last one coming in 2004, when the Ramblers beat Somerville 28-8 at The Pit en route to the state finals and a 10-2 record under Bob Molarz in his next to last season.  But for me, their only other prior meeting is what I was thinking of.  That was in the 2000 Central Jersey Group 2 opening round, a 19-0 loss for the Ramblers to a Kevin Carty-coached Pioneers squad that was the number one seed.  Somerville would go on to the finals, hosting 2-seed Manasquan before a packed house at Brooks Field.  That was my first state final behind the mic for WCTC, and I was in need of a color analyst, since my broadcast partner Rich DeMarco was at Rutgers Stadium calling Hillsborough’s gigantic CJ4 upset over heavily-favored top seed Sayreville.  So, we made a phone call, and Bob Molarz was gracious enough to join me in the press box.  The Pioneers lost to ‘Squan, 7-3.  I still wonder who he was rooting for that day.

Two weeks later, on the weekend of September 25th (Week Four) we have St. Joe’s of Metuchen at Piscataway.  This is a rematch of a late-season game at Brenner Family Field last year that came down to the wire.  Piscataway scored a touchdown to get to within one as time expired, but decided to go for two for the win.  They didn’t get it, as Gabe Suero Diaz tackled Khristian Hernandez at the three-yard line after catching a pass from his brother Kristopher.

That was the first-ever meeting between these two teams, easily the top public and parochial schools in the area over the last decade.  But it also has early division title implications only two games into the division slate for both teams.

Two games also caught my eye on the weekend of October 9th, as we zoom ahead to Week Six.  And they both feature teams that haven’t played each other regularly in decades.  One is Somerville at Phillipsburg.  Both are tradition-rich programs that haven’t played in a very long time.   1969 was the last time they met on the football field, and the ‘Liners have owned the Pioneers 14-1.  Somerville will be seeking its first win in the series since 1962, when they beat Phillipsburg 12-0.  This should be a fun one, too, considering Phillipsburg’s powerful, smash mouth, blue-collar type of football couldn’t be any more different than the Pioneers’ quick strike, big-play, “greatest show on turf” type attack.

The other game that weekend features two small schools:  Bound Brook at South River.  This would be their first meeting since a consolation game in 2011.  Their last regular season meeting came in 1959, ending a stretch of playing every year since 1933 (except for 1940).  They also played a brief stretch from 1922-1924.  South River leads the all-time series 20-5-3.

Our seventh game comes in Week Seven, our third including each of these two teams, but we still think it’s intriguing:  Somerville at St. Joe’s-Metuchen.  It’s the first-ever meeting between these two schools.  And while the Pioneers share Brooks Field with in-town parcohial Immaculata – long the power parochial in the WCTC area – well, we’ve already said enough about how good the Falcons have been.  This should be a really good out-of-division late-season test for both teams.  And a lot of power points are up for grabs here for the Pioneers since the Falcons are a multiplier.

Did I miss a game?  Sure, we can debate!  Find me on Twitter @mikepavlichko.

SCHEDULE NOTES:

Warriors and Chiefs No More:  For the first time since 1989, Franklin and Piscataway will not play their annual game.  Only three times since the series started in 1962 have they not met.  The first time was what would have been the second year of the rivalry, and out of anyone’s control:  the game was cancelled because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In 1987, Len Rivers led the Warriors to their second undefeated season with an 11-0 mark, a 21-7 win over Piscataway, and a Central Jersey Group 3 title over West Windsor-Plainsboro.  The Chiefs were off the schedule the next two seasons, including Charlie Weis’ one and only season as head coach, where he brought Franklin a 10-1 season, and another CJ3 title, this time over Ocean Twp.

As one of the top teams in the state at the time, Franklin was regularly in the playoffs – a more selective process then with only four teams per section, half the current contingent.  There were two rounds of playoffs, and they sandwiched Thanksgiving in between.  According to Piscataway volulnteer assistant John Thompson, Franklin didn’t like the idea of playing a playoff game Saturday, then coming back with a quick turnaround for a Thursday Thanksgiving game nine days before a potential state final.  Piscataway wanted to keep the game on Turkey Day.  Neither side budged.  In 1990, they’d hook up again, either played on a Saturday, or – in years where neither made the playoffs – on Thanksgiving.

The culprit this time, however, has been the Chiefs’ recent dominance.  They actually trailed the series before reeling off wins in the last 13 meetings since 2007, by an average of 20 points per game, and now lead 31-21-3.  The decision to end it – at least for now – appears to have been a mutual one.

New Places and Faces:  Some teams won’t see any really new faces at all, at least from the “other” conference, in Year One.  For example, the unnamed Division 5D is essentially what was known last year as the GMC White.  Piscataway, New Brunswick, Edison, North Brunswick, Sayreville and St. Joe’s are no strangers.  Same with most of the larger schools.

Except for Watchung Hills.  They’ll face three teams they’ve never played before, all from the GMC;  East Brunswick and Edison on the road, and Monroe at home.

Side note:  The Warriors have played an Edison school before – they’re 2-2 all-time against JP Stevens, including a playoff loss in the 1978 Central Jersey Group 4 title game.  Watchung Hills was the top-seed and got knocked off by 3rd-seed JP Stevens 14-7.  It was the Hawks’ 2nd straight state title.

Keeping it In-House:  As currently scheduled in mid-February, there are only three out-of-conference matchups across the entire league.  None involve WCTC-area teams.

  • Warren Hills hosts traditional non-conference rival Hackettstown on Week 8.
  • South Hunterdon plays rival New Hope on Week Zero in their first meeting since 2017.  Before then, the game had traditionally been played on Thanksgiving.
  • And, of course, Phillipsburg and Easton will square off on Thanksgiving, from now until the end of time as we know it.

Keep in mind, Immaculata is out of the league for now and playing an Independent schedule this year, and likely next.  So, any “non-Big Central” games wouldn’t count as non-conference; they’re not in one.

And Then There Were Five:  Thanksgiving Day games are down drastically around the state.  And while none of the teams in the WCTC coverage area of Middlesex or Somerset Counties will be participating, there are ten teams involved in five Turkey Day tussles across “The Big”:

  • Phillipsburg vs Easton (PA)
  • Westfield at Plainfield
  • Governor Livingston at New Providence
  • Roselle at Roselle Park
  • Johnson at Rahway

I Need A Scorecard and a Calendar:  Last year was way too confusing to keep track of what week it was.  The week most teams started playing was Week Zero, but some teams were allowed to play the week before, which was Week 00.  So, some teams had played 2 games heading into Week 1.  (And you thought the Born Power index was confusing!)

The state is still keeping Week Zero, for anyone who needs scheduling flexibilty to play before the start of September.  So, that will be the weekend of August 28th.

Week 1 – before Labor Day – is the weekend marked on the Big Central’s Calendar as the weekend of Thursday, September 3rd, as explained earlier.  That puts a Week 9 on the calendar this year, cutoff weekend, Halloween weekend (October 30 and 31).  The playoffs would start the following week.

Mostly full slates:  Before Immaculata upset the apple cart, the breakdown went like this:

  • Of 60 teams in the Big Central (Immaculata would have made it 61), 21 had a full nine-game slate, while 38 were set to play eight.  Highland Park would be the only league team to play seven.
  • Of WCTC-area teams:  26 had eight games scheduled, nine had nine.
  • Those with full nine-game schedules included:
    • Middlesex County:  Edison, New Brunswick, North Plainfield, South Bruinswick, Spotswood, and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Carteret had nine, but lost Immaculata.  Head coach Matt Yascko isn’t sure yet if the team will add a 9th game.
    • Somerset County:  Hillsborough and Franklin.

Other teams to lose Immaculata on their schedule include in their original as-yet-unnamed Division 3.  Besides Carteret, that also includes Warren Hills, Somerville, Summit, Rahway, and South Plainfield.  Rahway’s schedule is down from 9 to 8, so they’ll have the same option as Yascko at Carteret.  Adding a ninth game may not matter much, since power points and OSI are all about averages.  It’s like how high school hoops teams schedule extra games around the cutoff to get to .500.  Of course, you still have to win the game.  It’s a gamble.

But the others in the division only had eight games, so now Warren Hills, Somerville, Summit and South Plainfield all should be looking for games.  Dallas Whitaker, the head coach of Somerville, says he’s looking at bringing in an out-of-state foe to Brooks Field.  They had an open Week 0 and Week 1, and now have an open Week 4 as well.  Not filling that gap would give the Pioneers just two games before the start of October.

Del Val and Voorhees also lost Immaculata from their schedules, but had nine games scheduled already, so they’d only be down to eight.

And don’t forget, a lot of this can change between now and the start of the season!

Follow Mike Pavlichko on Twitter @mikepavlichko for extensive high school football coverage and analysis all year long!