New Jersey (Week 16)
Due to the unfortunate tragedy wrought by Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey had pushed back their titles games to the week after the OHSAA finals. Because of this, and the lack of really any sort of doubleheaders in Pennsylvania to see, I decided to drive out to the Garden State to take in their championships being held at MetLife Stadium. It was going to be a rather tight weekend, as I planned to drive to Cleveland for the Browns-Chiefs game on Sunday with my dad. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Now, New Jersey has a rather odd setup to their association. The NJSIAA does not conduct a state-wide playoff. Instead, they conduct four geographically-aligned regions (North 1, North 2, Central and South), and one non-public state-wide region (Non-Public). They call these sections, although they appear to overlap in some regard. The four public sections have five groups each, akin to divisions in Ohio. The non-public section has only four.
So, in the end, New Jersey finishes with 24 ‘champions’ in games held in five locations throughout the state. These are at the new MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, Rutgers University, Kean University, Rowan University, and the College of New Jersey. All five locations host a quadruple-header on Saturday with MetLife Stadium hosting a doubleheader on Friday. Kean University and Rowan host just one game on Friday night.
Much has been said about how bad high school football in New Jersey was due to A) the domination of the non-public schools in recognition, and the fact that no state-wide champions are determined. I was determined to see how it plays out and whether the arguments were valid. My initial thought was that it would be obvious. For my synopsis, you’ll need to read to toward the end.
It started on Friday morning when I drove from my uncle’s east through Pennsylvania and into New Jersey. Following some roads I’m not on frequently when in the Garden State, I found myself on an overly congest US 46 and State Route 3 heading toward the stadium. I still arrived at the complex a half hour before the 5pm game time. To call this a complex is an understatement.
The entire facility complex includes the stadium, the race track, and the Izod Center (the former home of the Nets and Devils). Located in unclaimed and unwanted swampland in northern Jersey, this was easily the most isolated a stadium could be from the metro area it is intended to serve. Nothing is around it but freeway and swamp.
After paying $10 to park and navigating my way to the parking right near the stadium, it was on to the lines. For only a few thousand people there, the line to get in was long. Through the dreary, rainy night, it was obvious. Full on inspections of everyone entering via a metal detector and bag check. Also, nothing was allowed in. Which was funny because my phone charger never raised an eyebrow, more on that later.
After clearing security and scanning my ticket, you still must walk across an open expanse of land to reach the stadium. This must be to protect the structure in case of attack. A second level of defense. A free program detailing all six games for the weekend at MetLife Stadium. By the time I reached the seating area, it was five minutes into the first game.
Now, already, I was aggravated with New Jersey. No wonder fans weren’t apt for High School Football is this was the level of hassle needed to attend a title game. A thousand or so fans were there by the end of the first quarter and the crowd was noticeably muted. Mostly due to the rain hampering the atmosphere.
I eventually worked my way to the top row of the lower bowl where there was an overhang to stand under. Security eventually moved us out of there due to needing the area to move some vehicle into another area of the stadium. It was then that we migrated to an area originally off-limits. An endzone corner that sits under the third level at the upper reaches. It was dry here, and where I stayed for the end of the first game and through most of the second game.
Now, the first game was one-sided and Hoboken had the upper hand the entire game. The Hoboken Redwings wore all black with red Princeton wings and numbers. Roselle Park Panthers were in all white with maroon numbers. The final was an unimpressive 39-9 in the North 2, Group 1 (smallest) final.
After a a half hour break and a quick chance to charge my cell phone (the battery is old and doesn’t keep a charge long), it was on to the night cap. This was the Non-Public Group 4 matchup, the biggest, between catholic schools, Bergen Catholic of Oradell and Paramus Catholic. Bergen Catholic had defeated Don Bosco Prep in the previous game to finally get a decent shot at a title.
A good crowd had filtered through the overt security for this one. Paramus Catholic Paladins wore all black with gold numbers and logo on their helmets. Bergen Catholic Crusaders wore the almost required gold helmets with the rest white. Reddish numbers and the sides of the pants were the rest of their look.
Both teams came out with some fire, as Paramus Catholic jumped out an early lead with a 51-yard and 73-yard touchdown runs in the first quarter to go up 14-0. They then traded scores with Paramus Catholic holding a 21-14 lead at halftime and slowly losing the momentum. Bergen Catholic tied it in the third and then took the lead with 6:56 left in the fourth quarter, 28-21. The remaining 6:56 turned into one of the best back-and-forth exertion of will by both sides on the other as each traded big play for big play.
With 3:15, Paramus Catholic busted out a 27-yard run to pull within one. A gutsy 2-point pass gave them the lead and the chance to win. Bergen then responded with a quick, efficient drive to take the lead on a 1-yard run with 1:39 left. Their try for run failed, and they led 34-29 over a deflated Paramus Catholic side. The mood didn’t last long. Paramus Catholic facing a relaxed, bend-but-don’t-break defense, surgically cut their way through in what I recall was two plays to connect on a 55-yard TD pass to a streaking receiver down the left side who somehow beat his man, to go up with 1:16 left to make it 37-34. Bergen Catholic was then stuck deep in their territory as they ran out of options.
An amazing finish. Reminded me a lot of the Calhoun-Buford Georgia title game last year at the Georgia Dome. The total announced paid attendance for the doubleheader was reported at 9,027. Despite hearing it, I was too busy to focus on what the report was for the Saturday games. Which I will get to further.
After the game, it was to navigate out of the stadium and go for a drive around New York City. I had been in the Big Apple many times before, but never in a personal vehicle, only a taxi, bus, train, or subway within the confines of Manhattan. In addition to counting counties, I also like to ‘claim’ roads I’ve driven on. I’ve never been through either of the two tunnels on the west side (Holland and Lincoln), nor on the Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey. So, I took a two hour tour of Manhattan and parts of the Bronx. Then, it was off to sleep and an early start on Saturday for the games starting at 10am.
Back at the stadium for a much more comfortable weather situation, it was still dreary, but the moisture on the seats wasn’t being met by its airborne cousins this day. The stadium decided to forgo the metal detectors today and the crowd streamed through much more efficiently. It also meant I was in the stands at least a half hour earlier than expected. The first game was one of interest to me for two reasons: Carteret is a town I’ve been in to in Jersey before, and Weequahic wore, to almost a T, what the Browns wear. The only difference is WEEQUAHIC across the top of the chest in small print and a brown and white Indians head logo on each side of their helmets. Carteret Ramblers wore all blue with white numbers and a white helmet stripe.
This would be the Central Group 2 final. Weequahic (pronounced Week-WAKE) hails from the Newark neighborhood of the same name, and was in one of the North Groups last year where they lost to Cedar Grove (who I saw next). Weequahic got on the board in the first with an 83-yard punt return to make it 6-0. Then a 15-yard run in the second quarter to make it 12-0. A late drive before halftime should’ve netted a touchdown by the receiver was dragged down in the endzone as he was leaping for the ball. The 15-yard pass interference helped Carteret and then held them to a stop at the two yard line after that penalty.
A 6-yard TD pass and a 9-yard TD run about a minute into the fourth quarter made it 13-12. A failed two-point conversion is what resulted in the one-point game. Weequahic was a typical urban school. Tons of talent, but coaching that was horrible. Their fans lamented their coach’s inability to call the last drive of the half right to take a three-score lead. And he couldn’t come up with anything. So, Weequahic ended with their second straight title game loss.
The next game was a North 1, Group 1 Final between Cedar Grove Panthers and the Pompton Lakes Cardinals. Reminiscent of the Steelers and Cardinals, Cedar Grove wore Princeton style uniforms. Black helmets with yellow Princeton wings with black jerseys and yellow pants. Yellow numbers provided the contrast. The Cardinals were all white with the Cardinal head logo.
Pompton Lakes let Cedar Grove hold on for a while, but pulled away in the second half to make it a deceptively comfortable 28-13 win.
The third installment of the day features slightly bigger schools. A North 2, Group 3 Final between the Summit Hilltoppers and the Palisades Park/Leonia Tigers co-op team. Palisades Park is one of only two co-ops in the state. The two were bitter rivals before merging their football team in 2000. A co-op has never won a football sectional final, and that didn’t change today. Summit handled them easily and broke their will. Summit pulled away, and took the game easily, 30-0.
And New Jersey saved the best game for last as the North 1, Group 5 Final between rivals Montclair Mounties and Bloomfield Bengals. Montclair wore all blue with white helmets with a blue M on each side. White numbers and thin white stripes down the pantlegs. The Bloomfield Bengals wore all-white with burgundy-colored socks and a single burgundy helmet stripe. Burgundy colored Bs were on the helmet.
I originally didn’t know which team I’d root for. I was going to root for Montclair because a friend had family from Montclair. However, Bloomfield was on the side my car was parked and I had to make tracks quickly when this one let out. Leave it to fate to make sure that didn’t happen quickly.
The first half flew by with neither team scoring and the halftime entertainment began. And not on the field. There was a Bloomfield fan quite animated in my section wearing a black cowboy hat with a grey shirt with the sleeves cut off. A drunken fan in blue had come by and apparently cold-cocked him when he wasn’t looking. I didn’t witness it, but heard the commotion in front of me. I directed my camera at the scuffle to see two guys, one obviously inebriated, walking up the step with trouble. Then it was on to security and the police as everyone was trying to get them to stop the two from leaving the stadium. I had footage of the two to help ID, so I was with the group who witnessed it and was able to show the officer the two. I, obviously, missed halftime.
Bloomfield finally scored with 5:10 left in the third quarter on a 23-yard touchdown pass to take a 6-0 lead. Late in the fourth quarter, Montclair tied it on a 1-yard touchdown run, but the point after was wide right to keep it knotted at 6. Bloomfield then went to the trickeration with a lateral toward the sideline to a receiver who then found another receiver running free downfield for a 69-yard touchdown pass to make it 13-6 with 4:46 left. Montclair then drove the field and connected on a 9-yard touchdown pass with 36 ticks on the clock left. The extra point sent the game to overtime when Bloomfield elected to run into the line and protect the ball deep in their territory.
New Jersey uses college rules for overtime and start from the 25-yard line. In the first overtime, Montclair missed a 39-yard field goal wide right and then Bloomfield’s QB inexplicably ran for a first down on fourth and 11 and only netted four. In second overtime, Bloomfield was sacked on second down and fumbled the ball away. Montclair then slowly ate away the yards before a fourth down from inside the five. Electing for the field goal, the kicker finally had found his form. Montclair wins big, 16-13.
Immediately after, it was a race to the car and to try and beat the rush. Unfortunately, Montclair and Bloomfield fans were both traveling in my direction on Route 3 to make it a slow go at first. I then stopped in central Pennsylvania to take a nap, and then on to my parents’ house to pick up my dad and take him to the Browns game. Two hours from his house, we were at Cleveland Browns Stadium. It was the second NFL stadium in 24 hours.
Now, for the games. No one in Jersey refers to these as ‘sectional’ or ‘group’ finals. Everyone, both public and private, call themselves “State Champions” for winning these games. Shirts, jackets, etc all proclaim that fact. Not one public fan mentioned anywhere around me the ‘travesty’ of not getting to go up against Paramus Catholic, even Montclair. Nor did Paramus Catholic or Bergen Catholic fans echo similar sentiments.
Just like in Ohio you have OHSAA Division I State Champions, New Jerseyans recognize a team as NJSIAA North 1, Group 5 State Champions. It is the definite, and final result of the season and fans seem quite comfortable and accepting it. Now, the crowd was announced while I was speaking to police, so I do not know the four-game total and couldn’t find it online. However, the Montclair-Bloomfield crowd easily surpassed the Non-Public Group 4 (biggest) final the night before. And it wasn’t close. Both of these cities had large followings that spread out nicely throughout the lower bowl sidelines.
And this was just one of five sites hosting title games on the weekend. This same scene was repeated elsewhere. And fans were fine with that. North or Central fans didn’t lament that the South was having their own titles, for instance (although their divisions are at different enrollment numbers because of how big or small schools are compared to other areas of the state). And New Jersey just expanded from 20 titles to 24 titles this year and fans were not upset. A few fans were even discussing this idea that’s been floated about passing an amendment to combine the playoffs (at least for publics), and were against it. 10 teams got to play at MetLife Stadium. Eight got to experience Rutgers Stadium. And others got to play at ‘nice’ college venues like TCNJ, Kean, or Rowan. And, in New Jersey, their Thanksgiving Day games are quite popular and they pause their entire schedule for one week so these traditional games can be played. There are no playoffs that weekend. Which is quite amazing when you consider it.
Now, I was soured on New Jersey the first day. The second day went much better. And I really enjoyed it. It is a different environment from the midwest. Their fandom is different, but still apparent. But, the event is fun, with a lot of fans showing up. Not just those participating. And the crowd for the Saturday games were larger than expected, considering they had some very small schools playing the early games. That is due to NJSIAA rules that distance of the two participants to the stadium is the only factor of determining who played at MetLife Stadium.
Now, the stadium itself is new. But it is already aging horribly. The turf looks bad. The paint is pealing in many places. And the stadium has one fatal flaw that aggravated me when I was sitting in the one endzone. You do not have an unobstructed view of the whole field. The endzones angle across near the pylons, and prevent you from seeing the end of the corner of the endzone near you. This is something that was either overlooked, or they simply didn’t care. Four jumbotrons are situated into the four corners of the stadium below the upper deck.
Now, for the state, they are limited to an extent. The Board of Education apparently dictates to them how much they can charge for tickets, and the two days at MetLife Stadium must be charged no more than any other non-high school venue, and that is $9. Parking is limited to $10 (Rutgers was reported to charge the same for parking). High School games in New Jersey are set at $3 for the regular season according to what I’ve read. The reason the NJSIAA moved their games in the South Region from the higher seed’s field to Rowan University in Glassboro was because they could charge more per ticket going that route. Even if all the games are being played at the same venue.
Obviously, football at the stadium was expensive. I spent $42 for the day on Saturday. I got away with not eating on Friday by eating before and after the game outside. Which for northern Jersey still isn’t that cheap. The best meal for $7.50 is clam strips. $5.50 for two Mrs. Fields cookies were great, and honestly worth more for the price than almost everything else short of the clam strips. A bottle of water ran a stout $5 each. Luckily, water fountains are available and you could refill your water bottle that way, although they steal your lid.
I had fun. It was better the second day than I expected. And the lack of a state-wide playoff had little bearing on fans whether they attended or not. These were state championship games. And were treated as such. They were aired via Verizon Fios (the major jumbotron sponsor during the game), but only via tape-delay a few days later. Which allowed the games to flow smoothly without interruption. And it prevented fan attendance at the five venues from being diminished.
I’m sad to announce that, given a rough generalization of how far both sides in the last game of the day took over their sections, even at a low percentage filled, easily could’ve been over Ohio’s D1 final. There were a lot of people there. In an 82,000+ seat venue, with the lower level not being entirely small, and it was a very good crowd.
The Montclair-Bloomfield game brings my in person total for year to 87 games.
Next week, it’s on to Pennsylvania. The four title games are played at Hershey’s Hersheypark Stadium next to Chocolate World. I had seen games here two years ago. It’s not the best venue, or most exciting environment. But, there’s some good matchups coming up and some good storylines.
On Friday at 1pm, the Clairton Bears (15-0) is looking to extend their streak to 63 straight wins, and would be their fourth straight state title. They face the Dunmore Bucks (14-1). At 7pm, the 3A game faces PIAA #1 Erie Cathedral Prep Ramblers (14-0) against the Vikings of Archbishop Wood (13-2). This should be a great game. Wood is the defending state champion, and Cathedral Prep is in their fourth title game.
On Saturday at noon, it’s the 2A game with the Aliquippa Quips (15-0) going for a third state title. They face upstart Wyomissing Spartans (15-0) who are in their first title game. And at 6pm, it’s the big boys facing off when the North Allegheny Tigers (15-0) playing first-time participant, Coatesville Red Raiders (13-2). North Allegheny is three-time defending WPIAL champions with a state title two years ago.
And, if all goes well, I will be in Arlington, Texas in two weeks for the nine title games at Cowboys Stadium. Due to a misunderstanding I had with the Texas UIL schedule this year, I had just assumed Texas was playing their title games the same weekend as California, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Which had been the case for quite some time. However, I was wrong. They’re on the 20th, 21st, and 22nd. The 3A-Division 1 game is being play this weekend, along with the two six-man games.
If, and right now it’s still just an if, I do go to Texas, the finish of the 5A-D1 game would be my 100th game I’ve attended this year. Which, personally, is one of the big reasons I will probably take the time to head down there again. I had a blast there last year for the nine games.
The potential matchups and schedule are:
12/20 1200 1AD2 Munday/Wellington vs. Tenaha/Falls City
12/20 1600 1AD1 Mart/Shiner vs. Stamford/Italy
12/20 2000 2AD2 Elysian Fields/East Bernard vs. Sonora/Corsicana Mildred
12/21 1200 2AD1 Wall/Daingerfield vs. Cameron Yoe/Newton
12/21 1600 3AD2 Graham/Gilmer vs. Navasota/Bellville
12/21 2000 4AD2 Wichita Falls Rider/Lancaster vs. Manor/Cedar Park
12/22 1200 4AD1 Denton Guyer/Tyler vs. Georgetown/Leander Rouse
12/22 1600 5AD2 Cedar Hill/Austin Westlake vs. Katy/Cibolo Steele
11/22 2000 5AD1 De Soto/Allen vs. Houston Lamar/Helotes O’Connor
The two teams on each side are playing the semifinals this weekend. Between last years’ title games, the quadruple-header in Week 13, and the 5A State Finals in San Antonio three years ago, I have the chance to see a few teams for the second or third time. Munday and Tenaha are looking for a repeat of last year. Other teams would be Stamford, Austin Westlake, Cedar Hill, Katy, Cibolo Steele, and Allen. Denton Guyer, if they advance, would be the third time I’ve seen them. Which would be the first team in Texas (or anywhere outside Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, or New York (Buffalo St. Joe’s against Steubenville) that I’d have seen at least three times. If I made those games, I’d be up to 25 state titles games just this year. And 39 overall playoff games just this season.
Like I’ve said, I’m not sure. But, 100 games in a season has been a goal since I went to 56 games two years ago. And, inadvertently, I’m able to do that this year. And the drive down and back would give me a chance to hit some counties in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky I had been in yet.