As summer draws to a close, beach chairs and backyard BBQ’s give way to book bags and back to school shopping. Crews paint lines and groom fields while coaches whistles echo into the sunset, and we quickly are reminded that the onslaught of high school sports across the state is upon us.
When I chose to attempt to cover the high school sports scene in NJ, I knew it would be a daunting task. After a bit of research I realized that it was not just a daunting task, but a mammoth undertaking. With 2500 public schools scattered across 590 districts, an additional 75 charter schools and approximately 100 or so private schools, there are now about 1.5 million students across the state heading back in to the classrooms, and for many on to courts, diamonds and playing fields. Considering that along with the perennial fall favorite of football, there are well more than a dozen organized sports to choose from, one quickly realizes that writing a simple fall preview of high school sports is much easier said than done. But on the bright side, it seems that no matter where in the state you happen to live and regardless of which sport you favor, there is absolutely no shortage of heated play, amazing players, record setting coaches and storied rivalries to choose from.
For those looking to add a little more sports action to their weekend, you need not go much further than your local high school gym, track, pool or ball field to have your craving for competition satisfied. From baseball to bowling and everything in between, the interscholastic sports programs can quench the healthiest sports appetite. But alas, to cover the entire breadth of NJ interscholastic sports in one story would be next to impossible and would most likely do an injustice to many of the great players, coaches and programs who work tirelessly to bring their teams to the top of their game.
Instead, I will focus on a handful of key programs and players worth watching for as the 2012-2013 season unfolds, some of the past seasons greatest triumphs and rivalries, and I will urge all of you who aren’t already, to get out and support your local high school players and programs.
Everyone who already follows high school sports in NJ probably has their favorites, and there are many names that easily come to mind as programs that have consistently found themselves at the top of the rankings. Here are a few notable stand outs, worth taking a look at this season. If baseball is your sport, the Ironmen (Don Bosco Prep, Ramsey), the Braves (Manalapan High School) and the Indians (Toms River High, South) could all be considered favorites for a title shot, but with Rob Kaminsky of St. Josephs (Montvale), entering his senior year as the state’s top pitching prospect and boasting a 90mph ball, many are looking to the Falcons for a state title run this year.
“The Big Blue”, perennial powerhouse from Pingry School (Martinsville) has dominated the soccer ranks for many of the years in recent memory, and there is no end in sight. Under the direction of coach Miller Bugliari (currently the winningest boys soccer coach in the nation) this seasons Big Blue squad looks to be a very strong contender once again. Always known for their great ball movement and consistent power on the field, they will be in the crosshairs of every team in the division, and will almost surely still be standing as the season wanes.
In softball, the Red Devils and coach Pete Fick of Hunterdon Central High are no strangers to winning. Under his direction for almost four decades, they have captured two Group 4 state championships, 24 conference titles, 15 county tournament championships and seven sectional crowns. With the recent news of the departure of coach Fick, who has led the Hunterdon Central High varsity team to victory a record 721 times in his 38 year tenure, many wonder if Hunterdon will struggle to stay at the top of the heap. But with a very strong core of players remaining, and some fresh, smart new blood in the line-up, the Red Devils should remain a team to watch.
And no strangers to the attack area, Mountain Lakes High School has remained The “Team to Beat” in Lacrosse. Under the direction of Coach Tim Flynn since 1980, The Lakers have captured 452 victories, 17 league championships, 10 county championships and seven state championships. Not satisfied to be a top contender in Lacrosse alone, Mountain Lakes High has a very robust football program. Though now under new head coach Darrell Fusco, it has been heralded as one of the winningest in the state. Having previously grabbed numerous division titles, a phenomenal run of 26 winning seasons, a streak of twenty consecutive playoff entries, as well as seven state titles, The Lakers are surely a force to be reckoned with.
Not to completely neglect the football crowd, there are plenty of other great teams to watch for this season. The winningest team in NJ history, Phillipsburg, is of course a contender for the state title. and as just mentioned, Mountain Lakes can never be counted out, but sneaking on to the radar over the last few seasons, senior Quarterback Reggie Green and his Cranford High Cougars are surely stalking their division title once again, and will likely be a team to watch for in the State Championships.
Each year in high school sports there is also no shortage of underdogs who manage to surprise the masses and put together storybook seasons. Among last seasons stand outs we have the newly formed Scotch Plains/Fanwood High School Varsity Lacrosse program. Still in its infancy, the SPFHS lacrosse programs has made a strong entry, and the Raiders have their sights set on the states Top 5.
Then there’s the un-precedented 32-0 girls softball season for Immaculate Heart Academy (Washington Twsp). Immaculate Heart finished 32-0 following its 3-0 victory over St. John Vianney in the NJSIAA Non-Public A final on June 9 in Toms River East. Only two other teams, the 32-0 Ramsey team from 1991 and the 33-0 St. John Vianney team from 2004 — have won as many games and finished unbeaten. The win also gave Immaculate Heart its ninth all-time state championship, the most in state history.
And of course, there’s varsity footballs Cranford Cougars. With the leadership of quarterback Reggie Green, the Cougars clenched their first-ever state playoff championship last season in a decisive 27-0 defeat over Parsippany Hills. Green, who appears at No. 30 in “The Ledger Top 50″, led Cranford to its first championship last fall as a junior, and will return to the field this season with the winning momentum, and the hopes of once again taking his team all the way. Definitely a double threat on the field in his junior year, Green threw a very respectable 57.3 percent pass completions for 804 yards, and six touch downs. On the ground, he tallied an amazing 1,473 yards and 18 scores. With his drive, execution, and leadership abilities, Green is surely already on the radar of the NFL scouts for a future draft, and currently has collegiate offers from Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Michigan State, Boston College and N.C. State, among many others.
Possibly one of the most exciting aspects of all organized sports however is its rivalries, and there is surely no shortage of them here in NJ’s interscholastic sports programs. While all sports seem to have their share of crosstown feuds, nothing stacks up to the long-standing rivalries in NJ high school football. One of the states oldest rivalries, East Orange High School (E. Orange) and Barringer High School (Newark) have shared the field in epic battles since 1897. This 100+ year battle is one of the most closely matched in the state with a real leader difficult to define.
The Peddie School (Hightstown, NJ) has met Blair Academy (Blairstown, NJ) every year since 1902, with the exception of one, due to a polio outbreak. Once again, almost an even match with the Peddie School two games up in their 100+ meetings with Blair. The rivalry between Westfield High School (Westfield, NJ) and Plainfield High School (Plainfield, NJ) began in 1900. Traditionally held on Thanksgiving Day, this is one of the most contentious rivalries in the state. Westfield has held a clear advantage in their 100+ grudge matches, and are currently almost 10 games up. And the states oldest running battle would have to be that between Millville and Vineland. Beginning in 1894, Millville Senior High School (Millville, NJ) vs. Vineland Senior High School (Vineland, NJ) is the 12th-oldest football rivalry in the United States in terms of games at 136. Millville has dominated most of the meetings recently winning 13 of the last 16 games, but Vineland still holds a slight lead overall.
And possibly the states most well known rivalry puts one of New Jersey’s best up against one of Pennsylvania’s best. “The Stateliner Game” as it is known, pits two teams that reside on opposite banks of the Delaware River against each other. Easton, located in Pennsylvania vs Phillipsburg in New Jersey. The two teams have played since 1905 and have played on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1916. In 1994, sports illustrated called it “One of The Nations Greatest Rivalries”. Easton, is the second-winningest program in the state of Pennsylvania with 754 wins, while Phillipsburg, which is the winningest high school football program in New Jersey, has 610. Easton has won the last three games and leads the overall series 57-40-5. This years Turkey Day match up will surely be another for the record books.
With all the action to choose from in NJ High School Sports, I could write volumes and still barely scratch the surface. I hope that this preview has wet your appetite a bit, and given you some insight into the wealth of sports action and excitement right in our own backyards. For stats, scores, schedules breaking news and more on your favorite high school programs, teams, and players, thorough coverage of all high school sports can be found at ESPN.com, MaxPreps.com as well as NJ.com and many others. So pick your team, and support their dream. Get in on some high school sports action now.