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NJSIAA high school football public state finals preview

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Delsea's Luke Maxwell (4) eludes a tackle by Camden's Nasere Blackney (9) during the NJSIAA Group 3 state semifinals at Cherokee High School in Evesham, New Jersey on Saturday, November 19, 2022. Ryan Fuhs/D2 Sports Network

The wait is finally over.

The New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association will crown public high school football state champions for the first time in its history. 10 teams across five different groups will travel to Rutgers University's SHI Stadium in Piscataway this weekend in pursuit of hardware that many generations of Garden State football players have dreamed of hoisting.

Here is a group-by-group breakdown of each game, including dates and times, players to watch, and the obstacle each team overcame to reach their respective state championship:

Group 1

Woodbury (11-2 record) at Mountain Lakes (11-1), Saturday, 12 pm

The Thundering Herd marched into the NJSIAA Group 1 state final with a 22-7 victory over Route 45 rival Salem. The victory offset a 21-20 setback to the Rams during the regular season and alleviated the heartbreak of a 34-8 loss to Salem in last year's South/Central Group 1 regional final at Rutgers.

Anthony Reagan, Jr. rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Reagan, Jr. scored twice in the first half to establish a 14-0 advantage for Woodbury with 3:26 left in the second quarter. The junior holds an offer from West Virginia.

Ja'Bron Solomon reeled in a 42-yard touchdown pass from southpaw Bryan Johnson to help build a 22-0 lead late in the opening half. Solomon finished with five receptions for a game-high 114 yards and a touchdown. The senior also forced a fumble and recorded three tackles on defense. Johnson completed 10 out of 21 pass attempts for 148 yards and a touchdown. Duquesne commit Derron Moore charted a team-high nine tackles. Kahsir Nesmith tallied eight tackles, Nyrell Redrow added five tackles and a sack, and Marquis Taylor recorded an interception. Dominic Abbatelli rushed for 13 yards and added seven tackles on defense. Julian Shorts recorded three tackles and a fumble recovery.

The back-to-back South Jersey Group 1 champions have won five games in a row and seven out of their last eight. Woodbury has recorded two shutouts since October 29 and has outscored its opponents 137-21 in the postseason.

Mountain Lakes advanced to the Group 1 state championship with a 29-23 triumph over Weequahic at Franklin High School on November 19. The Lakers overcame a 20-7 halftime deficit as running back Nico Dunn exploded for 138 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Wide receiver Gavin Ananian reeled in a 14-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Miniter in the third quarter. Miniter also added 48 rushing yards. Giacomo Bevacqua recorded a sack on defense.

Mountain Lakes has won four consecutive matchups since a 35-14 loss to Group 2 state finalist Caldwell on October 21. The Lakers are 44-17 since the start of the 2017 season.

Group 2

Rumson-Fair Haven (8-4) at Caldwell (12-0), Sunday, 12 pm

The Bulldogs cruised past Willingboro, 42-6, in the Group 2 state semifinals to advance to the state final at SHI Stadium. Rumson-Fair Haven led 21-0 at halftime and ultimately scored 42 unanswered points before the Chimeras could erase a zero on the scoreboard.

Quarterback Owen O'Toole completed nine out of 15 pass attempts for 141 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Alastair Orr fueled the ground attack with 86 rushing yards and a pair of scores. Junior Griffin Kolb added a touchdown on a 13-yard run. Scott Venancio hauled in four receptions for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Sean Trinder caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from O'Toole.

Rumson-Fair Haven's Scott Venancio runs with the ball against Willingboro in the NJSIAA Group 2 state semifinals at Cherokee High School in Evesham, New Jersey on Sunday, November 20, 2022. Ryan Fuhs/D2 Sports Network

The defense was powered by senior linebacker Luke Mikolajczyk. He tallied a team-high 8.5 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. Junior Markus Brown added 4.5 tackles, a sack and 0.5 tackles for loss. Marshall Halfacre posted a similar stat line with 4.5 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Defensive linemen Cooper Bunnell and Julien Devlin combined for eight tackles and three tackles for loss.

The Bulldogs have won four games in a row since a loss to NJSIAA Non-Public B state runner-up Red Bank Catholic on October 21.

Caldwell advanced to the Group 1 state final with a 13-7 victory over Westwood. Junior Louie Anemone rushed for a 12-yard touchdown with 4:11 left in regulation to unknot a 7-7 tie. The Chiefs' offense rushed for 204 yards. Joey Marinello rushed for a game-high 99 yards and quarterback Luke Kurzum added 73 yards on the ground. Kurzum also completed 50% of his pass attempts (7-for-14) for 114 yards and a touchdown. Senior Lucas Lattimer emerged as his top target with four receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown.

Julian Casale led Caldwell's defense with a game-high 14 tackles and three tackles for loss. Senior Harry Boland added 10 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. Marinello contributed nine tackles, and Michael Mignone tallied nine tackles and three tackles for loss.

The Chiefs are currently on a 24-game winning streak dating back to the start of the 2021 campaign. Caldwell has outscored its opponents 131-21 in this year's NJSIAA Group 2 playoffs.

Group 3

Old Tappan (11-1) at Delsea (12-0), Saturday, 3 pm

Old Tappan advanced to the Group 3 state final after defeating West Morris, 21-6, in the state semifinals at Franklin High School on November 20. The Golden Knights have won five games in a row and are averaging 33.8 points per game during that stretch.

Senior Aidan Heaney ignited the offense with 205 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the win over West Morris. Quarterback Tommy Caracciolo added a 10-yard rushing score. Caracciolo also completed seven out of 10 pass attempts for 55 yards. Evan Brooks reeled in three receptions for 40 yards.

Linebacker Jack Diggins recorded a key fourth down stop to propel the Golden Knights to the first ever Group 3 state championship at Rutgers. The Rochester commit exploded for a game-high 22 tackles and a tackle for loss. Luca Saracino added 15 tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack. Senior Tim Clune snared an interception and tallied nine tackles. Old Tappan's defense neutralized the Wolfpack's Wing-T offense, holding them to their lowest scoring input this season. Brown commit Stefano Montella managed 206 rushing yards and a touchdown for West Morris. However, the Wolfpack were held scoreless in three quarters.

Another Wing-T opponent lies ahead.

Delsea rallied from a 14-point deficit to upend Camden, 20-14, in the Group 3 state semifinals at Cherokee High School on November 19. Quarterback Jimmy Reardon punched in a rushing score with 16 seconds left in regulation to power the Crusaders to their 12th consecutive win. Jared Schoppe led Delsea with 128 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The senior has accumulated 1,160 rushing yards and 24 rushing touchdowns this season. Wayne Adair added 65 yards and a touchdown. Adair leads the Crusaders this season with 1,222 rushing yards and has 15 rushing touchdowns.

Delsea's Wayne Adair (5) follows a block by Ashton Blose (66) in the NJSIAA Group 3 state semifinals at Cherokee High School in Evesham, New Jersey on Saturday, November 19, 2022. Ryan Fuhs/D2 Sports Network

Delsea's defense forced three turnovers against the Panthers. Adair, Luke Maxwell and Dom Teti recorded interceptions. Senior linebacker Danny DiGiovacchino tallied a pair of sacks. DiGiovacchino leads the Crusaders with 82 tackles this season, complemented by 11 tackles for loss. Austin Boos also notched a sack. Boos has 50 tackles,15 tackles for loss and seven sacks this season. Senior interior lineman Ashton Blose has been a menacing presence in the trenches this season with 73 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.

Sal Marchese's squad has won 28 out of its last 30 games since 2020 and is averaging 36.3 points per game this season.

Group 4

Northern Highlands (9-3) at Millville (11-2), Saturday, 6 pm

The Highlanders outlasted North Hunterdon, 21-20, in overtime at Franklin High School on November 19 to advance to the Group 4 state final. Fred Kanning reeled in a 14-yard touchdown from Nate Johnson on the opening drive of the extra period. The Lions responded with a touchdown on a one yard run by Kente Edwards, but Northern Highlands blocked the extra point attempt to secure the victory.

Johnson powered the Highlanders offense on 10-for-16 passing for 127 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The sophomore also rushed for 30 yards and a score. Charlie Sparago dashed for a team-high 68 rushing yards. Luke Saturn hauled in a team-high six receptions for 67 yards. Danny Smiechowski added three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. Kanning finished with three receptions for 35 yards and a score.

Defensively, Zach Chostaka turned in a dominating performance with 15 tackles and two interceptions. Pierson DeBruyn charted seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Roman Dario contributed 11 tackles, and Jack Inserra tallied 10 tackles and a sack. Sparago recorded six tackles and an interception.

Northern Highlands has won five straight games since a 21-14 loss to Clifton on October 14. The Highlanders are accustomed to playing football in December with appearances in the North Jersey Group 4 regional final in 2019 (21-17 loss to Wayne Valley) and 2021 (19-14 loss to Irvington). Dave Cord's squad is 35-9 since 2019.

Millville scored 12 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to edge Mainland, 18-14, in the Group 4 state semifinals at Cherokee High School on November 20. Na'eem Sharp reached the end zone on a 16-yard run with 39 seconds left to lift the Thunderbolts to their seventh consecutive victory. The junior rushed for 65 yards.

Bricere Hunter rushed for a team-best 73 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Jacob Zamot completed 14 out of 26 pass attempts for 142 yards. Thomas Smith III snagged four catches for a game-high 64 yards and sophomore sensation Lotzeir Brooks grabbed four receptions for 44 yards. Brooks currently holds offers from Georgia, Oregon, Texas A&M, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Syracuse, Rutgers, Nebraska, Boston College, West Virginia, Louisville, UConn and Temple.

Hunter also contributed on defense with a 44-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery to cut Millville's deficit to a point in the first quarter. Tahjeer Brown snared an interception in the red zone. Darian Blachewicz and Jayden Jones each recorded a sack. Blachewicz has 30 tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks and an interception this season.

Linebacker Solomon Massey-Kent leads the Thunderbolts' defense with 80 tackles this season. The senior also has six tackles for loss and four sacks. Senior Keyan German has recorded 63.5 tackles, a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Junior defensive lineman Shakeim Sapp has a team-best six sacks and four tackles for loss. Sophomore linebacker Jamal Wallace, Jr. has contributed 42 tackles, six tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a sack. Junior Ta'Ron Haile has 40 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble. Haile currently holds offers from Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Maryland, Boston College, West Virginia and Temple.

Millville is also familiar with the December football concept. The Thunderbolts outlasted Winslow, 45-35, in last season's South/Central Group 4 regional final at Rutgers.

Millville is 23-3 over the last two seasons. Current Scarlet Knights offensive quality control coach Dennis Thomas guided the Bolts to a 12-1 mark in 2021. First-year coach Humberto Ayala currently has the team sitting at 11-2 heading into its biggest game in program history.

Group 5

Toms River North (13-0) at Passaic Tech (11-2), Sunday, 3 pm

The Mariners cruised past Edison, 42-14, in the state semifinals at Cherokee High School to reach the inaugural Group 5 state championship. Quarterback Micah Ford rushed for an astounding 300 yards and five touchdowns. The junior also delivered a 15-yard touchdown pass to Tareq Council. Ford also charted eight tackles, a forced fumble and 0.5 tackles for loss on defense. The junior has 2,251 rushing yards, 1,086 passing yards, 48 total touchdowns (33 rushing, 14 passing, one defensive), 74 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four interceptions. Running back Josh Moore added 87 rushing yards in the victory.

Jeremiah Pruitt charted 10 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and 0.5 tackles for loss for the Mariners. Linebacker Anthony Rodriguez contributed 10 tackles and a tackle for loss. Towering 6-foot-5 offensive lineman Ja’elyne Matthews contributed on defense with three tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception. The sophomore currently holds offers from Georgia, Ohio State, Tennessee, Penn State, Syracuse, Texas A&M, Miami, Rutgers, Boston College and UConn. Linebacker Ty Boland tallied nine tackles and a tackle for loss, and senior Ty Kazanowsky recorded six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks. Senior defensive lineman Nasir McDougald had four tackles and a sack.

Toms River North has outscored its opponents 181-41 in the NJSIAA Group 5 playoffs. Dave Oizerowitz's squad is averaging 48.6 points per game this season and has pitched four shutouts.

Passaic Tech advanced to the Group 5 state final via a 21-7 triumph over West Orange at Franklin High School on November 20. A pair of rushing scores by Trashon Dye and Travon Dye erased a 7-6 deficit after three quarters and punched the Bulldogs' ticket to Rutgers. Trashon Dye rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Cashmere Jones added 50 yards on the ground and Travon Dye contributed 41 yards.

Trashon also posted a team-high 12 tackles on defense. Jones recorded 11 tackles and junior Jordan Alston tallied 11 tackles, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery. Quamar Ayscue poured in nine tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack. Jovan Tyrell and Eric Jackson added seven tackles each and Joel Perez forced a fumble.

The Bulldogs have won four games in a row since a 7-6 setback to Paterson Eastside on October 20. Their defense is only allowing 6.6 points per game and hasn't allowed more than 14 points in a single game this season.

Passaic Tech has qualified for the playoffs in each of coach Matt Demarest's 11 seasons at the school. The program has won two sectional titles during his tenure.

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