By Jimmy Allinder
A pair of area high school football teams began the season hoping to qualify for the NJSIAA playoffs and finish with winning records.
That didn’t happen, however, as Edison High School and Metuchen High School own 3-5-1 and 3-6 records, respectively, heading into their final games against Thanksgiving rivals.
Edison will host crosstown neighbor J.P. Stevens High School in the annual renewal of a heated rivalry that dates back to when the North Edison School opened its doors in 1966. Since a 13-9 victory by the Eagles in that first encounter, the series stands at 25-20-4 in favor of the the Hawks. Edison has won the last three matchups.
The Metuchen vs. Highland Park High School Thanksgiving Day contest will be the fourth game to be played since the series resumed after an 11-year interruption. Longtime sports writer and Metuchen native John Haley reported the teams initially met in 1937 and played on Thanksgiving until 2001.
Administrators from both schools decided to end the Turkey Day contest due to potential scheduling conflicts if one or both teams made the state playoffs. Between 2002 and 2012, the Bulldogs and Owls met yearly but did not play on Thanksgiving.
The all-time series record, including games not played on Thanksgiving, has Highland Park holding a 60-20 margin in victories and the rivals tying once, although Metuchen has won the last three times. The series is second only to the Carteret High School vs. Perth Amboy High School game in terms of longevity in Middlesex County.
“The Stevens game is always a challenge, and the records really don’t matter,” Edison coach Matt Fulham said. “We don’t do anything different in terms of preparation, but new plays could be installed based on what [they] do on offense and defense. Plus, we have extra days to practice, so we use that time to develop some younger players.”
Among those who have contributed are seniors Nick Yanik at linebacker and running back (25 receptions, 341 yards), Justin Turner at quarterback (109 completions, 1,606 yards, 14 touchdowns), Lance Rice on the offensive and defensive lines, Reilly Gonzalez at linebacker and running back (59 solo tackles, 90 total), and Keanu Reed at wide receiver and defensive back (46 catches, 764 yards, eight touchdowns).
Edison will return a strong sophomore class, which includes starters Anthony Burke and Xavier Long (offensive and defensive lines) and Noah Stansbury (wide receiver and defensive back).
Like other high schools located in communities with changing demographics, Edison has found competing in the Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Red Division to be a growing challenge.
“Some [potential] players do not want to make the commitment that football requires, or they want to focus on one sport,” he said. “There are also athletes in the building who choose not to play. This season, we also had transfer issues.”
Those transfer issues include two-year starting quarterback Haaziq Daniels, who is now at St. John Vianney High School, and a promising group of freshmen heading to other schools.
Although this has been a season of ups and downs, the Eagles come off a 31-22 victory against Marlboro High School in a crossover game Nov. 12. The junior varsity team finished 6-3 and the freshmen were 4-4-1, which Fulham says should enable his team to improve next season. He says there are potentially up to six players who could play football at the college level.
Although head coach Bob Ulmer hoped his Metuchen team could compete for the GMC Blue Division title, he cautioned the Bulldogs were inexperienced in key positions and that any injury would have major ramifications.
“We had so many injuries and with our lack of depth, our problems were magnified,” Ulmer said. “Only four starters returned, but I’ve been proud of our team because it never gave up and played hard every week.”
Metuchen was led by quarterback and defensive back Will Hronich (17 completions, 185 yards and seven touchdowns); wide receiver and defensive backs Dan Russell, Joey Sipos and Sean McCadden; outside linebacker or defensive end Owen Critchley; tight end and linebacker Jared Manley; and offensive and defensive lineman Phil Marcille.
“We’re looking forward to next year because several freshmen return who we expect to contribute,” Ulmer said.
In the state gymnastics championships Nov. 10 at Montgomery High School, J.P. Stevens’ Shannon Gregory captured the balance beam in the individual competition. The junior scored 9.8 after finishing second in the North Jersey, Section II meet the previous week with a score of 9.5.
Bishop George Ahr High School, led by strong performances from a number of gymnasts, finished third in the team championships with 110.7 points. Among the top performers this season were sophomore Ariyana Agarwala, who won the all-around competition in the sectional meet and finished third in the balance beam in the state meet.
Other gymnasts who contributed were Skylar Davisson, Troi Marshall and Upasna Parikh, all of whom placed in various events at the sectional meet.