Guided Tigers to 2016 CJ Group 3 Championship Game
SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ—Back in 2012, then South Plainfield Athletic Director, Al Czech was looking to interject some new blood into the Tigers athletic program. For years, South Plainfield had towered as a wrestling program, but in the money making sports of high school football and boys basketball, the Tigers were struggling.
The last four years of the Phlip McGuane era had resulted in a 9-31 record for the Tigers on the football field after making an incredible run to the 2007 North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 Championship Game as an 8th seed before losing to Newark Westside (20-0). After the departure of Jeff Lubreski following the 2004-05 season, SPHS basketball had only the trip to the 2007 GMCT Final Four and N2 Group 3 semifinals, and that team had a roster of players that came into the program towards the end of the Lubreski era.
So, Czech, who was in his second tenure as SPHS AD (first was from 1985-94), decided to bring some young energetic coaching talent to both sports. In boys basketball, he hired Justin Chiera, who was a star at rival Colonia High School, and was the all time leading scorer (1,620 points) at the school for several seasons before teammate Nick Smith (1,672 points) broke his scoring mark in 2005. Then, in football, he brought in Gary Cassio, a lifelong resident of South Plainfield, who was a standout on the gridiron at nearby Bishop Ahr, now St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Edison.
Cassio, who works for the South Plainfield Police Department, had previously coached the South Plainfield Middle School football program before taking the helm of the varsity program. He immediately had success by getting the Tigers into the 2012 state playoffs before losing to a very talented Cranford team led by then University of Pittsburgh bound, Reggie Green (37-12). South Plainfield finished the season at 4-6.
The following year, South Plainfield began the 2013 campaign with four straight wins, surpassing even the start by the legendary 1982 SPHS football team that began its season at 3-0. The Tigers capped the four game winning streak by defeating Cassio’s alma mater, Bishop Ahr (18-17) in a thrilling game that saw running back Roemello Monroe (28 rushes for 190 yards) run for an 65 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to lift the Tigers to the win.
SPHS would lose 4 of its last 6 games in 2013 including another opening round state playoff loss at Parsippany Hills, and to rival North Plainfield to finish at 6-4, but the Tigers would finally break through against the Canucks in 2014. After not winning a game versus North Plainfield since the annual Turkey Day rivalry resumed in 2002, South Plainfield, led by the likes of Johnny Chillemi, ended the Canucks winning streak in the rivalry with a 26-13 victory at Jost Field.
Chillemi rushed 8 times for 102 yards including a 77 yard TD while catching one pass for 23 more yards, and registering 9 tackles in the breakthrough victory over the Canucks. Then, in 2015, South Plainfield got off to another superb start with 6 wins in its first 7 games including a five game winning streak including a stunning opening night win over St. Joseph’s (29-7). Tiger football and basketball standout, Jason Lee, led the charge by rushing 19 times for 140 yards and 4 touchdowns while completing both his pass attempts for 40 yards, catching two passes for 25 yards, and making five tackles.
South Plainfield would lose its final three games of the season including an opening round loss to Red Bank Regional in the 2015 Central Jersey Group 3 playoffs, and then again to North Plainfield (28-14) on Thanksgiving at Krausche Field. Cassio would reach the pinnacle of his career in 2016 as he guided SPHS to its first sectional finals appearance since 2007 while also earning Middlesex County Coach of the Year honors.
The Tigers would again begin the season strong with four straight wins out of the gate including a memorable come from behind 15-12 victory over Woodbridge led by QB Charlie Lovett. Trailing 12-7 midway through the fourth, SP marched down the field and Lovett capped the drive with a two yard TD run followed by a Deshai Smith pass to Ben Lundy for the two point conversion. Lovett completed 7 of 13 passes for 60 yards while rushing 19 times for 110 yards in the win.
Qualifying for the state playoffs for the fourth time in five years, South Plainfield made the most of its post-season berth this time. In the opening round, the Tigers crushed Lawrence of the then Colonial Valley Conference and Mercer County (27-6) at Jost Field. Then, in the sectional semifinals at Ewing, SPHS turned in another dominant performance by shutting out Ewing (26-0). Sophomore running back, Zach Delvecchio turned in a bruising performance with 31 carries for 175 yards along with three touchdowns.
In the 2016 CJ Group 3 Championship Game, the Tigers were not given much of a chance against a highly touted Rumson team that not only rolled past GMC White rival, Carteret late in the season (35-6), but also edged Somerville (21-13) in what many thought was the quintessential title game in the sectional semifinals. However, SPHS battled throughout with several big special teams plays and some trickery to go toe to toe with the Shore Conference powerhouse before falling late, 27-22 at Rutgers University.
Riding the momentum of the playoff run, Cassio and the football program also got a boost from the Board of Education, which got a referendum on the ballot in March 2017 that in addition to improved district wide school infrastructure, brought a number of amenities to Jost Field including a renovated press box, refurbished bleachers with ramps for improved accessibility for the disabled, and a remodeled field house. Another part of the referendum, a turf field was also voted on, but rejected by voters.
South Plainfield was the only team in the GMC Blue Division, which also consisted of Carteret, Colonia, J.F. Kennedy, St. Joseph’s, and Woodbridge, which did not have a turf field, and one of only five Middlesex County schools including Aquinas, Middlesex, South River, and Spotswood to play on grass as of the end of this season. Over the last four seasons at South Plainfield, Cassio was only 12-23 including just 2-12 in 2019 and 2020 combined.
Nevertheless, Cassio still managed to get one more big win and another solid playoff run under his belt. In 2018, the Tigers qualified for the North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 playoffs, where like they were in 2007, faced with a huge challenge of taking a powerhouse Essex County program on the road in the first round. But just like the 2007 team did against then top seeded Irvington and again versus Scotch Plains, South Plainfield found a way to pull off a tremendous upset of West Essex (17-16). The Tigers would fall to Rahway in the sectional semifinals though to finish 6-5.
Cassio won two of his final three games against arch rival North Plainfield, and finished 3-6 overall against the Canucks in his tenure at SPHS. The annual Thanksgiving Day rivalry between the schools also ended in 2018. Overall, Cassio was 40-47 with five playoff berths during his 9 seasons as coach for South Plainfield, which actually places him third in victories all time behind McGuane (73-105) and the legendary Phil Graham (61-42-5). He also had the fourth longest coaching tenure of the 11 coaches to serve at the helm in South Plainfield.
The 2016 SPHS football team (8-4) equaled the 1982 team (8-3) in victories with both finishing second behind the undefeated 1965 team, which had 9 wins on top of being crowned Central Jersey Champions. Prior to the 2016 CJ Group 3 Championship, the Tigers had never scored a point in a sectional football final. In 1982, South Plainfield lost to Wall Township (21-0), then fell to Shore Regional in the 1988 CJ Group 2 Championship (9-0), and lost to Newark Westside in 2007 (20-0).