Top Seeded Raiders Host Eighth Seeded Zebras in CJ Group 5 Opening Round
HILLSBOROUGH, NJ—For the second time this season, Big Central Gridiron will be traveling down to David A. Noonan Memorial Field to take in the Hillsborough Raiders. The last time was in Week #1 when the Raiders hosted Phillipsburg in an OT classic won by Hillsborough 21-14. This time, the Raiders are the top seed in Central Jersey Group 5 as well as the No. 1 overall seed in the South Jersey Group 5 Super Section.
Hillsborough will be hosting 8th seeded New Brunswick, which rolled past Monroe (43-14) in the regular season finale for both teams at Hugh P. Walsh Stadium in Monroe last week. The Zebras have been up and down this season, but have solid wins over Rahway (42-27), and Monroe while only losing to third seeded North Brunswick (21-14) by seven earlier in the season.
New Brunswick enters the contest at 4-5 overall with wins over Rahway, Monroe, Piscataway (15-14), and Perth Amboy (22-15). The Zebras have lost to East Brunswick (35-14), North Brunswick, Edison (21-7), St. Joseph’s (38-14), and Sayreville (28-9). Hillsborough also played Piscataway (won 36-7) and North Brunswick (won 41-0). The Raiders also defeated Old Bridge (44-0), which gave East Brunswick its only loss.
Hillsborough also defeated Bridgewater-Raritan on the road at Basilone Field (31-21), and the Panthers edged Sayreville in Bomber Country back in Week 1 (17-14). Based on all of that, the Raiders appear to be a heavy favorite entering tonight’s contest. However, this is why we play the games. New Brunswick wasn’t favored to win at Monroe last week either, and won big. They also knocked off Rahway on the road as well.
As a matter of fact, the Zebras have won all four of their games away from the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium in The Hub City. New Brunswick is 4-1 on the road and 0-4 at home. Hillsborough hasn’t lost at all though, and won perhaps its toughest game of the season over Phillipsburg at Noonan Field. In addition, the Stateliners had jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter before the Raiders rallied to win in overtime.
The Raiders have a very good home crowd bolstered by a very rowdy and boisterous student section that will make its presence felt tonight. The winner of this game will face the winner of the contest between 4th seeded Southern Regional and 5th seeded Williamstown taking place in Manahawkin near Long Beach Island on Friday night. Williamstown won South Jersey Group 5 in 2018 before losing to Sayreville in the regional final at Met Life Stadium.
Prior to this game, these two schools have never met on the football field. In 1974 and 1975, Hillsborough played St. Peter’s of New Brunswick and won both times. From 2011 to 2017, the Raiders faced off against South Brunswick three times and lost on each occasion. This year, Hillsborough played three Middlesex County schools: Old Bridge, Piscataway, and North Brunswick, and won all three games by a combined margin of 121-7.
Last year, the Raiders played Edison in the finale for both teams at The Drawl in Edison’s Southside, and the Eagles won a thriller 50-49 in perhaps the best game of the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. In 2018, when the Mid-State 38 and Greater Middlesex Conference began playing each other in crossover games, Hillsborough opened its season with a hard fought 27-25 victory at Colonia, and then lost to Sayreville in the opening round of the playoffs (42-7).
Then, in 2019, Hillsborough played Colonia, East Brunswick, and Piscataway over a three week span, and won all three contest by a combined margin of 89-13. Hillsborough is not the only Somerset County school that New Brunswick is playing for the first time in recent years. Last season, New Brunswick faced Franklin in the first game ever between the two schools that are just miles apart. The Zebras won 20-7.
The victory over Franklin was one of only two wins for the Zebras in 2020 as they finished just 2-5, but they were able to compete on the football field despite COVID, and began moving on after the team was forced to forfeit four games in 2019 after starting the season at 4-0 including an upset of neighborhood rival and Middlesex County power, Piscataway.
Coming into Friday night’s game, Hillsborough has outscored its opponents by a margin of 321-97, or by an average of 36-11 per contest. Meanwhile, New Brunswick has been outscored by a margin of 213-180, or an average of about 24-20 per contest. The Raiders largest margin of victory this season was 44 versus Old Bridge on October 15th while the Zebras largest margin of victory was 29 versus Monroe. Largest margin of defeat for New Brunswick this season was 24 against St. Joseph’s (38-14) on October 9th.
The Raiders have compiled 1,164 yards in the air, and 1,640 yards on the ground for 2,804 yards of total offense. Leading the Hillsborough attack is senior QB Jay Mazuera, who has completed nearly 65 percent of all his passes this season for about 20.5 yards per completion and 16 TDs while only throwing three interceptions. Mazuera has also rushed 32 times for 113 yards and a TD.
Providing Mazuera plenty of assistance on offense is Rutgers commit, Tommy Amankwaa, who has rushed 44 times for 566 yards and 11 TDs, and caught 20 passes for another 501 yards and 6 TDs. Amankwaa, who just about single handedly helped the Raiders rally past Hillsborough in Week 1, and has returned a kickoff back 85 yards for a score, is averaging 17.7 yards per touch.
Also helping out in the rushing game is Tyler Michinard, who has rushed 111 times for a team leading 651 yards, or an average of 5.9 yards per carry along with 9 TDs. Michinard has also caught 8 passes for 72 yards and a score. Will Dixon is also a big target in the passing game. Dixon, who caught a 2nd quarter TD to spark the Raiders against Phillipsburg, has caught 11 passes for 155 yards and 4 TDs.
Sophomore James Shaffer is also a key contributor in the passing game and return game. Shaffer has 6 receptions for 103 yards, or a little more than 17 yards per catch, and a TD while also returning a couple kickoffs for 24 yards including a long of 15. Another sophomore, Jonathan Lobello, leads the Raiders in total tackles with 35 including 17 solos, a tackle for loss, and a sack as well as a forced fumble.
Another underclassmen, fellow sophomore, Tyler Van Cleef ranks 2nd in total tackles with 29 for the Raiders including 10 solos. Sal Volpe, Andrew Santabarbara, Adam Movshin, Ethan McLaughlin, Lobello, and Michinard each have one sack while Meszaros and Leo Schiro each share half a sack. Ryan Taesatano, who has scored on a two point conversion on offense, leads Hillsborough in interceptions with two.
Sam Meechan handles the placekicking duties for the Raiders, and has made his only field goal attempt of 32 yards while converting 27 of 28 extra point attempts. Meanwhile, for New Brunswick, senior Bryan Latham leads the offense at QB while the trio of senior Amir Alford and juniors Yasir Johnson and Eli Rodriguez lead the Zebra ground game with a combined 504 yards on 65 carries, or about 7.8 yards per carry, and 8 TDs.
Rodriguez, who along with Johnson, play hoops during the winter at NBHS, leads the team in receiving as well along with a team high 3 interceptions including two returned back for touchdowns. David Caballero Perez handles the kicking duties for New Brunswick, and has made his only field goal attempt of 37 yards while converting on 3 of 5 extra point attempts.
The Zebras will be looking to advance to the semifinal round for the first time since 2015 when it lost to Old Bridge (26-12) at Memorial Stadium to conclude the season at 9-2 with the likes of Maurice Ffrench (played at Pitt and now is in the NFL with the L.A. Chargers), and German Pimentel, who also played basketball at Piscataway Tech and New Brunswick.
It will be a tall order for New Brunswick to defeat Hillsborough on the road at Noonan Field. While the Zebras have been quite the Road Warriors this season, this particular game away from Memorial Stadium is against the top seed in all of the South Jersey region, and has a very good chance of going all the way to the regional title. Ranked atop the BCG Top 10 for the past several weeks, the Raiders will be tough to beat.
Prediction: Hillsborough wins, 42-0.