Top Seeded Cougars Looking to Reach Finals for 1st Time in 5 Years
CRANFORD, NJ—On Friday night, playoff action resumes in the various NJSIAA State Football Tournaments, and Big Central Gridiron will be covering action at Memorial Field in Cranford where the top seeded Cougars face fourth seeded Pascack Valley in the North Jersey Section 2 Group 3 Semifinals. Cranford is looking to make its first appearance in a sectional championship game since 2015, and for the 3rd time since 2011.
Winners of the Big Central Conference’s Division 4 title, Cranford enters Friday night’s contest at 9-0 and with a No. 5 ranking in the latest Big Central Gridiron Top 10, and ranked 2nd in the BCG’s latest Union County Top 10. The Cougars won their opening round game of the playoffs over Demarest (56-26) at Memorial Field last Friday while Pascack Valley defeated 5th seeded Montville (34-17).
After narrowing escaping an opening night upset at the hands of North Hunterdon with a come from behind 43-37 victory in overtime in Cranford, the Cougars, have been quite stout on defense. Since Week #2 Cranford, has not given up more than 28 points in a game, and have only yielded more than 20 points in a contest on three occasions: J.F. Kennedy (49-20), Woodbridge (38-28), and Demarest.
The Cougars have outscored their opponents 346-166, or by an average of 38 to 18 per contest. While Cranford has not yielded a shutout this season, it has held their foes to 14 points or less in 5 of its last 8 games. Cranford’s offense, on the other hand, has been quite efficient by scoring 38 points or more in 6 of its 9 games including five contests with 42 points or more.
Including last week’s win over Demarest, Cranford has beaten 7 teams that have qualified for the playoffs. The only two teams it played that didn’t qualify were J.F. Kennedy, and Scotch Plains-Fanwood, which was barred from the playoffs due to several player ejections in a 34-20 win over Plainfield on Labor Day Weekend. The Raiders finished 5-6 on the season after losing a regional crossover to St. Joseph’s (24-19) last week.
Meanwhile, Pascack Valley, a team from the Super Football Conference’s American White Division, which comes into Friday’s contest with a 7-3 overall record, have played five teams that have qualified for the playoffs, and are 2-3 versus those two teams. One of those two wins came against Demarest (37-20), which Cranford defeated last week. One of its losses came to Group 2 Ramsey, which lost to Hanover Park (33-21) in the opening round of the playoffs last week.
Through its previous 10 games, the Panthers have outscored their opponents by a margin of 289-189 per game, or by an average of about 29-19 per contest. Pascack Valley, which finished second behind River Dell in the SFC’s American White, is 2-2 away from home while Cranford is 5-0 at home this season. The Panthers are 7-0 when they’ve held their opponents to 20 points or less.
Prior to this evening’s playoff matchup, the two schools have never played each other before. Pascack Valley normally plays in North Jersey Section 1, but now with the revamped playoff format over the past several years, the Panthers are playing in North Jersey Section 2 this season. The Panthers are looking to reach the sectional final for the first time since 2014 when they reached the championship game for the third straight year, and won the second of back to back championships.
To date, Pascack Valley, coached by Len Cusumano has tallied almost 1,200 yards through the air, and nearly 2,000 yards on the ground, and is averaging just over 317 yards of total offense per game. Meanwhile, Cranford, coached by Erik Rosenmeier, hascompiled 1,266 yards through the air, and a little more than 2,200 on the ground to average a bit more than 387 yards per contest.
The Cougars are led by senior QB, Shane Van Dam, who has completed 78 of 130 for 1,260 yards and 14 TDs while throwing only two interceptions. Van Dam has also rushed 35 times for 212 yards, or a little more than 6 yards per carry, and two more scores. Big Central Gridiron Week 6 Player of the Week, Colin Murray spearheads the Cougar rushing attack with 197 carries for 1,503 yards, or about 7.6 yards per rush, and 26 TDs.
Fellow classmate, Lucca Limeira also contributes in the running game on offense with 69 carries for 428 yards, or 6.2 yards per carry, and 5 TDs. Will Gallagher is Van Dam’s primary target through the air with 29 receptions for 530 yards, or an average of 18.3 yards per catch, and 7 TDs. Jake Carter, who had a key first half interception in the win over Colonia (27-14) on October 8th, ranks 2nd on the team with 14 catches for 262 yards, and 2 TDs.
Jack Conley, who caught a go ahead TD pass in the 2nd qtr versus Colonia, and Liam Godwin, who also handles the placekicking chores, each have 154 yards receiving to rank 3rd on the team in that department while Godwin, has more yards per catch at 15.4 while Conley has 14.0. Senior Lukas Ruby is another target with 11 receptions for 126 yards. The Cougars have 5 different players with 100 or more receiving yards this season.
Since the Colonia game, junior linebacker, Shane Kanterman, has not relinquished his team lead in either total tackles (69) or sacks (5) despite suffering an injury towards the end of the victory over the Patriots. Kanterman also has 30 solo tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4 fumble recoveries, and a kick block. Gallagher also leads the team in interceptions with 6 including two returned for touchdowns.
Junior Ryan Lynskey ranks second on the Cougars in total tackles with 40 while Godwin ranks third with 36, and senior Stephen Kisly ranks 4th with 35 along with two interceptions, which is second on the team. Conley, Carter, Gallagher, and Lynskey contribute to Cranford’s return game with Conley leading the team in kickoff return yards, and Carter second while leading the Cougars in punt return yards. Godwin has converted both of his field gaol tries as well as 38 of 40 extra point attempts this season.
Senior Ethan Silcher directs Pascack Valley’s offense at QB with 83 completions in 164 attempts for 1,143 yards, or 13.8 yards per completion along with 15 TDs while only throwing three interceptions. Silcher has also rushed 31 times for 228 yards, or about 7.4 yards per rush. Speaking of rushing, senior RB, Nick Messina, leads the Panthers ground attack with 203 carries for 1,331 yards, or 6.6 yards per carry and 14 TDs.
Senior wideout, Nick Savariego is second on the team in rushing with 44 carries for 336 yards, or about 7.6 yards per rush and 4 TDs. Another senior, Dylan Hutchinson is the primary target in the air with 51 receptions for 798 yards, or 15.6 yards per catch along with 11 TDs. Savariego adds 10 catches for 180 yards and 2 TDs. When you add in his kickoff and punt returns, Savariego averages 12.5 yards per touch.
Messina (12 catches for 87 yards and 2 TDs) and Connor Higgins (11 catches for 110 yards and a TD) are two other targets Silcher has in the passing game. Meanwhile, sophomore Owen Deady leads the team in kickoff returns with 12 for a total of 285 yards. Senior Joaquin Grijalva takes care of the placekicking duties, and has made both of his field goal attempts as well as 35 of his 40 extra point tries.
On defense, Pascack Valley is led by senior defensive lineman, Steven Demboski, who has collected 84 total tackles, and also leads the team with 6.5 sacks on the season. Demboski also has 36 solo tackles and 12 for loss along with a forced fumble. Nick Messina also shares the team lead in total tackles with 84 while also leading the team in solo tackles with 42 including four for loss, and has two interceptions.
Justin Amato ranks second on the team in total tackles with 67 and sacks with 4. Matt Bell is third in total tackles with 61 along with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Junior Brandon Flanagan, who also plays tight end on offense, shares 2nd place with Amato on the team with 4 sacks while also recovering two fumbles including one for a TD. Senior Connor McKenna (41 total tackles, and junior Nick Bruzzi (39 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and one INT) also contribute on defense.
Both teams can put up a lot of numbers and make plays in all three facets of the game: Offense, Defense, and Special Teams. So, we could see a lot of points tonight. However, Cranford has scored more while giving up less, has yet to lose at home, played a tougher schedule, and beat a common opponent in Demarest by a wider margin. Therefore, the Cougars should advance to the finals.
Prediction: Cranford wins, 45-28.