Panthers Rematch with Warriors for Spot in Sectional Semifinals
SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – The opening round of the playoffs begins on Friday night, and one of the match-ups in the 2023 NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1 Group 5 bracket is a rematch from the regular season. Back on September 23rd, Watchung Hills dodged the raindrops to score a last-second touchdown for a 14-7 victory over Bridgewater-Raritan. The Panthers and Warriors meet again in the playoffs.
Bridgewater-Raritan enters the contest at 3-6 overall, but playing in the rough and tumble American Silver Division of the Big Central Conference, the record is not indicative of how good the Panthers can be. Two of Bridgewater-Raritan’s three wins were by an average of 30 points while 5 of its 6 losses were by a combined total of just 37 points.
Meanwhile, Watchung Hills began the season with five straight wins including the victory over the Panthers five weeks ago. Since then, the Warriors have split their last four including a hard-fought, 20-13 victory on the road over Elizabeth at Williams Field last Friday night. Bridgewater-Raritan defeated Elizabeth two weeks ago, 23-19 at Basilone Field. Elizabeth is only 1-8, but is also tougher than its record indicates with its only win over Union and all 8 losses by a combined total of 37 points.
Both teams qualified for the playoffs a year ago. Watchung Hills lost to West Orange (18-10) at Tozier Field in the opening round of the 2022 NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2 Group 5 Tournament. Bridgewater-Raritan fell on the road at Westfield (28-7) in the opening round of the 2022 NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1 Group 5 Tournament. The Warriors finished at 7-3 while the Panthers ended up at 4-6.
Watchung Hills finished 2nd to Montgomery in the BCC’s Liberty Silver Division. The Warriors lost to the Cougars a month ago in Warren, 28-21. Watchung Hills’ two losses were by a total of just 12 points. The Warriors are led by senior QB, Aleks Sitkowski. A transfer from Piscataway, Sitkowski is the younger brother of former Old Bridge and Rutgers standout, Art Sikowski.
Through the Warriors’ first 9 games, Sitkowski has completed 101 of 170 passes for 1,252 yards and 14 TDs versus 7 interceptions. Sitkowski is also Watchung Hills leading rusher with 62 carries for another 485 yards and 9 TDs. Sitkowski has accounted for 1,737 yards and 23 TDs, or about 65.5 percent of the Warriors’ offensive yardage, and 72 percent of the team’s touchdowns.
Lucas Garcia and David Dubas also key the Warriors’ ground game. Garcia (74 carries for 380 yards and a TD) and Dubas (62 carries for 260 yards and 2 TDs) have combined to rush 136 times for 640 yards and 3 TDs. Combined, the duo is averaging 4.7 yards per rush. The trio of Jack Clintock, Brayden Kelly, and Braden Fenton combine with Sitkowski to spark the Warriors’ passing attack.
Clintock (35 receptions for 595 yards and 7 TDs), Kelly (20 catches for 320 yards and 4 TDs), and Fenton (22 receptions for 172 yards and a TD) have combined for 77 catches, 1087 yards, and 12 TDs. The receiver triumvirate accounts for 80 percent of the receiving touchdowns and averages 14.1 yards per catch combined. Kelly has also contributed on defense with a team-leading 4 interceptions.
Also on the defensive side of the ball, Scott Drews leads Watchung Hills with 72 total tackles including 51 solos and 6 for loss. Seniors Sean Wahlers and John Ozgur share the team-high in sacks with two. Kelly also leads the team on defense with 4 forced fumbles and has a fumble recovery. Drews is second on the squad in forced fumbles with 3 and also has a team-high 3 fumble recoveries.
Dubas has a kickoff return of 95 yards for a TD this season. Junior placekicker, Byron McCann has converted 26 of 28 extra point attempts while making his only field goal attempt of 31 yards in Watchung Hills’ 31-24 victory at Morris Knolls on September 14th. Bridgewater-Raritan counters with a solid QB of its own in Jack Bray.
Bray, a senior, has completed 128 of 233 passes for 1,624 yards and 18 TDs versus 7 interceptions. Bray has also rushed 27 times for another 43 yards and a score. Senior RB, Frankie Verano leads the Panthers ground game with 67 carries for 320 yards and 2 TDs. Verano also has 10 receptions for another 89 yards and a TD.
Bridgwater-Raritan also has a solid trio of receivers in Dane Sorensen, Joe Spirra, and Colin Woodring. Sorensen leads the group with 45 catches for 803 yards and 7 TDs. Sorensen is averaging 17.8 yards per reception. Spirra is second on the team in receiving with 31 catches for 339 yards and 5 TDs. Spirra has also completed 5 of 7 passes for 39 yards and rushed 35 times for 109 yards.
Sorensen has also contributed to the Panthers ground attack with 31 carries for 247 yards and 4 more scores. In addition, Sorensen contributes to special teams in the return game. Sorensen has returned 3 kickoffs for 73 yards including a long of 32, and 3 punts including a 60-yard return for a touchdown. Adding that all together, Sorensen is averaging 14.5 yards per touch.
Woodring has caught 18 passes for 157 yards and 2 TDs and also has one of the Panthers’ six interceptions on defense. The receiving trio has combined for 94 receptions for 1,299 yards and 14 TDs, or 13.8 yards per catch, 79.6 of the team’s receiving yardage, and 77.8 percent of the Panthers’ receiving touchdowns. Senior RB Devin Goldberg also contributes with 53 carries for 229 yards and a TD.
Spirra also leads the defense for Bridgewater-Raritan. A senior linebacker on the other side of the ball, Spirra has a team-leading 101 total tackles including a team-high 90 solos and 9 for loss. Junior defensive lineman, Chris DelSantro is another key contributor with a team-high 6 sacks. Defensive back, Nicholas Markovitch has the team’s only fumble recovery.
Panthers’ placekicker Joe Squicciarini has made one of two field goal attempts and converted 15 of 16 extra point attempts. Expect more offense and scoring in this contest. Weather conditions due to Tropical Storm Ophelia hampered both teams offensively as the Warriors and Panthers only combined for a total of 21 points. Friday’s weather is going to be much different with dry conditions and warmer temperatures.
Both team’s offenses utilize a lot of personnel in the passing game. Bridgewater-Raritan has at least one reception from 11 different players this season while Watchung Hills has 13 different players with at least a catch. The winner of this game will face either 3rd-seeded Montclair or 6th-seeded Columbia next week in the sectional semifinals.
The Panthers enter this contest with a bit more momentum. Over its previous two contests, Bridgewater-Raritan has scored an average of 36 points per game while Watchung Hills has averaged just 21 points per game. On defense, the Panthers have yielded 20 points per contest while the Warriors have given up about 20 as well.
Bray has completed 29 of his last 43 passes for 372 yards and 2 TDs over his last two games. Sorensen has 20 touches on offense for 273 yards, or an average of 13.7 yards per touch over his last two games, and 4 TDs. Sitkowski has completed 12 of 27 passes for 96 yards and a TD in his last two games for Watchung Hills. Over those same two games, Sitkowski rushed 16 times for 193 yards and 3 TDs.
Mason Kelly played at QB for Watchung Hills in the Warriors’ first meeting with Bridgewater-Raritan last month. In that game, Kelly completed 10 of 17 passes for 75 yards and a TD while rushing 11 times for another 33 yards and one more score. These two teams met at Basilone Field in 2022 with the Warriors rolling to a 38-14 victory in a Week 4 Thursday night contest.
This contest could be another close one. Don’t be fooled by the records. Watchung Hills has the better record, but Bridgewater-Raritan has played a slightly tougher schedule and has been playing better lately. The Panthers seem to have more momentum in this game, and in the playoffs that might be enough.
Prediction: Bridgewater-Raritan wins, 31-28.