Undefeated Bernards Looking to Advance to Sectional Finals
BERNARDSVILLE, NJ – On Friday night, Big Central Gridiron will travel up to Olcott Field in Bernards Township to see the second-seeded Mountaineers take on Sussex Tech in the 2023 NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2 Group 2 Semifinals. The undefeated Mountaineers are looking to reach the sectional championship. Something that hasn’t happened in a while for Bernards despite having a program that has been consistently winning for over a decade.
The Mountaineers entered the contest at 10-0 and ranked third in the latest Big Central Gridiron Top 10. Bernards earned its place in the sectional semis by virtue of a 46-13 victory over 7th-seeded Ramsey at Olcott Field last Friday night. The win not only advanced Bernards to the semifinals but somewhat avenged last year’s first-round playoff loss to the Rams (35-21). Ramsey went on to lose to eventual sectional and state champion, Caldwell in the 2022 sectional semis (42-7).
Meanwhile, the 6h seeded Fighting Mustangs of Sussex Tech enter the game at 7-3 overall after an opening-round win at 3rd-seeded Mahwah (28-14) last week. Sussex Tech’s three losses were to Wallkill Valley (36-30), Newton (21-7), and Vernon (35-16). Wallkill Valley (3-7) played Jefferson on September 23rd and lost 38-16 at home. Bernards defeated Jefferson (47-6) in Morris County back in Week 0. Vernon also defeated Jefferson (44-7) on September 15th.
Offensively, Bernards is having a historic season. Entering the contest, the Mountaineers have outscored their opponents by a margin of 390-72, or by an average of 39-7 per game. Bernards has scored at least 40 points in 6 of its 10 wins. The Mountaineers are also very stingy on defense. Even though the Mountaineers have only recorded two shutouts this season, they have still yielded no more than a touchdown in 7 of its 10 victories.
Meanwhile, Sussex Tech has won 6 of 7 since starting the season at 1-2 following losses to Wallkill Valley and Newton. The Fighting Mustangs also have recorded two shutouts on the defensive side of the ball while yielding no more than two scores in five of its last six wins. Sussex Tech has outscored its opponents by a margin of 270-181, or an average of 27-18 per game en route to a second-place finish in the American Blue Division of the Super Football Conference.
Prior to this season, the Fighting Mustangs were only 5-20 overall combined. Bernards has enjoyed much more success with at least 8 wins in each of the past 6 seasons, and at least 7 victories in 11 of the last 12 years. The Mountaineers have a great blend of youth and experience on both sides of the ball. Bernards also has a very balanced offensive attack with a powerful ground game along with a potent passing game.
Leading the offensive machine for Bernards is senior QB, Connor Laverty, who has completed 78 of 120 passes for 1,119 yards and 14 TDs versus only one interception. Laverty is averaging 14.3 yards per completion in 2023. Laverty has also rushed 40 times for another 309 yards and 10 TDs. The senior QB accounts for 53.2 percent of Bernards’ offensive yardage and 47.1 of the team’s TDs.
The trio of sophomore Logan Stevens, freshman Patrick Carlisle, and junior Terrence Hanratty spearhead the Mountaineers rushing attack. Combined the RB triplets have 141 rushes for 921 yards, or about 6.5 yards per carry and 20 TDs. Bernards’ huge offensive line has played a huge role in the success of the team’s rushing game. In the passing game, Laverty has plenty of targets, but most notably the threesome of senior Jake Caldwell, junior Max Austin, and junior Jack Morra.
Through the first 10 contests, Caldwell, Austin, and Morra have combined for 54 catches for 893 yards, or about 16.5 yards per reception along with 11 of the Mountaineers 17 receiving touchdowns. On defense, senior David Brothers has had a record-breaking season with 43 total tackles and 10 sacks while Caldwell has also chipped in on the defensive side of the ball with two interceptions.
Bernards also has a trio of placekickers to turn to depending on the situation. Jonas Gonzalez has quite a leg, and the ability to connect from as far as 60 yards out. Gonzalez has made five field goal attempts this season including a long of 39 yards against Delaware Valley on September 22nd. Gonzalez made a 29-yard field goal and both his extra point attempts in the win over Ramsey last week. Senior Simon Bramwit (12 of 12 extra points) and sophomore Noah Ocher (1 of 1 FG and 5 of 6 XPs) also contribute.
Sussex Tech is led by junior QB Brian Gruber, who has completed 14 of 42 passes for 182 yards and 2 TDs versus 5 interceptions. Gruber is more of a problem in the ground game where he ranks 2nd on the team in rushing. Gruber has 164 carries for 1,083 yards or an average of 6.6 yards per rush along with 14 TDs. Senior Andrew Baker is the leading ground gainer for the Fighting Mustangs with 173 carries for 1,221 yards, or about 7.1 yards per rush along with 17 TDs. Baker and Gruber account for 88.5 percent of Sussex Tech’s rushing yardage and 91.2 percent of the team’s rushing TDs.
The Fighting Mustangs can ill afford to fall too far behind in this one. Sussex Tech only has a total of 237 passing yards on the season. Baker leads the team in receiving with only 5 receptions for 107 yards and 2 TDs. On defense, Baker is fourth on the team in total tackles with 46 along with a forced fumble and four interceptions. Cole Phillips leads the team in total tackles with 69 and sacks with 5. Senior LB, Shawn Garrison is 2nd in total tackles with 68 along with a forced fumble and a team-leading three fumble recoveries along with a safety.
Gruber also handles the placekicking duties, where he has converted 29 of 32 extra point attempts. Gruber has also scored 4 of the Fighting Mustangs 6 two-point conversions this season. Gruber and fellow junior Zach Doyle are threats in the return game. Doyle has averaged 12.3 yards per kickoff return including a season-long of 28 in the Week 0 win over Parsippany. Gruber has returned six kickoffs for 124 yards, or about 20.7 yards per return including a season-long of 46 in the Week 0 victory at Parsippany.
Sussex Tech has turned in a solid season with 7 wins including 6 of its last 7, but is still just learning to win. Prior to the streak of 6 out of 7, the Fighting Mustangs were a combined 6-22 over the previous three seasons and the first three contests of 2023. Bernards is much further along. The Mountaineers are also much more balanced, experienced, and solid in all three phases of the game.
Prediction: Bernards wins, 34-17.