Breaking down the South Jersey football playoffs | Phil Anastasia
Top seeds Williamstown, Millville, Burlington Twp., Haddonfield, Penns Grove, Willingboro and St. Joseph set sights on titles.
Taking a big-picture look at the football playoffs.
First, where's Delran?
The Bears went 7-1 and still were eliminated from playoff contention. This, in a year when 2-7 Overbrook, 2-6 Shawnee and 2-5 Woodstown all qualified.
Delran coach Garrett Lucas said it was "a bitter thing to swallow" although the Bears coaches and players kind of saw it coming.
"We've been talking about this for weeks," Lucas said.
Ultimately, Delran was a victim of the new playoff-seeding system. Specifically, the Born Power Index – which accounted for 60 percent of a team's United Power Ranking, which was used to seed the fields – penalized Delran for past struggles as well as a relatively weak caliber of competition.
The Born system started every team this season with a ranking. That ranking was based on past results. Delran had been 3-7 in both 2017 and 2016 and 2-8 in 2015.
So that's why the Bears started with a relatively low ranking. Plus, since the WJFL adjusted schedules this season to better match stronger teams with stronger teams – and vice versa – Delran received what might be called "schedule relief," in a slate of less-challenging games than in the past.
That combination worked against the Bears in their Born ranking. And Lucas also noted that the Bears had the opportunity to extend their lead late against some opponents this season and elected to insert reserve players.
"I wanted to get some seniors who didn't get to play as much and some of our younger kids in the game," Lucas said.
That was the right move from a sportsmanship standpoint. But Lucas and Delran athletic director Anthony Guidotti believe Born's system of rewarding teams for larger margins of victory, up to 35 points, worked against the Bears.
On Twitter, Guidotti wrote, "I will support my coach every day for getting everyone in the game before I support having to beat the 'spread.' That is wrong."
It's unclear, because Born's system is proprietary, whether Delran would have made the playoffs with a larger margin of victory in some games this season.
But it's true that Delran had more power points, which accounted for 40 percent of the UPR, than the three teams ahead of it in the South 2 field (13.38 to 10.22 for Sterling, 11.44 for Collingswood and 10.75 for South River).
But a 52.5 mark in the Born index doomed the Bears, as Sterling was at 61.4, Collingswood was at 61.7, and South River was at 57.5.
"The kids have responded well," Lucas said. "We told them, 'We can only control what we can control.' They are more determined than ever to come out in the consolation game [likely Nov. 8 or Nov. 10] and show they should have been in the playoffs."
Second point: Since when are Paulsboro and Woodbury in Central Jersey?
We knew the new playoff system would challenge us in terms of math. Who knew it also would throw us for a loop in terms of geography?
Paulsboro and Woodbury, which combined have won 25 South Jersey Group 1 titles (19 by the Red Raiders), both landed in Central Jersey 1 this season.
That was a function of the new system that created South "pools" of the Top 16 teams, then divided them into two sections by "Northing" numbers.
Turns out, Overbrook in Camden County is south of Woodbury and Paulsboro in Gloucester County.
Paulsboro is the No. 2 seed in Central 1, and Woodbury is the No. 3 seed. If form holds in the first round, the old rivals would meet in the sectional semifinals Nov. 10 – a familiar game in an unfamiliar context, as they battle to advance to the Central Jersey title game.
Finally, a closer look at each group:
Defending champion: Lenape.
Favorite: No. 1 seed Williamstown. The Braves look like the class of this field. They've beaten both the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, Rancocas Valley and Lenape, although both games were lower-scoring, physical affairs. Both those games were in September, too. Williamstown's offense has come a long way since then.
Darkhorse: Kingsway. The sixth-seeded Dragons have won three of four and are coming off an impressive win over Eastern. Junior quarterback Alex Odom is emerging as one of South Jersey's most dynamic running quarterbacks.
First-round game to watch: Kingsway at Lenape. Kingsway coach Mark Hendricks used to be a teacher and defensive coordinator at Lenape. Working with former coach Tim McAneney and many remaining members of the Indians' staff, Hendricks helped develop the team's successful style of defense-first football.
Lenape is the defending champion and an established South Jersey power program. One game won't get Kingsway to that level but a victory would work wonders for Hendricks' efforts to push the Dragons into large-school prominence.
On the flip side, Lenape is riding a three-game playoff winning streak after last year's title run. This team would like nothing better than to notch another post-season win – which used to be so sparse at the school – and advance to the sectional semifinals in what some thought would be a "rebuilding" year.
Player to watch: Eastern wide receiver Dante Kiett, a Monmouth recruit, has nine touchdown catches and will look to lead the seventh-seeded Vikings past RV in another intriguing opener.
Defending champion: Shawnee.
Favorite: Millville. The Thunderbolts have taken an odd route to this position, losing their first three by a combined 86 points before winning five in a row to secure the No. 1 seed as well as the unofficial title as team to beat.
Senior quarterback Eddie Jamison, who has been remarkably accurate as a passer, leads the way for Millville.
Best first-round game: No. 5 Mainland at No. 4 Shawnee. The 6-2 Mustangs have put together their best season in a decade, capped Friday by a 24-21 victory over arch-rival Ocean City as cancer survivor Sean Carey (more on his remarkable story later this week) kicked a 41-yard field goal with 0:01 on the clock.
Shawnee is 2-6, no record for a No. 4 seed in a typical season. But thanks to the Born index (past success, caliber of competition, remember), the Renegades have a home game in the first round.
Player to watch: Highland sophomore running back Johnny Martin is a rare mix of between-the-tackle toughness and first-and-goal-from-anywhere explosiveness. He combines with a sturdy defense and an experienced quarterback (and kicker/punter) in Brian Cooey to make the Tartans a legit threat to win it all as the No. 2 seed.
Defending champion: Delsea.
Favorite: Burlington Township. The Falcons are the top seed and own regular-season wins over Delsea as well as South 4 second seed Highland. This is a balanced team with a dynamic offense led by senior quarterback Danny Grozoski and a strong defense led by all-purpose Omar Rogers.
But the reality is that Burlington Township doesn't have a ton of recent postseason success. This is the Falcons' chance to prove they can win these big games in November.
Darkhorse: Woodrow Wilson. The Tigers looked like the favorite a month ago. But they lost two straight after a 6-0 start, dropped to the No. 3 seed, and might be operating a little under the radar again.
Behind quarterback Nick Kargman and wide receivers Stanley King and Naiem Simmons, the Tigers are capable of stringing together some strong performances and making a run at the program's first sectional title since 2001.
Second-round showdown: If form holds in the first round, Woodrow Wilson will visit second-seeded Delsea in the semifinals. That would mark the fourth time the teams have played in the last two seasons, with the Crusaders winning the first three.
These teams are recent but fierce rivals. Delsea turned both teams' seasons around by going into Woodrow Wilson on Oct. 13 and scoring an 56-14 victory.
Bet on the rematch being a lot closer. It was last year in the South Jersey finals.
Player to watch: Delsea senior running back Aidan Borguet, a Harvard recruit, has 11 touchdowns in the last three games.
Defending champion: Haddonfield.
Favorite: Haddonfield. Last year, the Bulldawgs got hot at the right time – after losing three straight entering the playoffs – and won the sectional title as the No. 6 seed.
They are the team to beat this season. Haddonfield has put together a perfect season, highlighted by an impressive victory over then-No. 1 St. Joseph followed by a win over arch-rival West Deptford.
This is an experienced, balanced, accomplished team. The Bulldawgs have the chance to be the first 13-0 team in school history.
This field is loaded. But the road to the championship still runs through that refurbished stadium behind the high school on Kings Highway.
Darkhorse: Pleasantville. As the No. 4 seed, the Greyhounds would travel to Haddonfield in the second round if form holds the opening weekend.
That would be tough duty but Pleasantville was competitive with Haddonfield, especially in the second half, in the season opener.
Watch Camden: The Panthers have won seven in a row and loom as an imposing No. 2 seed. Camden is seeking its first title since 1976. This team has the ability to bring the hardware home to Parkside.
Watch West Deptford, too: Under the radar a little since the season-opener loss to Paulsboro (save that surreal victory at St. Joseph), the Eagles under first-round coach Jason Morrell are a team to watch in this tournament.
Second-round showdown: West Deptford at Camden would be some semifinal. Not sure these schools have ever played in football.
Player to watch: Haddonfield quarterback Jay Foley is a fearless, dynamic playmaker. He also has a chance to take his place among the most accomplished players in program history, as the two-time quarterback of two-time champions.
2017 champion: Paulsboro (not "defending," since the Red Raiders now are in Central 1)
Favorite: Penns Grove. The Red Devils are 9-0, having met and conquered every challenge in the regular season (beating both Paulsboro and Salem). This team is loaded with dynamic playmakers, led by senior all-purpose Tyreke Brown.
Penns Grove's 2012 team went 12-0 and made its case as the best Group 1 team in South Jersey history (although Paulsboro has featured some teams that would argue that case, perhaps most vigorously by the Kevin Harvey-led 1995 squad). Just a reminder, though: That 2012 Penns Grove team scored a South Jersey-record 621 points (averaging an astounding 51.8).
This year's team hasn't been that dominant. But it has the chance to join the 2012 squad as the school's only 12-win team – and even take a shot at 13.
Darkhorse: Gateway. The Gators are the feel-good story of the season. This is a program that was 0-10, twice, between 2009 and 2013. Now the Gators are 15-3 in their last 18.
Gateway is coming off a monster win over Paulsboro in the playoff cutoff. Sustained postseason success is the next step for coach Josh Mason's program.
Watch also: Buena. The Chiefs are 8-0 but still a No. 4 seed. But that win over Group 2 power Pleasantville says they can beat anybody in this field.
Player to watch: Gateway quarterback Matt Goetz has developed into a big-time passing threat. He was terrific against Paulsboro, throwing for three scores and consistently completing clutch passes for first downs in third-down situations.
Defending champion: Middlesex.
Favorite: Willingboro. The Chimeras are just 4-4 but earned the No. 1 seed courtesy of a daunting schedule for a Group 1 team. That's also the reason they are slight favorites in this group.
Willingboro beat Group 4 playoff team Northern Burlington, Group 3 playoff team Woodrow Wilson, and Group 2 playoff team Cinnaminson. The Chimeras lost to Group 3 playoff teams Delsea and Timber Creek as well as Group 2 playoff teams Camden and Sterling.
When the Chimeras open the playoffs vs. No. 8 seed Keyport, it will be their first game this season against a Group 1 opponent. That's just unheard of.
Darkhorse: Paulsboro. Strange to put the Red Raiders in this category. They likely would have been the favorite (even given Willingboro's schedule) if not for that loss to Gateway on Saturday.
Strange to see Paulsboro in Central Jersey. Strange to see the Red Raiders in a role other than team to beat. But it won't be strange to see Glenn Howard and his players holding the trophy on the weekend of Nov. 16.
Player to watch: Willingboro all-purpose standout Nasir Murray, a dynamic two-way player.
Defending champion: Hillside.
Local team to watch: Cinnaminson is the No. 3 seed. The Pirates open with Shore, then would get second-seeded Manasquan in the semifinals if form holds in the opening round.
Cinnaminson has won three in a row and is coming off a bye. The Pirates are a darkhorse in this group.
Player to watch: Cinnaminson running back Rashad Raymond has 18 touchdowns.
Defending champion: Bergen Catholic.
Favorite: St. Joseph of Montvale.
Local angle: The seeding committee gave St. Augustine Prep the No. 7 seed, which seemed kind of low considering the Hermits' play over the last six weeks.
But it actually worked out because St. Augustine will host No. 10 Notre Dame in an opening-round game. That gives the Hermits an excellent opportunity to score a playoff victory, which has been tough to come by in recent years because of the caliber of competition in this group.
Notre Dame is no slouch, with a 7-1 record and a seven-game winning streak capped by a victory over a solid Trenton team last weekend. But the Irish have not played nearly as tough a schedule as the Hermits.
With a win, St. Augustine will visit rested No. 2 seed St. Joseph of Montvale, a daunting prospect in terms of travel time and caliber of competition. But that's next week's worry for the Hermits. For now, they can focus on making the most of a rare home game against a comparable opponent.
Player to watch: St. Augustine linebacker Joe Bonczek, a Princeton recruit, might be South Jersey's most productive defensive player. The guy makes about 12 tackles a game.
Defending champion: St. Joseph.
Favorite: St. Joseph. It's been an odd year for the Wildcats. When they handled St. Augustine by a 30-8 score Sept. 14, there was serious talk that this potentially was the best team in school history, and that was saying something.
Then came the stunning loss to Haddonfield. Then the suspension of veteran coach Paul Sacco and two key players after a social-media incident. Then the 51-0 loss to West Deptford.
But the Wildcats have rallied, winning two in a row to get back on their feet. The latest win was by 28-14 over their arch-rival, Holy Spirit.
St. Joseph is seeking its ninth state title in the last 10 years. The Wildcats probably never had a season quite like this one, but they still have a chance to finish in a familiar way.
Darkhorse: Holy Spirit. The Spartans probably are the only team in this group that stands a legitimate chance to compete for 48 minutes with St. Joseph. It would be a surprise to see anybody but those two teams in MetLife Stadium the weekend of Nov. 30.
First-round games to watch: No. 5 seed Holy Cross, led by senior quarterback Andrew Paolini and senior fullback Jack Fusco, visits No. 4 Immaculata. No. 6 seed Gloucester Catholic, featuring junior running back Da'Shaun Harris, takes to the road to meet No. 3 seed Hudson Catholic.
Both South Jersey teams are underdogs, obviously, but have a puncher's chance if the Born Power Rankings are to be believed about the relative strengths of these teams.
Player to watch: St. Joseph junior Jada Byers leads South Jersey with 23 touchdowns. Here's a remarkable stat from South Jersey sports historian Chuck Langerman: In its last 22 games, St. Joseph is 19-0 when Byers scores a touchdown and 0-3 when Byers doesn't score a touchdown.