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Joe Hofmann's Hot Takes: HERD, West Morris & Other Random Thoughts

By Joe Hofmann, 11/21/22, 9:00PM EST


Photo by Pete Hagedoorn

It's funny how things work out sometimes.

Not funny to Weequahic.

Funny to Mountain Lakes -- and very, very interesting

When Darrell Fusco took over for Doug Wilkins at Mountain Lakes in 2010, one of the first things he did was to add some passing elements to the run-oriented Delaware Wing-T that Wilkins used throughout his storied career at the school.

Two summers ago, Fusco decided to go back in time. So he reeled in the pass and brought back more time-honored running concepts.

So guess what helped the Herd come back and beat Weequahic in the state Group I semifinals Saturday?

The pass.

Quarterback Ben Miniter didn't exactly throw the ball over the field against Weequahic, but the mere threat of him rolling out and either running or throwing kept the Essex County school on their  heels.

The result: a 29-23 Herd come-from-behind victory at Franklin High School.

Mountain Lakes trailed Weequahic at the half, 20-7. The Herd will face South Jersey champion Woodbury for the state Group I championship at Rutgers in two weeks.

If it weren't for Fusco and his coaching staff adjusting for Weequahic, there is a possibility the Herd would have had their season end at Franklin. 

Not only did Miniter (6 for 10, 61 yards, 1 TD) move the ball through the air when needed, he was able to find his spots and weave his way into the Weequahic secondary with the run (8 for 48 rushing) to complement the running of Nico Dunn (21 for 138 yards, 3 TDs).

Dunn accepted a good-natured challenge from Fusco during the week leading up to the game and responded with his best game of the year in the Herd's biggest game to date.

One of Miniter's best runs came immediately before his 14-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Gavin Ananian, when he rolled out and scrambled for a 12-yard run to put the ball at the Weequahic 14.

The Miniter-to-Ananian connection has come in handy of late. In the sectional final victory over Brearley last week, the two hit for a 45-yard touchdown pass.

The two connected in the clutch yet again with the Weequahic game still in the balance.

Good thing for Mountain Lakes on the way to its first Region championship.

"We ran a little spread," Fusco said, "and did some stuff that we haven't run in awhile."

Miniter's running ability with the waggle proved beneficial. Weequahic's secondary had a tough decision to make: If they run up to tackle the scrambling Miniter, he'll spot open receivers (the way he did with Ananian on the touchdown).

But if the secondary sticks with the receivers (such as Ananian or dangerous tight end Marco Dzamba, who caught two passes for 31 yards), then the heady and agile Miniter knows what to do as a runner. 

"Weequahic is similar to Madison in that they have kids who can cause problems," Fusco said. "They read the play and they go. If you get them to read sweep, and if he waggles, he can run or throw. We used it as a deep touchdown route to (tight end) Marco Dzamba twice (against Waldwick in the sectional semifinals two weeks ago).

Miniter is developing rapidly under Fusco and the Herd coaching staff.

"Ben made 2-3 outstanding plays for us against Weequahic," Fusco said. "He has become a heady kid. He is a smart kid. He is a sports junkie. He picks it up quickly and it's what makes a defense struggle. We had a couple of really good, old-school drives there."

And going to a little Spread at times made everything work beautifully.

"In a couple of sets, we spread them out and loosened them up defensively and changed how they were playing us," Fusco said. "We stayed the course with what we did. We used some waggle plays and play action where he could run or throw. We haven't had that in our offense."

Wolfpack: Best in school history?

West Morris dropped a 21-6 decision to Old Tappan in the state Group 3 semifinal, but that doesn't detract from what the Wolfpack accomplished this year.

It was simply one of the best Morris County seasons in recent memory.

And definitely one of the best, if not THE best, seasons in a school as rich as anyone in Morris County.

Why do I say that? What other team could have swept through a demanding slate that included playoff teams West Essex (twice), Morris Knolls, Randolph, Roxbury Morristown, Mendham, and Montville? Then they also swept through the playoffs with wins over Hackettstown and Warren Hills before dispatching of West Essex for the first back-to-back sectional titles in school history.

In addition, the Wolfpack's core of seniors didn't lose a single home game in three years, which is quite a remarkable accomplishment.

"They had a great season and there is a lot to be proud of," West Morris coach Kevin Hennelly said. "Football gives us all life lessons. Sometimes in life, you work so hard for something and then things don't fall your way. Losing to Old Tappan will hurt for awhile."

It was time for West Morris to focus on the big picture, not the small.  And the big picture is this: The Wolfpack (12-1) had a remarkable run of football.

"It was one of the best groups we have ever had," Hennelly said. "Conference champs, undefeated regular season. Sectional champions. Regional champions last year, region runner ups this year."

Hennelly was floored by the fan attendance at the Old Tappan, which almost filled the West Morris side of the bleachers at Franklin High School.

"I want to thank our community for the great Sunday morning turnout," he said. "It really meant a lot to the players and coaches. It was truly great community support. I'm so proud to coach in this community."

Random thoughts

Whatever happened to ... game programs and rosters? I can recall, many years ago, when I'd attend a high school football game and ticket-takers would hand out game programs with rosters of both teams. Then as the years went along, away team rosters were no longer available. These days, no one hands out rosters of any kind.

Three schools I can recall that went above and beyond when it came to game programs were Parsippany Hills, Mountain Lakes and West Morris. Par Hills and West Morris had individual school records included in their game programs. Mountain Lakes had a kind of media guide with a list of the school's best players for each decade divided into different categories.

Where have all the game programs and rosters gone? Can't tell the players without a scorecard.

Fix what was broken award I: To the North Jersey Football Super Conference powers that be. Close your eyes and think back to when the super conference got off the ground in 2016. Do you remember? There were some bizarre groupings that resulted in local schools being placed in divisions they had no business being in.

Those schools passed through familiar towns on the way to another county to play schools that they'd never played before.  What were the super conference thinkers thinking?

Those from the NJSFC in charge of organizing divisions were obsessed with the size of the schools being the determining factor as to where the teams should be placed. So Group V Morristown said good-bye to opposing smaller schools such as Morris Knolls, West Morris, Roxbury, etc., because those schools are not a Group V. The Colonials were shuffled off to face Group V schools exclusively from Essex County. So familiar rivalries with nearby schools were eliminated and replaced by Bloomfield, Montclair and West Orange, among others. It was ridiculousness's finest hour.

Group III schools Chatham and Par Hills, meanwhile, were not grouped with familiar local teams but placed with far-off, out-of-area schools. So neither played nearby schools (which made sense) but did play divisional why-are-we-playing-these-guys Group III schools such as Ferris, Barringer, and Orange. More ridiculousness.

The groupings were entirely based on Group size and made little sense.

But to the credit of the super conference, they saw the error of their ways and fixed it. Now the super conference divisional alignments are pretty close to being what they ought to be.  Not perfect, but a LOT better.

Fix what was broken award II: The NJSIAA has had its ups and downs but the state has been on target lately when it has come to the state playoffs. For a long time, Robbinsville had its head in the sand in several matters, playoff-wise.

Let me explain: Way back in the early 1990s, there were a bunch of sectional finals that were very appealing to the fans but, back then, all sectional finals were played at the highest remaining seed Saturdays at 1 p.m.

Many fans do want to see their team play and that's it. Agreed. But there a tremendous amount of fans who would go to more than one state championship game if given the opportunity. But the NJSIAA's response might as well have been, "Sit down, shut up, and accept what we are giving you!"

A classic example: What was arguably the most intriguing New Jersey high school sporting event of all time -- Randolph at Montclair -- was played at the exact same time as all the rest. I called then-NJSIAA head Bob Kanaby and asked why sectional finals couldn't be staggered so fans can see more than one game. His explanation? It was too cold to have games on Friday nights or Saturday mornings! Incredible, but true! How sad!

A few years later, the NJSIAA saw the light. When some sectional finals were moved to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, the state had no choice but to stagger the starting times. So if more than one game was appealing to the fans (as is always the case), they now had a selection of games to choose from.

The state may want to intervene one more time. Since the sectional finals are at the highest seeds now, most games are on Friday nights. Perhaps it is time for the state to stagger the games a little. Group I and II Friday nights. Groups III, IV and V moved to Saturday morning, afternoon and night. Just a thought.

Fixing what was broken award III: Does anyone know why the sections are now divided into groups of 16 rather than groups of eight? Well, at one time, some sections were notoriously deep while others were shallow. North Jersey Group III immediately comes to mind. North 1 always seemed to have more than eight quality schools, while North 2 often could not even field an eight-team bracket. My suggestion was to take the extra deserving schools from North 1 and move them to North 2, but the state came up with an even better plan, which is the 16-team bracket we have now. Good job, NJSIAA!

Fix what was broken award, IV: For many years, the state playoffs were a four-team bracket and there were always deserving teams who were left out of the playoffs. So the state expanded the brackets to eight teams. Problem solved. Sometimes when there were four qualifying schools, teams complained about being left out and they had every reason to complain.

One year in the mid 1990s, Butler was 4-4 and actually made it in over a Whippany Park team that was 7-1 at the eight-game cutoff. Whippany's bone of contention was that it competed in the small-school Colonial Hills Conference (made up almost entirely of Group I schools)and had to go undefeated in order to make the playoffs. In other words, they had to be perfect or they'd be left out, which is not a fair of way treating any athlete or team.

Butler, meanwhile, lost four games but was in the larger-school Northern Hills Conference, which had Groups 2s and 3s and none of them were particularly strong (Lakeland and Passaic Valley are two that come to mind).

So if the Bulldogs were able to beat mediocre bigger schools (which is what they did), they were rewarded with more power points. I wrote a column explaining how the Wildcats got the shaft that year. So, what happened? Butler won a sectional championship (and I received a note from a crazy Butler fan saying I should be fired! Glad he was not my boss!).

Still, expanding the field from four to eight teams was the right thing to do. And if there are a few schools who do not deserve to get in and do get in, so what? They're one and done in the playoffs anyway. There were plenty of schools who got the shaft many years back and there are now less deserving teams being left out in the cold nowadays. That's a good thing.

Best way to cut off your summer scheduling award: Whoever thought it was okay to begin high school football season the weekend of Aug. 25-26 -- before school is even in session -- simply dropped the ball. Since when did we become Texas? Football is a great way to get school spirit going for the new school year. But that is taken away when school hasn't even started yet and people are still on vacation or making a few final treks down the Shore.  Why this rush to get the season going? Answer: To appease the zealots who just had to have one Group champion for New Jersey (Give those whackos time, they'll be pushing for a football T of C next!).

So now we have the season ending for most schools before Halloween. That's shear madness -- and not worth the trouble of having a single Group champion.

I remember high school football season in New Jersey getting underway the third weekend of September. Okay, so that was way too late, but the way it is now is way, way too early. Starting everything on Labor Day wouldn't be a bad way to fix this. In fact, it really is the only way.

Best place to check where your team is award: Back in the day, we had to wait until the Tuesday newspaper to see where the teams ranked regarding power points and potential playoff seeding. Then along came Gridiron New Jersey, which gets you the info by Sunday. Terrific stuff. And what about where your favorite team is in the division standings? Again, Gridiron New Jersey has that as well. Kudos to the great Jon Fass, the originator of the site.

I knew him when award: To Kevin Burkhardt of FOX Sports. His rise to fame is simply incredible. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Burkhardt and Fass covered high school sports for radio station WGHT in Pompton Lakes, a dawn-to-dusk outfit that shut down when it was dark outside.

On football Saturdays (back when a lot more teams played on Saturdays), the two would broadcast a Game of the Week. Very professional and a great duo. They did their homework and were very knowledgeable. After the games were played on Saturdays, they'd often call me that afternoons and tape a 20-minute high school football segment that they'd run the following morning on WMTR. Burkhardt and Fass had a genuine love for high school football. Burkhardt would soon leave the sports casting business entirely and wound up selling used cars down in Point Pleasant.

Out of nowhere, he got an update job with radio station WFAN. He soon got his own late night show on the FAN and worked his way onto being a sideline reporter for the Mets on SNY. Then he moved up to do MLB studio work and broadcast football games on FOX.

Now comes the topper: In February, Burkhardt will do Super Bowl play-by-play with former Wayne Hills star Greg Olson, who Burkhardt used to cover back in the WGHT days.

What a meteoric -- and well-deserved -- rise for both.