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Area Group I Schools Feeling Slighted

By Joe Hofmann, 11/16/23, 6:45PM EST


Imagine if the Boonton football team went down to Newark to play Weequahic, brought along the best players from Mountain Lakes, Parsippany, and Denville, and then played the game.

Imagine Butler traveling to Shabazz but stopping off along Route 23, gathering some of the best high school players they could find, and then playing the game.

Seem crazy? Well, that is what Weequahic and Shabazz have been doing lately.

While the local schools suit up athletes from their small area, the Newark schools draw players from all over the city – and get to play in Group I.

Local Group I coaches have noticed – and they’re not too happy with the situation.

While Weequahic and Shabazz have their pick of the litter in Newark, Boonton and Butler and other Group I schools (Mountain Lakes, Cedar Grove, Glen Ridge, etc.,) are limited to using players who live in their own town.

Boonton is 2.49 square miles. About 8,815 people live in Boonton.

Butler is about two square miles. Population: 8,047.

Newark is 24.14 square miles. Population: 305,344 (the 66th most populous municipality in the nation, according to Wikipedia).

What’s wrong with this picture?

A L-O-T!

That is why the NJSIAA should step in and move Weequahic and Shabazz into Group III, if not Group IV.

What on earth are these two schools doing in Group I?

As far as building a football roster goes, Weequahic and Shabazz have a little racket going on. It is completely unfair to the other Group I schools who draw only from their own town. The local Group I schools are at a major disadvantage.

That’s not all. These two schools have been taking in transfers from all over Newark. It has become the Wild, Wild West.

This year, Shabazz has players who have transferred in from all over the place (St. Peter’s Prep, 10 from Newark West Side, Orange, East Orange, Pope John, and Colonia).

No one is asking that we take away the opportunity of the kids to play high school football. But to then get them from all over Newark and then face small public schools simply is not fair.

“Those kids do deserve the opportunity to play,” one Morris County coach said. “If a school like University is the best fit academically, that kid should have the opportunity to go there and also play football. But there should be some accounting for that in enrollment figures.”

Weequahic coach Brian Logan is universally respected for the work he does with the inner-city athletes. He brought a sectional finalist to Newark West Side many years ago and has turned Weequahic into a winner.

“He’s probably saved a lot of lives and sent a lot of kids off to college,” another Morris coach said. “All I’m saying is that they should go up to Group 2 or Group 3. There are 29 seniors on their roster this year. Many Group 5 schools don’t have that. Something needs to change.”

Local coaches say that there seems to be no accountability to who is coming and going at these schools. If you live in Newark (or other nearby cities like East Orange or Orange) and want to go play at a Shabazz or a Weequahic, there seems to be no one to check any athlete’s residences.

“Pull up the 2022 roster,” another coach said. “There are so many kids at Shabazz who weren’t on the team last year and there is a brand, new coach (Naz Oliver). Some of the players could be kids who didn’t play football last year but there are definitely a number of transfers as well.”

At one time, both Weequahic and Shabazz were classified as Group III or Group IV schools. Weequahic competed in the old IHC-Iron and Hills division against Group III and IV schools from Morris County.

Shabazz, meanwhile, once played in a North 2, Group III sectional final against Morris Knolls back in 1996.

That was before charter schools became all the rage in Newark. Students began leaving Weequahic and Shabazz in droves and attending charter schools. Those charter schools do not have a football team, so where do those players go? Back to Weequahic and Shabazz, that’s where.

Again, it is all fine and dandy that the kids have the chance to use their God-given athletic ability as a possible means to go on to college.

As one Essex County coach said, “They are doing their best with what they are allowed to do. I think they are playing by the rules but the rules need to be amended. They should be in the appropriate Group size, not Group 1.”

Says another Morris County coach: “Boonton doesn’t have a hockey team, so if a Boonton kid wants to play hockey, he has to have the opportunity but he must go play at Mountain Lakes. He doesn’t choose. There are no options. Boonton doesn’t have swimming, so he has to go to a nearby high school.

“Several Shabazz players played last year for West Side, click on their Twitter pages. Maybe 1-2 kids moved, but all of them? And suddenly, West Side is 1-9.”

It’s tempting to call the Newark schools Weequahic Catholic or Shabazz Catholic. They’re attracting players to play football the same way some Catholic schools do – from a much wider area than their public-school counterparts.

That’s all well and good – but let them do it and put them up to Group II or Group III.

Recently, Bergen County Group I schools Emerson and Cresskill were hit with a number’s crunch and co-opted – and were moved up to Group II.

Again, how do Weequahic and Shabazz stay in Group I?

“Cresskill and Emerson are two proud programs and they were dying and co-opted, so they moved up a Group,” one coach said. “We are punishing dying programs. And those two schools don’t have 29 seniors like Weequahic, believe me. But you see what happened? They move up a Group and Shabazz and Weeuqahic don’t.

“That’s just nuts.” 

Said one Essex County coach: “Brian Logan does a great job and the kids love playing for him. If he goes to Barringer, they’d go there – but he’d be Group 5. Fine. The new guy at Shabazz has transfers from all over the place. How do you go from Colonia to Shabazz? They are following the coach and the connections.

“It’s not a knock on the coaches or the kids. It’s just … if you looked at our game, you’re thinking this a Group 4 team. It’s really unfortunate.

“Brian Logan does a good job getting kids into college. But with the new transfer rule, they have 30 new kids and they play right off the bat. I have had so many conversations with the NJSIAA and they won’t do anything about it.

“When we were done playing Shabazz, we had to tape our guys back together. If we play a Butler or a Park Ridge, it is a nice, Group I game.

“I’d like to see them penalized. They draw from a larger group of kids. No one is keeping track of where the kids are from. There’s gotta be a change. I don’t know where it all stops.”

“The NJSIAA really needs to get involved in where the kids live and where they are coming from,” another Morris coach said. “The numbers don’t match up. You don’t know who is on the field. They need to get involved. Let’s get the commissioner of education in New Jersey involved.”

If the NJSIAA is interested in fairness and equity, it would act. If the state is not interested in fairness, it will just leave everything alone.

Something else has emerged: Passaic Tech gets the pick of the litter from all over Passaic County. So, why is that school in the same section as Morristown, which only gets kids from Morristown?

“Should they be considered non-public for playoffs?” one Morris coach wonders. “While they are in fact a public school, the recruitment and funding for county tech schools are considerably higher than that of a regular public school. They get to choose their students much like the non-public schools, and have a much larger population (the whole county) to select from.”

Good points, all.

Your move, NJSIAA!

Six Takeaways from the weekend

What an electric atmosphere at Roxbury High Friday night. The game with neighboring Mount Olive brought in 7,500 fans – full capacity, according to Roxbury AD Stu Mason – and the place was jam-packed.

In my mind, it’s now a no-brainer: Playing sectional finals at high school venues, and not MetLife or Rutgers or Kean, is the only way to go.

I used to be 50-50 on this one because it was a big thrill for high school athletes to play at the same field as the Jets and Giants. But I no longer believe that – especially when it is two local teams squaring off.

In 2001, Mendham played at West Morris in a sectional final and the place was jumping. Three years later, the two played in another sectional final – at Rutgers, of all places. That was just plain dumb then, and now it seems even dumber. What on earth was the NJSIAA thinking?

Another reason sectional finals should be played at high school fields: When the game is over, there is no rush for the team that just won the championship to hustle of the field. For many years at MetLife, an NJSIAA flunky would be quick to hustle the winning team off the field. If he had a bulldozer to clear the field of players who’d just won a sectional championship, he would have used it!

Two years ago, West Morris won at its home field and no one wanted to leave the field that night. What an awesome way for high school kids – and families – to end their season or career!

2. If the NJSIAA wants to play these games at the fields of the higher seeds, that is indeed the way to go, but something new needs to be addressed: The games need to be staggered in some way. The other night, West Morris traveled to Old Tappan to play its sectional final. Well, supposing a West Morris fan wanted to see the Roxbury-Mount Olive game?

Or supposing a Butler supporter wanted to check out Mount Lakes but couldn’t because their school was playing at the same time?

The way to fix that is this:

Group I: Friday at 4 p.m.

Group II: Friday at 7 p.m.

Group III: Saturday at 10 a.m.

Group IV: Saturday at 1 p.m.

Group V: Saturday at 4 p.m.

Playing all the sectional finals at the exact same time (Friday night at 7) robs the fans who want to go out and see more than one game.

3. While we’re on the subject of the state playoffs, I’m wondering if playing down to a single Group champion is worth the effort. Was there a groundswell for making it happen? I don’t know of many people who wanted a single Group champion. It all seems to have been forced upon us. People love their high school football in New Jersey, but since when did we become Texas? I don’t know if there is that much interest. I’ll be interested to see if more than 2,000-3,000 people show up for the state Group championship games. Last year’s attendance at Rutgers was very underwhelming.

We have New Jersey football beginning at the ridiculous starting date of Aug. 25 just to squeeze in Group championship games played at a time when 99.9 percent of the schools do not even go? We have to uproot everything for everyone for the sake of the very, very few? Ridiculous.

And there’s more to this: If you lose in the first round of the playoffs, you are done. Some coaches have complained openly to me about being finished with football before Halloween. It all seems so strange – and not really worth it.

I’m told the state is moving opening weekend to Labor Day weekend next September. That’s a step in the right direction, but the NJSIAA should move the season to the second week of September and scrap the all-Group champions. Admit that no one is really all that interested and go back to the 20 sectional champions the way it had been done since 1974. Was that really so bad?

4. One of the things that stands out for me this year is how some football programs (and coaching staffs) just seem to get it done, year after year. I’m speaking of West Morris, Sparta and Newton. All three had reason to believe that things were slipping away but bounced back and made something out of this year.

Newton was spanked on opening night by Warren Hills but came back to win its division (American Blue) and finish 7-3. Not as good as past seasons, but a year most teams would love to have. Kudos to Matt Parzero and his staff.

Same goes with Sparta. Frank Marchiano’s Spartans lost their first four games and five of its first six but beat Newton in its regular-season finale and then stunned Hillside in the first round of the playoffs before succumbing to West Morris. A state sectional semifinalist coming from a team that lost its first four games is almost unheard of. That’s coaching.

Kevin Hennelly’s Wolfpack were just about left for dead during the middle of the season. The team suffered severe graduation losses and went through a bad run of injuries. At one point, the team lost five of six. But they stormed to the North 2, Group III title by stunning Old Tappan on the road Friday night.

5. I’m putting together All-Sussex-Warren (which comes out early next week), All-Morris (in two weeks) and All-Area (early December). I’m seeing a trend among quarterbacks that I’ve never seen: Two of the best quarterbacks I have seen this year were actually backups (Sparta’s Shane Hoover and Par Hills’ Josh Smith).

From the early looks of things, QBs this year cannot hold a candle to last year, when there was a good handful of quarterbacks who had monster seasons (Sparta’s Austin Frattura, Randolph’s Sean Clark, Jefferson’s Ryan Moran, Chatham’s Gio Del Re, Delbarton’s Robert Russo, Montville’s Joe Rehberg, Vernon’s Derek Lazier, and Wallkill Valley’s Dylan Bonser).

Let’s just say that there are not nearly that number this year.

6. Is there a worse organization for local high school football coverage than Gannett?

Answer: No way.

Case in point: The “coverage” of the Daily Record’s Delbarton victory over Don Bosco.

If I’m a Delbarton fan, I’m not too happy.

The story was written by a Bergen Record (Gannett) writer (who happens to be an excellent reporter and writer). But the story was about how Bosco lost, not how Delbarton won. There were Bosco quotes and even a note on whether the Bosco coach is returning next year. He wrote the story for the Bergen Record audience. But the story also appeared in the Daily Record – but without much detail of how Delbarton won the game.

This is the best team the Green Wave has had in years and this is how they’re treated?

No wonder no one reads the Daily Record anymore!

This is classic Gannett. Yeah, they covered the game, but the organization is too cheap to send two writers (one writing for the Bosco side, one for Delbarton).  How many Delbarton fans saw the story from a totally Bosco point of view and cancelled their subscription? How many threw their phone down?

They should be aggravated. Delbarton readers got the shaft.

Way to go, Gannett!

Moving around

1. Hopatcong is moving out of the Ivy and will be back to playing area teams. It is not known where the Chiefs will land but I think the American Blue (Newton, Sussex Tech, Lenape Valley, Wallkill Valley, Kittatinny, Hackettsown) would be a great fit. Does the super conference allow for seven teams in a league? It should in this case.

2. Dover is also out of the Ivy and coming out this way. The Tigers are Group III and could possibly head to the National Blue (made up of small schools such Boonton, Kinnelon, North Warren, Whippany Park and Parsippany). Another good fit for Dover would be the Group II American Gold (Caldwell, Morris Catholic, Hanover Park, Mountain Lakes, Verona and Madison).

3. Parsippany is said to be headed for the Ivy, so that could open things up for Dover.

4. Morristown-Beard is said to be interested in joining the Super Football Conference. They could also take the place of Parsippany. Perhaps the Crimson would need to spend time in the Ivy first.