2023 NJSIAA Football State Semifinals Preview
NJSIAA STATE SEMIFINALS
GROUP 5 SEMIFINALS
WHO: Toms River North (10-2, CJ-5 champion) at Cherokee (9-2, SJ-5 champion)
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 17, 6 p.m.
WHERE: William H. Foltz Field - 120 Tomlinson Mill Road, Marlton, NJ 08053
CHEROKEE'S ROAD TO THE STATE SEMIFINALS: Defeated West Windsor-Plainsboro, 44-7, in the quarterfinals; defeated Kingsway, 28-21, in the semifinals; defeated Marlboro, 19-13 in 2OT, in the South Jersey Group 5 final.
TOMS RIVER NORTH’S ROAD TO THE STATE SEMIFINALS: Defeated Southern, 49-7, in the quarterfinals; defeated Freehold Township, 54-13, in the semifinals; defeated Washington Township, 49-14, in the Central Jersey Group 5 final.
CHEROKEE'S BEST WINS: 22-19 over Central Jersey Group 4 champion Winslow; 23-0 over Shawnee; 47-7 over Hammonton; 34-7 and 28-21 over Kingsway.; 19-13 in 2OT over Marlboro in the South Jersey Group 5 final.
TOMS RIVER NORTH’S BEST WINS: 14-7 over Millville; 42-21 over South Jersey Group 2 champion Rumson-FH; 21-7 over Middletown South; 49-14 over Washington Township in the Central Jersey Group 5 final.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Toms River North is the defending Group 5 champion after finishing 14-0 last season in the inaugural year of the NJSIAA Group finals. The Mariners have won eight sectional titles in 10 appearances in the finals after a dominant 49-14 victory over Washington Township in the Central Jersey Group 5 championship game. They are 25-14 all time in the playoffs across 21 appearances in the postseason. Toms River North defeated Edison, 42-14, in this round last season - also at Cherokee, which was the neutral site...Cherokee has a long and storied tradition of football championships with 12 sectional titles, the last of which came in 2019 prior to last week's double-overtime win over Marlboro. This round was only a regional championship game in 2019 when Cherokee lost to Williamstown, 30-14.
Quick Thoughts: The Mariners enter the Group 5 semifinals coming off an overpowering 49-14 win over Washington Township in the Central Jersey Group 5 final in which they showcased the depth of their talents. Senior quarterback Micah Ford ran for 250 yards, threw two touchdown passes, and returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown. Senior Tareq Council had a touchdown catch and a 39-yard pick-6, senior running back Josh Moore, junior quarterback TJ Valerio, and junior running back Mordecai Ford all had rushing touchdowns, and junior wideout Nasir Jackson caught a touchdown pass. Cherokee eked out a dramatic 19-13 win over Marlboro in double overtime to win the South Jersey Group 5 title. It was a classic defensive battle with neither team finding the end zone until overtime. After playing to a 6-6 tie in regulation, the Chiefs scored in the first overtime, stopped Marlboro's possession in double overtime, and won the title on Murad Campfield's touchdown run.
Toms River North has been incredibly dominant against public school opponents with 24 straight wins behind a defense that has allowed just 7.5 points per game. Marlboro has a very good defense so it's not surprising Cherokee couldn't find the end zone during regulation, but the Chiefs' defense was able to match Marlboro's in allowing just two field goals. Trying to duplicate that performance against a Toms River North offense that is averaging 50.7 points per game in the playoffs will be daunting. The Mariners are the heavy favorite to repeat as Group 5 champions, and their march to the title should continue after this weekend.
THE PICK: Toms River North
GROUP 2 SEMIFINALS
WHO: Willingboro (10-2, CJ-2 champion) at Rumson-Fair Haven (7-4, SJ-2 champion)
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 17, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Borden Stadium – 74 Ridge Road, Rumson, NJ 07760
WILLINGBORO'S ROAD TO THE STATE SEMIFINALS: Defeated Monmouth Regional, 42-0, in the quarterfinals; defeated Pleasantville, 57-29, in the semifinals; defeated Point Boro, 26-21, in the Central Jersey Group 2 final.
RUMSON’S ROAD TO THE STATE SEMIFINALS: Defeated Delaware Valley, 47-13, in the quarterfinals; defeated Haddon Heights, 28-7, in the semifinals; defeated Haddonfield, 14-7, in the South Jersey Group 2 final.
WILLINGBORO'S BEST WINS: 24-20 over Camden Eastside; 57-29 over Pleasantville; 26-21 over Point Boro in the Central Jersey Group 2 final
RUMSON’S BEST WINS: 24-6 over Middletown South; 24-3 over South Jersey Group 5 finalist Marlboro; 14-7 over Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 final.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: Rumson-Fair Haven continued the greatest stretch of playoff success in Shore Conference history by defeating Haddonfield, 14-7, in the South Jersey Group 2 title game for its eighth sectional championship in the last 13 years. The Bulldogs reached the overall Group 2 final last season and did so by blasting Willingboro, 42-6, in the semifinals on a frigid, windy day at Cherokee High School. They are 34-14 all time in the postseason across 21 playoff appearances and are 2-0 in the semifinal round, including a 26-18 win over Camden Eastwide (then Woodrow Wilson HS) in 2018 when this round was a regional championship game...Willingboro won its second straight sectional title and fourth in the last seven seasons with a down-to-the-wire 26-21 win over Point Boro. The Chimeras are 1-2 in this round, winning 50-14 over Penns Grove in a Group 1 regional championship game.
Quick Thoughts: For the second straight year, Rumson-Fair Haven and Willingboro will meet in the Group 2 semifinals, but this matchup figures to be much different for a variety of reasons.
Rumson is coming off a 14-7 win over Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 title game where its defense repeatedly delivered clutch stops in the second half, including a pass breakup in the end zone by junior defensive back Jacob Tobias with one minute left to help clinch RFH's eighth sectional championship. The Bulldogs will need more of the same against a dangerous Willingboro offense led by sophomore quarterback Lamar Best. In the Central Jersey Group 2 final vs. Point Boro, Best threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 141 yards and two touchdowns. After showing flashes of greatness as a freshman, he has blossomed into one of the best young quarterbacks in New Jersey.
The big change this season in Best's running ability, which he showcased multiple times vs. Point Boro with a 74-yard touchdown run and several scrambles that resulted in first downs. He also made a tremendous play to avoid a sack and convert a first down with a pass. Another big change from last season's state semifinal game looks to be the weather. The wind was blowing so fiercely in one direction during last season's game at Cherokee High School that it made passing and punting in that direction nearly impossible. Rumson was able to use that to its advantage by getting defensive stops to pin Willingboro deep in its own end before capitalizing on excellent field position.
Willingboro's offense also showed it could do just enough to slow down Point Boro's powerful triple-option offense. Rumson doesn't offer the same type of home-run ability on every play, but the Bulldogs are much more balanced with their own standout quarterback, junior Owen O'Toole, and a running game featuring seniors Alastair Orr and Griffin Kolb and sophomore Kellen Murray. Senior tight end Jackson Gallagher has been phenomenal during the playoffs and senior Nick Rigby is one of the Shore's best wideouts.
With defending Group 2 champion Caldwell having been eliminated in the section semifinals and Willingboro already holding a win over a Point Boro team that beat Rumson during the regular season, the Chimeras could be considered the favorite in Group 2. However, Rumson's track record in the postseason is outstanding and the Bulldogs always seem to find a way to deliver whatever is necessary to pull out a win. For that reason, the Bulldogs get the benefit of the doubt.
The pick: Rumson-Fair Haven
NON-PUBLIC A SEMIFINALS
WHO: (4) Donovan Catholic (9-1) at (1) Bergen Catholic (9-1)
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m.
WHERE: Jack McGovern Field at Crusader Stadium - 1040 Oradell Ave., Oradell, NJ 07649
DONOVAN CATHOLIC'S ROAD TO THE STATE SEMIFINALS: Defeated Paramus Catholic, 31-28, in the first round; defeated St. Augustine, 7-6, in the quarterfinals.
BERGEN CATHOLIC'S ROAD TO THE STATE SEMIFINALS Bye in the first round; defeated Paul VI, 35-0, in the quarterfinals.
DONOVAN'S BEST WINS: 21-16 and 7-6 over St. Augustine; 41-13 over Central Jersey Group 4 finalist Long Branch; 21-7 over Central Jersey Group 5 champion Toms River North' 28-9 over South Jersey Group 2 champion Rumson-Fair Haven; 17-13 over Middletown South.
BERGEN'S BEST WINS: 24-6 over Non-Public B finalist Red Bank Catholic; 38-7 over Iona Prep; 38-0 over Seton Hall Prep, 38-15 over Don Bosco Prep; 28-23 over St. Joseph (Montvale); 42-13 over Paramus Catholic.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: The Griffins have one sectional title in program history, winning the Parochial South B title in 1976. But reaching the semifinals of this loaded Non-Public A group represents the best postseason in program history. Donovan's success operating in the upper echelon of the Shore Conference is recent with six of the program's 20 winning seasons having come in the last seven years, all under head coach Dan Curcione...Bergen Catholic has won 16 sectional/group titles and enters as the No. 1-ranked team in New Jersey. The Crusaders are the two-time defending Non-Public A champs and have won three state titles in the last six seasons.
Quick Thoughts: Donovan Catholic is into the state group semifinals for the first time in program history after tight wins over Paramus Catholic (31-28) and St. Augustine (7-6) in the first two rounds, earning a trip to Oradell to face mighty Bergen Catholic.
The Crusaders are the No. 1 team in the state for a reason. They boast multiple Power 5 FBS recruits, have not lost to a New Jersey team this season, and are the two-time defending Non-Public A champions. They have two common opponents with Donovan in Red Bank Catholic and St. Joe's, and those teams account for Donovan's two losses.
Donovan earned a gritty 7-6 win over St. Augustine thanks to a blocked extra point by senior defensive lineman Sam Rock III. The Griffins were playing with multiple starters out of the lineup and hope to get back some of them for Saturday's game. Beating Bergen Catholic is a hard enough task with a full arsenal of players.
Leading BC's offense are a trio of standout playmakers in junior quarterback Dominic Campanile, senior running back Kaj Sanders, and junior wide receiver Quincy Porter. They also have hulking 6-foot-8. 315-pound tackle Nyier Daniels clearing a path and helping to protect Campanile. Keeping that offense glued to the bench as much as possible means the Griffins will need a productive day from sophomore running back Najee Calhoun. There is a track record for that with Calhoun having rushed for 134 yards and four touchdowns in a loss to St. Joe's this season.
The Crusaders are, of course, the favorite to win the entire bracket. If the Griffins can pull the upset it will go down as the biggest win in program history.
The pick: Bergen Catholic