Upon opening its doors 43 years ago, the Bishop Ahr football team, as a member of a parochial schools league, routinely played meaningful regular-season games against non-public rivals.
Since becoming a founding member of the Greater Middlesex Conference in 1986, however, Bishop Ahr’s opportunities to face other catholic schools in the regular-season dwindled when Thanksgiving Day foe St. Pius X closed in 1990 and as now-defunct St. Peter’s struggled to maintain a program.
The reinstitution of Cardinal McCarrick’s gridiron squad in 2004 gave Bishop Ahr another chance to play a catholic school from Middlesex County, but the short-lived series was hardly competitive, with the Eagles being outscored 203-32 (or by an average of 34.2 points per game) in five consecutive losses.
Storied Bishop Ahr, bidding this year for its sixth consecutive NJSIAA playoff appearance and 20th overall, finally has a new GMC parochial school opponent with St. Joseph making its league debut.
The schools, separated by a two-mile stretch of Plainfield Avenue, will clash for the first time on the gridiron in tonight’s Home News Tribune Football Game of the Week at Rev. Brietski Stadium.
“I think it’s the most anticipated game in the GMC this year,” said Bishop Ahr Athletics Director Mike Wolfthal, who expects the crowd to approach 3,000.
“We are excited to be a part of it. Our players can’t wait. Our fans can’t wait. It’s something that has been talked about since the first day of school.”
St. Joseph Athletics Director Jerry Smith said he expects virtually every current student in the high school and hundreds of alumni to attend the game.
“As a sports fanatic and someone who loves competition,” Smith said, “this is the way it was meant to be.”
Two of the state’s premier non-public school athletics programs draw from the same pool of prospective students, a paramount component of their rivalry as some catholic schools across the state struggle to survive.
“I think it can have a tremendous impact (on admissions),” said Wolfthal, noting Bishop Ahr boasts students from 30 different towns. “I think the winner of Friday’s game draws the advantage in attracting students.”
St. Joseph, which started its football program in 2009, is playing just its second year of varsity football, but has already made tremendous strides.
The Falcons (1-2) rebounded from season-opening losses to defending GMC White Division champion Carteret and incumbent division runner-up Colonia with a 35-13 victory over J.F. Kennedy.
Bishop Ahr (2-1) began the year with a loss to defending Central Group II champion Matawan before holding on for a 28-26 win over J.F. Kennedy and dismantling Perth Amboy.
“If we would have lost to J.F. Kennedy,” Smith said, “I don’t think we would have had a shot against Bishop Ahr.”
Smith said the comparative score of both teams’ game against the Mustangs means nothing because of the emotion surrounding tonight’s contest.
The game, originally slated for Thanksgiving Day, was moved to tonight because both schools had Week 3 byes and Wolfthal said he felt the showdown didn’t need the added scrutiny of a holiday meeting.
St. Joseph is led by junior running back Matt Olivo, the White Division’s third leading rusher with 341 yards and leader with 57 carries.
Olivo is most effective between the tackles out of the I formation, but has speed on the edge and is a terrific open-field runner.
Quarterback Chris Blades and receiver Phil Bueno keep opposing defenses honest, while senior running back/linebacker Matt Greene is the team’s emotional leader.
Bishop Ahr running backs Nelson Thomas and Kaysaan Neal had impressive performances against J.F. Kennedy and Perth Amboy, respectively. Quarterback David Holder and wideout Michael Jensen complement the running game.
Some students from St. Joseph – an all-boys school – have sisters that attend Bishop Ahr, while some female students that attend Bishop Ahr have brothers who attend St. Joseph.
Smith said he has already had discussions with several parents who are conflicted regarding which side of the field they should sit.
“In the sports that we play each other, it’s a tremendous rivalry,” Wolfthal said. “I think it’s very exciting for the non-public community.”