The Piscataway High School football team certainly didn’t need more inspiration entering tonight’s annual showdown against Sayreville, but the Chiefs sadly got some with the passing of Anthony “Big Tony” Grazioso.
A highly respected Piscataway Pop Warner football coach who was past president of the township’s Little League and helped form a Challenger League for children with special needs, Grazioso died Sunday. He was 64.
“The kids were really close with him,” Piscataway head coach Dan Higgins said of his current varsity players. “We kind of dedicated the rest of our year to him. It’s unfortunate that he passed away, but we are going to remember him and kind of honor his legacy by trying to play good Piscataway football the rest of the year.
“We kind of knew he wasn’t going to last much longer, and we knew that going into (last weekend’s) South Brunswick game, so we made it a point to talk about it then,” Higgins said. “But now that he has passed on, we are going to honor him properly.”
The Chiefs (3-1), ranked No. 2 in the Home News Tribune Top 10, host the top-ranked Bombers (5-0) in a battle of two-time defending sectional champions that will likely determine the Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division title.
Sayreville leads the series 14-13. The Chiefs have won six of the last 10 meetings, including last year’s 28-0 shutout.
There is, perhaps, no bigger public school rivalry in the state than that which will take place tonight between Sayreville and Piscataway in the Home News Tribune Game of the Week at Ciardi Stadium (kickoff is 7 p.m.).
“We always use Piscataway as a barometer because we know they are the premier program in our county, and we really like to know how we stack up,” said Sayreville coach George Najjar, whose Bombers have made 17 consecutive NJSIAA playoff appearances.
Both teams feature outstanding quarterbacks who are dual threats, capable of beating opponents with the run or pass.
The Chiefs began the season without signal caller Nadir Barnwell, sidelined for the first two games with a separated shoulder. He returned following Piscataway’s stunning 21-20 loss to Old Bridge, and has since guided the offense to a 54.5 points per game average.
“Having No. 7 back is a huge part of our playing at a different level,” Higgins said of Barnwell, who accepted a scholarship last month from Rutgers University, where he will play defensive back. “He’s the leader on the team and his presence on both sides of the ball has added stability.”
Piscataway’s ground attack, led by senior tailback Cameron Nash (533 yards, 9 TDs), is far from one-dimensional as Tyrell Judson (247 yards, 2 TDs) and Jamaal James are equally capable of making big plays.
Wideouts Kyle LaPorte (139 yards, 2 TDs) and David Claybrook (173 yards, 3 TDs) can be utilized as possession receivers or to catch the long pass.
“I love the balance and how we are getting contributions from a lot of people,” said Higgins, whose team has reached the NJSIAA playoffs each of the past 15 years. “That’s what makes us most potent and dangerous. It makes us tough to stop.”
Cureton (29 of 41, 502 yards, 4 TDs) emerged as Sayreville’s starting signal caller at midseason a year ago. Najjar has tinkered with his Wing-T offense, giving it a spread look that best utilizes his quarterback’s talents.
“We started with it a couple of years ago when Isaiah was a sophomore,” Najjar explained. “Last year we started going to it a little bit more. We realized it better served him at quarterback running this type of offense with his athleticism.”
Sayreville also has a stable of running backs. Deion Miller, Mike Carey, Zeke Perkinson and Myles Hartsfield have combined for 922 rushing yards. They are complemented by sure-handed receivers Jon Bracero (173 yards, 1 TD) and Malik Pressley (156 yards).
“That certainly keeps the other teams off balance,” said Najjar, noting his multitude of weapons allows Sayreville to score from anywhere on the field or to sustain a long drive. “That (long drives) has helped when we kept the ball out of the other team’s hands.”
Sayreville’s experienced offensive line was as young as Piscataway’s is this season. But like the Bombers a year ago, the Chiefs have rapidly improved up front.
“We like the kids that are playing in the trenches right now,” Higgins said. “We knew there was going to be a (learning) process along the way trying to get these guys to develop. We’ve really gotten better every single day.”
Higgins said he expects the Chiefs to play inspired football tonight, just the way “Big Tony” would have wanted.