A visit to one of the beneficiaries of MyCentralJersey.com Snapple Bowl XX helped Nick Isola understand the significance of playing in the charity all-star football game.
“Seeing those kids today made me realize what the Snapple Bowl is all about,” Isola, a wide receiver from Monroe, tweeted earlier this week, adding, “can’t wait for Thursday.”
Don’t expect Isola or any of the recently graduated high school players from Middlesex and Union counties, however, to remain soft-hearted when they put on the pads for tonight’s 20th annual installment at Kean University’s Alumni Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m. and tickets are $10 at the gate.
An intense but relatively friendly rivalry has emerged from the state’s most successful summer classic, which has raised more than $415,000 for Children’s Specialized Hospital and the Lakeview School since its inception.
Middlesex, a 39-15 winner last year, leads the series 11-8 and has won six of the last seven meetings.
Players and cheerleaders from both sides gathered for a pre-game banquet at the Pines Manor in Edison on Wednesday night, exhibiting a civility that will starkly contrast Thursday’s on-field competitiveness.
Many of the participants crossed paths in the NJSIAA playoffs last season, with players from Elizabeth and Piscataway meeting, for example, in the North 2 Group V final, or players from Carteret and South Plainfield also facing Union County foes in the postseason.
“When you look at the makeup of both counties, there’s a lot of teams who played each other,” Union County defensive coordinator Scott Miller said. “It kind of adds more to the rivalry, not like some other games (such as the North-South Classic) where you are playing against kids seven counties away who you’ve never seen.
“Playing for charity, I think adds to it a little more. This also might be the last game that a lot of these kids play. For them to go out on a high note, so to speak, I think that adds to it, too. It’s been heated at times, but it’s just a matter of pride.”
Unlike other all-star games, which have certain restrictions, defenses are allowed to blitz and do not have to line up in a specific formation (such as 4-3 Cover 2), which can make moving the ball difficult at times.
“I feel when you restrict the defense in terms of what they can do it becomes an offensive event,” Marcus Borden, the Snapple Bowl’s founder and game director said. “This is just like a regular game. Even with no (defensive) restrictions, the offense has scored on big plays. The game is more exciting. It’s real football, and that’s what we want it to be.”
Both sides feature plenty of play makers, with Middlesex perhaps having a slight advantage at the skill positions, an edge Union hopes to neutralize with its size.
Middlesex County offensive coordinator Bill Nyers said his opponent’s girth and physicality could be a factor.
“They are always very athletic and they have some real good players,” Nyers said, “but for the most part, their size up front, without a doubt, is a concern.”
Middlesex County may also have an advantage on special teams with Bryan Rafano of St. Joseph handling the punting and kicking chores. Rafano’s strong leg can help his team win the field position battle and put points on the board.
The way Isola looks at it, in victory or defeat, players from both teams, who received a dose of life perspective while visiting the charities earlier this week, are already winners.
He said students from the Lakeview School will be in his thoughts before, during and after the game, adding that their presence on his mind will provide added motivation in a rivalry that needs no extra incentive.
“At the end of the day we are playing a football game,” Isola said. “A lot of us are going to play in college. Win or lose, nothing matters. But if we win for those kids, we can go back (to the Lakeview School or Children’s Specialized Hospital) and tell them we won.”