The North Hunterdon-Voorhees rivalry stands unique in this part of New Jersey, enhanced by a nickname it’s carried since its birth in 1976.
The “milk can” series between cross-district rivals will be played for the 38th time tonight on the grass at Voorhees’ Richard Degnan Field in Lebanon Township. Kickoff in the Mid-State 38 cross-over is 7 p.m. with the Lions holding a 24-12-1 lead.
Both teams have much motivation beyond being able to keep the “can” for a year. Voorhees, 5-3, appears headed to the North 2 Group III playoffs for the second straight year. North Hunterdon, 4-4, hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, and needs to beat Voorhees, then win either a North 2 Group V first-round game or win its consolation game to reach that goal. North needs underdog Scotch Plains-Fanwood to beat Westfield Saturday to gain a playoff bid.
The Lions won’t concerns themselves with that until late tonight, there’s some work to be done against an opponent very comfortable with serving as underdog in this series or the “cat” to North’s “bulldog,” as Voorhees’ coach Bobby Angstadt said.
The strength of the series are players, many who grew up on the same side in their youth football days before heading off to either North Hunterdon or Voorhees.
North senior quarterback Marc Monks took snaps from Voorhees tight end Jake Blazovic when the two were Hunterdon Huskies Pop Warner players. Viking seniors Christian Okulicz, Dale Hull and Brian Legue took handoffs and caught passes from Monks. Okulicz calls Monks a “phenomenal quarterback,” but he would very much like to add at least a fifth interception for the season.
North Hunterdon senior defensive end and Sam Follansbee played with the Vikings’ Cole Branche and Merritt Francis on the Junior Lions. Fond memories of youthful camaraderie will be shelved for at least a couple of hours.
“For two hours we will beat each other into submission for the can,” said Okulicz, who has nine touchdowns and 54 points to lead the Vikes. “It’s not a hated rivalry thing, but, just a real good rivalry.”
North Hunterdon coach John Mattes is a veteran of such games. As a senior quarterback at Bethlehem (Pa.) Catholic High School, he led his team to a 10-7 win over Easton Area before 15,000. The crowd won’t be that size for Milk Can XXXVIII, but it’ll be the biggest of the year both have played before.
“It’s a rivalry game and the kids understand it and know we’re going to get Voorhees’ best,” said Mattes, whose teams plays in the MS 38 Watchung Division. “But we can’t approach it any differently. Voorhees is the ninth game on the schedule.”
Undersized Voorhees will do what it’s done in the MS 38 Mountain Division — mix up its offense and defense as best can be. Mattes remembers two years ago when Voorhees came in with a 1-8 record, and knowing North Hunterdon’s game was to throw, dropped eight players back in coverage. Voorhees made a late interception and turned it into a touchdown and a 13-7 victory at Diegnen Field. Last year, North Hunterdon relied on an effective ground game to win 20-13 at Singley Field in Clinton .
This year? Angstadt, who runs the defense, said the Vikes will give North Hunterdon different looks on offense with assistants Brian Baumann and Ricky Kurtz pulling the strings. Sophomore quarterback Charlie Rodenberger has thrown 10 touchdowns to six different receivers with 10 receivers catching at least one pass. Junior Devan Thomas (594 yards) and Okuluicz (493) are the top rushers. What has really been the difference for Voorhees is its impressive 24-5 turnover ratio.
“But you have to make the other team pay for it,” Angstadt said.
The other team is very well known. Follansbee, who’ll play at Penn next year, shares North Hunterdon lead with senior Mike Mastrobattista with 75 tackles. Monks has gotten comfortable after attempting to be too fine early, Mattes said. Monks has thrown for 966 yards with seven touchdowns, three to senior Mike Magaleski. Junior Jordan Ditzel and sophomore Rob Marron have carried the rushing load, which would have been more spread if Marron’s brother, T.J., hadn’t lost his senior season to a shoulder injury.