Ridge High School’s football team had the ability to achieve what it has done this season a year ago. A three-game late-season losing streak, including an NJSIAA North 2 Group V first-round overtime loss to Bridgewater-Raritan, prevented it.
Before the Red Devils turned in their uniforms in 2012 after a 27-21 Thanksgiving Eve home loss to Watchung Hills, coach Bill Tracy reminded them how much work it would take to be contenders once more.
All of them knew it, but some parting words from Tracy weren’t going to hurt; he sensed that determination, solid leadership and talent was present to get the Red Devils back to where they all wanted to be. They just had to stick to it.
They successfully defended their Mid-State 38 Watchung Division title, they became the program’s first team to go unbeaten in the regular season and Sunday they return to their first sectional title game since 2009.
The Red Devils (11-0) will play for the North 2 Group V title against Union (8-3) at High Point Solutions Stadium at Rutgers. Game time is 10 a.m.
Like Ridge, Union has a big group of seniors who experienced a 38-14 first-round loss last year to Franklin. Like Ridge, the Farmers’ leadership never wavered in belief of what could be done, said first-year coach Lou Grasso Jr.
“We have put them in the right direction and they gave stuck to it, they have listened to what we have had to say,” he said.
Of the 22 Union starters, 21 will be seniors, he said. The Farmers started 1-2, then won seven straight before a Thanksgiving Eve loss to Linden. Grasso and staff decided weeks before that they would basically play reserves in the game rather than risk injury to starters.
“I have been coaching for 16 years and this is only the second time I’ve been here,” said Grasso, who was an assistant for current Elizabeth coach John Quinn at New Brunswick in 2003 when the Zebras won the Central Group II title. “This doesn’t come along too often. Nobody remembers who won the holiday game if you win a state title.”
Tracy led Livingston to the North 1 Group IV title in 2008, the year before he came to Ridge. The Red Devils had a remarkable season, winning five games by seven or less points, beating Bridgewater-Raritan 14-13 in a first round game, then advancing to the North 2 Group IV final.
“I haven’t seen a season like that before or since and I don’t think it’ll be replicated, that team had some magic,”he said.
That team lost to favored Phillipsburg, this Ridge team has the top seed. But Union has won eight straight and has an outstanding power run game with senior backs Jamauri Bogan and Jabree Robertson, who are four-year varsity players. Ridge’s effective, but unheralded offensive line will have to keep players like senior lineman Uchenna Egwuonwu and end Lance Lee off senior quarterback Conor Hughes, who runs, throws, kicks, punts and is valuable in the Ridge secondary.
“We’re playing a team that is bigger, might be faster and stronger than us,” said Tracy, a Union High graduate.
Union is playing an opponent that is arguably more versatile with Hughes, running backs Liam Derkasch and Matt Soulas, tight end Ryan Bell and Wide receiver Nick Franzese all capable of taking over a game. All of them are seniors.
“They attack you in different ways, so we are going to need to be disciplined,” Grasso said.