They began playing football together when they were in the sixth grade. Within two years, the Chatham youth football team had made it to the championship game of the New Jersey Suburban Youth Football League before losing.
Friday night, the Cougars will get a another chance to finish the job — and make a little history for their school along the way.
Chatham, led by a group of seniors who have been together every step of the way on the football field, will face Cranford for the North 2 Group III state championship at Kean University Friday night at 7 p.m.
Many of the Chatham players began making an impact soon after beginning high school.
“A lot of us guys have started since we were sophomores,” said senior tight end-linebacker Ryan Barnett, one of those three-year starters.
The group had a bumpy ride at first, going 0-10 two years ago. It was the school’s second straight winless season. How bad did it get?
“We’d wear our jerseys to school on the day of a game,” Barnett recalled. “It got so bad we almost felt like wearing a jacket over the jersey.”
That has changed, of course. Nowadays, being a Cougar is definitely in vogue. Players are proud to wear their jerseys. No jackets required.
The turnaround began last year, when things began falling into place as they went up to High Point and broke a 23-game losing streak on the way to going 3-7.
This year, they are 9-2 and in position to win their first state championship. They are mini-celebrities in their town and in the hallway at school.
“Teachers are coming up to us and congratulating us,” Barnett said. “It’s been crazy.”
Barnett (6-3, 235), a tight end-linebacker, is one of the best two-way players in Morris County.
He has caught 12 passes for 150 yards (12.5 per catch) and four touchdowns. His best position is linebacker.
“He wants to get a lot of tackles, but sometimes there are two guys blocking him,” coach Jason Isza said. “Teams run away from him and he occupies two blockers, so he is doing his job.”
Barnett has been offered to play at Division III Johns Hopkins but hopes to draw interest from Ivy League and Patriot League schools before long.
“A lot of coaches will be at the state finals,” he said.
He is also a stellar hockey player who watched his team lose a 4-3 season-opening decision to Kinnelon Saturday. Barnett’s hockey teammates completely understand why he cannot play hockey with them just yet.
“Some sports have a one-week overlap,” he said. “With hockey and football, there is a four-week overlap. They understand. One regular-season game cannot compare to a state final.”
In the game that qualified Chatham for the state playoffs for the first time since 2011, it was Barnett who got things untracked when he caught a touchdown pass against Parsippany Hills on the way to a 24-17 victory.
“When I get involved in the offense early, it seems to impact my whole game,” Barnett said. “It was the last meaningful game of the year and we got on the board early. I took a hit but I scored so it was worth it. I had a big defensive play early and everyone else got into it. It got competitive among all of us. Everyone wanted to do something.”
It seems like everyone has ever since. The team has since beaten Morristown, Barringer, and West Essex by a combined 118-43.
“We’ve been together since sixth grade,” Barnett said. “The same guys all the way through. Together forever. We’re real close. We’ve prided ourselves on sticking together. Other grades had kids who went to private schools and didn’t get along as well as we do. We stuck together.”