New Jersey's Big North United lives up to its name as top football league

New Jersey's Big North United lives up to its name as top football league

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New Jersey's Big North United lives up to its name as top football league

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Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano during the morning practice at the Elite 11 football camp for high school football players. (. -- Photo by Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports Images

QB Jarrett Guarantano of Bergen Catholic (Oradell, N.J.) is one of several elite athletes in New Jersey’s Big North United Division.(Photo: Godofredo Vasquez, USA TODAY).

Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.) beat three state champions last year, yet finished 7-4 because it plays in the Big North United Division, the toughest high school football league in the country. DePaul Catholic (Wayne, N.J.) won a state title but went 0-4 in the league.

We chose the top 11 leagues in the country that play for their state’s No. 1 or No. 2 classification, according to the Massey Ratings. We then ranked each of those leagues in four categories while looking at the leagues’ recent performances: by Massey power rating; number of times their teams appeared in the USA TODAY Super 25 final rankings the past five seasons; the number of state titles in the past five seasons multiplied by the number of different teams from the league winning state titles; and the winning percentage for non-league games last season.

Using all of that criteria, the Big North United came out on top. The league was was strong in every category, with three teams appearing in the Super 25 in the past five seasons, a strong performance against out-of-conference competition, five teams winning a total of eight state titles in the past five years and the second-best Massey rating. While Paramus Catholic (Paramus) is the only Big North representative in the preseason Super 25, two other league teams, Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey) and Bergen Catholic (Oradell), are ranked regionally. The other teams in the league are DePaul Catholic (Wayne) and St. Joseph Regional (Montvale).

“It’s a great league, that’s for sure,” Don Bosco coach Greg Toal said. “I think power-wise, it’s very competitive. There are not many days off, if any. You had better buckle up every week. Plus, the teams everyone in the league are playing out of state are tremendous.”

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For years, Don Bosco dominated the state, winning six consecutive Non-Public Group IV titles from 2006 to 2011. To keep up, other teams in the league began to copy Don Bosco’s model, bringing in top players from throughout the state and playing national-level opponents.

Bergen Catholic won the league title last season and finished the year as the state runner-up. The team’s coach, former Don Bosco assistant Nunzio Campanile, said that other league teams have had to sink or swim.

“Don Bosco started things with their program going to a different level,” Campanile said. “Everybody decided, if we want to compete, we have to play better competition. I think that attracted better kids to the whole league. The coaches are challenging themselves. The more that you challenge the team, the better you become a coach. It’s really raised the bar.”

According to 247Sports.com’s composite 2016 rankings, there’s plenty of senior talent in the league, including the No. 1 player in the 2016 class in Paramus Catholic defensive end Rashan Gary, the No. 31 player in DePaul running back Kareem Walker and No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in Bergen Catholic’s Jarrett Guarantano.

This season, Don Bosco will face two in-state champions (St. Joseph Montvale and DePaul) and two out-of-state champions in Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) and St. Joseph’s Prep (Philadelphia). The Ironmen will also play a Louisiana 5A quarterfinalist in Archisbhop Rummel (Metairie). Paramus Catholic will play Don Bosco Prep and DePaul and the No. 2-ranked team in the country, IMG Academy (Bradenton). Bergen will play three in-state champions (St. Peter’s Prep of Jersey City, DePaul and St. Joseph (Montvale), plus IMG and and defending Ohio Division I champion St. Edward (Lakewood).

“When I got this job six years ago, our first year, we lost to Don Bosco Prep in a barnburner,” Campanile said. “I knew we were going in the right direction and I knew then we could play with some of the other (national teams) that Don Bosco had played. Now, the public school teams in our state don’t want to play us, so we are forced to play other teams. I think this league plays tremendously physical football and I think that style plays pretty well when you go on the road.”

Cincinnati’s Greater Catholic League South was only two points back in our ratings. The league, which includes Moeller, St. Xavier, Elder and LaSalle, had the best non-conference record among all the leagues, two final Super 25 finishes in the past five years, and a strong Massey rating. Moeller won two state titles in the past five years and La Salle won the Division II state title last season. All of the teams play difficult schedules. Elder plays three state champions, Moeller and St. Xavier play two state champions each while LaSalle will play Indiana 6A runner-up Carmel and Christian Brothers (Memphis), which was a state quarterfinalist.

“I’ve always said there may be a league in the country as good as the GCL South but no chance there is one better,” St. Xavier coach Steve Specht, who has also coached for several years with USA Football, said via text. “Every year, top to bottom, it’s a crap shoot. Four private, Catholic schools battling for the same kids year-in and year-out, but we still manage to field great teams. I think it’s a testament to the role high school football plays in the Cincinnati culture. Kids grow up dreaming about playing for a GCL South school and competing under the lights on a Friday night.”

California’s Trinity League was third, based on the No. 1 Massey ranking and the second-best non-league schedule. But because of the dominance by Northern California power De La Salle (Concord) in the Open Bowl Division the past five years, the Trinity League has only won one state title in the past five seasons, the 2013 Open Division Bowl Championship won by St. John Bosco (Bellflower). Still, three of the league’s six teams were considered among the top 10 teams in the state last season.

 National high school football league rankings, with total score:

  1. Big North United (New Jersey) 40
  2. Greater Catholic League South (Cincinnati) 38
  3. Trinity League (Southern California) 30
  4. Metropolitan League (Indianapolis) 29
  5. Kentucky’s 6A-4 (Louisville) 26
  6. Catholic Blue (Chicago) 22
  7. Texas’ 6A-I, Region 8 (Dallas Metroplex) 20
  8. Georgia’s 6A-I (Southwest Georgia) 20
  9. Mission (Southern California) 19
  10. Tennessee’s Division II AA East (Tennessee) 18
  11. Hawaii’s Interscholastic League 16

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