HASBROUCK HEIGHTS - The New Jersey State Interscholastic Association took a giant step closer to crowning one champion in each of the seven groups in high school football.  Wood-Ridge Athletic Director gave praise to the committee for all the work they did to get the vote to go through, with 75 percent of the schools voting for the proposal.

The Non-Public Schools will play to a group champion, while each of the five Public Groups will have co-champions, or a North & Central/South Champion - the specifics have been lacking a bit, but we have time. To do so, they will condense they will start the season a week earlier.

The Non-Public schools, usually the most unpopular kid at the party when the NJSIAA gathers, came out ahead.  They get a true state champ.  The “Publics”, a little better, but not so much.

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Either go the full way or don’t go at all

But was it time and effort well spent?  Was this another case of Nero fiddling while the Rome burned?

With the other problems that are facing the state in football, was this really something that people should have been focusing on.  And if you are not sure what the problems are, you have obviously not been paying attention to high school football this season.

More and more high schools are having trouble fielding competitive teams each week. I don’t just mean wins and losses.  I am talking about fielding rosters with enough depth not get kids hurt, where a few injuries or an outbreak of the flu could cause teams to forfeit.  Every school goes through up and down periods.  But programs are falling by the wayside, and the problem could get worse before it gets better.

(Granted it is not a problem in Hasbrouck Heights, and Wood-Ridge looks stronger under the leadership of Charlie Trentacosti than I remember in a while.  With both teams making the state playoffs and having good numbers in the feeder programs, both teams should be okay for the foreseeable future.)

However…

Ridgefield High School for the second time in three years, was unable to field a varsity program, and played a junior varsity schedule.  Rumors of whether or not they play next year at a varsity level, or even want to, are almost beside the point.  Playing at a junior varsity level, lost to the Hasbrouck Heights junior varsity team 21-0 this season.  

Their junior program, used to be in the Meadowlands Football League, left two years unable to field a team in the 7th and 8th-grade level, and their fifth and sixth-grade level team had to abandon after just five games due to lack of competitiveness.  It doesn’t look that the talent is on the way to save the program.

Coming back to get beat up again at a varsity level helps no one.  Kids get hurt.  Kids get discouraged.  Support for the program drops, and the cycle continues.

But Ridgefield is not the only program that is on hard times.  Throughout the NJIC there are programs that seem to be bottom dwellers every year, picking up their lone wins in the NJIC Bowl Series, when they get to play similarly bad teams.  The Bowl Series was advertised as the way to crown a true league champion, which it does, but also guarantees that there will only be one team that is winless in throughout the entire year.

The issue is not just in the NJIC, as in late October the cause celeb in high school football was Irvington’s 80-0 victory over Belleville.  There seemed to be a greater disparity in the levels of the have’s and have-nots in high school football than ever before.

Officiating is another area that should be a concern for the NJSIAA, and for all we know, it is.  But whenever the conversation of officiating came up, most observers stated it was worse than ever remember seeing it.  Officials not only blew calls, but seemed like they did not even know what the right call was supposed to be.

And I was not even referring to the controversy at the Hasbrouck Heights - New Milford game.  At the Wood-Ridge - Becton game a five-minute discussion over a holding call being declined, giving Wood-Ridge a touchdown, but Becton a shot at tying the game on a final possession, another ridiculous case of referee confusion was forgotten.

A kickoff that may or may not have had a player step into the end zone (the officials could not agree) resulted in a five-minute debate over where the ball should have been placed. The officials went back to days of old when we all played after school for the call -a "do-over" with Wood-Ridge, now winded, kicking off to Becton. .  

The fact that the Becton returner was placed in a dangerous position by a weak whistle from one official, was forgotten by game's end.  As was the fact that he could have easily been injured by the Wood-Ridge kickoff coverage team coming at full-speed, and the sportsmanlike play of the Wood-Ridge team for pulling off the returner and not taking a full-speed shot at a player who had stopped playing.

If New Jersey somehow wins its case in the Supreme Court concerning sports betting an interesting proposition bet would be the over-under of how many penalty flags are picked up each game.  Through midseason, most public address announcers were following the phrase there is a “flag on the play” with an implied question mark.  

In Hasbrouck Heights’ season-opener against St. Mary, five times penalty flags were picked up by the officiating crew.  It was as if Enrico Palazzo had invaded a football game.  

But, the day after the end of the football season, when teams were still celebrating titles, trying to figure out when they were going to get measured for their championship rings, the state had moved on to finding a solution for a “problem” that really only realistically impacted 25 percent of its membership.