WHAT: NJSIAA FIRST ROUND PLAYOFFS
WHO: HASBROUCK HEIGHTS (5) vs CEDAR GROVE (4)
WHEN: FRIDAY NIGHT, 7 PM
WHERE: Cedar Grove High School
WHAT TO WATCH WHEN CEDAR GROVE IS ON OFFENSE:
The Panthers like to throw the ball. Senior quarterback Sammy Ventola has averaged 20 passes per game this season, by far the most of any team Heights has played all season. With 18 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, Ventola has been effective, but stoppable. John Guiamano is Ventola’s favorite target with 34 catches, and Nick Devito has 26. Michael Lever has 28, and he is also their leading rusher, averaging 5.6 yards per carry as part of a three back platoon. With four players evenly splitting the carries, Ventola, Lever, Jake Ferrara and Ryan Turi the Aviators won’t be able to aim the focus on one player.
WHAT TO WATCH WHEN CEDAR GROVE IS ON DEFENSE
Inside linebacker Joe McCarthy is tackle machine, leading the Panthers with 97 tackles, with 4 sacks. Dillon Johnson, 62 tackles and nine sacks is the other player to watch on defense. Ferrara (74) and Michael Guarino (73) are also active on a defense that has given up points this year, including 49 to Shabazz a week ago.
There is no question the Panthers had some big wins over impressive Group 2 and Group 1 schools, and played no cupcakes on their season. As the only non-NJIC team in the bracket, comparables are hard, as there are no common opponents between the two schools. Will Cedar Grove’s strength of schedule, which gave them the home field advantage, prove to be the edge? Or will losing to Shabazz (8-0, North 2, Group 1 top seed) 49-18 in its last game have a carry-over.
For more on Cedar Grove, read their season preview from TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove , or on Ventola .
WHAT TO WATCH WHEN HASBROUCK HEIGHTS IS ON OFFENSE
The Aviators will need a huge effort from their offensive line tomorrow night. Cedar Grove has decent size, but the Aviators have played bigger teams Last week Rutherford shut down the running game early, and the Aviators had to make big plays through the air late. Expect to see Nico Facchini and Jasiah Purdie carry the ball a lot early, hoping to establish a running game. Quarterback James Klenk will need to be the double threat he was all season long.
Watch for a big play from either JC Pagan, Will Vera or Jordan Wexler at some point in the game, as the Panthers’ defense focuses on Purdie.
WHAT TO WATCH WHEN HASBROUCK HEIGHTS IS ON DEFENSE
Wexler is the top pass rusher, and will need to put pressure on Ventola when he drops back to throw. Travis Culkin and James Varga are the run stoppers on a group that is very good stopping the run, but has had a few troubles on stopping the pass. Culkin did have four sacks, and has been the guy with the big play this year.
The pressure will fall on corners Ian Rinke and Zai’heer Jenkins, and safety James Klenk. The wildcat in the pass coverage might be Purdie, who has moved up to linebacker this year after being a first-team all-league defensive back a year ago as a sophomore. If Cedar Grove comes out throwing, he could move back to his role of a year ago. The defensive line rotation of Shakar Assaf, Michael Lohrmann, and Nate Kim, has been fortified with the return of senior Marcus Ochoa.
While the Aviators offense is pretty much a set unit, except for a receiver or two, the defense uses plenty of players to keep people fresh.
Hasbrouck Heights is a team that right now has a bit of chip on its shoulder. They lost a heart-breaker on Friday night to Rutherford when the wind pushed Matt Gwzicsc’s game-winning field goal attempt wide, forcing overtime. The fact that the game was in Rutherford was bad luck, as somehow the Aviators played both weeks in the playoffs on the road. The only reason the Aviators are the five seed is that the Meadowlands Division was terrible in the NJIC Bowl series, letting the Patriot Division teams pick up quality points by the barrel full.
The Aviators know they were seeded lower than Wallington, who they beat Week 7, 42-21, and Emerson, who finished second to Wallington in the regular season and don’t like it.
Their 18-game win streak is a thing of the past. If the defending North 1, Group 1 champs want to defend their titles, they will have to do it on the road.