MIDDLESEX COUNTY, NJ - On July 21, Snapple Bowl XXIII kicked off at Nicholas A. Priscoe Stadium in Woodbridge. The annual event is a seniors-only all-star football game between Union and Middlesex Counties. Every year towards the end of July, both counties select players from every school in the county to create two full all-star squads. The game also doubles as a fundraising event for the Children’s Specialized Hospital and the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities; just last year the event raised $50,000.
East Brunswick's Yousef Abohend tore his meniscus during practice and was unable to play, but Almaliek Fitzpatrick represented the Bears as part of the Middlesex County team. EBHS Cheerleaders Nicole Carrera and Demi Massih performed on the sideline and in the half-time spectacular.
This year the meeting between Union and Middlesex was to be held at Woodbridge High School to bring home the bragging rights associated with winning the game. Coming into the game Middlesex had dominated Union having won eight of the last nine meetings and lead the series 14-8, but Union was eager to change that story.
The early going in the game was very slow and not much offensive ground was made for either side. For the first half the majority of field position was changed due to the special teams units more than the offense. Both teams had solid defensive pressure that stopped any true running game from developing and creating a threat. This left the pressure on the punters and coverage teams to ensure that the other team could be pinned back deep in their own territory each time.
Each team had one solid chance at scoring in the second quarter but was unable to break the tie. Middlesex had a long drive deep into Union territory but was ended without any points after a failed fourth down conversion. Union got even deeper into Middlesex territory but a field goal attempt went wide left and kept the score tied at zero heading into the half.
During the half-time intermission, each county’s all-star cheerleading squad performed a routine in front of the crowd. Once again each town’s high school had at least one senior selected to the squad to participate both during halftime and throughout the game.
Once the teams came out for the second half the tide started to turn and changed the attitude of the game as well. At the very end of the third quarter the Middlesex special teams unit, that had been so good, made a costly mistake firing a snap well over punter Josh Wood’s head. Wood had to chase down the punt and was downed on the Middlesex thirty-yard line. This mistake proved to be the biggest play of the game, when after a short drive Ja’quill Burch ran the ball in to the endzone and finally broke the tie. With an extra point added on the lead was 7-0.
It was early in the fourth quarter but Middlesex had turned tactics to try to match with a score of their own. Woodbridge’s own Tracy Fudge was put in at quarterback to start the responding drive for Middlesex to replace Andrew Roberts who had been unable to move the ball effectively. The momentum of this drive was killed before it even started though as Fudge was intercepted by Union High School’s Chris Ortiz.
Union started their drive again finding themselves on the Middlesex side of the field within scoring range. However the kicking problems found them once again as the kicker, Joseph Norton, missed another field goal, this time just short as it hit the cross bar. Middlesex could not take advantage of the missed opportunity though and gave the ball back to Union once again.
For the first time with either team, the special teams unit was able to generate some offense for Union. Westfield’s Jelani Pierre took the punt from Wood and returned to the Middlesex 25 yard-line giving them great field position once again. A few plays later Guirvenson Guillaume took the ball across the line to score again giving Union a two score lead. One more time the kicking issues came back to bite Union however as Norton missed the extra point leaving the score just 13-0.
At this point the stadium started to empty out as the game appeared to be over to most, but in fact the action had just started. The responding kickoff was a little short and Samad Davila took full advantage of this returning the ball to the Union 41 yard-line. On the very next play Fudge connected with high school teammate James Modica for a 41 yard score to put the game within six and just under three minutes to go.
Both sides were now very animated trying to get their players to respond and ensure a victory for their team. Middlesex elected to onside kick in an attempt to regain possession and maybe even drive down the field for the victory. Instead Union recovered the kick cleanly and with only a little less than three minutes remaining the chance seemed slim again. With proper clock management, the coaching staff of the Middlesex team had a fighting chance to pull out a win.
The stout defense of Middlesex played up to the level it had performed all night and forced a quick three-and-out by Union to get the ball back. There was only 1:47 left on the clock and one timeout remaining for Middlesex to create their comeback, but there was still a definite chance as the momentum was turning in their favor.
On fourth down Union shanked the punt terribly and the ball only traveled about ten yards in the air giving Middlesex the ball on their own 44. The game that had been a scoreless, defensive game was suddenly coming down to the offensive side of the ball. As quickly as the hope built however, it was crushed with a game-sealing interception by Union’s Kyle Boyd. With no timeouts and less than a minute to play Middlesex admitted defeat and Union went to victory formation.
In the end Union took home the victory 13-7 but it took just about all sixty minutes for that result to be finalized. Osaheni Omokaro from Hillside took home the Joe Poli MVP award for Union after a disruptive night chasing down the Middlesex quarterbacks from the defensive line. In addition to the MVP award, the Debbie Ganz Spirit of the Game Award was given to Jonathan O’Halloran for raising the most money individually. He beat his own record set last year by raising over $4000 for the game.
Snapple Bowl XXIII ended with enough excitement to last through the rest of the summer until football starts up again in August for the next year of rising seniors. This was the last game of the year for high school football, but in just a few shorts months many of these players will be putting on new uniforms as they take the next step and go off to college. No matter what they do after this game, the memories of playing in something as classic as the Snapple Bowl will last them a lifetime.