UNION -- Middlesex County was well represented Thursday night in the 2017 Snapple Bowl at Kean University.
The 24th annual All-Star game pits recently graduated seniors from all across Middlesex and Union County against one another. Union ended up coming back to win 27-14 for their second straight victory in the summer affair, but Middlesex stormed back themselves and still leads 14-10 in the series.
Of the 45 members of the Middlesex squad, Spotswood kicker Ryan Szatkowski and South Plainfield wide receiver/kick returner DeShai Smith, linebacker Dillon Harris, defensive lineman Jean Sapini, and center Michael Lampasona all participated and had valuable starting roles.
No three however were more instrumental than Harris, Smith, and Szatkowski in terms of order of events.
After Middlesex looked lost trailing 13-0 midway in the third quarter and was a forced to punt, you would think a botched punt didn’t make things better. However, it turned out to be just the lightning bolt spark the team needed as the short boot caused the football to hit a retreating Union player’s foot. The live ball fumble was recovered by Harris, a tough undersized linebacker, at the Middlesex 28-yard line.
Lightning and weather caused the game to be delayed nearly an hour starting at halftime.
Colonia quarterback Tyler Layton then engineered 10-play drive capped by a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Sayreville’s Mike Liberti with 9:35 left to go to put Middlesex on the scoreboard and cut the deficit to 13-7. Smith made a key catch on third-down on a quick pass by the right sideline, and used his big 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame to break two tackles and charge upfield for a 30-yard gain. He added another catch for eight yards on the drive as well.
On the ensuring Union possession, Jalen Harris of Carteret intercepted a pass and gave Middlesex better field position at their own 48-yard line. Layton connected with Smith on a stutter-and-go double-move for the then-go-ahead touchdown to tie the score at 13-13 with 5:09 left. Szatkowski, who missed a field goal on Middlesex’s opening drive, made up for it by calmly kicking the ball through the uprights on the PAT to give his team a 14-13 lead.
Smith also made a one-handed catch with his right hand a play or two before the score.
“It was pretty great. That was one of the best feelings ever,” Smith told TAPinto.net of his touchdown. “I’m really happy I got to play here. I think I did I pretty well. I have some things I could do better like running better routes, but all in all it was a good game. I just tried to go out with a bang in my last high school game and it was really fun.”
But the game’s MVP, quarterback Brian Oblachinski of Cranford, proved to be too much as he picked the Middlesex defense apart on their next possession when Union took a 21-14 lead on Nick Fischetti of A. L. Johnson’s 5-yard run. Oblachinski finished 7-for-11 with 159 yards passing, a touchdown, and two-point conversion. Sixty-six of those yards came on aforementioned drive.
Union added one more quick score on a 1-yard run by Terrence Anderson of Rahway shortly thereafter.
At the half, South Plainfield High School’s Gary Cassio was honored with the 2016 Middlesex County Coach of the Year award. Cassio, who took over the program in 2012, guided the Tigers to an 8-4 record and an appearance in the Central Jersey, Group 3 sectional title game last December.
“It’s a great honor,” Cassio said of the award according to Mycentraljersey.com. “I’m honored, but this isn’t about me. It’s about my coaching staff and my players, especially my 21 seniors. I get to have my name (on plaque), but it’s a program award. I’m just part of the program. We get nothing without those kids and coaches.”
Asked why his high school coach for one year deserves the award, Smith’s answer was simple -- almost blue collar-like.
“Coach Cassio is a very hard working coach and I see him not only has a coach but a family member too,” said Smith, who only played one year of football as a senior but was effective as they come. “I always talk to him and if I need something or have a question he’ll get it done.”
Smith played soccer in the fall for three years before running onto the gridiron. The four-sport standout will take his talents to Montclair State to play football after registering 1,184 all-purpose yards in his first and only go-around. He led the Greater Middlesex Conference in average return yardage with 42.5.
“One-hundred percent,” Smith said on how much Cassio helped him grow this year. “This is my first year ever playing football. I started from the bottom and he got me where I am today.”