UNION — A late jolt to North Jersey Group 5 football playoff bracket directly affects Union, but the Farmers are nonetheless eager to begin the playoffs Friday night.
Union (9-0) is the top overall seed in the tournament and was originally slated to host then-No. 16 seed Bayonne. However, then-No. 15 Paterson Eastside was barred from tournament play after the NJSIAA ruled it ineligible because of a brawl that Eastside was involved in during an October game. As such, Bayonne moves up to No. 15 and Paterson Kennedy enters the tournament as No. 16, and that is who Union will now square off against Friday night at Cooke Memorial Field.
This news broke Monday, after Union had essentially finished all of its scouting and film study on Bayonne. The Farmers then quickly had to adjust and study up on Kennedy (4-5), but the team is back on schedule as of Tuesday morning and ready to instill their new game plan into action on Friday night.
“The change in opponent, and when we were notified, definitely affected our preparation,” said Union head coach Lou Grasso, Jr. “The staff had already broken down a large amount of Bayonne film when we were told that we were no longer playing them. Once we found out, we exchanged film with Kennedy and started the process all over again. By Tuesday morning, we were back on schedule.”
Kennedy, which competes in the North Jersey Super Football Conference (NJSFC), is not by any means an easy first round matchup. Three of the Knights’ five loses are by one touchdown against teams that are seeded higher than it in the North Jersey Group 5 bracket — West Orange, Clifton, and Passaic Tech. Kennedy also lost to No. 2 overall seed, Ridgewood, 27-0, and Mahwah, 27-19.
Kennedy’s wins are over Teaneck, Snyder, Hackensack, and Bergen Tech. Union does not share any common opponents with Kennedy, but the Farmers have a higher strength index by a wide margin: 81.55 compared to the Knights’ 60.83.
Kennedy boasts a wealthy of talent at the skill positions, perhaps none greater than linebacker/wide receiver Jamier Wright-Collins. Wright-Collins (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) is an FBS-level player who currently holds offers from Rutgers, Massachusetts, Buffalo, and Kent State. The Knights also have another FBS Division I caliber player in tight end/defensive end Caleb Ruffin.
“Paterson Kennedy is a tough team that plays hard and is well-coached,” Grasso, Jr. said. “They have good size and some talented athletes at the skill positions. They play in a tough league where most of the games are highly-contested.”
While Union will have its work cutout with a tough Kennedy team that might be better than its record suggests, the Farmers still seem to hold the advantage and mostly every position and should be able to take care of business if they continue to play their game as they have all season. The Farmers are a team on a mission and hungry to avenge a loss in the sectional semifinal last season, which came against Union City, 46-6, exactly a year ago on Saturday.
It is of note that temperatures are projected to be in the 30s by Friday night, which could certainly affect the passing game for any football team. Union could run the ball more as a result, and is armed to do so with split backs Christian Murrell and Diante Wilson, in addition to options such as Kayir McBride, Desmond Igbinosun (normally a receiver, but has carried the ball this year) and versatile quarterback Andrew Sanborn. However, the Farmers' passing game -- held down by receivers Igbinosun, Ahmirr Robinson, Jalen Carter, and Elijah White -- has proven to be so elite this fall that temperatures might not even hinder it all too much.
Should Union win Friday night, they will advance to host the winner of West Orange-Piscataway in the sectional semifinal. The winner of that game would advance to the sectional final, and a win in the sectional final clinches a trip to MetLife Stadium for the North Jersey super-regional bowl game.
But the first task will be handling Paterson Kennedy on Friday.
"Everyone in the program is excited to take the next step in our season," Grasso, Jr. said. "We're proud of what we've accomplished so far but are also looking to the playoffs and all that they bring.